Unity was the buzzword as members of the Peñ1tas slate celebrated victory with their supporters Saturday night at the L&J Ballroom.
Members of the slate – Rigo Lopez, mayor; J.R. Flores, Place 2; Armin Garza, Place 3; Ramiro Loya, Place 4 – cruised to an easy victory in a city election that brought 46 percent of the city’s registered voters to the polls.
“I feel humbled and I feel blessed for the people to accept me as one of their own, and I’m ready to take the challenge,” said 31-year-old Lopez, who moved to Peñitas, his wife’s hometown, three years ago. “My whole campaign was about uniting the people of Peñitas – one community with one future. Everybody wins when we are one.”
Lopez has served as a board member for the Agua Special Utility District for more than a year, and the board was scheduled to accept his resignation Thursday evening, after the Progress Times press deadline.
All four men work for La Joya Independent School District, and those attending the celebration Saturday included trustees Oscar “Coach” Salinas, who emceed the event, Jesus “Chuy” Avendaño and Joel Garcia Sr. Other area leaders at the ballroom were State Rep. Oscar Longoria, Pct. 3 Commissioner Joe Flores, County Judge Ramon Garcia, City of La Joya Alderwomen Mary Salinas and Ana Lisa Ruiz, and Palmview Commissioners Joel Garcia Jr. and Ricardo Villarreal.
Joel Garcia Sr. noted Saturday is the 16th consecutive win for Team Liberty. The election of Lopez as Peñitas’ mayor marks the next generation of public servants rising up to take the reins from the old-timers, he said.
Lopez’s race was the closest, and he received 58 percent of the 977 votes cast. Flores, Garza and Loya received 65, 60, and 66 percent of the votes, respectively. There are 2,133 registered voters in Peñitas.
Manuel Garcia, mayoral candidate of opposing slate “The Green Team,” received 29 percent of the votes, and Tomas Cedillo, a current city commissioner who ran for mayor on his own, garnered 13 percent of the votes.
At one point at Saturday’s celebration, Oscar Salinas invited Alex Cantu, who ran a campaign against Team Liberty candidates in Palmview last year, to the stage. Cantu’s wife, Vicky, ran a campaign against Team Liberty’s La Joya ISD school board candidates also last year.
Alex Cantu later said he and his wife have opened their eyes to all the negativity in the local elections. He said they were even attacked during the Peñitas campaign and they weren’t even on the ballot.
“A united town – you’re never going to defeat a united town, and that’s the way it should be,” Cantu said.
Armin Garza, 35, said his main motivation to run was his two little girls. Nobody will work harder than him for the city of Peñitas.
“I want them to have a safe place to lay their head down, a place that they would be proud to call home, and that is my intention for the next two years,” Garza said.
Loya said the four men all have the same plan – to better Peñitas. City leadership isn’t new to Loya, who was appointed to his seat last year. He also served as a city commissioner for two years in the ’90s, and during that time he served with Garza’s father. Loya said he was happy to run alongside Garza, having worked with his father.
Flores is intelligent and well educated, Loya said, and Lopez, who is married to Loya’s niece, is a go-getter who is ready to work. Loya, 65, said he has the experience to take care of them all.
Meanwhile, this was Flores’ first contested election. He wants to give the community a sense of ownership and move the city forward. He also wants to see members of the community get involved.
The group is planning to improve lighting and streets with their time in office. They’ll look at creating a fire department and giving children in the area something to do outside of school, but they cautioned it won’t happen overnight.
“Our city is growing. It’s growing pains. We need to bring in infrastructure,” Flores said.
The Green Team
As Peñ1tas celebrated at the ballroom, a few blocks down Tom Gill Road members of the The Green Team held subdued conversations with their supporters at the slate’s headquarters.
Garcia and Cedillo are cousins, but Garcia said he decided to run for mayor because he was tired of the way the city was being run. His slate vowed to lower sewer rates if elected, but with the election behind him, Garcia, who owns a business in Peñitas, said now he’ll go back to concentrating on work.
“I have no words. I’m thinking I must have done something wrong. I’ve been servicing these people for over 25 years. I’ve lived here 50 years,” Garcia said. “I’m 50 years old, and a 30-year-old kid from some place comes over here and kicks my butt. What can we do?
“Let’s go forward and hope for the best. Tomorrow’s another day. We were out there fighting our hearts out for them. We were doing it for the right reasons, and it was up to them to come vote for us. We were hoping for them to do the right thing.”
Arnold Ochoa, who ran in Place 3, said as a resident of Peñitas he hopes things get better and a pending lawsuit against the city is settled. His slate had hoped to bring a transparent government into office and look into the city’s finances.
But it’s hard to blame the voters, Ochoa said. A friend of his voted in McAllen and told Ochoa, “I can vote, and I know I will not lose my job.”
“It’s unfortunate that we are in situations where a lot of people depend on the school district and their jobs are on the line,” Ochoa said. “People have a hope that the system will one day change, that more industry will come into this area, and there will be other opportunities and people will no longer fear this big intimidation.”
Ochoa said he’s not planning to file an election contest, as previously has been done in losses to Team Liberty, but he does plan to put in an information request to the Hidalgo County Election’s Office to learn more about the election process.
A former La Joya ISD board member, Ochoa said he’s not going anywhere.
“I will continue fighting for the people, speaking for the people and being a voice,” Ochoa said. “I’m not going to let the threat dominate my feelings and my voice.”
Rey Mendoza, who ran for place 2, said apparently people want high sewer rates. He didn’t rule out an election contest, saying he’d start thinking about that Monday. If the White House can be hacked, if Sony Worldwide can be hacked, so can Hidalgo County, Mendoza reasoned.
“To me, it’s a stunner because I really can’t understand the amount of vote difference,” Mendoza said, adding that agents with the FBI and Texas Rangers from outside the county need to investigate the elections process in Hidalgo County.
“I’ll be back,” Mendoza vowed.