Slate of incumbents leading in PSJA election

SAN JUAN — A slate of candidates composed mostly of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school board incumbents who ran on a platform touting their previous achievements as trustees appeared headed for victory as of press time, with 223 precincts of 255 reporting Tuesday evening.

Results are unofficial as 32 precincts had not reported results as of midnight Tuesday.

The slate consisted of incumbent trustees Jorge Zambrano, Jesus A. “Jesse” Zambrano, Jesus “Jesse” Vela Jr., along with newcomer Cynthia A. Gutierrez.

They were opposed by a slate that included Place 6 incumbent Victor Perez, along with newcomers Celso Salinas, Heather Garza and Ruben Guajardo Jr.

The Zambrano brothers were in particularly tight races: Jesse was beating out Guajardo for Place 2 with 12,862 votes, a mere 50.44%, while Jorge was defending his Place 4 seat against Garza with 12,874 votes, just 51.07%.

Gutierrez and Vela were winning by more comfortable margins.

Vela, the Place 7 incumbent, had 13,977 votes for Perez’s Place 6 seat, 56.34% of the ballots cast. Perez had received 10,831 ballots, 43.66%.

Newcomer Cynthia Gutierrez had won 59.13% of the vote for Place 7 trustee with 14,633 votes, compared to the 10,115 votes Salinas had cast for him.

Speaking just before 11 p.m. Tuesday, Gutierrez said she was confident everyone on her slate would win their race.

“The numbers that we’ve gotten so far, we’ve won every poll, all four of us,” she said.

Gutierrez, 46, says she was proud to be the first woman elected to the board in several years.

“I personally want to be the voice of women,” she said.

An epidemiologist employed by Hidalgo County and the current Democratic Pct. 4 Chair, Gutierrez says the coronavirus pandemic would be a priority for her and her slate in their upcoming terms.

“COVID is a big thing,” she said. “We’re preparing to possibly go to face-to-face instruction with the schools, so we have to make sure that when kids come face-to-face with instruction that it’s going to be in a safe way and all the CDC guidelines are going to be observed.”

Gutierrez was campaigning at the San Juan Library on Tuesday afternoon, just feet from where Heather Garza, from the opposite slate, was standing with her supporters.

Dozens of supporters were lined up down the block in a last-minute effort to attract voters to their slate. At about 5:30 p.m. a truck drove by honking, hauling a trailer carrying a poster with Gutierrez, Vela and the Zambranos’ faces printed on it.

Both Gutierrez and Garza agreed that the race had been particularly bitter. Gutierrez claimed that her political opponents had caused signs supporting her slate to be removed and that tensions had often run high at polling sites.

“We are attacked all day. They yell at us here. All they do is talk negatively about us. And I feel that voters are tired about that,” she said.

Garza denied yelling at Gutierrez and her supporters, and retorted that Gutierrez had practically been harassing voters at the site by rushing up to them to shove campaign cards into their hands.

“At one point, from 8 to 11, they were opening their car doors practically,” Garza said.

Gutierrez certainly was keeping an eye out for incoming voters Tuesday. She would quickstep up to them with a card and exchange a few words before they went into the library.

Supporters of Garza and her slate, however, were often right on Gutierrez’s heels with informational cards of their own.

“If we don’t follow through with what we’re doing then we feel that we’re kind of losing support, and so we kind of have to also explain things,” she said.

Garza said one of her slate’s main priorities was administrators who had been hired by the district from outside the community. Those jobs, she said, should have gone to locals.

“People that have been working here for many years have been passed off to individuals who are not from here or they don’t meet the criteria,” she said.

According to Garza, her slate was also interested in revisiting the topic of PSJA’s superintendent.

Jorge Arredondo was selected as the district’s superintendent just over a year ago in a 4-3 vote.

“The superintendent position was a very heated move when they decided to bring in,” Garza said. “There’s more to discuss.”

An attempt to reach Garza after early voting results were released Tuesday was unsuccessful.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article listed Jorge Zambrano as the superintendent of PSJA. Jorge Arredondo is the superintendent of PSJA.