McAllen mayoral candidates campaign on experience as runoff nears

Left, McAllen mayoral candidate Javier Villalobos gestures to a supporter at a polling place at Achieve Early College High School on Saturday, May 1, in McAllen. Right, McAllen mayoral candidate Veronica Whitacre seen at the Old Church Winery on Saturday, May 1, in McAllen. (Photos by Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Two McAllen city commissioners are in the final stretch of their campaigns to be the next mayor of the city with less than a week until the runoff elections on June 5.

Both candidates — Veronica Vela Whitacre and Javier Villalobos — each say they’re the most qualified candidate because they have the most experience. But deciding on a candidate comes down to the type of experience voters value.

Whitacre is mayor pro-tem and has been the commissioner for District 6 for eight years. She’s also worked with nonprofit organzations such as the McAllen Junior League, the McAllen Education Foundation, Leadership McAllen, and the International Museum of Art and Science for more than 30 years.

Villalobos was elected city commissioner for District 1 in 2018 and has done governmental work as an attorney representing municipalities, schools, economic development corporations, and housing authorities for more than 23 years.

In running for mayor, both said their experience is what led them to think about running for the mayor’s office when it was clear that Mayor Jim Darling was not seeking reelection.

“I believe I have the most experience in the city of McAllen so I think that’s important for our constituents,” Whitacre said. “And in saying all of that, of course, I want to continue a lot of our projects that we have going on right now. I want to make sure that we don’t go backwards and we continue to go forward, I think that’s very important.”

In the eight years that she’s been in office, Whitacre said the city had accomplished a lot including drainage and traffic improvements, upgrades to many of their parks in McAllen, and construction of a baseball and softball park.

When speaking of the city’s growth, she pointed to the Tres Lagos community in north McAllen as an expample of how the city has expanded over the last few years.

Villalobos also pointed to Tres Lagos as an example of continued growth in the city.

“People sometimes think, ‘Well, you know, McAllen is staying behind,’ but we see, we see the building permits every month,” Villalobos said. “McAllen keeps on growing and it’s been amazing, the growth, and right now it keeps on growing.”

“There’s a lot of construction going on, new subdivisions, new developments — both commercial and residential — so McAllen is doing excellent,” he said.

In regards to expanding opportunities for their constituents who might otherwise seek career options elsewhere, Whitacre said there were already plenty of educational opportunities with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, South Texas College and the presence of a Texas A&M University campus and a Our Lady of the Lake campus.

“So we have a lot of opportunities for our kids to stay here,” she said. “We have probably every amenity that a larger city has except in a smaller area.”

“People are now looking at the opportunities to stay here, I believe, and our population has grown tremendously,” Whitacre added. “We’re at 150,000 so that’s a huge growth.”

But Villalobos acknowledged that that was still a work in progress and also said education was pivotal to creating job opportunities.

“Once you have enough educated individuals, then we can attract even bigger companies and that’s something they’re always looking for — the educated workforce,” Villalobos said. “So it’s going, it’s taking time and it will take some time, but that’s always a work in progress.”

A topic both candidates continually had to address on the campaign trail dealt with the high number of migrants encountered at the border. Though the issue of immigration is a federal issue, both candidates said the city had done a good job in their role to assist asylum seekers, such as paying for transportation to the respite center run by the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and prevoiusly paying for COVID-19 testing, which has now been taken over by a federal contractor.

“The last five years, we took care of it for a long time without any funding from anybody else and so we really took care of the process for the immigrants that were here,” Whitacre said. “We are not in the process but, at the same time, we are at least assisting with some added amenities in order for the whole shift to take place accordingly.”

Villalobos said it was also important to keep providing law enforcement assistance.

“We’re limited to public safety and assisting them with the transport and we’re doing it for these purposes because we don’t want the immigrants to get hurt or anything, and we definitely don’t want our residents to be hurt either,” Villalobos said. “And if we just let them be, then there’s going to be issues.”

“I can assure you there will be burglaries, robberies — you cannot just leave a group of people to fend for themselves and actually in a foreign land,” he added. “I know bad things would happen so I’m glad we’re doing what we’re doing and, fortunately, we’re spending a very minimal amount of funds.”

Adminstering funds correctly is what Villalobos viewed as the role of city government and the mayor.

“That’s why I always say I’m really conservative — it’s the people’s money and we need to take care of it,” he said.

“We have a very tight budget, especially because of the pandemic; we’ve been doing well and we’ve got to keep on providing the same type of services or better,” he added. “And of course, I always say, without raising taxes and we can do that.”

However, one of the biggest misconceptions about the mayor’s role, Whitacre said, is that they run the city but she reminded that the mayor was part of a team that included six city commissioners.

“There’s a lot of discussion a lot of times before we all actually make a decision, because we’re not making it most of the time just for us, we’re making it for our residents,” Whitacre said, “and so we always have to take the residents’ opinions, the residents’ ideas, the residents’ suggestions and take them into consideration and work with it all.”

While the mayor represents the city at various public events, she said the person in that position also served as someone residents could call with their concerns.

“They want to talk to someone who’s going to listen,” Whitacre said, “and I know I can do it.”