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Love him or loathe him, virtually everyone in Hidalgo knows City Councilman Rudy Franz.
He becomes especially ubiquitous during election season, when elderly and disabled voters receive mail-in ballots.
A few described Franz as an old friend and trusted political adviser. Others called Franz a bully who snatched ballots from people who couldn’t fight back. Most said Franz fell somewhere in between.
“He comes to my house and we talk. And he explains what the choices are,” said Kenneth Clifford Ortner, 72, of Hidalgo, who is blind. “But I have, generally, kind of gone along with his suggestion.”
Ortner said he asked Franz to mark his ballot accordingly.
“I won’t say that I was coerced or oppressed or whatever,” Ortner said. “But I’m not always comfortable either with what was going on.”
The trial pits Pharr firefighter Mentor Cantu against San Juan City Manager Ben Arjona.
Cantu challenged Arjona in November 2018, when Arjona campaigned for a second term on the Hidalgo school board.
Cantu won about 51% of ballots cast during early voting and about 51% of ballots cast on Election Day. Arjona, though, won 79% of the mail-in ballots.
The avalanche of mail-in ballots allowed Arjona to win by just 43 votes.
Cantu filed a lawsuit claiming that Arjona’s supporters — including Rudy Franz — manipulated the mail-in ballots.
Tuesday marked the second day of trial. More than 20 people testified about talking with Franz before they voted.
Pedro Segovia, 72, of Hidalgo said Franz occasionally brought him tamales and burgers.
When his mail-in ballot arrived, Franz returned and pushed him to support particular candidates, Segovia said. He reluctantly agreed.
“I didn’t want to,” Segovia said in Spanish, speaking through a translator, adding that he didn’t care about the food. “I wanted him to leave me alone.”
Franz also approached Juan Javier Corona, 74, of Hidalgo after he received a mail-in ballot.
“I think his son was in the elections,” Corona said, apparently referring to Franz’s son, Rodolfo, who ran against school board Trustee Carlos Cardoza Sr.
Corona said Franz demanded he sign the ballot without actually selecting candidates. After he signed, Franz took the ballot.
Several witnesses told similar stories.
While they occasionally offered conflicting testimony, the witnesses accused Franz of asking them to sign mail-in ballot paperwork without selecting candidates.
“I just can’t imagine him doing something like that,” said attorney Fabian Guerrero, who represents Franz. “Obviously, it’s not legal.”
Guerrero said the witnesses may be vulnerable to suggestion by the people who prepared them for trial.
“I think that Rudy would deny, categorically, that he’s done those things,” Guerrero said.
Not all witnesses said Rudy Franz made them feel uncomfortable.
Josefina Fonseca testified that her 101-year-old aunt, Maria Alcala, adored Rudy Franz and always sought his advice before she voted.
“She is very committed to Rudy Franz, sir. All her life,” Fonseca said. “My aunt was a politician. Not involved in politics herself, but she was born and raised in Hidalgo. And to her, Mr. Franz is it. When it’s time to vote, normally I get Rudy in touch with her and they get talking and talking about politics. And, sincerely, she votes for whomever Rudy suggests her to vote.”
Attorney Gilberto Hinojosa, who represents Cantu, accused Fonseca of failing to properly complete paperwork showing that she assisted her aunt, which may void the ballot.
Throughout the day, Hinojosa asked questions designed to determine whether or not voters qualified for assistance and completed the required paperwork.
Eliciting the facts from elderly witnesses, who had problems hearing and offered contradictory testimony, frequently proved difficult. Attorney Ric Gonzalez, who represents Arjona, often asked the same questions with different results.
Aurelio Aguilar Jr., 67, of Edinburg stumped them both.
Asked where he lived, Aguilar provided an Edinburg address and admitted he wasn’t a resident of the Hidalgo school district.
Hidalgo County Elections Department records indicate Aguilar had an address on Cage Boulevard in Pharr, but Aguilar testified that he hadn’t lived in Pharr for about five years.
Aguilar said he focused on the hotly contested U.S. Senate race between Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz in November 2018. When he reached the school board section of the ballot, Aguilar said he didn’t know anything about the candidates.
“I just picked any name,” Aguilar said. “That’s it.”