McALLEN — The bus tour following Gov. Rick Perry across the Rio Grande Valley on Tuesday spoke to the unity officials have touted as he attended two ceremonies celebrating historic legislation in a region he said was “overlooked by the Legislature for way too many years.”
The Valley’s delegation of a dozen Democratic state politicians stood beside Perry, Texas’ top Republican, after his remarks in Edinburg and subsequently in Brownsville. State legislators, University of Texas System officials and the leaders of University of Texas-Pan American and the University of Texas at Brownsville rode two Valley Metro buses advertising the initiative that is for now known as Project South Texas.
The governor, who recently announced he won’t run for re-election, said part of “the continuing education of Rick Perry” has been coming to understand the region’s potential with the help of local leaders when he was agriculture commissioner.
He flatly denied that the unification of UTPA and UTB, made official when he signed Senate Bill 24 in June, could be politically motivated. In Edinburg, he was asked if it would give his party more political clout as talk of turning Texas Democratic has increased and is believed to hinge on the votes of the state’s growing Latino population.
“This hasn’t got anything to do with blue or red or what have you,” Perry said. “This has everything to do with Lone Star Texas — red, white and blue.”
The governor acknowledged he might not always agree with state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, of McAllen, but said they wouldn’t be distracted by “those who want to create conflict.” He said the UT System and, thereby, the state is strengthened by Project South Texas, making it attractive for prospective Texas businesses like SpaceX, a private space company that might set up a launchpad in Cameron County.
A medical school has long been sought in the Valley, but now it’s only one component of the larger university bolstered by research being created here. Officials have promised it will bring impact on the region’s education, economy and health care.
“This is about Texas children and the opportunity for them to stay close to home and transform an area of the state that all of us, collectively, know has an amazing potential for growth,” Perry said. “That’s our goal.”
State Rep. Rene Oliveira, of Brownsville, cited strong bipartisan support in both chambers.
“This wasn’t a Democratic bill. It wasn’t a Republican bill,” Oliveira said. “It was a Texas bill.”
Hinojosa said a medical school will spark job creation, improving the border’s quality of life.
In Edinburg, guests were greeted with a pep rally atmosphere at the student union with many young area students and a marching band. U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, also appeared alongside Perry at the event. Even protestors appeared; most of them against the abortion bill recently pass in the legislature.
Aaron Barreiro, the UTPA student government president with hopes of being a pediatric surgeon, said the unification of UTPA and UTB will give hope and a new mindset to the Valley. The speech was a moment UTPA President Robert Nelsen said was his favorite.
“Somos familia (we’re family) and from now on that family’s gotten a lot bigger,” Barreiro said.
In Brownsville, a lively music group played xylophone in the foyer as guests walked into the Arts Center.
Samantha Gomez, a pre-med student who graduated in May from the UTB Math and Science Academy for high school-age students, said this is an opportunity for success.
“I will say this again, the students in the Valley are ready; ready to move and be moved,” she said.
At both ceremonies, Perry said the Valley’s location strengthens its impact.
In Brownsville, he was asked what led to the region being overlooked for so long.
“I understand that when you see economically, educationally, when you see health care-wise, the Rio Grande Valley was not as advanced as the rest of the state and that’s just a fact,” he said in response.
State legislators again quickly jumped in to comment, as well.
State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., of Brownsville, said a key combination was the governor’s appointments to the UT System Board of Regents along with system Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and state legislators. The governor also kept his word to focus on South Texas, as he said in his most recent State of the State address, Lucio said.
“We had the perfect team, for once in 26 1/2 years that I can remember,” Lucio said. “We had a lot of things along the way. We can count our blessings, but we had the perfect team.”
Oliveira said he believed previous regents hadn’t “stepped up” as the ones on the board today have, while state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, of Harlingen, said local community leaders also helped when they spoke unanimously.
“A different board of regents, a different chancellor and this may never have happened,” Oliveira said.
Perry called the Valley one of the most vibrant places in the nation with the capacity to improve the world through such a powerful moment as the merger bringing a new medical school.
“I’ve had some fabulous and wonderful moments as the governor of Texas, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever had one that was any more impactful or one that I have enjoyed more,” he said.