In a Texas Border Town, Democratic Officials Are Becoming Republicans

SANDERSON, Texas — In a remote corner of West Texas along the Rio Grande, where cactuses far outnumber residents and the closest grocer is an hour’s drive, a quiet political upheaval has been taking place.

First, the Democratic county judge said she would seek another term — as a Republican. Then the county clerk and the treasurer decided that they too would abandon the Democratic Party, which has long held sway in local elections, and run this year as Republicans.

A county justice of the peace felt the urge to switch parties as well, but she did not want to disappoint her parents, who raised her as a Democrat.

“It took me a while to realize that my thoughts are more Republican,” said the justice of the peace, Corina Arredondo, particularly on the issues of abortion and border security. “Even though I’m still on this side, I’m kind of looking over there and thinking, hey, that’s where I belong.”

The transformation of local politics in Terrell County — a working-class border community of fewer than 1,000 people — provides an ominous signal for Texas Democrats: Conservative Hispanics are not only realigning in presidential elections, but also in contests much closer to home.

“Being of a Hispanic background, we were always told, you’re a Democrat,” said the county treasurer, Rebecca Luevano, 44, who was raised in Sanderson, where most county residents live. “Everybody was a Democrat the last time I ran.”

Treasurer Rebecca Luevano is one of the many county officials who recently joined the Republican Party.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

A restaurant in Sanderson, where most of the county’s residents live.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Split political allegiances had held in the small town for much longer than in other parts of the country. Even as residents voted overwhelmingly for President Donald J. Trump in both 2016 and 2020, continuing their support for every Republican presidential candidate since George W. Bush, its top local officials remained with the Democratic Party.

The party was deeply connected to the upbringing of many residents, raised in a grid of modest homes in a canyon valley about 20 rough miles from the Mexican border. Many worked at the railroad depot that fueled the town’s growth, or had relatives who did, before it closed more than two decades ago.

“My mother’s dad worked for the railroad and he always said that the Democratic Party is for the working man,” said Les Chandler II, the chair of the county party. “That’s why I’ve been a Democrat my whole life.”

But the shift is evident all around Sanderson, from the Trump signs on some buildings to the reticence with which the remaining Democrats talk about their beliefs. Beto O’Rourke, the former El Paso congressman and Democratic candidate for governor, passed through last month — spending the night at a local motel — but he did not linger.

Sanderson survived a devastating flash flood in 1965, when a sudden wall of water crashed through the desert town, flattening buildings and killing 26 people. But after the closure of the railroad depot, the town withered.

Many houses and storefronts still sit vacant and derelict. Residents either travel long distances for work, some in the Permian Basin oil fields about 150 miles away, or take part in the town’s limited economy of government jobs: the school, the county government and the growing apparatus of border security.

A cross next to the graves of two migrants who died in Terrell County.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times
Chatting outside a gas station and convenience store in Sanderson.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

“We aren’t a main stop like we used to be,” said the county judge, Dale Lynn Carruthers, 53, a rancher and former bank manager whose grandfather came from Mexico and whose father was sheriff. “Now we’re a hub — a hub of homeland security.”

Politics in Sanderson have been shaped, in recent months, by the sharp increase in the number of people crossing the border from Mexico.

Not only are more people being caught as they move through the county, but Ms. Carruthers said that many more appear to be dying in the harsh terrain: 16 migrants were found dead last year. In recent years, the county averaged about two deaths.

One of the migrants, a young man from Mexico, was found deep inside Ms. Carruthers’s own 17,000-acre ranch last spring. “He was right over here,” she said, pointing to an area by two cedar trees where a hunter found the man near a water trough, shoes off, backpack under his head like a pillow.

The county, with only a few dozen employees and a $2 million annual budget, was ill-prepared to handle the number of dead. Officials did not even have their own cadaver bags, and the $5,000 set aside for autopsies and burials quickly ran out.

Terrell County is now set to receive far more than that from the state, about $8 million, as part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s push to increase law enforcement along the border.

