By Jordy Yager - 03/15/11 10:33 AM EDT
Capitol Hill made Raul Salinas the Texas mayor he is today.
As a former congressional aide and U.S. Capitol Police officer, Salinas got his first taste of public service and what it means to put a community’s needs before his own while at work in Washington.
Nearly 40 years later, Salinas is entrusted with the safety and prosperity of Laredo, Texas, one of the busiest border cities in the U.S., with more than $173 billion worth of trade passing through each year.
And as drug violence in Mexico threatens to spill over into the U.S., Salinas has discovered that, as mayor, his ties to Washington are coming in handy. Recently he was able to hire 22 additional police officers through a federal grants program.
“We have a very good relationship with the White House,” said Salinas, dressed in a black suit for a Laredo Day reception at the Mayflower hotel. “One of the things that’s really important to us is partnerships. Whether you’re on one side of the aisle or the other, when it comes to public safety, there’s no party banner.”
Salinas first came to Washington in 1968, making $300 a month as an aide to former Rep. Eligio “Kika” de la Garza (D-Texas), who, two years later, appointed him to serve with the Capitol Police under a patronage system that once governed the department.
While he was a police officer, Salinas also put himself through school at the University of Maryland.
His day job granted him a first-row seat to history. Salinas helped guard President Nixon’s Watergate tapes during his impeachment trial, and confesses that he used to listen to them while they were being stored. He also provided protection for Jane Fonda when she came to Capitol Hill during the Vietnam War, and he escorted then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R) through the House office buildings as he made courtesy calls to lawmakers seeking their support for his vice presidential candidacy.
“I was very impressed with Rockefeller because he spoke Spanish very fluently,” said Salinas, himself a native Spanish speaker.
After five years with the Capitol Police, Salinas joined the FBI as one of its first Hispanic agents in Washington.
In the FBI, he said, he quickly gained a reputation for being a much nicer guy than the rest of his fellow agents — so much so that they nicknamed him “the mayor.”
“Maybe they knew something that I didn’t,” he joked.
It was the FBI that sent him to Laredo. He arrived in 1988 to spearhead the FBI bureau and was first elected mayor in 2002.
Salinas handles the role of mayor well. At the Laredo Day banquet last week, he shook hundreds of hands as he greeted guests from a wide array of government offices, sneaking in bites from the dessert table when he could.
With a local mariachi band playing in the background, Health and Human Services Department staffers munched on platters of fajitas while Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials drank from the open bar, and boisterous Capitol Hill staffers were shushed as lawmakers tried to give short speeches.
Texas Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D), Blake Farenthold (R) and Henry Cuellar (D) were all on hand to sing the praises of Laredo and Salinas.
“The way the south Texas districts are drawn, we share a lot of common interests, so we get each other’s backs,” said Farenthold, a freshman.
Salinas is especially close with Cuellar, who represents Laredo’s district, and also sits on the Homeland Security subcommittee that oversees border issues. And although Laredo saw only nine homicides last year, Salinas said, he testified before the subcommittee last month to give an account of how the increasing violence across the border is affecting the city’s businesses and communities.
“It’s always challenging, and you get a little butterflies,” Salinas said of testifying before Congress. “But to come back and see where I was raised and prepped, I think of the memories and feel at home. It brings back beautiful memories.”
Salinas stays with his daughter Jennifer and her husband at their Maryland home whenever he returns to Washington. For Salinas, family is of the utmost importance. He attributes all of his drive for success to his mother.
“My mom is the person that I most admire in my life,” Salinas said, tearing up. “The whole goal of my life was to try and make her proud. Coming to Washington was probably the most wonderful thing I could do for her.”
Salinas said working with Capitol Police and in de la Garza’s office taught him the importance of staying connected to constituents. With that lesson in mind, Salinas says he has an open-door policy that allows anybody in Laredo to share their problems with him.
“What I learned on Capitol Hill in public service has helped me with my understanding of what I do now,” he said. “It’s about serving people. I think the big thing you learn is that you’re always trying to do things for the better of the community and don’t take yourself too seriously.
“And make sure you always keep in touch with people,” he said. “Never lose touch with people. Never think you’re more important than the position that you occupy.”