San Benito elections likely to draw record turnout

City, school races could change balance of power

Voters lined up outside the San Benito Community Building to cast their vote on Tuesday.

SAN BENITO — The city’s rival political factions are counting on a record turnout to draw winning votes in crowded city and school board elections that could change the balance of power on the city commission and school board.

In the city election, 11 candidates are running in four races, including a three-candidate scramble for the mayor’s gavel.

Meanwhile, five seats are up for grabs in the school election, in which 11 candidates are on the ballot.

Remi Garza, Cameron County’s elections administrator, said he’s projecting a record turnout today.

During the three-week early voting period, the city election drew a record 4,785 votes while 7,461 residents cast ballots in the school board election, he said.

The contentious presidential election helped fuel the record turnouts, Garza said.

“This is the first time they held the election in November,” Garza said Monday, 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. “They’re seeing a much higher level of participation than in the past.”

The coronavius pandemic led voters to cast a record number of mail-in ballots that could decide close races.

While 888 residents cast mail-in ballots in the city election, 1,272 voted by mail in the school board election, Garza said.

The campaign issues

The issues driving the two elections led residents like Vanessa Arrellano to the polls.

“It’s important, especially in the city, to make our voices heard,” Arrellano, who works in social services, said after voting last week at the Community Building’s polling place.

“As constituents, we need to be clear in voicing concerns to our representatives and be focused on what matters — on the school board to focus on the children’s education and not be too political and in the city to focus on the city’s best interests and not their own personal interests,” she said.

In the city election, issues include poor street conditions, drawing new businesses to boost the city’s low tax base and re-opening the $17 million water plant built about 10 years ago after a previous administration shut down the poorly operating plant in 2014.

Meanwhile, some candidates have called for a change in the city’s management.

In the school board election, issues include a 2018 $40 million bond issue funding construction of a performing arts theater, an aquatics center and an indoor practice facility, the controversial firing of longtime after-school program director Jack Garcia and last year’s four-year contract paying Superintendent Nate Carman annual salaries of $202,776.

Long campaign trail

It’s been a long, grueling campaign for the 22 candidates on the ballot.

Since February’s filing deadline, the candidates have stumped for votes while working to raise money to fund their campaigns extended as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

In March, city and school district officials postponed the elections originally set for May 2 based on Gov. Greg 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.

Today, the polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.

City election

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 schools superintendent whom he defeated three years ago.

The race heated up when City Commissioner Rick Guerra, a retired firefighter, resigned his Place 3 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

After spearheading a petition drive that led to Vargas’s suspension on the grounds of intoxication, 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