Hot Contests: San Benito voters drive record turnout

Early voting drew a large amount of voters out to the polls.

SAN BENITO — Residents like John Estrada helped drive a record early voting turnout in two of the city’s most hotly contested elections in decades.

On Tuesday, residents go to the polls to vote in crowded city and school board elections, each fielding 11 candidates.

During the extended, three-week early voting period, 4,401 residents cast ballots in the city election while 6,877 voted in the school board election as of Thursday night, Remi Garza, the county’s elections administrator, said.

“I think it’s safe to say they’ve never had this level of turnout,” he said.

The contentious presidential election, which is driving record voter turnout across the country, helped draw residents who more than quadrupled voter numbers in this politically charged town.

“Since they’re with a presidential election they’re getting a higher representation than ever,” Garza said, adding the last local election in May 2018 drew 1,075 residents to cast ballots in the city election while 1,287 voted in the school board election.

This year, a longer early voting period helped draw more residents to the polls.

The election’s early voting period was originally set to run from Oct. 19 to 30.

But in July, Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was extending the early voting period to run from Oct. 13 to 30 to help spread out voters at the polls, limiting exposure to the coronavirus.

Voters point to campaign issues

In the crowded parking lot in front of the Community Building’s polling place last week, Estrada said the city election’s big issues include the re-opening of the $17 million water plant built about 10 years ago, poor street conditions and crime.

“I’ve lived here pretty much all my life and in the last 15 years I’ve seen steady decline,” Estrada, a salesman, said.

“We’ve got water plants that haven’t worked for a few years,” he said of the plant expected to re-open soon. “A lot of the roads need to be fixed. About 50 percent of roads are in disrepair. It’s patch work on patch work on patch work. If you drive enough, you’ll mess up your car. It’s a nice town but it used to be a lot better — a lot safer. We’ve had our home burglarized twice.”

Meanwhile, Vanessa Galvan Montemayor said the school board election helped draw her to the polls.

“I’m not political but my kids go to school here,” the registered nurse said. “I feel we need strong school board members — morally strong with values and integrity who stand up for the students and don’t have ulterior motives.”

Early voting drew a large amount of voters out to the polls.

Long campaign trail

Since February’s filing deadline, the two elections’ 22 candidates have stumped for votes during a heated eight-month campaign extended as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

In March, city and school district officials postponed elections originally set for May 2 based on Abbott’s recommendation stemming from concerns of voter exposure to the coronavirus.

At City Hall and school district offices, officials have contracted the county elections department to run the elections.

While the county is charging the city $19,800 to run the election, the district is paying $35,200, Garza said.

City election

Across town, voters are going to the polls to cast ballots in two of the most hotly contested elections in years.

In the city’s election, 11 candidates are running in four races.

Mayor’s race

In the race for mayor, incumbent Ben Gomez, a parent educator with the San Benito school district, faces former Mayor Celeste Sanchez, a retired assistant superintendent whom he defeated three years ago.

The race heated up when City Commissioner Rick Guerra, a retired firefighter, resigned his Place 3 City Commission seat to run for the city’s highest elected position.

Commissioner Place 3

In the race to fill Place 3’s one-year unexpired term, former Commissioner Steve Rodriguez, a trucking company owner, spars with Pedro Galvan, a pharmacist, and Joe Rodriguez, a retired computer analyst.

Commissioner Place 1

In the race for Place 1, Commissioner Tony Gonzales, a retired postal worker who first won election in 2009, faces Rene Garcia, a Social Security Administration employee who serves as vice president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation and vice chairman of the San Benito Housing Authority.

Commissioner Place 2

In a three-way scramble for the Place 2 seat, Commissioner Rene Villafranco, an official with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement who first won election in 2009, is running against Daniel Cortez, a retired police officer, and Deborah Ann Morales, vice president of Texas Funeral Associates.

School board election

In the school district’s election, 11 candidates are running in five races.

Trustee Place 4

In one of the election’s most heated races, school board President Orlando Lopez, a radiology director, faces Jack Garcia, the district’s former longtime after-school program director who’s served as a former city mayor, in the race for the board’s Place 4 seat.

Trustee Place 5

Meanwhile, incumbent M.L. Garcia, a retired teacher who is Garcia’s aunt, squares off with Rudy Corona, an AT&T technician, in the race for Place 5.

Trustee Place 1

In the race for Place 1, Baldemar Olivarez, a retired law enforcement officer who replaced former school board President Michael Vargas last December, faces Anna Garza Llanes, a home mortgage consultant.

Trustee Place 7

Janie Lopez, a counselor, spars with Santiago Sanchez, general manager of a John Deere dealership, for the board’s Place 7 seat.

Trustee Place 6

In the race for Place 6, incumbent Victor Rosas, a retired firefighter, faces Joseph Galarza, a general contractor, and Ramiro Martin Moreno, a Rio Hondo school district principal.

fdelvalle@valleystar.com