Javier Villalobos and Veronica Vela Whitacre are vying to become the next leader of McAllen, the second largest city in the Rio Grande Valley and an important regional hub that connects the U.S. to Mexico. Both of them are currently McAllen City Commissioners.
The two candidates are hoping to get the most votes during the city’s mayoral runoff election. TPR spoke with them about their views on immigration, climate change, the border economy, policing and more.
Veronica Vela Whitacre has been the district 6 McAllen city commissioner for eight years.
She said she decided to become a commissioner because many of her friends encouraged her to run.
“They said, ‘Veronica, you’ve done everything there is to do in the city of McAllen. The only thing left you have is the city commission,’” she said. “I thought, ‘oh wow,’ and they said, ‘Veronica you’d be amazing. It’d be a good thing for our city to have you.’ ”
Vela-Whitacre was born and raised in McAllen.
“I remember you could ride your bike anywhere, and we didn’t have a phone connected to us,” she said. “We were able to ride our bikes and go walking and entertain ourselves outside. We would make little campfires and forts and stuff in the different fields in our neighborhoods. A lot of that is gone because McAllen has grown tremendously. McAllen is booming, and rightfully so, and they’ve done a great job of growing consistently, slowly, and we’ve grown for the benefit of everyone in McAllen.”
She stayed in McAllen until she decided to leave for college.
“I went off to college and stayed away for about 10 years and then redirected myself back to the city of McAllen, and in the last 35 years I have given back to my community in many many ways,” Vela Whitacre explained.
She’s currently serving as McAllen mayor pro tem.
“I was on many different nonprofit organizational boards, and so I was really involved with the city of McAllen,” she said.
Vela Whitacre said she’s been on the board of several organizations. She’s also been involved with the local Boys and Girls Club and the McAllen International Museum of Arts and Science.
Vela Whitacre said she’s enjoyed learning more about how the city runs and how it functions.
Her opponent, Javier Villalobos, is McAllen city commissioner for district 1. He was elected to that position in 2018.
Villalobos said he’s been practicing law for about 25 years and has his own firm.
He said he originally decided to run for a seat on the commission because he knew what it would entail and because he had experience.
“For the past 23 years I’ve been telling elected officials in different cities, schools, what to do, when to do it and how to do it,” he said referring to his time providing services for various entities.
Then he recently saw an opportunity to run for the mayoral position.
“You need to have somebody who has the experience, the knowledge, the skill to be able to do what has to be done and somebody who is not concerned about what people think, as far as, some people get angry with you just because they want you to do something that does not benefit the whole city,” Villalobos said. “I won’t do that. It has to benefit the whole city, not just a specific interest or specific group.”
Villalobos grew up in Crystal City, northwest of Laredo. Villalobos said Crystal City was very similar to McAllen.
“The majority [was] Hispanic people, and it was an agricultural community, kind of like it used to be back in the old days here with that type of labor,” he said. “When I came over here I felt right at home. You know, the people were wonderful.”
Both candidates are vying to replace Jim Darling, who’s been mayor since 2013. Darling announced last December that he would not seek reelection.
I’ve served the @CityofMcAllen for 43 years and I’ve made the difficult decision to step down as Mayor. I will not seek re-election after my term expires in May. I’ve had 8 great years as Mayor of the best city in the world, in my humble opinion. #ThankYou pic.twitter.com/OkhIFQ7Ogs
— Jim Darling (@mayordarling) December 15, 2020
Thoughts on the Border Wall
The federal government controls the border wall and issues immigration policy, but Darling didn’t shy away from weighing in on these issues as mayor. He has criticized former President Trump’s border wall plans.
Darling told the Texas Standard, back in 2019, that a wall wouldn’t solve the reality of Texas’ border problems.
“When you take into consideration ecological criteria, property ownership, effectiveness on border security, just saying a wall is a wall is not really I think an effective way to protect our border,” he said during the interview.
Even though the city doesn’t have any border wall, Darling also said that the city was concerned about the divisive rhetoric from the Trump administration over the wall construction because it could have real-life economic impacts on McAllen.
Villalobos said he sees the border wall issue pretty much as a dead issue now.
“I don’t even think it’s worth talking (about) anymore,” he said. “I know the issues we have are not really the border wall, but reconstructing the levees to protect our residents. Whether somebody was for or against, that’s honestly not an issue anymore.”
