As a founder of the watchdog organization Our Laredo, Lakshmana “Vish” Viswanath is no stranger to Laredo’s political landscape, the City Council podium, or forums at which he casts light on the underpinnings of some City Council decisions.
Direct and to the point, Viswanath doesn’t tap dance around what he has to say, often spiking the ire of some of the less than transparent self-servers on the Council. He is often exhausting in the detail he provides, but he is also often correct in his pursuits.
He wants to join them, aspiring to take the District VI seat now held by Charlie San Miguel who has aspirations to be the City’s mayor.
The native of Kerla, India, Viswanath has made his home in Laredo for 23 years. He raised his sons here — Avinash, a New York physician, and Abiram, a marketing analyst in Austin.
“They both attended Amparo Gutierrez Elementary School, United Middle School, and Alexander High School,” he said.
Viswanath, the youngest of four siblings, came to the U.S. to study, first meteorology at the School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, South Dakota, and then computer science at Iowa State University. He taught in upstate New York and Pennsylvania before taking a position at TAMIU in 1995.
“When I got here, the university had just been established. TAMIU has made a huge difference in the lives of Laredoans. Concurrent with the growth of the City and well paying jobs at TAMIU, downtown was still thriving, and NAFTA was generating new jobs,” he said, adding, “Mexican shoppers still came downtown to shop and to return home with bags of purchases.”
He called NAFTA “our only industry” and said “the bounty of that resource has not been wisely re-invested.”
Viswanath said, “There are communities up and down the border competing for the same federal money for bridges and amenities that make international trade flow more easily.”
He said that some downriver communities are taking proactive approaches to establish industrial parks that facilitate the transfer of goods back and forth across the border.
“Laredo is an overnight staging area for goods moving in either direction,” he stressed, adding, “We can do so much better than providing the movers of international trade with a meal and a tank of gas before they move on.”
He said that Laredo needs to invest in areas that attract new businesses that complement NAFTA and transportation. “We need tech jobs, production, manufacturing, and assembly,” he said.
About the recent moratorium on issuing new permits for manquintas, Viswanath said, “These are businesses that promote illegal activities like money laundering and other crimes. They appeal to gambling addicts.”
He continued, “As a city we could well live without maqunitas, and we can do this by cutting the waste that is rampant throughout some City departments. The never-ending Sunset Pools fiasco in South Laredo, the $96 million dollar Pico Water Plant with its three failed pumps, the recycling contract — I see what I see, a lot of waste in the City’s $800 million dollar budget.”
He said that the inoperative Pico Water Plant was overbuilt to address the City’s projected water needs in 2050. “What could we have done today with $96 million?” he asked.
Viswanath refers to the majority of the City Council members as “the gang of five,” whom he said often vote in lockstep, such as their recent decision to lift the moratorium on issuing maquinita permits. “Even with the Chief of Police and the District Attorney telling them that maquinitas operate illegally, launder money, and have fostered robberies and home invasions at gunpoint — those five Council members voted to lift the moratorium,” he said.
“Why is the indicted, convicted Council member from District II, still serving?” Viswanath asked.
“Developers are very comfortable here. They can violate city ordinances and just walk away because there is no enforcement,” he said, citing the recent environmental encroachment on the City’s Shiloh Bike Trail by Howland Engineering.
Viswanath expressed concern over the integrity of local elections. “The mail-in ballots in this last election reflected 80 ballots that had the appearance of being filled in identically. The cañoneros are a bad element in our elections. When people are voting as directed by a cañonero rather than on the merits of a candidate, it’s a good bet the winner for City Council will be no better than the last seated council member. We need an elections administrator who is actually looking for fraud. I am a concerned voter and a concerned candidate,” he said.
He said he is running a grass roots campaign, using social media. “I don’t have the financial resources to wage a large campaign, and so I hope people will see what I have to offer — service and accountability.”
He said he would be “taking a step back” from Our Laredo” while campaigning.
He said that corruption runs through City government, the county, and the school districts. “The players change, the actors change, but they remain connected and continue to use the same favored engineers, architects, pool builders, contractors, and vendors,” he said.
“The City of Laredo is a billion dollars in debt, and there is no real plan to address it. Credit card companies don’t want your money, they want your interest. Is that on anyone’s mind?” he asked. “We can do so much to benefit those who live here with better services,” he added.
He said he anticipates facing an “anyone but Vish” effort as campaigns get underway in the November election, noting that the field in which he will run is crowded and includes Rick Laurel, Fernando Alarcon Jr., Dr. Marte Martinez, Frank Castro, Teri McGraw, Rafael Dueñas, Juan Alejandro, and Juan Ramirez Jr.
Viswanath summed up his affection for Laredo. “I chose to make my life here and to raise my children here. I am not a rich man, but I have a good life in Laredo. I wish that for every resident for Laredo,” he concluded.