PHARR, RGV – Pharr is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its bridge to Reynosa this month. How it secured an international port of entry is a lesson in the art of surprise, says a top a governmental affairs consultant.
“The former mayor of Pharr, Fidencio Barrera, was a green beret who served in Central and South America. He knew all about tactical maneuvers and the art of surprise,” said Hollis Rutledge, on a trip down memory lane.
“Fidencio certainly surprised McAllen’s mayor at the time, Othal Brand. Had Othal known what Fidencio was doing he would have stopped it. He had the influence to stop it in Washington. But, he never knew until it was too late.”
Rutledge was regional director for the General Services Administration at the time Pharr was planning to build an international bridge to Reynosa. The “Fidencio” Rutledge refers to is Fidencio Barrera, mayor of Pharr from 1982 to 1990.
“It’s funny – at the time McAllen was courting a Democratic senator, Jeff Bingaman from New Mexico, to get funding to expand the port of entry at Hidalgo. I remember they had a fundraiser at the Tower Club for Bingaman. He had been here a few weeks before Fidencio’s announcement about the Pharr Bridge. I happened to be here that weekend. I remember reading what McAllen was doing in the newspaper. I thought to myself, they have no idea that the Pharr port of entry is a done deal. A few weeks later Fidencio made the announcement.”
Barrera credits Rutledge and U.S. Sen. Phil Gram as the two key players in Pharr winning approval in Washington, D.C., for the bridge project.
“We wanted to work under the radar and we did,” Barrera told the Guardian. “All the communications to Washington came from me, not from the City of Pharr. I wanted as few as people as possible to know about it. It was a well-kept secret until everything was fully approved. I wanted to keep it a secret until the construction was starting. I did not want to start bragging before it was done.”
Rutledge went into more detail on how the Pharr International Bridge came into being.
“The funding program back in the 1980s to improve all the ports of entry and fund new ports of entry was called the Southwest Border Capital Improvement Program. There was $300 million available for port enhancements. I remember, the port in Brownsville got improved, Veterans Bridge, Los Indios, Solidarity in Laredo, Ysleta in El Paso, all those were the new ports in the budget,” Rutledge recalled.
“Pharr was not in the budget and not on anybody’s radar. All the bids came in and there was $35-$40 million left over. Fidencio was working with Senator Phil Gram. Gram went to Pete Domenici, the U.S. senator from New Mexico and they agreed to re-program the money that was left over for new projects. Domenici, I remember, wanted the Santa Teresa cattle crossing expanded into a port.”
As part of his efforts to help Pharr, Rutledge traveled to California to meet with Congressman Ed Roybal, a key member of the House Committee on Appropriations.
“I flew to California and was introduced to the Congressman by the regional administrator of GSA. We went to lunch and he agreed to help Pharr. About a year later the money was re-programmed. Phil Gram communicated this to Fidencio, GSA signed off, Customs signed off, and then Fidencio made the announcement that Pharr was going to build an international bridge.”
That was when all hell broke loose, Rutledge recalled.
“When he made the announcement I started getting calls. Why is Fidencio making this announcement? What kind of cool aid is he drinking? Is he smoking something? I said no. The McAllen folks said, what do you mean, no. I said it is a done deal. It’s done.”
McAllen leaders did not want to accept Rutledge’s word that it was a done deal, the consultant recalled.
“Well, we need to call Phil Gram, they said. And I said, no, really, it’s done. It’s signed, sealed and delivered. GSA has agreed to it and we are building the port. Othal couldn’t believe it. McAllen couldn’t believe it. They were in awe because Fidencio caught them by surprise. There had not been a peep out of anybody. Fidencio had threatened everybody. If you say anything I am going to kill you on the spot,” Rutledge joked.
Rutledge thought that for sure, McAllen would have found out about Barrera’s many visits to Washington in the late 1980s.
“I thought they would have cottoned on. They have lobbyists all over the place. But, it went under the radar. As I say, they thought Fidencio was smoking something. They were beside themselves. But, it was the element of surprise.”
Rutledge, a former leading figure in the Republican Party of Texas and former chair of the Hidalgo County Republican Party, pointed out, for the record, that he was not working for Pharr at the time, though he has consulted for the city since. “I was not working for Pharr. I was simply working in the district office and following instructions from Washington. I left the GSA in January 1993 (when Bill Clinton became president) but all the money had been allocated for the project when I left.”
In his interview with the Guardian, Barrera said he actually started working on getting an international bridge for Pharr when he became mayor in 1982. “It really started with John Tower, when he was U.S. Senator and then later with Phil Gram. Later, I got to know Hollis Rutledge and then everything started to fall in place.”
Barrera had left office by the time the groundbreaking ceremony for the Pharr Bridge was held in late 1994. Asked how beneficial an international port of entry has been to Pharr, Barrera said: “It has been a blessing from the Good Lord for the City of Pharr and Las Milpas. The bridge has helped a lot.”