Early voting underway in Willacy runoffs

RAYMONDVILLE — Willacy County voters are going to the polls again.

This time it’s to cast early ballots in the May 24 runoff election in which District Attorney Bernard Ammerman faces attorney Annette Hinojosa in the race to serve as the county’s top prosecutor.

Meanwhile, longtime County Commissioner Fred Serrato squares off with Lyford Mayor Henry De La Paz in the battle for Precinct 3’s Commission seat.

Yesterday, Elections Administrator Mary Hope Barrera called the turnout so far “slow and steady.”

In the race for the district attorney’s office, Ammerman said he is running on his record as a prosecutor who helped bring the county’s crime rate to a 10-year low.

“It speaks to our office prosecuting people and holding them accountable for crimes they commit,” said Ammerman, president of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association and past president of the Texas Border Prosecution Unit.

Hinojosa, a longtime Raymondville attorney, served as a public defender in state District court, where she has represented defendants prosecuted by Ammerman.

Hinojosa said residents are calling for change, arguing Ammerman has become an over-zealous prosecutor.

“There is not true justice in our community,” she said. “When we look at a case, we’re not looking at the individual. We should look at the whole case. There’s a rush to convict. The duty of a district attorney is not to convict but to see that justice is done.”

Ammerman said his office has helped slash violent crime by 43 percent.

“I’ve been trying to improve the reputation of this county,” Ammerman said.

“We put in responsible prosecutors and investigators. We decreased the backlog at district court to a 10-year low. We respect victims of crime,” Ammerman said. “Now, it’s a respectable county. We’ve restored working relationships with law enforcement. We’ve come a long way and we don’t think we should give it up.”

Hinojosa said she has the backing of supporters of former longtime District Attorney Juan Angel Guerra, who fell short of making the runoff in March’s primary election.

But Hinojosa denied a rumor Guerra would serve as a prosecutor in her office.

Instead, she vowed to better notify crime victims of the status of their cases and review “options” for defendants who qualify for the county’s pre-trial diversion program but cannot afford its $500 fee.

Hinojosa said she wants to work with counselors to help youths before they commit drug crimes and crimes that lead to domestic violence.

County Commission

In the race for the county commission’s Precinct 3 seat, Serrato is undefeated as he heads into the runoff with De La Paz.

Since taking office in 1985, Serrato has won every election he has entered.

De La Paz, a former Lyford city commissioner who has served as mayor since 2009, said residents are calling for a fresh voice on the county commission.

Serrato, a former deputy sheriff who was first elected to the commission in 1985, served through 2004, when he chose not to seek re-election. Then in 2008, he returned to office.

De La Paz vowed to bring change.

“The county’s precincts 3, 9 and 11 are in need of good representation — someone that is not going to be there to vote ‘yes,’” he said. “They need someone who is hungry, who is a go-getter that will be able to bring projects to the county level.”

Last year, Serrato and the County Commission faced tough budget cuts after the Willacy County Correctional Center shut down, slashing a third of the county’s budget and laying off 400 employees.

De La Paz, a loan company director, said he will work with small businesses to bring jobs to the county.

“It’s not just about replacing the prison. It’s about providing good incentives for local people who want to bring in jobs to the community,” he said.

Serrato continues to run his record of “proven leadership.”

Serrato said he helped bring in a wind farm that pumped $10.9 million in the Lyford school district, helped fund $2.5 million in drainage improvements and helped bring a $50,000 sports complex to Lyford.

De La Paz said he would promote Willacy County as the gateway to the Rio Grande Valley.

“I’ll be reaching out to corporations and selling Willacy County,” he said. “We’re the first town on the expressway. We should be able to capture that traffic flow.”

De La Paz said he would push to open satellite stations for the county’s emergency medical services to cut emergency response time.

Early voting runs through May 20 at Reber Memorial Library.