Aldo Tatangelo

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Aldo J. Tatangelo, Sr.
Mayor of Laredo, Webb County, Texas, USA
In office
1978–1990
Preceded by Jose C. "Pepe" Martin, Jr. (1954–1978)
Succeeded by Saul N. Ramirez, Jr. (1990–1997)
Personal details
Born (1913-09-16)September 16, 1913
Providence, Rhode Island, USA
Died March 7, 2008(2008-03-07) (aged 94)
Laredo, Texas
Nationality American
Political party Democratic but often supported Republicans
Spouse(s) Alice Natali DeLong Tatangelo (1921–2001, married 1943 – her death)
Children Aldo Tatangelo, Jr. (since deceased), of Laredo
Linda T. (Jerry) McKinney of Fort Worth
Robert (Elva) Tatangelo of Grapevine, Texas
Five grandchildren
Occupation Businessman; philanthropist
Religion Roman Catholic
(1) After his retirement in 1990, Tatangelo became one of Laredo's most esteemed elder statesmen.

(2) Tatangelo wept when he learned of the passing of his friend Ronald W. Reagan.

(3) Tatangelo is credited with having obtained the paving of the majority of the streets of Laredo, Texas.

(4) Tatangelo considered the implementation of the Laredo municipal pension plan his greatest public achievement.

Aldo J. Tatangelo, Sr. (September 16, 1913 – March 7, 2008) was the reform mayor of Laredo, Texas, who served from 1978 to 1990. He is often credited with having obtained the paving of the large majority of the "streets of Laredo" (a term made famous in an old Western song). Several major Laredo streets were being resurfaced on the day of Tatangelo's death.

Tatangelo succeeded the scandal-plagued administration of Mayor Jose C. "Pepe" Martin, Jr., who, like Martin's father before him, exerted vast powers as a south Texas patron, or political boss, and accrued vast wealth. In retirement, Tatangelo became perhaps Laredo's most beloved elderly statesmen.

Son Aldo Tatangelo, Jr. (April 2, 1945 – May 25, 2010), of Laredo proclaimed that his father "set Laredo free and changed how people thought. He pointed the city in a new direction and wanted it to be open and prosperous." Previously, he noted, that many in Laredo were "fearful of doing the wrong thing or of getting fired if they voted for the wrong person or if they said or did the wrong thing." In this sense, "wrong" meant taking a position counter to that of the former power elite.

Like his father, Tatangelo, Jr., was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and was a downtown Laredo merchant for many years.[1] Speaking on March 10, 2008, at his father's rosary, the junior Tatangelo continued: "My dad and Laredo had a love affair for thirty-five years. They (people of Laredo) loved him, he loved them. They broke the mold when they made Aldo. There'll never be another one. It's interesting when a man can have that kind of a feeling for a city, and the city return it."


Early years, education, military[edit]

Tatangelo was the second of five children born to Nocolo and Bettina Tatangelo, Italian immigrants who moved to Providence in 1910, with hopes of providing a better life for their children. Aldo was born in the barrio called Federal Hill. As a youth, he was an amateur boxer. In Laredo, he closely followed the careers of the city's best known professional boxers, the brothers Gaby and Orlando Canizales. In 1917, Nocolo Tatangelo established a jewelry manufacturing plant which became Standard Ring and Company. Tatangelo left high school at the age of sixteen to work at his father's company. "This was the time of the Great Depression, and my father needed help; so I went to work with him and enrolled at night school," Tatangelo said in a 2002 interview with his hometown newspaper, the Laredo Morning Times. He finished high school, studied plastic engineering, and graduated with a degree from Brighton and Stratton colleges in Rhode Island.

Tatangelo continued to work for his father until 1943, when he enlisted in the United States Navy. He was a fireman first class in the naval supply department. That same year, Tatangelo married his beloved wife, the former Alice Natali DeLong (November 8, 1921 — March 17, 2001). She was a 22-year-old employee of his father's company when they wed. The marriage lasted for fifty-seven years—until her death.