President Joe Biden told NPR last year that no border wall would be built under his administration. His administration also recently said that no military funds would be used for the construction of it.
There have been recent reports of land condemnation lawsuits for the border wall in South Texas, according to The Monitor newspaper and previous funds for the wall had been allocated through Congress.
Vela Whitacre said when it comes to the border wall, one has to ask themselves if it’s really working.
“And spending the amount of money for something that is not working. We need to fix it,” she said. “And if that’s going to help, then that’s what they choose to do. Each time we get a new president, it’s different. We need to come to a consensus of what’s best.”
Both candidates didn’t specify if they support or oppose a border wall.
What Is McAllen’s Role When it Comes to Immigration?
One way McAllen directly sees the effects of immigration policies is because the city has an airport and a bus station where migrants, who have recently crossed the border and have been processed, often go to.
TPR asked each candidate what role, if any, they thought McAllen should have when it comes to immigration.
Villalobos said the city shouldn’t have a role, and it’s not something they budget for.
“Look, our concern is public safety,” he said. “We don’t want them to get hurt, and we definitely don’t want them to hurt any of our residents. If you don’t have control, you’re going to have violence, you will have burglaries, you will have thefts, you will have other things that I don’t even want to talk about.”
The city of McAllen announced last month that it was named in the top 10 safest cities in the country according to SmartAsset.com. Darling said in a press release that the city’s crime rate has dropped, and it’s at the lowest in 36 years.
“This ranking only highlights what those of us in this area have always known: McAllen is safe and secure,” he said in the city’s press release.
Vela Whitacre also reiterated that immigration does not fall under the city, and that they’re just “a hub.”
“I believe through all these years we should have been able to come up with a plan in order to not be in the situation that we are today,” she said. “So I think if we find a way to properly get a system, a proper process to move them. A lot of times, think about it, where were your grandparents from? And they probably had the proper process and it worked, so I think we need to figure out what works and what doesn’t work.”
For years, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has, for the most part, coordinated with the city when they drop off migrants at the bus station.
Other border cities and elected officials have openly supported and helped newly arriving migrants.
Is it Time to Reopen the Border to Non-Essential Travel?
The U.S.-Mexico border has been closed to non-essential travel since the start of the pandemic, and both candidates want to see that change.
“We have the Hidalgo bridge, we have the Anzalduas bridge, however our sales taxes went up. We realized that the Rio Grande Valley is big enough that we can sustain ourselves. We are always looking for our partners in the south, the Mexicans to come up here, spend their money….and we want that,” Villalobos said. “The issue is going to be when things are fully open, people from the Valley start going north, then we definitely need the bridges to open to make sure that the Mexicans come up and go shopping and do what they have to do.”
Villalobos and Vela Whitacre both emphasized that McAllen sustained itself during the pandemic because city residents shopped locally.
Vela Whitacre also wants to see Mexican nationals start shopping in the city. She said there’s another reason she wants the border to re-open to non-essential travel.
“A lot of them have not seen their families in the last 14 months, or 16 months, and a lot of them miss their families, of course. To see their families again is the most important out of all of this,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s not up to us. It’s up to the feds. We do meet with them quite often. I believe most of them think it’s getting closer than further, which is good.”
As The Pandemic Winds Down in the U.S., Plans to Bolster Economy And Help Local Businesses?
Villalobos said there were a lot of McAllen businesses impacted by the pandemic, including his own business.
“My law office, it had been shut down for quite a while,” he said.
Villalobos said the federal government assisted the city last year with about $18 million dollars.
“Of those $18 million we took care of the budget, made sure that we were complete, or did what we had to do to make sure we kept on having the services we’re accustomed to,” he said. “After that we started helping the small businesses. I think we put in around 4 or 5 million (dollars).”
He said he believes the city should be putting in a lot more money as an incentive to help the economy and the small businesses that exist.
Vela Whitacre also said that they were granted money from the CARES Act and from the state.
“Some of those monies we turned around and gave them right back to the McAllen Chamber, and the Chamber put out grant applications, and you had to meet the guidelines for the grant applications,” she said. “We gave over $200,000 dollars to different local businesses in the city of McAllen, which helped a lot of them tremendously. We did that twice, and we’re getting ready to do it a third time.”
She also said property taxes are low, and they need to keep them low to help local businesses.
