After Victor “Seby” Haddad introduced himself to the McAllen Citizens League luncheon on Thursday, his opponent struck.
“Watch out for him,” District 5 City Commissioner John Ingram said of Haddad, a banker and businessman hoping to become only the second candidate in the last 20 years to defeat an incumbent McAllen city commissioner.
Ingram’s quip touched off a spirited back-and-forth that lasted for the following 45 minutes over issues such as an immigration “crisis” on the border, incentive packages, campaign contributions and the scandal enveloping Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina.
Dozens were on hand at the luncheon at the Salvation Army center at the corner of Pecan Boulevard and 23rd Street, where the candidates fielded questions and responded to critiques, hoping to sway central McAllen voters leading up to the June 22 runoff election.
Ingram ignited an old fight when, early in Thursday’s forum, he called one of Haddad’s prior business ventures — Gamehaus Gastropub, a bar and restaurant that was controversially closed after disputes between the venue, city officials and nearby residents — “one of the most dangerous bars in town,” citing a shooting that occurred several years ago.
For his part, Haddad called the shooting “one unfortunate incident” in its years in operation before its closing at the end of 2017, and argued that Gamehaus generated $10 million in gross revenues and had 125,000 annual visitors.
“Our business sat in District 5, he never visited us, he wouldn’t meet with us and he never came out to our venue,” Haddad said before later defending an incentive agreement that the city agreed to give Haddad and his business partners on a new venture that has since stalled.
There were a couple instances where the candidates agreed, with the first being that there is, indeed, “a crisis at the border,” something President Trump and Republicans have repeatedly called the recent immigration surge.
“Yeah I think we have a crisis at the border; it’s cost McAllen about $1.4 million since 2014,” Ingram said of the city having to assist Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley with humanitarian aid for the asylum-seeking immigrants U.S. Border Patrol drops off in McAllen.
“I think it’s what cost me my last election because there were some lies spread that McAllen’s a sanctuary city, and that was a bald-faced lie,” Ingram continued, referring to the narrow shortfall of winning outright the District 5 general election earlier this month. But between Haddad and the third candidate in that race, South Texas College professor Mark Murray, who has since endorsed Haddad, Ingram received 50% of the vote. A candidate needs to earn more than 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff.
Haddad agreed that there is a crisis at the border, but criticized the city for a recent narrow vote in which some commissioners opted to move the immigrant respite center back downtown from its current location on Hackberry Avenue near Second Street, run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and Sister Norma Pimentel. But Haddad did not propose an alternative location for the facility, which Ingram jumped on.
“As usual, Seby doesn’t give any solutions,” Ingram said, adding that city commissioners voted that Catholic Charities had to vacate the Hackberry Avenue location by mid-June. “We had to vote and I made a decision just like a commissioner has to do. You don’t pander, you make a decision, some people might not like it and some will. Seby can’t make a decision because he’s always worried what people think about him.”
Ingram also criticized Haddad for endorsements he’s received and his eye popping fundraising numbers — over $60,000, well more than triple what Ingram has raised — that have included contributions from people all over town with various jobs and backgrounds, including from Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, where Haddad’s father and brother work.
“I proudly accepted the endorsement by fire and PD,” Haddad said of the unions of the McAllen firefighters and police officers. “I promised them one thing: That I would listen to them. They have not gotten that from their current commissioner. And the idea that any endorsement comes with a favor, that’s not the way I function. If you look at my list, I see that as a proud list of people throughout the entire community who came out and still felt the need to support me — they’re concerned about the region, they love the city of McAllen and they feel we can do a lot of great things.”
While the candidates criticized each other’s campaign and fundraising styles, they agreed on this: McAllen is not Edinburg, which saw its mayor arrested on allegations of voter fraud in April.
“Is there any evidence that this sort of stuff is going on in McAllen?” asked the questioner, the radio host Davis Rankin.
“I don’t think, especially in our campaign, that there’s any funny business going on,” Ingram said, turning to Haddad, who nodded in agreement.
Haddad confirmed his agreement when it was his turn to speak, adding that the political arena in McAllen is typically “above the fray” related to illicit activity. “I believe Ingram’s an honest individual, I think Mark Murray’s an honest individual and I think I’m an honest individual.”