Changing The Face of Texas Politics

SAN ANTONIO - Rolando Rios, lawyer, government irritant and political power broker, was 6 when his father was murdered.

A taxi driver, the elder Rios worked the west side of San Antonio. One day he picked up a fare, and the next his family was preparing for a funeral.

"My father was shot six times in the back of the head by a guy who was released from an insane asylum in New York. When police caught up with him, he was eating hotdogs in Brackenridge Park. I wonder what could have happened if there was a waiting period to buy a gun back then?"

Rios, now 50, spends a lot of days thinking about how governments can affect ordinary lives, about social justice and about hardball politics. He knows that game. He has played it for nearly 20 years.

Based in a 10th-floor law office overlooking San Antonio's River Walk, he's left his imprint all over West Texas.

Rios has been at the forefront of lawsuits aimed at improving minority representation on city councils, commissioners courts and school boards. He's taken on water districts, hospital boards and even the system that installs Texas judges.

Rios said he is one of the few attorneys in America who specializes in voting-rights issues. He is paid handsomely.

Elected officials know that, when Rios calls to challenge their system, it will cost.

Backed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Rios' lawsuits force governments to adopt "single-member" voting districts or "cumulative" voting systems. The aim is to have candidates elected from neighborhoods or wards, theoretically improving the chances of ethnic minorities winning elections.

To settle the lawsuits and redo the election procedures, governing boards have paid as much as $20,000, which includes $5,000 for Rios' fees. The costs swell with litigation.

Rios has lost track of the exact number of lawsuits he's filed, but he estimates there have been about 180.

He has challenged voting systems in Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and Midland, and won nearly all of the cases. Rios also has won in places such as Big Lake, Eden, Eldorado, Mertzon, Miles, Sterling City and Winters.

Many elected officials grudgingly settle the cases, insisting they didn't deserve to be sued. Most maintain their communities have been integrated a long time, and that any candidate with something to offer has a chance come election day.

Others say Rios, by sheer force of will, is changing the political landscape of Texas.

Willie Serna, a Tom Green County justice of the peace, recalled how Hispanics sued Tom Green County in 1981 over a redistricting issue. Rios and other attorneys went to work for the plaintiffs. Precinct lines were redrawn to create a 58 percent minority district.

Former San Angelo police officer B.C. Dominguez subsequently won a seat on the commissioners court, the first Hispanic elected to county government.

Serna said the lawsuit "has been very significant. If you check the records, you'll see more Hispanics are serving now than there ever were. ... I don't think I would have had the same opportunity without (redistricting)."

Rios said he won't file one of his lawsuits unless he's asked to by a resident. He said his motives are to open doors for those on the outside looking in.

"We've got to get involved in what government does," he said. "My life, after all, is a result of government action and, frankly, government inaction."

The Wrong Side Of The Tracks

Rios gazed out the window of his office and recalled how his widowed mother struggled to raise her children during the 1950s. "She was a hard worker, a cleaning lady right here in this building."

The daughter of an unwed mother of German and Irish lineage, she "looked very Arian, blond, blue-eyed." A Hispanic family adopted her. She grew up speaking little English.

"I personally didn't experience much discrimination because I look kind of Anglo," Rios said. "It was mostly the way we grew up. On the west side, you realized you were on the wrong side of the tracks. You took a bus downtown and you knew where Hispanics could go. The whole social structure just loomed in my mind."

Rios recalled dropping his mother off to work at the Milam Building where he now keeps offices. Back then, he thought about dropping out of school to help support the family.

"I had three older sisters, and if it hadn't been for Social Security, I don't think I would have been able to finish high school. It helped in that it was a government program that invested in people."

Rios went to college and in 1969 received a bachelor's degree in math from St. Mary's University in San Antonio. He planned to become a teacher but was immediately drafted.

Rios volunteered for officer candidate school and became a lieutenant for an Army infantry company in Vietnam. For three months he patrolled for sappers around Cam Ranh Bay.

His life changed not in combat but during a jeep ride. The vehicle rolled, and Rios landed in a military hospital with a shattered hip.

There he watched scores of wounded servicemen suffer. Many died.

"They brought in a colonel who had an injury similar to mine, but he died in the bed right next to me. Then you see the troops come in with flesh torn and bones exposed.

"It had a lasting impact on me. All these people were in their situations due to government action. That's why it's extremely important to be on top of government activities.

"This is the greatest country in the world, but ... it's because people are always watching to make sure democracy is upheld."

Rios saw that challenge as a personal calling.

Government In People's Lives

Following a stint teaching at San Antonio's Holy Cross High School, his alma mater, Rios entered law school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

"I applied at the University of Texas, but they didn't let me in because they said I wasn't qualified. But Georgetown had a very aggressive affirmative-action recruiting program and, I swear to God, when I was there, it seemed there were more Texas Hispanics in Georgetown than at UT."

