Judge-elect Richard Cortez to bring fiscal conservatism to county politics, policies

A $190 million drainage bond; a $150 million courthouse; and a population that is growing more than twice as fast as the national average — these are just some of the responsibilities Hidalgo County Judge-elect Richard Cortez will take on upon being sworn into office in January.

In May, Cortez won the highly contested Democratic primary against former Hidalgo County Judge Eloy Pulido with more than 55 percent of the vote. Cortez was elected county judge in the midterm election with 72 percent of the vote, beating the Republican nominee, Jane Cross.

A self-described conservative Democrat, Cortez has been criticized for running under the Democratic ticket but while previously making campaign contributions to several Republican candidates, and for his ideological ties to the GOP. With the Rio Grande Valley being such a Democratic stronghold, it’s considered highly difficult to win county-wide office with an “R” attached to your name.

He’s a fiscal conservative, describing himself as a “numbers guy.” The Weslaco native earned his Bachelor’s of Business Administration from Pan American College — later the University of Texas-Pan American and now UTRGV — and worked as a certified public accountant for a McAllen-based accounting firm, where he focused on municipal accounting. Cortez has audited almost every city in the Valley, he said.

In 1982, he moved his family to McAllen, where he eventually began his political career. In 1997, John Schrock, former McAllen Public Utility Board trustee, vacated his position. In search of somebody capable of financial leadership, the board asked Cortez to fill the vacancy. That’s when he found his passion for public service.

“I figured it out a little late,” Cortez, now 74, said. “You learn to work with people and you learn the issues. We all make mistakes, but if you make a mistake, you need to make sure you don’t make it again… I thought I was a really good CPA when I was 35 years old, but the same Richard Cortez at 65 would beat the pants out of Richard Cortez at 35.”

He remained on the board until he ran for mayor of McAllen in 2005, serving two terms until 2013 when former city attorney and current McAllen mayor, Jim Darling, took office. In 2015, the death of former McAllen City Commissioner Scott Crane triggered a special election for District 1. Cortez ran for the position, won, and served until 2017 when he announced his campaign for county judge.

He left before his term was up, triggering another special election for District 1. Cortez said the decision came in light of his wife’s death four years ago. His four adult children don’t keep him busy anymore, he said, so he decided to run for county-wide office to keep himself occupied.

“I guess I could go play golf or travel and stuff, but I felt that I have certain experience and skills that I thought that I could put to good use to help people,” Cortez said.

Now, Cortez finds himself, along with four county commissioners, responsible for a rapidly growing county, with a high poverty rate and major multi-million dollar construction projects. Access to mental health resources, an overcrowded jail and the $900,000 the county pays Palm Valley Animal Center a year to process the county’s feral cats and dogs — all challenges Cortez has identified.

“There’s going to be a lot of work to do,” he said, pointing out the construction of the county courthouse as a main point of concern. “That’s a lot of construction to manage, and you can get into some very serious trouble if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on.”

Current Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia endorsed Cortez as his successor before the Democratic primary. Garcia was county judge from 2003 to 2007, and again from 2010 until he steps down in January. When he became judge in 2003, he said the biggest obstacle he faced was the county’s financial state. The county had three consecutive tax increases and had a fund balance of $710,000.

“We were in very bad financial shape when I took office,” Garcia said.

Since then, the county administration increased the county budget from $80 million to $210 million, making the county “the most financially stable we’ve been in the county’s history,” Garcia said, pointing out that they did so without increasing taxes and simply “acting in a fiscally responsible manner.”

Garcia thinks drainage might be the biggest issue the new county judge faces. Even then, he said he’s not too worried.

“I think (the county) is going in a very good direction,” Garcia said.