Manufacturing sunglasses[edit]

After his military service ended in 1945, Tatangelo established his own sunglasses factory, Atlantic Optical Products in Providence. "I only had $380 in my pocket, but I wanted to start my own business; so I did," Tatangelo explained in the interview with Diana De La Garza of the Laredo Morning Times on the occasion of his 89th birthday. Within two years, his company grew to 168 employees and produced an average of 5,000 sunglasses daily. Atlantic Optical was at the time the second largest manufacturer of sunglasses in the country. In 1949, Tatangelo opened a branch in Mexico City with a Mexican associate and moved to Mexico to supervise the company. When he determined that his partner would not share the authority over the company, Tatangelo sold his part of the business.


Choosing Laredo as his home[edit]

Tatangelo's mother died in 1963, and he decided to move his family from Mexico back to the United States. "I had always felt like a foreigner in Mexico. I liked the city, but I didn't think it was a place for my children to grow up in," Tatangelo told the Laredo Morning Times. Tatangelo sought a border city to establish businesses on both sides of the Rio Grande. He considered Brownsville in Cameron County and Eagle Pass in Maverick County but instead chose Laredo, some 150 miles (240 km) south of San Antonio and 310 miles (500 km) west of Houston.

In Laredo, he established a jewelry manufacturing plant and went into business with an instructor from Laredo Community College (then Laredo Junior College). The partnership ended, as Tatangelo established his family-owned Frontier Novelty Company. He also established a plant in Nuevo Laredo, on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, to assemble jewelry and optical products. He has long been a booster of border issues. He was friendly with Nuevo Laredo mayors and a fan of the Tecolotes baseball team there.

Interest in local politics[edit]

After several years in Laredo, Tatangelo became active in local politics. He considered himself a Democrat, but, as an independent businessman, he was more pragmatic than partisan. "I had a summer house in Zapata (also Zapata County) and learned that they had a fire station manned by volunteers. I thought we could have that in Laredo," he told Diana De La Garza. He recruited thirty-nine volunteers, and in 1973, a fire station was built on Del Mar Boulevard across from St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church.

In the middle to late 1970s, some 75 percent of Laredo's streets were still unpaved, and Tatangelo challenged the established order that permitted a low standard of achievement. Tatangelo said that Cranston, Rhode Island, a city with which he was familiar because his last surviving sibling, Gilda T. Merolla, resides there, had at that time a population comparable to that of Laredo. Cranston had all paved streets and a $1 million budget. Laredo had a $3 million budget with miles and miles of dirt, dusty roads. Cranston also had to earmark funds for snow and ice clearance, an expense that did not apply to Laredo, with its semiarid climate.

Tatangelo attended Laredo City Council meetings and asked Mayor Martin why Laredo had so few paved streets, considering that it had three times the budget of Cranston. Martin, an ally of U.S. Senator and then U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, replied that Laredo was "a poor city." Tatangelo then proposed to donate $6,500 to purchase paving equipment that city employees could use. The mayor and the council rejected Tatangelo's proposal. Tatangelo persisted and, for a full year, he attended every council meeting to discuss street paving. The council eventually agreed to a paving experiment in a six-block area of the San Ignacio neighborhood.

Tatangelo, meanwhile, decided to run for mayor to challenge the status quo, or the so-called "Old Party" or the "patron system" or the "Independent Club", by which voters defer to one or two usually elected officials in the community with the expectation that those individuals will provide personal favors when needed. The Laredo leadership claimed that citizens preferred the patron system so that major political decisions would be handled on their behalf by trusted officials. Fernando Pinon, a former Laredo Morning Times editor, wrote a book Patron Democracy, about this peculiar phenomenon. It was a Laredo version of what Mayor Richard J. Daley established in Chicago after 1955. He told the Laredo Morning Times: "I would go to the city council meeting, and nobody would pay attention to me. I said, 'Maybe I should be inside, instead of outside looking in.'"

