After a year filled with tense and sometimes raucous public meetings, a total of 12 people have cast their names in the hat seeking to fill just three seats on the Mercedes City Commission this May.
The list of people running for mayor, as well as Place 1 and 3 commissioners, includes one incumbent, two former commissioners, two people facing charges for disrupting previous public meetings, educators, law enforcement, and small business owners.
With Mayor Henry Hinojosa having reached the three-term limit outlined in the city charter for holding public office, two men have stepped up seeking the office of mayor: Israel Coronado and Oscar D. Montoya.
Coronado has been a fixture at public meetings in both Mercedes and Weslaco ever since becoming a community activist in the wake of the 2018 and 2019 summer floods. “If I have to narrow it down to one word, it’s duty,” Coronado said for what ultimately spurred him to seek public office.
Coronado is one of five people who were arrested after a commission meeting devolved into disarray on Sept. 17, 2019. While four were arrested that day, Coronado was not arrested until December. He has since described his arrest as politically motivated, and as a furtherance of the gap in public trust between the Mercedes police department and the people it’s meant to serve.
Despite that, he remains focused on addressing the myriad issues he has spoken of during open forums, including infrastructure, public safety, economic opportunities for future generations, and intragovernmental relations. “I call it the SOS approach: safety, opportunities, and systems,” he said, referring to what he thinks the city’s top priorities are.
Coronado’s opponent, Oscar D. Montoya, also spoke of fixing the city’s fractured systems.
Currently the chief of the investigations division for the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, Montoya has previously served as the county’s emergency management coordinator. It’s something that will give him an edge should he become mayor. “As a coordinator, my job for the county was to create synergy with the different leaders from different cities … to try help that they all pull in one direction,” Montoya said.
One way he hopes to do that is be incorporating a method he has learned during his law enforcement career: by performing a sort of “after action report” where city leaders analyze what’s going right, and where improvements still need to be made.
“To me, that’s what needs to happen in Mercedes. We need some healing in Mercedes,” he said, adding that no progress can be made so long as different factions remain entrenched in a “my way is the only way” mentality.
Too, he was encouraged by just how many people have chosen to run for office. “Twelve people who care about Mercedes — that’s important. Think about that,” he said.
For Leo Villarreal, currently the Place 1 commissioner who is seeking re-election, the number of candidates who have entered the May 2020 election is also heartening to see. “I’m glad to see that so many people are interested in serving their community,” Villarreal said.
As a member of the voting majority on the commission, however, Villarreal has been the focus of public criticism. It’s something he acknowledged comes with public service, especially after divided decision-making. “You have to work together with the rest of the city councilmembers and still be able to make a decision together,” he said. “It might not be the popular decision, but it’s the correct decision.”
In a year when the criticism has been as loud as it’s ever been, the commissioner hoped the public would also celebrate some of the city’s biggest accomplishments, including the formation of the city’s first EMS service, the purchase of 10 police department vehicles, and the repair of more than 60 streets across town.
But Villarreal’s path to a third term won’t be easy. He faces three challengers in Velda Garcia, Jacob Howell and Melissa Rincon. For Howell and Rincon, this marks their first runs for office.
Howell said a sense of disconnection between the city and its citizens is what spurred him to run, as did the need to improve economic development — issues that have not benefited from the city’s fractious tensions. “You want to have different opinions, different thoughts, but you want the same goal,” Howell said. “We need to put those factions (aside) and we need to have common goals,” he said.
For Rincon, an educator, the strained political climate is not an accurate representation of the city. “What has happened at the meetings is not a true depiction of who the people of Mercedes are,” she said. “Mercedes is made up of people who are generally good.”
She hopes her background as an educator with a degree in engineering will help her guide the city in the right direction.
Meanwhile, the May election won’t be the first time Garcia has run for office. Her love of the city is what made her run, she said. Like Coronado, Garcia also faces a charge of disrupting a public meeting. And like Coronado, she feels the arrests were an attempt at political intimidation — one which has only backfired. “I feel that the arrest was to scare us away and keep us from the corruption in our community, but that just gave me more … enthusiasm to fight more for our community,” Garcia said.
A total of six people are running for Place 3 in a race that will likely head to a runoff. Among them are former commissioners David Garza and Ruben “Chano” Guajardo.
Guajardo lost his re-election bid in a race that ultimately went to a runoff with Jose Gomez last May. Guajardo was conciliatory in speaking of his motivations to again seek office, saying he hopes residents will forgive him for not giving them a stronger voice. “They’ve always had a voice, but the presentation was just horrible,” Guajardo said. “That will change, and if not the whole entire commission, it will with me,” he said.
For Garza, who says the current political tensions are among the worst he’s seen, so much public trust has been lost that drastic changes need to be made. “One of our jobs as commissioners is we decide policy. And if they’re not following policy then something has to be replaced — either change the policy or change the person,” Garza said.
“I just hope that the people remember what I did in the past and that I’m a good candidate,” he added a moment later.
Few candidates could point to positives in the city.
“The state of our city is just not improving and I can see where it’s taking a toll on our citizens,” said Jose Manuel Martinez. “It just seems like every time we take a step forward, we take two steps back,” he added a moment later.
Martinez encouraged residents to remain involved in the political process despite their frustrations, saying his own family’s history of public service motivated him to run for Place 3.
Ramon Mejia hopes to “bring Mercedes back to the map” and join its neighbors, like Weslaco and La Feria, which are seeing leaps in economic and residential growth. “I wish we could do more. And that strategy that we’re gonna have to come up (with), to see what we can do together, not divided,” Mejia said.
“We need honest people, people that really care, people that love the city,” he said.
For first time candidate Laura Alvarado, this year’s dozen candidates are proof that many people care about Mercedes, despite what many feel have been tactics to silence public criticism. “Everybody is afraid to stand up to not only the police department, (but) the city council,” Alvarado said.
But with so many running for office, “it just shows that more people are willing to stand up,” she said, adding that residents should “let their voice be heard, let their vote be seen.”
Fellow first-time candidate Miguel Loya said he hopes to tackle corruption and “compadrisimo” if he wins the Place 3 seat. “What would probably differentiate me from somebody else would be what I have to offer,” Loya said. “I have my honesty, loyalty, and I’m truthful in everything I do,” he said.