If candidate forums are a window into the health of a community, then Thursday’s municipal candidate forum in Mercedes illustrated a town beset by a collective despair, but optimistic for change.
Eight candidates are vying for just two seats on the Mercedes City Commission this spring.
At Place 4, incumbent Rubén “Chano” Guajardo faces three challengers: Emelia “Lucy” Delgado, Velda Garcia and Jose M. Gomez.
Meanwhile, at Place 2, current Commissioner James Howard Wade chose not to run for re-election. Seeking to fill that seat in his stead are Leonel Benavides, Joe Martinez Jr., Ramon Garcia Mejia and Michelle Reyna.
With early voting set to begin Monday, the Mercedes Chamber of Commerce, along with the town’s weekly newspaper, The Mercedes Enterprise, hosted a candidate forum with scripted questions at the Mercedes Civic Center Thursday.
All eight candidates were invited, however, Place 2 candidate Michelle Reyna chose not to attend.
Among the Place 4 candidates, the incumbent was conspicuously absent; however, he was the topic of several of his challengers’ comments. And though she attended the forum, fellow Place 4 candidate Velda Garcia did not participate, choosing instead to watch from the audience.
The candidates made opening remarks before answering a total of six questions — three for Place 2 candidates and another three for Place 4. As they fielded the questions, several overarching themes emerged, including a sense of distrust of current city leaders, the need for infrastructure and quality of life improvements, a sense of disenfranchisement among residents, and lastly, the feeling of a loss of civic identity and sense of community.
The first question went to the Place 4 candidates, and asked whether the city should focus on revitalizing existing residential areas or new home construction.
Jose Gomez began by saying that new construction leads to increased property tax revenues by attracting more young people to live in the city. “We need to have a more inviting environment to attract more young people,” he said, adding that Mercedes is currently a poor community.
“I feel bad to say it because I am part of Mercedes. I love Mercedes,” Gomez said.
For Lucy Delgado, the city has struggled with focusing on new projects before completing older ones. “By building new homes, it’s like we just move on to the new projects and … we just forget about the north side or we forget about this other area,” Delgado said.
She cited the city’s struggling downtown, which has several vacant storefronts.
“It’s a little bit of both, but you need the pride. You need the pride of the people back,” Delgado said.
Civic pride came up again when the Place 2 candidates responded to a question about how they would involve local residents in city decision-making processes. The candidates spoke of how changes to the commission’s public comments policies have left residents feeling disenfranchised and unheard.
“A lot of the people are not participating in the process because they’ve lost hope in our city. They don’t see leadership,” Martinez said.
“It’s a shame that we have no real trust in our city leaders,” he added a moment later.
“We have deprived them their right to make their decision,” Mejia said, speaking of how the commission has moved public comments to the end of city meetings.
For Benavides, listening to the constituency is a vital responsibility of the commission.
“This should be a priority because us, as leaders, as commissioners, we are public servants so we should be in tune with what the public wants, what it needs,” he said.
The candidates next responded to questions regarding public infrastructure.
Asked whether the downtown area is successful, both Delgado and Gomez said no.
Delgado proposed collaborating with Mercedes’ young people, particularly students, in downtown revitalization projects. “We need to, everybody just get together. People have so much talent,” she said.
Gomez said he has not seen evidence of improvements downtown, despite regular funding allocations by the Mercedes Economic Development Corporation for that purpose.
“Honestly, this group has been so self centered that they think they are kings over us… but they are not,” he said.
The Place 2 candidates were asked how they would evaluate the value of an infrastructure improvement idea.
Mejia responded that he would first try to determine who would benefit from the improvement, and called infrastructure “the foundation for a city to grow.”
Like Delgado, Martinez said too many projects are started without being finished.
Benavides said it would be important to prioritize the city’s needs before deciding on any projects.
For their final question, the Place 4 candidates were asked what they would do if the city were given a $1 million grant to use for any purpose.
Gomez cautioned that, while grants are a good thing, many come with match requirements that could pose a burden on an already cash-strapped city. He then added he would try to use the money to help the community’s elderly population.
Delgado said she would invest the money in Mercedes’ recreational spaces. “First thing that comes to my mind, of course, is our parks, recreational areas. Our youth, they need a lot of things in this area,” she said.
In the final question of the night, the Place 2 candidates were asked to describe where within the city they liked to spend time.
Benavides said he has spent much of the last six years attending city meetings, analyzing its finances, and even helping to spur a financial audit in 2017.
Mejia said he spends his time in the city’s retail spaces, but added “there’s not too many places we can go.”
Meanwhile, Martinez said he enjoys spending his time at the city’s parks with his daughter — a place where he has a chance to see his neighbors. “For that split moment, we’re not fighting about politics,” he said. “We’re united for that moment.”