"Laredo was such a closed city. There was a clique, and if you were part of it, you were O.K., but if you weren't, then things were not so good," said Tatangelo. Martin always used the excuse of poverty in Laredo, but, Tatangelo challenged him: "I thought Laredo was a rich city that could do a lot of things."


Election as mayor, 1978[edit]

In November 1977, Martin, under investigation for wrongdoing in office, announced that he would not seek a seventh term as mayor in the municipal elections set for April 1978. Tatangelo entered the six-candidate nonpartisan race with confidence. (All Texas mayors and city council members are elected without party labels on the ballot.) He visited 10,100 homes and lost 25 pounds in the campaign. Tatangelo easily won the election, which, according to Tatangelo, represented "a new beginning . . . a new administration, with new ideas, new things to do. The rest, as you know, is history."

In his three terms in office, Tatangelo made many changes. He believed that Laredo was a "great city" that could prosper. Tatangelo said that his election brought change, but he could not have succeeded without the help of his fellow citizens.

In addition to the (1) street paving, Tatangelo is credited with (2) establishing a pension plan for city employees, (3) reorganizing the city street department, (4) developing a parks and recreation department, (5) creating a planning and zoning commission, and (6) promoting affordable housing for low-income families. He considered the employee pensions the most important of his contributions to public affairs.

In the spring of 1978, CBS News reported on the surprising developments in Laredo in a half-hour prime time CBS Reports narrated by Bill Moyers. The documentary details many of the scandals in the Martin administration, including the looting of taxpayers through fraudulent purchase orders, particularly for vehicle batteries. A month after the election, Martin was indicted by a federal grand jury on one count of mail fraud and was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and $201,118 to the city in restitution. He was sentenced to serve thirty weekends in the Webb County Jail. Critics derided the "too-lenient" sentence as having made Laredo the laughingstock of Texas.


A change in city charters[edit]

When Tatangelo was elected, he was the "executive" to the "legislative" council. In 1979, as a result of the Martin scandals, which some attributed to weaknesses in the strong mayoral form of government that had existed in Laredo for more than eighty years, the city council authorized a new city charter, which established a city manager. The change in government took effect with the municipal elections held in the spring of 1982. A citizens panel, including a college government instructor, Arturo Nava, drafted the charter. While similar to charters in other cities, it was uniquely adapted to Laredo's needs. The charter provided for a professional manager to be appointed by the 8-member city council. The manager acts as the day-to-day "executive" authority, but he is managed by the council. The elected mayor can break a tie vote on the council, but his role is more limited under the city manager system than it was under the mayor-council format. The mayor may be mainly a "ribbon-cutter," or he may attempt to lead the council toward his own goals. Recall of the mayor and council is permitted under the Laredo charter.

Martin's "Old Party" — officially the "Independent Club" — survived for eighty-four years because of its ability to recruit former opponents. In the latter years, however, it failed to bring in younger members and could not adapt to the changing demographics of the county. Martin told Bill Moyers that the "Old Party" had succeeded in its heyday because many Laredo voters felt too uninformed to make their own political choices in elections and preferred a "patron" to make such decisions for them.

The "Old Party" also included Laredo Independent School District Superintendent Vidal M. Treviño, Martin's father, Sheriff J.C. Martin, Sr. (1886–1957), District Attorney Philip Kazen, and U.S. Representative Abraham Kazen, who lost his House seat in the 1984 Democratic primary to Albert Bustamante.

Tatangelo won his second and third terms under the city manager format. In 1982, Tatangelo trailed in the primary but won the runoff against former city council member Mercurio Martinez, Jr.[2] Tatangelo was term-limited under the charter and could not seek a fourth term in 1990. Laredo mayors are restricted to two consecutive four-year terms plus up to two years of an unexpired term. They may run again after sitting out a term.

