Halfway through his second term on the Sullivan City Commission, Mayor Pro-tem Leonel “Leo” Garcia, is gambling his seat to run for mayor in the city’s May 6 election.
Early voting at city hall begins Monday as six candidates vie for mayor and two seats on the city commission.
Garcia, 31, who works in the transportation department of the La Joya Independent School District, is running against incumbent mayor, Rosendo “Cheno” Benavides, who is seeking a third term. Benavides, 39, is also employed by the LJISD and works in the purchasing office of the district’s athletic department.
Benavides is joined by two other candidates running under the slate, Sullivan City Moving Forward. They are two-term Place 3 incumbent Joel Flores and political newcomer, Rene “Cuate” Peña, who is seeking the Place 1 seat vacated by Garcia. Flores, 56, is a certified first surgical assistant and Peña, 31, who until his father’s retirement six months ago managed the family’s convenience store, is currently a Wal-Mart cashier.
Peña has been a volunteer fireman for the city for 13 years, has been vice-president of the city’s economic development corporation for two of his three years with the EDC and is president of the Sullivan Youth Service, which he likens to a Boys & Girls Club of the city.
Garcia is joined by two political newcomers running together under the slate, Sull1van City. Sullivan City nurse and businesswoman, Sylvia Castillo, 41, who has operated an adult day care center and medical supply company in the city for 17 years, is running for the Place 1 commission seat Garcia is vacating.
Castillo said she accepted an invitation to join Garcia’s slate because she has witnessed how dedicated he is to the city and wanted to be a part of a team with the city’s best interests at heart.
Also on the slate is Gabriel Salinas, 35, a civil engineer employed by S & B Infrastructure, a Houston-based engineering firm with an office in McAllen. La Joya Independent School District President Oscar “Coach” Salinas is married to Salinas’ older sister, Alma. That the two men share the same last name is coincidental.
The pair’s relation is significant because incumbent Mayor Benavides said the Sull1van City slate candidates are aligned with the Liberty1 political action committee he claims is comprised of many of the same group of politicians targeted by State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa’s senate bill 814. The bill, currently working its way through the state legislature, would more strictly control who can be elected to the board of directors of the Agua Special Utility District which provides water to residents in western Hidalgo County including Sullivan City. Hinojosa has said the bill is intended to prevent undue influence over the utility by employees of the La Joya ISD and its board of trustees.
In an interview Wednesday with his Sull1van slate members and attended by Oscar Salinas at Castillo’s day care center, Garcia said as a commissioner he opposed the city’s resolution in support of Hinojosa’s bill calling it “unconstitutional.” Garcia denied the slate is influenced by anything but the best interests of the community. The city commission ultimately passed a resolution in support of the bill despite Garcia’s opposition.
Benavides has touted overseeing the city overcoming a half-million dollar budget deficit but admitted most of the funds that eliminated the deficit came from proceeds from gaming rooms the city regulated that were eventually shut down after raids ordered by the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office.
But Benavides said numerous businesses that have opened in the city have provided a tax base that now allows the city to provide better services and infrastructure.
Benavides and his slate say the plan to use city revenues and grants to pave the city’s two main thoroughfares, El Pinto and El Faro Roads, as well as several drainage improvement projects. He also touted the funding for the a new splash pad at the city’s park set to open this summer.
However Garcia’s slate was critical of the location of the splash pad near city hall which also houses the city’s fire and police departments. Castillo said she lives across from city hall and watches with great anxiety as emergency vehicles race down the street where children play nearby. Sull1van slate members say if elected they will work to relocate city recreation areas away from where emergency responders are housed. And with an engineer on their slate Sull1van members say they can better judge the quality of plans for future city infrastructure projects.