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Albert G. Bustamante, the son of migrant laborers who rose to become the first Hispanic elected as Bexar County judge before serving four terms in Congress, died Tuesday after a long illness. He was 86.

Bustamante was one of a number of trailblazing Hispanic elected officials in South Texas, but his career was untracked by an FBI corruption investigation that led to his reelection defeat and eventual conviction on two federal counts of bribery. He was sentenced to a three-and-half year prison term in 1993, which he began to serve at a federal prison in El Paso in 1995 after losing a series of appeals. Bustamante returned to San Antonio in 1998 after his release, but withdrew from public life.

His efforts to win a presidential pardon to clear his name were unsuccessful.

“I had a special relationship with Albert,” said Henry Cisneros, former San Antonio mayor and U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary in the Clinton administration, “because I was the first Hispanic to be elected mayor of San Antonio, in 1981, since Juan Seguín in 1842, but I wasn’t the first Hispanic to win higher local office because Albert won his race to become county judge in 1978, so we shared that.

“He was very intent on clearing his name and he put a lot of time and effort into winning a pardon, but could never get an administration to add him to the pardon list,” Cisneros said. “… He didn’t want his children to live with that judgment on their father’s name and career.”

Bustamante overcame significant challenges early in life as a Spanish-speaking adolescent, one of 11 children, who worked alongside his parents and siblings as migrant laborers in Oregon. He learned English only after starting school.

“I know the vicious cycle of migrant life,” he later recalled in an interview for his congressional biography. “What we earned in the five months before returning to Texas in September had to support us the rest of the year.”

Bustamante began his professional career as a public school teacher after attending San Antonio College and graduating with a degree in secondary education from Sul Ross State College in Alpine. He returned to San Antonio to teach at Cooper Junior High School, where he also coached football and basketball, for seven years.

He married Rebecca Pounders and they had three children: Albert Anthony, an employee of the San Antonio Water System; John, a San Antonio attorney; and Celina Bustamante Emery, who works at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

“He was my hero throughout life, and I always hoped that other people had a dad like mine,” said John Bustamante. “My sister, brother and I grew up around this mythology, my dad coming up from this hardscrabble existence as a migrant farm worker to become a congressman. It was truly inspiring, and even after his conviction it instilled in all of us a belief in this American system.”

Albert Bustamante’s first experience with politics came after he was hired as a constituent services aide to U.S. Rep. Henry B. González, who served 37 years in Congress, the longest of any Hispanic member. Cisneros said Bustamante’s talent for politics allowed him to quickly ascend to become “Henry B’s right-hand man.”

Henry Flores, scholar-in-residence at the University of Houston and professor emeritus of political science at St. Mary’s University, is completing a biography of González.

“Albert later on disappointed Henry B. because he didn’t ‘wait his turn’ to run for office when Henry B. didn’t necessarily think he was ready,” Flores said. “Albert was a groundbreaker in that regard — supremely confident, independent, very self-assured.”

After winning office as Bexar County Commissioner for Precinct 1 in 1971, Bustamante later became county judge, carving out a political profile as a more conservative Democrat than his mentor González, which won him suburban support as well as inner city votes.

“He didn’t have the traditional preparation for a career as an elected leader — no law degree — but he had a real gift for connecting with people,” Cisneros said. “He acquired the tools of populist politics from Congressman González, and always had time for the little people. If you walked down the street with Albert B. in those days you would be stopped 10 times in the space of a block by people saying thank you.”

Albert Bustamante with Henry B. González
Congressman Henry B. González, left, and Albert Bustamante ride in a parade through downtown San Antonio. Credit: Courtesy / Bustamante Family

Both Flores and Cisneros said Bustamante had an uncanny sense of the right time to challenge an incumbent for office. He also had shrewd political instincts and knew when it was time to run.

“When he set his sights on the 23rd Congressional District, it meant he was running against Chick [Abraham] Kazen, a personal friend of González and an ally in Congress,” Flores said. “Albert wasn’t asking anybody for permission to run. He said, ‘I can do it,’ and he did it.”

Knowing the district’s shape and profile had changed by 1984, Bustamante sensed opportunity where others did not, and ultimately defeated Kazen, a popular 18-year incumbent, by a stunning 59% to 37% in the Democratic primary and then ran unopposed in November. He won reelection three times before news surfaced in 1992 that the FBI was investigating him. The unfolding scandal led to his loss to Republican challenger and local television news producer Henry Bonilla. Following his defeat, Bustamante was indicted on 10 charges of accepting $300,000 in bribes in return for federal contracts. His wife, Rebecca, also was indicted on federal bribery charges but was acquitted.

Both Flores and Cisneros said Bustamante’s roots in migrant work and poverty probably drove him to seek the trappings of success.

“The first time I met him as a congressman, he drove up in a yellow Mercedes,” Flores said. “I said, ‘Man, they must be paying good in Congress.’ He just waved me off and said, ‘Oh, this belongs to my wife.’ He had this other side to him where he followed his own self-interest.”

“I would say the trajectory of his life as a young boy who grew up in Asherton, Texas, deep in Dimmit County, with no shoes — literally, as poor as poor could be — and then struggled and fought his way up to become the chief executive of Bexar County, which no one thought he could do, was no small accomplishment,” Cisneros said. “That took lot of confidence, but you have to couple that with his irrepressible drive.”

The Bustamante Family walks through the grounds of the United States Capitol.
The Bustamante family walks through the grounds of the United States Capitol. Credit: Courtesy / Bustamante Family

John Bustamante, who ran unsuccessfully for his father’s seat in 2012, said his father never forgot his humble beginnings.

“There was one story where my father built himself a bed out of tomato crates because he didn’t want to sleep inside with his 10 siblings, but another story explains why he always treated everyone with respect, regardless of their station in life,” he said. “He was getting ready to drop out of college to get a job when a janitor saw him packing up and asked why he was leaving. ‘Because I’m broke. I don’t have the money to continue,’ my dad said. The janitor loaned him $250 and my dad finished his degree. It turns out the janitor borrowed the money from Pete Gallego Jr., who ran a restaurant in Alpine and served as the informal banker for local Hispanics.”

Gallego’s namesake son, Pete Peña Gallego, would go on to win the race in 2012 for the congressional seat once held by Bustamante.

In addition to his wife and their three adult children, Albert Bustamante is survived by three children from previous relationships, plus 15 grandchildren.

Visitation will be held Sunday, Dec. 12 at 6 p.m. at Mission Park Funeral Chapel, 3401 Cherry Ridge; the rosary will follow at 7 p.m. Funeral services will be at San Fernando Cathedral, 115 Main Plaza, on Monday, Dec. 13 at 2 p.m. with reception to follow. Interment will take place Tuesday, Dec. 14 at 10 a.m. at Mission Park Funeral Chapels and Cemetery Dominion, 20900 IH-10 West.

Disclosure: San Antonio Report Story Editor Tracy Idell Hamilton is the wife of John Bustamante.

This story has been updated to accurately reflect the number of Albert Bustamante’s children and grandchildren.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.