Rios researched voting-rights issues for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). "I liked this area because it dealt with government in people's lives."

He returned to Texas after graduation. In 1975 the Voting Rights Act was amended to include Texas. That led to the surge of voting-rights lawsuits.

Cases involving large cities such as Dallas and San Antonio were hotly contested, but plaintiffs for minority rights usually prevailed.

Rios, however, would first become known for two other important cases.

In 1988 he successfully sued the state for MALDEF, alleging that colleges and universities in South and West Texas received the lamb's share of public money.

The result was an influx of $400 million in 1994 to colleges such as Sul Ross University at Alpine and Texas A&M University International in Laredo.

"Sul Ross got an extra $4 million that it normally wouldn't have gotten, and that's just the beginning." Rios said he will press to make sure the extra funding is continued for the next 10 years.

"It's good for the local economies. But this wouldn't have happened unless people had taken an active role. Our country works best when people constantly push for fairness and equity."

Rios filed another suit against the state in 1988. That one, on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens, alleged that at-large voting for district judges unfairly diluted the voting power of Hispanics and blacks.

The suit targeted Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, Jefferson, Lubbock, Midland and Ector counties.

After winning the case in U.S. District Court, it was appealed to the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled that the Voting Rights Act didn't apply to judicial elections.

The Supreme Court disagreed and sent the case back to the lower appeals court in 1992.

"The Supreme Court said, `Of course the act applies to judges,"' Rios said, "but when it went back to the appeals court, the judges said, `OK, so it applies, but did you prove your case?'

"They concluded that the facts don't establish a violation. That case took us four years. Sometimes you win and sometimes you don't. But the war isn't over. This is just a temporary setback."

Taking On The Power Structure

In recent years, Rios has shifted his efforts toward abolishing at-large voting systems throughout the state. By 1993, scores of lawsuits were in the works.

Austin attorney Judy Underwood, who defends school districts, said the past year has brought "just an explosion of cases."

Underwood's clients included the school districts in Ballinger, Mason, Menard and Eden. She has handled nearly 70 of the cases and her firm has 20 in progress.

Her clients usually settle with Rios out of court.

"School districts don't want to spend the money to litigate these lawsuits," Underwood said. "These are not easy cases for a government body to win."

But it's not impossible. In 1987, Underwood won a voting-rights case in Kileen. She could think of only one other case that the minority plaintiffs didn't win.

"I think the biggest problem my clients have," she said, "is that these cases are filed without any notification that any minority resident had a problem with the voting system."

Another beef, she said, is that Rios files many of the suits for LULAC without mention of local plaintiffs. Rios said he prefers shielding their identities to avoid retaliation.

For her part, Underwood would welcome the chance to face Rios in trial.

"Rolando and I talk on the phone at least once a week. There were some cases I would have loved to have litigated, but I also understand what's in the best interest of my clients. And in many instances, they don't feel it's in the best interest of school children to be engaging in costly legal battles. "

I have respect for Rolando's abilities, no question about that. I just think circumstances show that these lawsuits aren't filed on merits - it's money."

Some public officials point to Rios' failed 1994 bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla and claim he's using lawsuit proceeds to pay campaign debt.

"That's hogwash," Rios said. "This is the way I earn a living now. It has nothing to do with the campaign.

"We're usually there because someone asked us to come. We risk our time and service if we take a case. And, if we lose, no one pays us anything.

"We're taking on the power structure of the people who live there, so obviously they aren't going to react favorably.

"Change is difficult. But don't worry, these suits aren't going to go on forever. We're basically finishing up."

Pushing Ahead

Rios, a Democrat, said he has no immediate political aspirations, although he enjoyed campaigning through the 23rd Congressional District, which sprawls from San Antonio to nearly El Paso.

"The reason I ran was because I really felt like it was something I had to do to effect real change. Unfortunately, it was the worst time in 40 years to run as a Democrat.

"What I disliked the most was having to ask for money. I spent half my time just doing that and I hated it.

"If I run again, I hope campaign reform takes effect first."

This year the attorney will divert some attention from lawsuits to serve on the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses. President Clinton appointed Rios to the board at the recommendation of his wife, Hillary, who met Rios during a visit to San Antonio.

Rios said he was selected because of his Vietnam experience and San Antonio's high concentration of military personnel. The committee will hold hearings in the city later this month.

Meanwhile, Texas communities without single-member voting districts can expect Rios to come calling.

"I still get requests for help out there," he said. "But after you create change, it makes it easier for a minority to participate and that makes Democracy vital.

"If you have a person elected to sit at a table, he can create policy, and maybe that policy can, for example, lower dropout rates for Hispanics.

"All society benefits."

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