“We need to do that for the next year or so because it’s important that everybody gets back on their feet again,” she said. “They need their businesses, and so we need to find solutions to make sure they have avenues in order to continue,” she said.
How Seriously Do You Think McAllen Should Take The Threat of Climate Change? Plans to Make City Resilient to Extreme Weather?
Villalobos said when it comes to the topic of global warming, mayors or commissioners don’t know about that, and they look to scientists and people who do know. He said everybody should do something.
Parts of Hidalgo County remained flooded days after Hurricane Hanna made landfall in southern Texas.
Hanna later weakened to a tropical storm, but continued to bring dangerous weather conditions to the area. https://t.co/hdDtnqZ2Jq pic.twitter.com/GlIRiS1bUo
— ABC News (@ABC) July 28, 2020
“Whether it be solar, or we start looking to geothermal, whatever it is, I think it will be necessary,” he said. “I can’t really give an opinion regarding that issue. We need to look at what other people that are the experts tell us. You have people say, ‘yes we have global warming,’ and others say, ‘no there isn’t.’ I mean, I wish I knew, but I don’t.”
Vela Whitacre said the city is on it and trying to stay ahead of it.
“We are fixing, we are repairing and we have an idea to move forward,” she said. “I’m not sure how we can, the climate change, I understand that most of the climate change is because of all the concrete, all the streets — we no longer have open fuels like the past we used to.”
She said that growth is happening nationwide, which she said has something to do with climate change.
“Even if McAllen were to say no more building, it’s not going to help because we still have the surrounding cities,” she said. “There is some idea that I cannot discuss until later, but what we are doing with water and ideas for continuing to move forward.”
Thoughts On McAllen PD Budget And Reallocation Of Funding?
Over the last year, there has been a national conversation and push for police reform across the country. There have also been demands for cities to discuss how much money goes to local police departments and questions about whether that money should be distributed elsewhere.
Several hundred people gathered last June in Edinburg to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement and address anti-Blackness in the Latinx community.
Villalobos said “Defunding the Police” is not a popular idea in the region.
“Nobody talks about that, some people in the north might, but down here you don’t,” he said.
Villalobos said police officers are working around the clock the entire year and that they have vehicles and those vehicles need fuel, so their budget gets pretty expensive.
“I disagree a lot with the issues of defunding, there’s some issues you can take a look at, but when you start talking about, ‘oh you got to have more social workers to go if there’s an issue.’ To me that’s ridiculous,” he said. “If somebody has a gun over there, you’re not going to send a social worker. What if you do send a social worker and that person shoots somebody before anything happens, who are they going to blame?”
Vela Whitacre said when making the budget, they look at how departments have used the money in the previous year.
“When we redo the budget for the following year we’ll say, so this organization has never used the monies that we’ve given them, so this year we really need to reduce it, or this organization or department has used more monies than they usually do in the last two or three years so we need to give them more monies,” she said. “We as commissioners and mayor go to budget meetings three days a week for about three weeks in the month of August and we listen to the department heads and they give us the reasons why they need those amounts of monies, what they’re going to do with those monies, what projects they’re going to tackle that year and at that point as a commission and as mayor we make the decision which ones are priority.”
You can find McAllen’s city budget for fiscal year 2019-2020 here.
There’s Been Rhetoric Against Trans People Across the Country, Are You An Ally of the LGBTQ+ Community? Plans to Address Concerns of That Community?
Vela Whitacre said she doesn’t believe there is animosity towards the LGBTQ+ community in the city, and that the community understands.
“They’re not new to the city, and I think people are respectful,” she said. “Just like the immigrants, just like anybody else, we’re people.”
Villalobos said he considers himself an ally of anybody.
“If you have two arms, two feet, two eyes, two legs, two everything, you’re a human being, so it doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “I will take care of whoever I need to take care of regardless of sexual preference, their skin color, their gender. That doesn’t matter to me. To me everyone is human, they should be treated equally.”
Last year the Valley AIDS Council held a virtual grand opening of their LGBTQ youth drop-in center named Casa Orgullo, which is based in McAllen. However, cities like Brownsville have also stepped up to assist their LGBTQ communities.
Brownsville created an LGBTQ task force in late 2019 to address discrimination, health concerns and other topics impacting the LGBTQ community.
Early voting has begun and will continue through Tuesday, June 1. Election Day is Saturday, June 5. Find a voting location here.