Rio Hondo resident and longtime Cameron County police officer Philip Sotelo has thrown his hat into the race for the 34th congressional district seat, hoping a political outsider’s perspective and a platform of infrastructure advancement will sway voters to his cause.
Sotelo, a Republican, is in the mix for the seat being vacated by incumbent U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, along with Democrat civil rights lawyer Rochelle Garza and fellow Republican Mayra Flores.
A longtime area lawman, Sotelo has served in a handful of Rio Grande Valley municipalities as a police officer or dispatcher, most recently in Weslaco.
Vision loss caused by a genetic eye condition forced Sotelo, 57, to give up that post after 10 years. Sotelo can still see to a degree, but mostly just the contrast between light and dark.
“If I was standing in front of you right now, I wouldn’t be able to describe you,” Sotelo, who was in Detroit receiving training for the blind, said Wednesday.
Sotelo says he hopes he’s breaking the mold by running for the seat as a person with a disability. There’s another personal benefit to it, too: he met his wife, a former nurse who cannot see at all, through their mutual affliction.
“Yeah, it’s a pain in the neck sometimes, but we don’t let it hold us back,” he said. “We don’t let it keep us down. It can inhibit us, but it doesn’t keep us from living our lives normally.”
Not being able to see influences some of Sotelo’s platform, including advocacy for a local passenger railway line, something he says he would work toward if elected.
“I was living in New Mexico, and Santa Fe and Albuquerque have a railway system that works just great, and that’s what we need to do,” he said. “You know, I’m a person with a disability; the idea of having a railway system where I can just hop on and travel from lets say Harlingen to McAllen to go shopping would make it a lot easier than taking our local buses, because sometimes they can be difficult.”
Infrastructure, particularly transportation infrastructure like roads and highways, is one of two items at the top of Sotelo’s list of priorities. The other is a drainage overhaul.
“You’re talking 50 years now, and we still can’t fix the flooding problem,” said Sotelo, who said he’s had friends and family wait days for floodwater to recede around their homes. “And a lot of it is not going to get fixed because nobody wants to put money into it, and unfortunately that’s the only way you’re going to be able to fix it.”
That money is key to fixing the district’s problems, Sotelo said, and it’s a solution he doesn’t feel has been adequately tapped into.
“The biggest issue is funding,” he said. “We get so little funding, we’ve had so little funding for a very, very long time now. We can’t get things done in district 34.”
Overhauling a significant portion of the Valley’s roadways, laying the groundwork for a rail line and making floodwaters disappear is no small task. It seems an even larger challenge for someone with no political experience.
To Sotelo, that lack of experience is a pro rather than a con. He’s followed politics from the sidelines for decades and he says he knows the district — what it needs and how to meet those needs.
“I’m not a politician, I’ve never run for politics before, this is my first run,” he said. “And I’m trying to be everything but a politician, my goal is just to be a representative. So when you ask me, do I have any qualifications, I can sit here and tell you that I honestly don’t, other than I am a citizen of district 34. But I am a citizen who understands what needs to be done in district 34, and I know that with that experience in mind I can do it, of that I have no doubt.”
To put that understanding to the test, Sotelo will first have to defeat Flores in the Republican primary. That may prove to be a tough undertaking. Flores has been conspicuously active in Valley GOP events.
As a cursory comparison of their reach to Valley voters, the Flores campaign Facebook page has almost 48,000 likes. Sotelo has just over 100.
Describing himself as a man with a plan, Sotelo said he’ll be able to make it through the primary if the voters focus on substance rather than style.
“I don’t know if I’m going to beat her. She’s been campaigning longer than I have,” he said. “But the thing about this campaign is, if it wants to be about image, I’m not ashamed to say that she’s got that covered. If you look at my campaign page, it’s not about image, it’s about the issues. Can I beat her? That’s not up to me, that’s up to the voters.”