SAN BENITO — Voters go to the polls today in a runoff election to decide the mayor’s race in which former City Commissioner Rick Guerra faces former Mayor Celeste Sanchez and the contest for the commission’s Place 2 seat pitting incumbent Rene Villafranco against Deborah Morales.
During the early voting period running from Dec. 15 to Tuesday, 1,021 residents cast early ballots, after a record number of voters turned out for the Nov. 3 general election, Remi Garza, Cameron County’s elections administrator, said Friday.
“Runoff elections always have reduced turnout compared to the general election and I think we saw the highest turnout in the general election,” Garza said, referring to the record-setting election fueled by the contentious presidential race.
“It’s been a while since the city of San Benito has had runoffs,” he said.
In last month’s election, Guerra, a retired firefighter, won 2,016 votes while Sanchez, a retired assistant superintendent, drew 1,770 votes, leaving Mayor Ben Gomez, who picked up 1,563 votes, out of the runoff.
Three years ago, Gomez, a school district parent educator, clinched his first term with a victory over Sanchez, who was running for her second term as the city’s first woman to serve as mayor.
About a year ago, Guerra, who had won election to the commission’s Place 3 seat two years earlier, resigned his post to run for the city’s highest elected office.
“It looks good,” Guerra said Friday, referring to his campaign. “People want change.”
Guerra said he’s running to give residents a “voice.”
“The majority of the people are people whose voice has not been heard,” he said, referring to his supporters. “Most of the people who’ve given me the thumbs up are the elders. The people are tired who have not been heard. I want to be transparent with the people.”
Guerra said he’s not running alongside one of the city’s two rival political factions.
“Most of the money comes out of my pocket,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sanchez said her campaign got a boost when Gomez threw his support behind her.
“It’s a good campaign,” she said. “I have my base of voters — I think I’ve proven my credibility. I’ve got some very good endorsements. I’ve got the endorsement of the mayor. I think that will help my base.”
Since February, Sanchez and the candidates have walked a long, grueling campaign trail after city commissioners pushed back the original May 2 election date to Nov. 3 based on Gov. Greg Abbott’s recommendation aimed at cutting voter exposure to the coronavirus.
“It’s been long,” Sanchez said. “It’s been almost a year. It’s tiresome and expensive.”
Place 2 commissioner’s race
In the race for the commission’s Place 2 seat, Morales, a political newcomer, said she’s pushing for change.
“I think it’s going really well,” Morales, vice president of Texas Funeral Associates, said, referring to her campaign. “We’ve had a tremendous outpouring of support.”
Morales said her campaign got a boost when Daniel Cortez, a retired police officer who drew 1,861 votes in the election, falling short of the runoff, threw his support behind her.
“People want change,” she said. “I’ve lived here for 20 years and haven’t seen change. People want their streets fixed. I’ve seen businesses come in and businesses have left. We have to be able to sustain them.”
Villafranco, an official with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement who first won election in 2009, did not respond to messages requesting comment.
Change sweeps commission
Last month’s election shifted power across much of the commission.
In the race for the commission’s Place 1 seat, Rene Garcia, a Social Security Administration employee who has served as vice president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation and vice chairman of the San Benito Housing Authority, won 2,720 votes to defeat Commissioner Tony Gonzales, a former post office clerk who fell short with 2,375 votes after serving in office since 2009.
In the race to fill a one-term left open after Guerra resigned the commission’s Place 3 seat, Pedro Galvan, a pharmacist, won 2,961 votes to defeat former Commissioner Steve Rodriguez, a trucking company owner who drew 1,305 votes and Joe Rodriguez, a retired computer analyst who picked up 772 votes.