“We aren’t a main stop like we used to be,” the county judge, Dale Lynn Carruthers, said. “Now we’re a hub — a hub of homeland security.”Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times
A Terrell County ranch where a man who crossed the border died last summer.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Mr. Abbott has taken an interest in the county and its shifting political winds, featuring Ms. Carruthers at an event in McAllen last month to officially announce his run for a third term. The night before, she sat at Mr. Abbott’s table during a private steak-and-salad dinner.

“The governor gave me the nickname Yellowstone,” Ms. Carruthers recalled, referring to a popular television series. “He said, my goodness, you’re true grit, you remind me of my favorite show.” Also at the dinner, seated with the governor’s wife, were the Terrell County treasurer, Ms. Luevano, and the county clerk, Raeline Thompson.

Mr. Abbott’s campaign has been aggressively targeting Hispanic voters in border counties and has pledged to spend $3 billion on state and local law enforcement to increase border security. State police and sheriffs in many border counties have been increasingly focused on tracking migrants.

“It’s like I’m still on Border Patrol,” said the Terrell County sheriff, Santiago Gonzalez, who worked as a Border Patrol agent for more than 30 years.

Migrants attempting to cross through the county often succumb to hypothermia on frigid nights, or dehydration on hot summer days. “This is rough terrain and it’s dangerous,” said Sheriff Gonzalez, whose mother crossed illegally as a teenager. In addition to the weather, he said, there are “mountain lions, black bear, scorpions, black widows — not to mention the cactus that will stab you as you walk through.”

Sheriff Santiago Gonzalez said it felt like he was still on the Border Patrol.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times
Mr. Juarez showing where a woman was found dead in an abandoned building near Dryden.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

When Travis Roberts, 60, a former antiques importer from Dallas, arrived in town two decades ago, the town was so empty that he said he could buy a home for as little as $2,000. “I bought 39 houses,” he said, smoking a cigarette in a cluttered office space of the largest store in Sanderson, which sells hardware, Mexican pottery and, for the right price, a huge metal Tyrannosaurus rex. Over the years, he was able to resell all the homes.

“We came for the school,” said Mr. Roberts, the store’s owner, whose three sons went to Sanderson schools and then to Rice University.

Mr. Roberts, who grew up in nearby Marathon, complained about the effect that hardening the border had had on neighboring communities. “It used to be you could put them to work,” he said of men coming from Mexico. “Now it’s against the law to employ them, so we only get the bad, and none of the good.”

The town is also undergoing a different kind of change as the economy of West Texas tourist attractions — Big Bend National Park, the art haven of Marfa — widens its reach. The local motel has been renovated. Since December, there is even a place to get a cup of coffee besides the gas station.

“We love coffee, but we’ve never owned a coffee shop,” said Jake Harper, 41, a contractor and glass blower who moved from San Antonio with his wife, Hannah, a Pilates instructor, and their three children. They started the coffee shop, Ferguson Motors, inside a former Ford dealership. “There’s this misconception that the border is dangerous. But this is the safest place to be. The community is open and giving.”

There are few voices of dissent. Mr. Chandler, a part-time pastor and among the few openly gay residents of Sanderson, said he had spoken up at local meetings, challenging officials over rhetoric about migrants that he found “dehumanizing.” But he has been mostly alone.

Les Chandler became the county’s Democratic Party chair last year after seeing an ad in the post office.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times
The Desert Air Motel in Sanderson was renovated as part of the evolving West Texas tourist economy.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

“The Democrats here are kind of closeted Democrats,” said Mr. Chandler, 64, who became the party chair last year after answering an ad in the post office. The political shift in county government came as a surprise, but not a shock.

Still, when it came time to make a decision about switching parties last fall, Ms. Thompson, the county clerk, said she was apprehensive. So was Ms. Luevano, the treasurer. They went together — “kind of like sisters,” Ms. Thompson said — to make the change in a community building. Both Mr. Chandler and Sharon Wolfe, the Republican chair, were there.

“We waited until the last day, the last hour,” Ms. Thompson said. “We go in there and I turned to Miss Wolfe and said, ‘I’m running Republican,’ and she goes — ‘Oh!’ They had no idea.”

Both women are unopposed in the March 1 primary. Neither will have a Democratic opponent in November.

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