When Richard F. Cortez took office as Hidalgo County judge in 2019, he had four goals in mind: win the public’s trust, be efficient and effective in running his government, reduce poverty, and bring investments to the area.
Cortez felt good about where he was on that list. Perhaps one of the most important issues on his plate at the time was the 2020 census, which if an accurate count would have been achieved it could very well lead to the resources and funding necessary to address so much of what he sought to accomplish.
But in just the second year of his term, something else happened that would not only divert attention, but consume all facets of governing and challenge the highest elected office-holder in the county.
Once the coronavirus made its arrival to the Rio Grande Valley in the spring of 2020, it was only a matter of time before it made its way to Hidalgo County, and when it did, it placed Cortez in the position of being the central repository for all needs and concerns shared by 22 cities in the county’s jurisdiction, not to mention nonprofits and hospital systems — each with their own unique requirements, each imperative.
And all that Cortez sought to address at the onset of his first term had to take a backseat to the global pandemic that had made its way into the community.
“Unfortunately, as we were embarking on trying to make improvements in all those areas, COVID-19 hits,” Cortez said Tuesday. “It just really put a damper on so many things that I wanted to do because of the seriousness of COVID-19. As you all know, it’s been crippling not only for Hidalgo County but for the whole country.”
In March 2020, he met with his staff and municipal leaders about implementing broad pandemic restrictions that left much of the county, like the rest of the country, in quarantine with only essential business and services remaining.
Curfews were instituted, businesses were closed, events were canceled, face mask requirements and social gathering limitations were ordered — all signed off by the county judge.
It took massive coordination considering each city’s cooperation.
“I think we started off very well in working together and identifying what kind of restrictions and regulations we were going to put on our citizens,” Cortez said of initial cooperation with the cities. “I think they did look to the county for leadership to do that. I would always ask … my first question to the 22 mayors was always, ‘Are we doing something that we’re not supposed to be doing? And should we be doing something that we’re not doing?’ so that we could pull our aggregate wisdom. The wisdom of two is better than the wisdom of one. The wisdom of 10 is better than the wisdom of two to come up with rules and regulations with COVID.”
Then the inevitable occurred. Cortez said that the county, in which 38% of its population live in poverty, was hit hard due to the shuttering of businesses and residents losing their jobs.
People needed help.
When federal aid came in the form of $1,200 stimulus checks, eviction moratoriums and extensions to payments of essential services, nearly $152 million in virus relief funding for public entities in the county came with it. But this also meant new challenges arose in the form of disputes among the county’s 22 mayors over that relief.
As expected, disbursing these funds to nearly two dozen cities in a manner that would satisfy each of their needs was a challenge, given the political minefield that exists in allocating money of paramount importance.
“Fortunately and unfortunately, we received $150 million, and the fight began,” Cortez said, recalling concerns several cities shared about the method of the county’s disbursements, which wasn’t resolved until June when the county compromised by increasing each city’s allotment on a per capita basis.
“To me, as a public servant and a steward, I didn’t think it was wise to allocate all of the funds right away because we didn’t know what the future was going to bring,” Cortez added. “We didn’t know what else was coming, so for us to give out all the money right away just didn’t make any sense.”
COVID-19 proved disastrous to life in Hidalgo County in the summer, following the state-mandated reopening phases and subsequent holidays such as Mother’s Day, which had been linked to significant spread of the disease. The terms “overwhelmed” and “no room” describing local hospitals often appeared in news stories during the summer, as well as “death” and “morgue trucks” and “surge.”
Cortez often took his case to national audiences at that time, speaking to the CBS Evening News and NBC News Now about what the county was facing then.
Members of his staff would also contract the virus, as he did in late 2020. Toward the end of the year, the county stared into fears of another potential surge some officials attribute to the fall holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, as hospitalizations and cases rise again.
Suffice it to say, the county judge is experiencing the most profound instance of crisis management than his predecessors have had to endure.
Despite it all, Cortez said he sees a bright future for Hidalgo County through all the hardships.
“Sometimes success follows failure. I’m not afraid to take risks. I’m not afraid to fail,” Cortez said. “If we learn from that, then we learn how to make improvements. I’m very excited about the future. I think Hidalgo County is a great place to live, a great place to raise a family, a great place to be in business. We have so many things going for us — the medical school, access to medication, the weather that we have, we have a lot of young people.”
He said that the median age of residents in the county is 28, something that many investors consider when looking for places to do business.
“If you study economics, everybody looks to places where the population is young because statistically it tells us that younger people are going to start earning more money over a period of time,” Cortez said, noticeable are his hopes that county governing can one day soon get back to quality of life planning. “The more money that people earn, the more money they spend. The more money they spend, then the economy grows.
“We have a lot of good things to say about ourselves. We just need to piece it all together and work together with our universities, with our academic people, with our professional people, and with our different governments to come up with a good, solid plan where everybody within our jurisdiction benefits.”
Cortez’s plan for investment in the county was evident in May when he made national news for a letter he sent to Elon Musk in an attempt to get the Tesla co-founder, CEO and product architect to move Tesla’s factory and headquarters to Hidalgo County.
Going into 2021, Cortez said there is much to be optimistic about, and plans to continue pushing his four goals, which includes his anti-poverty task force.
“The February before COVID hit, we’d already had a meeting of the anti-poverty task force, which was made up of some good people,” Cortez said. “We were going to tackle the problem. We of course had to stop that because of the pandemic. I’ve already contacted the people and we’re going to get back to work.”
He expressed gratitude in his fellow commissioners, including newly sworn-in Precinct 3 Commissioner Ever Villarreal.
“I think together we’re going to sit down and figure this thing out,” Cortez said. “We have to tell people how good things are going to bring investments to this area. I think we are good. I’m going to tell you that our healthcare people here have done an extremely good job in caring for our people. I’m a product of that. I got COVID and they gave me excellent treatment. I survived it, and I think others that will seek the same services that I did will get hopefully similar results.”
Recalling the challenges of the onset of the pandemic, Cortez said the area was fortunate to have the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley lead initial testing efforts. And with regard to the disbursements of relief funding, and all the hiccups that occurred during that time, Cortez said everyone appears to be on the same page now.
“I’m happy to report that I believe that we already have unity today. I feel very comfortable going to any of the 22 cities in the county and working with them in any matter that we have,” Cortez said. “What I expressed to you was something that passed that we had to go through. Today I feel very comfortable that we have 22 cities working together. I think that the MPO and the merger of the MPO bringing other MPOs together is working well. We’re seeing success. I think all of us are learning how to do that.
“I think we’re there.”