McAllen District 4 withdrawal leaves 2 candidates

McALLEN — A candidate who raised concerns about an opponent’s residency has since dropped out of the race for District 4 city commissioner.

Mario de León, 41, announced he was withdrawing his candidacy last week in a Feb. 21 video posted to his campaign Facebook page, narrowing the race down to two candidates: Tania Ramirez, 30, and Joe Califa, 60.

De León said his withdrawal was a result of his wife’s pregnancy complications, calling it a “difficult and very personal” decision.

“When faced with the decision of focusing my time and energy on my family or the campaign, it was no question,” he said. “The next three months will be critical to our family and changes, and sacrifices were required.”

The announcement came days after de León’s brother Victor emailed City Secretary Perla Lara on Feb. 15 to inquire about Ramirez’s residency claim, specifically whether she had lived in District 4 for the required six consecutive months before the filing deadline.

On her application for a place on the ballot, Ramirez noted she has lived in the district for a year and 10 months.

But de León, who has lived in the district for the past eight years, found that questionable, and said his neighbors did too.

“Some concerned residents from the district had reached out to me to ask if I had heard of Ms. Ramirez or knew where she resided, because no one from the community seemed to know who she was and were skeptical of her residency claim,” he said

Among the documents Victor de León emailed McAllen’s city secretary was Ramirez’s online voter registration information, which lists her registration status as “active” and tied to a Mission address, and her voting history, which revealed she had voted in the May 5, 2018 Mission municipal election and the June 5, 2018 Mission runoff, and at Mission City Hall in the November 2018 general election. She did not vote in the September 2019 McAllen school district tax ratification election, according to elections department information.

The city secretary, however, was “not able to make a determination that Tania Yanet Ramirez is ineligible to be a candidate” under the Texas Election Code, according to a Feb. 18 letter Lara sent Victor de León in response to his complaint.

“While casting a ballot outside the city and district may create a presumption that the person was not a resident of the city at that time, Texas courts have held that it ‘does not conclusively establish’ residency,” the city secretary’s letter read, which noted “there are situations where a person may be able to cast a ballot in a prior precinct after moving from that precinct… “

When applying for a spot on the ballot, the elections administrator — who in McAllen is the city secretary — “only has to look at the application and see if the application on its face would make the candidate eligible,” said attorney Orlando Jimenez, who has litigated candidate residency disputes, most recently involving the November 2018 Edcouch Board of Alderman elections.

Listing an address in another city, such as Edinburg, on a ballot application for McAllen would “on its face be disqualified,” Jimenez gave as an example.

In an interview Monday, Ramirez did not deny that she had voted in Mission’s elections but maintained she has lived in south McAllen for the past 22 months

“I mean that’s clear by the stuff that they submitted, but like I said, I live in District 4,” Ramirez said.

When asked if she was concerned about the appearance of having committed voter fraud by voting in a city where she doesn’t reside, she called this “a distraction that I guess my opponents are trying to use, but honestly I’m not even paying attention to it.”

Instead, Ramirez has been focused on block walking and getting to know voters.

She has also received the support of District 4 Commissioner Aida Ramirez who decided not to seek another term after 18 years in office. The women are of no relation and met while Tania Ramirez worked as an assistant district attorney in County Court-at-Law No. 4, of which the sitting commissioner is the court coordinator.

The commissioner could not be reached for comment Monday.

McAllen City Attorney Kevin Pagan also agreed with the city secretary’s determination that Tania Ramirez was eligible to run in the May 4 election, according to a Feb. 20 letter he sent Victor de León.

The city secretary “is not permitted to decide disputed questions of facts” such as residence, the letter read, which noted that unlike a court, which “would have access to a broader array of facts and the ability to decide disputed fact questions,” the secretary “is limited to public records that conclusively establish ineligibility.”

Victor and Mario de León could choose to contest Ramirez’s residency by filing a declaratory judgment action against the city which would ask a district court judge to determine whether her candidacy violated the election code.

When asked if he would challenge the city’s decision in court, Mario de León said, “I have chosen to prioritize time with my wife and family during this critical time.”

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Six file for seats on McAllen commission