Rockin' mayor is on a roll

Forget the presidential race. Who will be holding office at grass root level is what is deep in the heart of Texans, writes John Carlin

RYAN TRIMBLE, the mayor of Blanco (pop. 1,238), said he felt real sorry for the Prince and Princess of Wales, sorry for the British monarchy in general. He knew, from his own experience, what they were going through.

"I'm mayor. I've been mayor for three terms. I'm under the spyglass too. So I understand. I don't have a private life. When I first took up this post in 1991, the local newspaper said things about me I didn't like. That's the way it is when you're in the public eye. So yeah, I can relate. I feel real sympathy for her and the prince."

It became pretty clear to me before I'd even set eyes on Mayor Trimble that he was no shrinking violet.

"You were real smart to find me," he said, when I phoned him up for an interview. "I've been on TV, I've been interviewed by Tom Brokaw - you know, the NBC news guy. Did you know that I used to be Bruce Springsteen's producer?"

I didn't have a clue. My initial plan, I explained, had been to write about the Republican presidential primary to be held in Texas on Tuesday. It had seemed tremendously important, this being America's second largest state, until Bob Dole cleaned up in Georgia, New England and New York. By the middle of last week it was obvious that Senator Dole had the nomination in the bag. So I thought I'd take a look instead at one of the 4,000 or so other Texan primary elections taking place on the same day as the presidential vote, in one of which Mayor Trimble is among the candidates.

It turns out that Republicans from the 254 counties of Texas will be marking crosses all over a long ballot paper listing not only the aspirant nominees for the presidency, but for the state congress, for district judges, for sheriffs, for district attorneys, for tax-collectors, for county commissioners, for local party chairmen. It turns out too, and this might be news for the natterers in Washington, that people are far more interested in who will represent them at the grass roots than at the national level.

Connie Granberg, the owner of Blanco Auto Parts, confirmed what Mayor Trimble told me, that the chief reason people turn up at the polls is to elect their local office-bearers. "The names of Dole and Forbes and Buchanan are on the ballot so, sure, we'll make our choice," said Ms Granberg, who is herself on Tuesday's Blanco ballot, running unopposed for the Republican county chair. "But people feel the national vote is out of their control. The local stuff - who's sheriff, who's commissioner - that affects them daily."

Mayor Trimble is running for commissioner, a position which - if he wins - would expand his authority over such matters as garbage removal, road repairs, water, sewage and the local police force beyond the town of Blanco to the county of Blanco, which has a population of 5,300.

I drove out on Highway 290, west from Austin, to meet the rock-and-roll mayor. The scenery here offers a hilly respite from the Lone Star state's otherwise vast, relentless flatness. On the way, I passed a town called Dripping Springs; a giant billboard urging me to stop at a roadside lingerie store called "Cowgirls and Lace"; another billboard advertising "the World's Greatest Fried Chicken: nearly three dozen sold"; and numerous election banners, one of which read "Lefty is Right", put up by a Democrat running for congress who rejoices in the name of Charles Lefty Morris.

Blanco, I had been told, was a staunchly Republican district so I was surprised, upon reaching the county border, to see a large sign proclaiming: "Welcome to Blanco County. The Heartland of a Great American President, Lyndon Baines Johnson." This, it turned out, was where Johnson went to school. Not a huge claim to fame, but if you live in an anonymous little town deep in the heart of Texas, you snatch at whatever local history you can find.

A brochure I obtained at a bric-a-brac shop in the sun-blasted town square - an authentic John Wayne movie set - put Blanco well and truly on the map as "home to the second largest oak tree in the county".

In the council chamber of the smallest city hall in the world, a framed document hung next to a large plastic Stars and Stripes. "This is to certify," the document said, "that the accompanying flag was flown over the US Capitol on August 9, 1995. This flag was flown for the city of Blanco."

Mayor Trimble introduced me to Scar, the office cat, and before I could say "Howdy?" launched into his heartfelt Royal lament.

He was a tall man, 49 years old, with a stoop and a tidily trimmed grey beard. He wore a waistcoat and grey suit cut in the sober Wyatt Earp style, regulation cowhide boots and, in the first clue that he had once been a Sixties flower child, a green, purple and aquamarine tie.

"Janis Joplin was a good friend of mine," he said. "I taught her to play the guitar. She sang at a coffee house I had, a sort of beatnik club, on the coast near Houston. Later I founded Liberty Hall. It was a famous place, a 700-seat theatre in Houston. Little Feat played there; the Byrds; Bruce Springsteen; Steely Dan. I produced them all. Then Janis died - I told her, I told her to lay off the drugs - and then other friends died the same way, and then the punk rock thing came along, which I didn't like. So one day I said to my wife, Dorothy, 'Let's move to the hills.' It was in 1980. We came here in a VW camper bus and bought three acres on the river."

The rest is history. He became mayor, and now he's taking the next step up the political ladder by running for commissioner. Until now he had had no party affiliation, he told me. So why was he running now for the Republican nomination?

"The reason is that most people round here are Republican. I have to be a Republican to win the race. But I could just as easily run as a Democrat."

It seemed like a rash thing to be saying to a journalist but, as I was to learn, party allegiances count for little in Blanco, as in most other rural communities in Texas.

Ms Granberg, the lady running for the party chairmanship on Tuesday, said she didn't agree with a number of things the Republicans stood for, notably their position on abortion. "I'm more of an independent. I don't vote a straight ticket. In a general election I'll vote Republican for some positions, Democrat for others, depending on my opinion of the candidates."

Mayor Trimble was a conservative, he said, in the sense that he believed government should be run like a business. He had cut costs by firing city hall staff upon taking office. Then he proceeded to double the size of the water and sewage systems, pave streets and expand the local police force. Yet he was a Republican heretic, a hippie degenerate, when it came to the party's dogma on crime and family values.

"I believe in God, but I don't do organised religion. I worship my own way: I just go on down to the river and meditate. I don't believe in this right-wing Christian morality. You can't legislate morality. You can't shelter children from the real world. That's why I encourage sex education in schools here. And on drugs, I tell my police officers to help people, to educate them, not to jail them. It's an absurdity to jail people for marijuana use while giving federal government subsidies to the tobacco industry, which kills far more people than marijuana."

After five years occupying a position of far greater significance to Blanco's inhabitants than president or congressman or state governor, Mayor Trimble's deviations from Republican orthodoxy are no secret.

His core constituents are God-fearing ranching folk - there are 12 churches in town - some of whom are members of the ultra-right Texas Constitutional Militia. (Last week's Blanco County News announced that the local militia commander would be holding a seminar at a local auditorium this Wednesday evening.)

Yet, scorning the showy symbolism that dominates the national political debate, they have re-elected Ryan Trimble twice, for the simple reason that he gets his job done and keeps the local services ticking over.

And because he takes pride in what he does. He's not in politics for the money - the promotion he is seeking to county commissioner would earn him a salary of $17,400 (pounds 11,400) a year. "This is the most rewarding thing I've done in my life, being the leader of my community," he said.

"A better reward than any money I've ever made. The Moody Blues had a great line in one of their songs: 'The love you give is really meant for you.' It's so true. To help your community makes you a richer person. Material things don't give you the same sense of worth, really."

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