Democratic challengers face off in candidate forum

McALLEN — Local candidates in contested March 2018 democratic primary races faced off Tuesday night at the first forum open to the public.

The forum, hosted by Futuro RGV, featured four contested races in Hidalgo County: District Attorney, County Judge, County Clerk and representative for the 41st state house district.

The DA and county judge races took up most of the forum, proving to be the most acrimonious. The races for county clerk and representative of District 41 pitted incumbents against political newcomers.

District Attorney

It took only four questions for incumbent District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez and challenger Rene Guerra to be asked about the Irene Garza trial.

Rodriguez ran in 2014, in part on a platform to finally take the decades-old cold case to trial, resulting in a murder conviction of former priest John Feit in December 2017.

Guerra told the audience that he didn’t prosecute the case during his 32 years in office because there was not enough “concrete evidence” to convict the priest.

“If you listen to testimony (from the trial), the ex-priest was convicted on hearsay evidence,” Guerra said. “The rulings of the court were questionable …. I think the case will be reversed (on appeal).”

Rodriguez shot back, saying that Guerra had banked on there not being a conviction.

“The best defense attorney, other than the one representing John Feit, was my opponent,” Rodriguez said, adding that he was confident the case would hold up on appeal.

The candidates also sparred over management capabilities and crime victims’ services.

Rodriguez repeatedly mentioned his creation of a special victims unit and his efforts to restructure the district attorney’s office to make it more effective, namely by creating special prosecutors to oversee each division.

Guerra called Rodriguez’s allegations that he didn’t have compassion for crime victims a “downright lie.”

He also highlighted his experience trying cases as a district attorney, including convicting a serial rapist who preyed on elderly women, a double homicide and a capital murder. While Rodriguez has yet to try a case since taking office, he said this was because he was “cleaning up the office” he inherited from his opponent and “making sure there’s been justice at the office.”

County Judge

While the democratic candidates for county judge argued about the same hot-button issues the county faces — such as the need for a new courthouse, providing indigent healthcare and the rising property taxes — new issues still cropped up.

Eloy Pulido, a former county judge, accused Richard Cortez of wanting to keep the status quo, going so far as saying those who support the former McAllen commissioner do so because Cortez would keep their political agenda in mind.

“You basically want to serve as Ramon Garcia did,” Pulido told Cortez. Garcia, the current county judge, announced he would not run for re-election and endorsed Cortez.

Cortez challenged this notion, saying he would be a “tactician,” making decisions based on thorough analysis of facts.

“I like to make decisions on objective evidence, not subjective opinion,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot of subjective belief (tonight); I haven’t heard a lot of evidence.”

After the forum, Cortez defended the support he’s received from Garcia, the county commissioners and many mayors, saying that Pulido “is misinterpreting that support to be the status quo.”

“I’m going to bring in an efficiency expert. I’m going to bring in an economic developer to my staff… it’s for sure not going to be the status quo,” he said.

Pulido raised concerns about the county’s history of nepotism, particularly under Garcia’s leadership.

He said Precinct 1 Commissioner David Fuentes should not have been allowed to appoint his uncle to the Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority board, and said Garcia should place an item on the next commissioners court agenda to rescind the appointment.

But Cortez said that because the position is uncompensated, it does not fall under the nepotism law.

“All we can do is play by the rules that are in place today,” he said. “I’m not going to fault Commissioner Fuentes for appointing (someone) because he was following the rules. If you don’t like that, change the rules.”

County Clerk

Incumbent Arturo Guajardo Jr., who is running for his fourth term, faces a former employee, Rene Perez.

Perez said he served as an administrative assistant in the County Clerk’s Office from 2005 to 2013 and is currently a police officer for the city of Hidalgo.

Guajardo said under his leadership the clerk’s office — which is the custodian of all county records, such as birth and death records and deeds — has modernized and become fully digital, and is a model for other counties in the state, becoming the first to instate electronic filing for criminal and civil court records for county courts-at-law and probate court. He noted that it is the only clerk’s office in the nation that is backed up by the cloud.

Perez charged his opponent with growing complacent, noting that, “a lot of the times the assistants are the ones doing the work.”

Perez is campaigning on a platform to open more substations in the county, whereas Guajardo said Tuesday that he closed substations in the western and eastern part of the county because there “was zero traffic.”

Yet Perez argued that the closed offices didn’t receive foot traffic because they only provided a quarter of the services available at the office’s central location at the courthouse.

State Rep. District 41

Incumbent state Rep. Bobby Guerra is being challenged by McAllen teacher and coach Michael L. Pinkard Jr.

Guerra urged voters to re-elect him in order to continue to give the Rio Grande Valley a voice in influential legislative committees, which he said are reserved for members with seniority like himself. Guerra has served in the Texas House of Representatives for the past five years and sits on committees for public health and energy.

Pinkard argued that the district needs new blood and someone to fight for education, children with special needs and women.

When asked about the healthcare district, Guerra described the proposal as “off the table” because voters had twice rejected it, noting that lawmakers “need to find other innovative ways” to fund indigent healthcare for the region.

Both candidates also said they want to change the perception others have about the Rio Grande Valley and border regions.

Pinkard said he was in favor of decreasing border security spending and lessening the number of Texas Department of Public Safety troopers sent to the area in order to increase education funding. Guerra said more members of the Texas Legislature need to come to the Valley to see how the region is “leading Texas forward.”

Futuro RGV will host another candidate forum featuring contested democratic primary races Feb. 6 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Edinburg Municipal Auditorium. Those races include: 275th District Court Judge, County Court-at-Law No. 5 Judge, Probate Court Judge, Chief Justice of the 13th Court of Appeals and Precinct 4 County Commissioner. It’s unclear whether County Treasurer, a race comprised of four democratic challenges, will be featured.

nlopez@themonitor.com