Team L1berty splits over school board candidates, ‘Un1ted’ faction emerges stronger

After months of uncertainty, western Hidalgo County power brokers selected candidates for school board last week — and split Team L1berty.

More than a dozen politicos met at Casa Del Taco in Mission on Aug. 1. The crowd included school board trustees, the mayor of Peńitas, members of the Palmview City Council, power brokers from Sullivan City, a representative of Hidalgo County Commissioner Joe Flores and former state Rep. Sergio Muńoz Sr.

LJISD LogoWith the filing deadline fast approaching, they needed to coalesce behind candidates for the La Joya school board or risk a messy — and expensive — fight for control.

“The whole idea is that we may not agree with everything, but we want to make our peace,” said school board Trustee Oscar “Coach” Salinas, who attended the meeting.

They had a major decision to make.

More than 4,500 people work for the La Joya Independent School District, which employs roughly 50 percent of western Hidalgo County, according to the latest Comprehensive Annual Financial Report published by the district. Along with setting education policy, the school board makes hiring decisions and awards major contracts.

During the meeting at Casa Del Taco, the power brokers considered four candidates:

> Trustee Johnn Alaniz, 42, of Palmview, the CEO of the La Joya Area Federal Credit Union.

> Nereyda Cantu, 40, of Palmview, who co-owns a daycare with her husband, Ismael “Smiley” Cantu Jr., the brother of school board Trustee Alex Cantu.

> former school board Trustee Espie Ochoa, 48, of Palmview, an educator who served eight years on the school board.

> Hidalgo County Economic Development Director Michael Leo, 43, of Palmview, the son of former La Joya Mayor Billy Leo.

Before the crowd voted, school board Trustee J.J. Peńa, who won the Democratic Party nomination for justice of the peace and decided not to run for re-election, said he emphasized the stakes.

“Whoever it was going to be,” Peńa said. “We need to make sure their heart is in the right place.”

Three candidates made the cut: Alaniz, Nereyda Cantu and Ochoa.

“I look forward to being the voice for not only the children, but the entire LJISD community,” Nereyda Cantu said in a text message. “I am a La Joya ISD graduate and former employee of the district. Being involved in the community is very important to me; I am passionate about education and a big advocate for children. I look forward to serving the district that is so dear to my heart.”

It’s unclear whether or not everyone who attended the meeting will actually support the candidates.

Members of the Palmview City Council aren’t keen on Alaniz, who worked for the city before joining the credit union. They blame him for the city’s financial problems.

According to sources who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations, elected officials from Peńitas attempted to cut a deal. They wanted members of the Palmview City Council to support all three school board candidates. In exchange, they promised not to run someone against Palmview City Councilman Rick Villarreal, who is widely expected to run for mayor in November.

Members of the Palmview City Council were noncommittal.
While the meeting brought people from rival factions together, several key players were conspicuously absent.

La Joya Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas and his daughter, school board Trustee Frances A. Salinas, weren’t welcome.
The Salinas family had been a key part of Team L1berty, the dominant political party in western Hidalgo County.

Power brokers in Peńitas, though, decided to mend fences with Flores and unceremoniously dumped them.“The one that started the whole thing was Johnn Alaniz. That he wasn’t going to run with Frances,” Fito Salinas said, adding that the Peńitas power brokers never told him why.

“Frances is going to run. There’s no doubt.”

Frances Salinas didn’t respond to requests for comment. Asked why he didn’t run with her, Johnn Alaniz wouldn’t say.

“At this time, I’m not going to comment on that,” Alaniz said.

Sullivan City Mayor Leo Garcia, who started distancing himself from local politics last year, also stayed away.

School board Trustee Claudia Ochoa and her husband, former school board President Arnold Ochoa, were no-shows too.

The divide finally split Team L1berty, which had started collapsing after the Agua Special Utility District election in May.

“You can’t trust those young, little kids, you know,” Fito Salinas said, adding that he would start a new political party. “It’s not like it used to be in the old days.”

After the meeting, members of the new coalition announced a new name: Un1ted, with the “1” paying homage to Team L1berty and “United” trumpeting the new, fragile political alliance they created.

The meeting at Casa Del Taco provided a first glimpse of the new political order.

Oscar Salinas said he spent part of the night talking with Joel “Congo” Benavides, who didn’t support him during the last school board campaign.

They’re both big players in Sullivan City. Joel Benavides’ son, Rosendo “Cheno” Benavides, is the former mayor. And Oscar Salinas’ brother in law, Gabriel Salinas, serves on the City Commission.

Word about Oscar Salinas and Joel Benavides mending fences prompted more than a few puzzled expressions.

“It’s politics, I guess,” Peńa said. “Strange things happen.”

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