RIO GRANDE CITY — For the first time this election season, candidates in the three biggest primary races in Starr County faced off in a debate Wednesday.
Three debates took place throughout the evening for the races of 229th state District Court judge, Starr County Judge and state Representative for the 31st Congressional District. Each race has two candidates who participated, with the exception of current County Judge Eloy Vera who was absent.
First up were the candidates for state District Court judge which included Martie Garcia Vela, former prosecutor for the district attorney’s office, and Baldemar “Balde” Garza, former Rio Grande City mayor.
In his opening remarks, Garza emphasized his 31 years of experience practicing law he said included handling oil and gas cases, personal injury cases, cases involving wills, bank cases and juvenile cases.
Garcia Vela argued that she’s traveled and worked in all the areas that encompass the 229th district which include Duval and Jim Hogg Counties in addition to Starr.
“I’ve traveled the court. I haven’t been just in Starr County representing oil and gas companies,” she said. “I’ve been putting miles on my car and representing the people of the state of Texas.”
Throughout the debate, Garza continued to point to his years of experience and said he had the right temperament needed to be a good judge.
“The experience is extremely important,” Garza said. “This is the biggest court in the county with the most serious cases to be heard.”
However, Garcia Vela noted that she’s been in a position of educating other prosecutors of the law.
“I think justice requires learning, every day we’re learning,” she said. “I don’t think that we can say because we’ve been practicing a decade that we know it all because as the law evolves, we need to evolve with it.”
During the one-sided debate for the county judge candidates, Leticia “Letty” Garza-Galvan argued why she believed Vera, the current county judge, had mismanaged the county.
In contrast to the county’s financial woes, she said that during her time on the Roma ISD school board, the school district has maintained a positive fund balance.
In what might have been a rebuttal to Vera had he attended, Garza-Galvan addressed an incident from 2015 in which she was arrested in a Macy’s department store on charges of theft. The charges were dismissed and her record has been expunged.
“There was an allegation of an incident at a department store that never went beyond that,” she said. “While my opponent would like for you to believe that this is a conviction of a very serious crime, I was never convicted.”
In the final debate, state Rep. Ryan Guillen and challenger Ana Lisa Garza, former 229th state district court judge, made their case for why he or she should be the one representing the 31st district in the legislature.
Guillen began by thanking his opponent, adding that he’s always supported her as a judge and considers her a friend.
“Frankly, I wish she would have stayed as a judge,” he said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
“Getting off the bench was a very difficult decision for me,” Garza said, “but after I looked around and saw the condition our community was in, and the individuals that came before me were in, I knew I had to do something.”
She argued that after 15 years in office, he had not done enough to address the unemployment rate and lack of funding for local law enforcement
Guillen said that during his time in office, the legislature has cut taxes, cut red tape and expanded the South Texas College’s Starr County campus. He also noted that the unemployment rate dropped from over 21 percent to 9 percent.
In response to a question about the presence of troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety, both seemed to agree that there needed to be a balance.
“I support law enforcement, I support border security, but I do not support a quasi-police state,” Guillen said. “Safety, of course, is important but not at the cost of our freedom and not at the cost of our liberty.”
Garza said she agrees that there is too much DPS presence in the county before changing the topic to food insecurity among children and the lack of funding for local law enforcement.
In closing, she addressed the challenges that come with running for public office including anger from politicians for not asking for permission to run.
“The three women who are here did not ask for permission so we have been attacked in the media, we’ve been attacked on Facebook and I know there’s many more attacks to come,” she said. “I say, do you dare make a change so your daughters and your sons won’t ever have to ask for permission?”
Guillen argued he had the experience and the relationships that enable him to get things done in the legislature.
“We’ve gotten a lot of work done,” he said, “but there’s still much to do.”