In Texas, all mayors and city council members are elected on nonpartisan ballots. The candidates, of course, may have a party label (if they voted in a party primary) or a party preference (even if they did not vote in their primary), but for purposes of election, they are listed on the municipal ballot without party designation. Other states may or may not follow the same procedure.

Running for county judge[edit]

After Tatangelo left the office of mayor in 1990, he launched a write-in campaign in the November general election to challenge the Democratic nominee for Webb County judge, a largely administrative, rather than judicial, position. The Democrats chose Mercurio Martinez, Jr., a former Laredo Community College business instructor, who had served briefly on the city council when Tatangelo was first elected mayor and had run unsuccessfully against Tatangelo in 1982. Martinez unseated incumbent County Judge Andres "Andy" Ramos in the party primary and had no Republican opposition. Under Texas election law, a write-in candidate can file up to forty-five days before a general election. One cannot write in any name he chooses on a Texas ballot for any office: a "write-in" candidate must be officially entered for a particular office. Rarely do candidates win by this route. (Two who did were U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina (1954), as a Democrat, and U.S. Representative Joe Skeen of New Mexico (1980), as a Republican.)

Tatangelo, at seventy-seven, made a stronger showing as a write-in candidate than had been the norm in Laredo, but Martinez prevailed with nearly 75 percent of the vote. Martinez hence won the first of his three terms as county judge. (Martinez has since returned as a trustee for Laredo Community College.) In that campaign, Tatangelo said that he had been a Democrat since 1936, when he was still living in Rhode Island. In Texas, one is officially a "Democrat" or a "Republican," for that matter, only if he votes in his party's primary election or runoff election in the spring of even years. His party designation is good for two years — until the next primary elections. He can adopt a party label as a personal preference, but he is officially a Democrat or a Republican in Texas only by voting in his party's primary or runoff election. In that the majority of Texas voters do not usually participate in any party primary, most of the state's electorate consists of unaffiliated voters.

Tatangelo's Republican activities[edit]

Presumably, Tatangelo meant that he had voted in Democratic primaries when he called himself a "Democrat." Records reveal, however, that Tatangelo has often supported and hosted Republican candidates, including the late President Ronald W. Reagan, with whom he once had a 45-minute audience. KGNS-TV in Laredo reported at the time of Tatangelo's death that Tatangelo had wept when he learned of Reagan's death in 2004. Tatangelo also supported Presidents George Herbert Walker Bush and George W. Bush. In 2004, Tatangelo gave $750 to the Republican National Committee. Tatangelo gave $250 in 2004 to the campaign of former Republican U.S. Representative John Thune of South Dakota, who unseated Senate Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle. When Tatangelo ran for county judge, then Webb County GOP chairman Esther Buckley[3] a former member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, endorsed Tatangelo and urged her fellow Republicans to write in his name on the ballot. Tatangelo secured Republican support not because of party, presumably, but because many had admired his challenge to the "Old Party" establishment and his desire to modernize the city while retaining its traditional values. Another Laredo Republican, businessman and former five-term city council member Joe A. Guerra, said that his friend Tatangelo was so open with the public that he would visit at his office or home with anyone, regardless of status, even without an appointment.

Tatangelo was also committed to cutting county spending and lowering property tax rates, issues that attracted Republican support. Homeowners, however, found that even when the county cut the ad valorem tax rates, their property taxes continued to climb because the Webb County Appraisal District in Laredo routinely increases the valuation of their properties on an annual basis. The district points out that state law requires the higher evaluations each year. Then it is up to the taxing bodies to set the actual tax rates per $100 assessed value.


Tatangelo in retirement[edit]

In 1998, Tatangelo had open-heart surgery. "I still have many ideas, but physically the doctors don't want me to get too involved. I miss . . . being able to sit down and trying to figure out problems. ..." he told the Laredo Morning Times.

