Small Town, Big Hell

Election time in Sweetwater is just another pretext for this rancorous city to go nuts

According to newspaper accounts of the day, it worked like this: Those in the county who wanted to drink late went to Sweetwater; on the way out of town the local police would often fine them for drunk driving, helping fill city coffers, or at least those of its employees. In 1955 the mayor found himself on trial, accused of taking a bribe to let off a drunk driver. In the end, though, a judge dismissed the case when someone observed the prosecution drinking with the key witnesses.

It wasn't entirely from the bars and drunk drivers that Sweetwater filled its coffers. The town also sold car inspection stickers. In fact one could purchase Sweetwater inspections stickers at 27 locations in the county, only one of which was actually in Sweetwater. In 1948 $28,000 of the $43,000 city budget came from inspection fees. In at least two inspection stations, the sticker cost three dollars. The charge stipulated by law was 75 cents.

By the Sixties the city's circus atmosphere seemed institutionalized. In 1965 the City of Sweetwater declared bankruptcy. Six years later the council tried to impeach the mayor. Two years after that the council attempted to rid itself of the existing police force by eliminating the budget for law enforcement, and voted to spend the money on a swimming pool. While council members debated the issue, someone vandalized their cars, which were parked outside the city hall and police station.

Toward the end of that decade the Cuban exiles fleeing Castro's regime discovered Sweetwater. In 1974 the first Cuban-American ran for city council and won a seat. A trickle of the whites who formed the majority of the city began to leave. In 1978 Jorge Valdez became the first Cuban-American mayor in the United States. The white flight turned to a torrent.

All sides expect the smears and legal maneuvering to intensify as the campaign winds down. "It is going to get bad," Diaz predicts. Three weeks prior to the election, absentee voting is starting to worry Mayor Gloria Bango. The election department has received requests for as many as 360 absentee ballots; if only 2000 people vote, they could easily decide the race. Entire families are voting absentee, Bango says, and hints that a city program to distribute food to low-income families is being used by her opponents to leverage ballots. "You have to remember that all of this is a game," she says. "There have been absentee ballot brokers in Sweetwater for a long time."

Jose Diaz says his camp is aware that absentee ballots will likely be an issue and has taken every precaution to comply with the law.

Several elections ago, at the request of the City of Sweetwater, the election department began to verify the authenticity of absentee-ballot requests. Still the department is largely unable to prevent fraud once the ballots have been mailed out, according to election supervisor David Leahy. (Criminal allegations of voter fraud are forwarded to the State Attorney's Office.) Of particular concern are the elderly people who are dependent on aid and can easily be intimidated. "I am sure it happens," Leahy says. "I don't know if it is happening in Sweetwater."

Ultimately the three councilmen not up for election will determine the validity of the absentee ballots. It being Sweetwater, everyone could end up back in court. "If it is a close race there is a potential for lawsuits," Leahy admits.

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