McALLEN — Hidalgo County voters will elect a new top lawman this November, replacing a former sheriff who was sentenced to five years in prison following a public corruption scandal.
Guadalupe “Lupe” Treviño, a Democrat, was convicted in July on a federal conspiracy charge after he admitted taking cash from a drug trafficker, but his party's leaders are confident the seat won't go to Al Perez, a Republican candidate with three decades of law enforcement experience.
Analysts say that's because candidates with anything but a "D" by their names are few and far between in the Lower Rio Grande Valley region.
“The corruption is defined more in the context of corrupt politicians” and not Republican versus Democrat, said Dr. Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American.
But to label Hidalgo County voters as tolerant of corruption if they vote for another Democrat is also unfair, Polinard said, because the one-party dominance here eliminates a basis for comparison.
The region’s tradition of voting for Democrats hasn't stopped the Hidalgo County Republican Party from fielding its own candidate to try and unsettle the political establishment.
Perez will face Democrat Eddie Guerra, the acting sheriff who heads the department of about 800 employees, including about 300 sworn peace officers, and an annual budget of about $55 million. (Guerra also worked as a Hidalgo County sheriff's deputy from 1999 to 2004.) The election will decide who finishes Treviño's term.
“Anybody that knows me down here knows they can’t associate me with the past administration,” said Guerra, a constable who was appointed interim sheriff in April. “I have a proven track record.”
Perez however, said people are tired of the status quo.
"Our image has been tarnished," he said. "Yes, we have our share of crime and corruption, but can this be different? Definitely?"
Perez says he identifies as an independent and said he was eligible to run as a Republican because he hadn’t voted in the Democratic primary in several election cycles. He served in the sheriff’s department for 14 years before retiring in June to run for the head position.
He approached the county’s GOP leaders after learning that the Democrats had already decided on their nominee shortly after Treviño resigned in April, he said. Ten candidates were submitted for consideration, but Perez said the Democrats appeared to have already made their minds up to suppoert Guerra.
As for any ties he has to the old guard under Treviño, Perez said he purposely kept himself out of the loop. Though he heard rumors about an investigation, he chose to mind his own business, he said.
“That was all I heard,” he said. “They isolated me.”
He added that if elected, he would make administrative changes.
He said Guerra has yet to make any significant moves that reflect a commitment to change.
“The old administration is still there with the exception of one commander,” he said. “I am changing the department for the better. I am not a politician, I am a professional law enforcement officer.”
Guerra cites his 2008 election win the constable’s race as proof he can turn around a department. His predecessor, Democrat Andy Rios, was also indicted on theft charges, which were eventually dismissed.
“It was under a dark cloud, and people lost a lot of trust,” he said. “Now they see the constable’s office in a totally different way.”
Guerra’s mention of another scandal in the county’s history reflects the prevalence of public corruption allegations in elections on the border. Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor and chair of the government department at the University of Texas at Brownsville, said it doesn't mean people will stop voting for Democrats.
The pattern doesn't mean voters condone or don’t notice corruption, she said. Instead, the trend continues because the voters will still identify with the Democratic Party on issues like border security and immigration.
Scandals aside, voters in the area tend to disagree with the GOP playbook that includes the current deployment of the National Guard, which many there consider unnecessary, Correa-Cabrera said.
“They are not changing their position because of a scandal,” she said of Hidalgo County’ voters. “It’s not going to define an election even though it is a big deal.”
Others cite the sheer number of Democratic voters in Hidalgo County.
As of March, there were more than 305,000 registered voters in the sprawling border district; about 47,350 cast ballots in the Democratic primary. That’s compared with the 6,100 who voted in the Republican primary.
Polinard, the UT-Pan American professor, said Hidalgo County is the strongest Democratic area in the state, if not the nation.
“It would be a major upset” if the sheriff's race didn't go to the Democrat, he said. “The one upside [for Republicans] is it is an off year and turnout may drop off.” But because the position of sheriff does not include other counties the way a state representative or judge’s seat would, the race is all but decided, he said.
Hidalgo County Democratic Party Chairman Ric Godinez said he expects the Republicans will bring up Treviño’s past to try to associate Democrats with corruption. But he seems unfazed.
He said voters believe the state’s Republican leadership typically ignores the border, especially the Rio Grande Valley. State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte’s candidacy in the lieutenant governor’s race should help encourage voters to punch a straight Democratic ticket, he added. Democrats are also excited about state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and her bid for governor, but Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, is more popular, he said.
“She’s Hispanic and been in the Senate longer,” he said. “But that’s not to say we’re not impressed with Senator Davis.”
Hidalgo County Republican Party Chairman Sergio Sanchez said the sheriff’s race is getting the most attention in the area, which bodes well for the party’s chances. What people want to know, he said, is whether voters will have more than one option this year and be able to move on from the past.
“It’s not that they don’t care, but they don’t ask about the courts or the governor’s race. And that says a lot,” he said. “All I hear is, ‘Will I have an option come November?’ Everybody already knows about the corruption, everybody already knows about the shame that’s been brought to the community as a result of the prosecution.”