Tatangelo had three children, the late Aldo, Jr., of Laredo, Linda T. (husband Jerry) McKinney of Fort Worth, and Robert (wife Elva) Tatangelo of Grapevine, Texas, and five grandchildren. He had two brothers and a sister who predeceased him, Guido and Leo Tatangelo and Eva T. Grenieri. He said that he has been pleased with his long life "as a whole. . . . There were more things that I would have liked to do, but, hey, you can't get everything you want, right?" He was Roman Catholic.

Tatangelo left his public papers with Texas A&M International University in Laredo. In 2000, he gave $25,000 to establish an endowed scholarship at the university for promising students in the fields of political science and public administration. Recipients, who must come from either Webb County or Nuevo Laredo are known as "Tatangelo Scholars."

Tatangelo also supported Laredo Community College. He occasionally met with honors students in their class in Texas government. He offered the students words of wisdom and lessons on municipal government, and the students usually warmed to him as they might with a caring grandfather.

The Aldo Tatangelo Parkway in downtown Laredo, Texas

Tatangelo is honored with the "Aldo Tatangelo Parkway," a shaded green space in downtown Laredo near San Agustin Cathedral that provides a slight respite from the city's legendary summer heat, which can reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 °C). His admirers often speak of him as the man who brought Laredo into the 20th century, even when the 21st century was just two decades away. Tatangelo opposed the building of the Laredo Entertainment Center on the Bob Bullock Expressway, named for a former Texas lieutenant governor and comptroller. Tatangelo maintained that such a mammoth structure, if constructed, should have been located downtown to revitalize the central city.

Tatangelo eulogized[edit]

Tatangelo died in Laredo. Services were held on March 11, 2008, at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church. Interment followed at the family plot in the Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Laredo. Two years later Aldo Tatangelo, Jr., was interred beside his parents.

Tatangelo grave

Son Robert James Tatangelo (born ca. 1951) said that his father was "always ... honest and straight forward with people, and that's what people counted on. I think he really did make a difference."

Daughter Linda T. McKinney remembered her father for his equal treatment of people: "It didn't matter where you came from. If you were from the barrio or if you were a multi-millionaire he would treat you the same. He accepted everybody. . . . There was no social/economic division . . . "

Elmer Buckley (1932–2009), Tatangelo's former special assistant during the first term as mayor and the husband of Esther Buckley, recalled that Tatangelo ordered all municipal financial records be brought to City Hall because under the Martin administration they had been stored at a private residence. Buckley said that many mistakenly questioned Tatangelo's motives: "Very few people really understood him or his motives. They were always looking for a secondary motive or for something other than what he wasn't saying, but Aldo didn't have ulterior motives, none whatsoever." Buckley said that Tatangelo's management style was not that of "micromanager" but of a "task manager" who did not "tolerate laziness".

Andy Ramos, a member of the City Council when Tatangelo became mayor and later the Webb County administrative judge, recalled how Tatangelo "wanted everything done today. . . . He was always asking the city council for support in getting projects done as fast as we could with the money we had available. He was very compassionate, and his heart was with the people of Laredo, especially those who were economically disadvantaged."

On March 25, 2008, the Laredo City Council voted to name City Hall after Tatangelo. The exact name was not selected. At least one council member, Juan Ramirez, proposed that a new building, perhaps a yet unconstructed downtown convention center bear Tatangelo's name. Ramirez said that even with the formal name change most people would still refer to City Hall as "City Hall".

References[edit]

  1. ^ Aldo Tatangelo, Jr. obituary, Laredo Morning Times, May 29, 2010, p. 13A
  2. ^ "Mercurio Martinez, Jr.". tamiu.edu. Retrieved April 28, 2014. 
  3. ^ "JJ Velasquez, "Minivan-truck crash leaves beloved educator dead", Laredo Morning Times, February 12, 2013, pp. 1, 12A
Preceded by
Jose C. "Pepe" Martin, Jr.
Mayor of Laredo, Texas

Aldo J. Tatangelo, Sr.
1978–1990

Succeeded by
Saul N. Ramirez, Jr.