Candidates speak: Ruvalcaba, Villarreal in runoff for Brownsville commission seat

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June 5 is the start of early voting for the June 17 runoff election between Susan Ruvalcaba and Tino Villarreal for the Brownsville City Commission At-Large “A” seat formerly held by John Cowen, now mayor of Brownsville.

The Brownsville Herald posed a series of questions to each candidate asking why they’re the best one for the job and what their priorities would be if elected. What follows are their responses, some in the form of direct quotes and others paraphrased.

Susan Ruvalcaba is a Brownsville native who moved to Jacksonville, Fla., but returned to her hometown when she was 13. She has lived in Brownsville for 36 years and is a registered nurse, with a nursing degree from the University of Texas at Brownsville, and part owner of Mesquite Home Health and Mi Torito Mexican Restaurant.

Susan Ruvalcaba (Courtesy Photo)

She listed her top priorities, if elected, as “full transparency, accountability and integrity to the citizens of Brownsville; removing and avoiding conflicts of interest; economic development and redevelopment by streamlining permitting department; cleaning up our city and getting back to the basic needs of the residents; bridging the gap of communication and improving collaboration between leadership, citizens and other entities.”

Ruvalcaba said trust, or lack thereof, is the biggest challenge facing the city.

“I feel the citizens have lost trust in our leadership,” she said. “When that happens it is very difficult to make decisions where you will have support. With the (Brownsville Public Utilities Board/Tenaska power plant) fiasco, that I was very involved in as a citizen, it left a sour taste in the mouths of our residents.”

“We have to regain that trust. Leaders must be aware at all times there is an organizational chart whereby citizens are at the top. We can’t forget or overlook that when elected or appointed. Leaders and citizens must unite and trust each other again,” she said.

Ruvalcaba said the “Tenaska incident” motivated her to run for office and “serve the citizens in a bigger capacity,” adding that her experience as a small business owner for years makes her the most qualified candidate.

“I have experience in audits, compliance, budgets, contract negotiations, employment issues, teamwork, unity and success,” she said. “I went from three employees and 10 patients to over 200 patients and 150 employees, some of whom have been working with me since the ’90s. As a community advocate for elderly, disabled, veterans and special needs, I know first hand what our city needs and how we can achieve it. I am accessible and hardworking (and) I like to be challenged. I am an independent thinker but a team player and I look for solutions.”

Asked where she stands on SpaceX and the liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal projects proposed for the Port of Brownsville, she said both will be an asset for the city in several ways.

“I believe they will both contribute to our economic growth, revenues, tourism and job creation,” Ruvalcaba said. “I also believe, however, we need to work together to find a common ground to protect the environmental concerns brought by these companies. I am confident that can be done with the right conversations.”

Tino Villarreal was born in Monterrey, Mexico, but came to Brownsville at the age of 3 when his father legally emigrated and has lived in the city ever since. He is an educator whose “professional life has revolved around motivating and developing young individuals on their career paths.”

Tino Villarreal (Courtesy Photo)

Villarreal, who holds a marketing degree from the University of Texas at Brownsville, is currently athletic director and head football coach at Saint Joseph Academy, a position he’s held since 2015.

He said his top priorities if elected would include youth development.

“Our youth has lost faith in our local economy and decided to offer their talent in other cities,” Villarreal said. “The lack of jobs and opportunities for them is the main reason why my students have pushed me to run for commissioner.”

He said he would work with local and state leadership “to create a strong workforce and attract more high-paying jobs to our region.”

To accommodate new industries the city needs for job growth, Villarreal proposed expanding or developing a new industrial park. Another priority would be infrastructure, he said, calling for the creation of a preventative plan for street repairs “instead of being reactive.”

“Maintaining our streets clean and debris-free is a start and should be done regularly,” Villarreal said. “But we can prevent significant damage by creating a maintenance system to repair our streets regularly. … I’ve knocked on doors for almost five months now, and the vast majority of you have expressed concern with the current status of our streets, drainage and overall infrastructure.”

Accountability would be another top priority, he said, adding that he would expand and support the efforts of the commission’s Audit and Oversight Committee in order to fight corruption. Villarreal proposes working closely with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies by developing a digital system or app where citizens and city employees can act as whistleblowers denouncing illegal behaviors.

“If not for the Audit and Oversight Committee, we wouldn’t have uncovered many irregularities in Brownsville,” he said. “We need to regain the trust of our citizens in our local government.”

Villarreal said his background as an educator, small business owner and administrator makes him the best candidate. He has served on the Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation board and the Brownsville Public Utilities Board and is a trustee of the National Hispanic Institute.

As for SpaceX and LNG, Villarreal said they “bring jobs, opportunity, and economic development to our area” and counter the city’s stigma of too little opportunity and growth.

“But we need to make sure these two do not come at a high price for our environment,” he said. “We need to maintain and keep intact our beautiful natural resources like Boca Chica Beach.”

June 6 is the last day the Cameron County Elections Department will accept an application for ballot by mail. The last day of early voting is June 13. Election Day is June 17.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct date for Election Day.