MERCEDES — Voters in both Donna and Mercedes voted for change Tuesday evening as three seats each were up for a vote this election season.
In Donna, Mayor Rick Morales narrowly eked out a victory against his one-time running mates — Commissioners Gus Gonzalez and Arturo “Art” Castillo — and their new choice in a mayoral candidate, Ernesto Lugo.
With just over 92% of the votes tallied as of press time Tuesday, Hidalgo County elections records showed Morales having garnered 51.12% (3,036 votes) of the electorate to Lugo’s 48/88% (2,903 votes).
Meanwhile, Morales’ new running mates, Ricardo “Richie” Moreno and David Moreno unseated the incumbents who in 2017 ran on a slate with Morales. The two Morenos are not related.
“I think the negative campaigning was a big factor in this,” Morales said of his and his slate’s win.
“And hopefully people learn that when you go and attack people, it backfires on you,” he said.
Morales said he was proud of his running mates and of the small team of people who worked to support his “Donna First” slate. “Sometimes, it’s not the quantity of people, it’s the quality of people,” Morales said.
For David Moreno, who won his first run for public office by the widest margin of the three races with 3,341 votes (57.25%) to Castillo’s 2,494 (42.74%), Tuesday’s win illustrates the desire for change within Donna.
“Tonight, it’s about the citizens of Donna. They won,” David Moreno said. “We’re gonna do good by our city,” he said of winning the Place 3 seat.
Richie Moreno was equally excited about his win against Gonzales, whom he characterized as the toughest of the three opponents to beat.
“It was a tough race,” Richie Moreno said of his win at Place 1.
Richie Moreno said he looked forward to bringing economic stability back to the city, including by attracting new businesses to Donna.
Messages left with Lugo, Gonzales and Castillo were not returned as of press time Tuesday.
Meanwhile, voters in Mercedes overwhelmingly voted for change; however the election there did not end Tuesday night.
With four people vying for Place 1, and another six candidates seeking to win Place 3 on the Mercedes City Commission, those two races are headed to a runoff.
But only two men signed up to run for mayor — community activist Israel Coronado, and career law enforcement officer Oscar Montoya — both newcomers to running for political office.
It was a close race, but Montoya emerged the victor by 376 votes. With just over 54% of the vote, Montoya won 2,494 votes to Coronado’s 2,118.
“I’m excited. I’m excited that so many people from Mercedes were interested in what’s going on … that they took the time to do that (vote),” Montoya said after early voting tallies had been announced by county elections officials.
“Obviously, there’s a message that the city wants to pay attention to,” Montoya said of the results.
Montoya said his first order of business once he’s sworn in as mayor will be to rebuild the frayed relationships between the Mercedes commission and the city’s residents.
Over the last several years, tensions between the commission and Mercedes residents have often boiled over. One meeting last September became so raucous that four residents were arrested and removed from the legislative chamber.
And in recent months, bickering has often broken out among the commissioners themselves, with the elected officials trading barbs during public meetings.
Montoya said he hopes to “unite the commission and make sure that we close the gap between the commission and the citizens.”
He also hopes to bring renewed transparency to the city, and to focus on the infrastructure problems that have long plagued Mercedes, including its drainage systems. His previous experience as an emergency management coordinator will help him do just that, he said.
Meanwhile, for his opponent, Israel Coronado, Tuesday night’s results did not leave him dismayed. He said he will continue his practice of being a community advocate, whether or not he has a seat on the dais.
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m still going to continue advocating for the many residents,” Coronado said, adding that it was community activism that helped expose the city’s lack of leadership, financial issues and more.
“One of the main goals of this campaign was to inflict positive change on that commission,” Coronado said. And as far as that goes, he and the other candidates accomplished that Tuesday night, he said.
Place 1 incumbent Leo Villarreal lost his bid for reelection to two political newcomers. And a bid by former commissioner Ruben “Chano” Guajardo — who last May lost his reelection campaign for Place 4 to Jose Gomez — also fell short this time.
Both men were knocked out of runoff contention.
As of press time, Guajardo did not return a message seeking comment on the election results; however, Villarreal did speak briefly about his loss.
“It is what it is,” Villarreal said, after thanking those who supported his campaign.
“I don’t know what to say,” he added.
However, when asked if the heightened tensions in the city may have contributed to his loss, Villarreal blamed the media.
“I think your reporting had a lot to do with it,” Villarreal said, speaking of The Monitor’s coverage of Mercedes.
“Most of them (stories) belong on the editorial. They weren’t really reporting facts. A lot of them were more of an opinion of the person that was writing it, and there’s actually several of them that were on there that made the people that were in office look bad,” Villarreal said before ending the call.
For the two people who knocked Villarreal out of contention, however, the November election just solidifies an overarching longing for change within Mercedes.
“I’m excited that the people do want change, and obviously, the votes speak for themselves,” said Jacob Howell, who earned 1,736 votes, or 38.15% of the vote.
Facing Howell in a runoff for Place 1 in the coming weeks will be Melissa “Melly” Rincon. Rincon earned 30.21% of the race with 1,375 votes.
“I think Mercedes made a statement,” Rincon said. “They voted for two newcomers instead of the incumbent.”
Rincon added that she’s ready for the long haul as she prepares for the runoff.
Meanwhile, though Guajardo did not earn enough votes to be part of the Place 3 runoff, another former city commissioner did — David Garza.
Garza, with 948 votes, or 21.43%, will run off against Joe Martinez, who won 40 more votes than Garza.
“What I like about this election is that a lot of people are now interested in running that weren’t before,” Garza said of the higher than average voter turnout.
Like Montoya, Garza hopes to bring more accountability to the commission should he win.
“Even recently, people ask for open records and they’re denied open records. And it’s unbelievable that they let the citizens stay in the dark. And that’s not good in any city, any politics,” Garza said.
With such a close race, Martinez acknowledged the fight isn’t over.
“I’m just glad to be in it. The work is not done yet,” Martinez said. “We still got a bit to go, but I’m proud of the fact that we ran a clean race.”
Martinez agreed with his opponent that the high voter turnout proves Mercedes is ready for change.
“I think it just was very clear from the onset that from the first week of early voting, that people in Mercedes were engaged, they were ready, and they wanted change,” he said.