In Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, a push for more direct democracy

Ground Game Texas, a group that has pushed for progressive policies in cities across the state, is working to make it easier for McAllen residents to change local laws.

By Berenice Garcia, The Texas TribuneJune 12, 2024 9:45 am,

From The Texas Tribune:

McALLEN — Karen Salazar was walking along a residential street when she came across a yard with a “Beware of Dog” sign posted on its fence.

There was no dog in sight. Terrified of canines, she decided not to risk it and moved on to another home.

She knocked on another front door and explained to the man who answered that she was collecting signatures from registered voters for a local anti-corruption campaign.

“I’m not a registered voter here,” he said, adding that anyone who lived there who might be registered wasn’t home.

And that’s how it would go for the next hour and a half.

Salazar works for Ground Game Texas, a nonprofit that organizes campaigns across the state to pass progressive initiatives at the city level.

As the campaign manager for the group’s McAllen campaign, Salazar and her team of nine field organizers have been trying to collect enough signatures from voters for a petition that, if successful, would place a proposal to change the city charter — creating more opportunities for voters to change local policy — before voters in the November election.

Salazar is confident they’re on track to meet their target of 4,400 valid signatures by June 15. As of May 29, the group had 3,400 valid signatures out of 4,500 they had collected.

Yet the path to the November ballot is not without bumps. Finding the city’s registered voters out in the public has proven difficult. Voter apathy appears to be running high. And city officials do not support the proposed changes, arguing McAllen is void of corruption.

State law requires the petition to be signed by 5% of the number of qualified voters of the municipality. As of May 30, there were 80,430 registered voters in the city, according to the Hidalgo County elections department, making the required number of signatories 4,022.

Mike Hernandez signs a petition to amend the city charter to place a limit on campaign contributions in McAllen on May 23, 2024. Karen Salazar, campaign manager for Ground Game Texas, block walked with field organizers to get signatures for the petition.
Michael Gonzalez for The Texas Tribune

The additional votes they are seeking are meant to provide a cushion, Salazar said.

If successful, McAllen voters would decide whether to amend the city charter to limit campaign contributions for candidates to $500 per donor. The change would be a drastic reduction from current caps which allow campaign donations of up to $5,000 per donor for candidates running for city commission and donations of up to $10,000 per donor for mayoral candidates.

Ground Game’s proposal would also add the powers of initiative, referendum and recall to the charter. Initiatives allow residents to propose and enact a city ordinance while referendums give residents the power to reject an ordinance that was approved by the city commissioners.

Recall petitions can be used to remove an elected official from office.

During their late-May block-walking, Salazar and two field organizers with her found more success as the evening wore on. They managed to get 13 signatures, including four from one household.

Salazar’s team has collected signatures since February at polling locations, markets and local bars to garner as much support as they could.

The challenge at these events, though, has been finding people who actually live in McAllen since the city –– the largest in Hidalgo County –– draws people to its restaurants, retail stores and entertainment from all over the Rio Grande Valley.

“It’s hard to find McAllen residents, people that live and vote in McAllen,” Salazar said.

As door-knocking that week in May demonstrated, finding registered voters at residences is difficult since the people who answer their doors are often not registered to vote.

For McAllen’s general election in 2021, the city had 73,727 registered voters or about 69% of the city’s voting-age population, which the U.S. Census Bureau estimates to be 106,855. Of those registered, about 12% voted in that year’s election in which residents elected a new mayor and two commissioners.

Even when they reach a registered voter, the voter’s support for their cause isn’t always enough to convince them to sign their name.

As the three organizers continued their search down the residential street in late May, an elderly woman poked her head out from her house, curious as to what the young women were up to.

Seeing her interest, Salazar introduced herself as she walked up the woman’s driveway. She explained to the woman, 79-year-old Laura Garcia, why they were gathering signatures. Garcia agreed politicians received too much money, but she was skeptical Ground Game would succeed.

“You think those people will obey? I don’t. They’re shameless,” Garcia said in Spanish.

She wished them luck without signing the petition and said she’d ask her son to take her to vote.

That cynicism is not uncommon among voters but is one of the biggest challenges to their campaign, according to Mike Siegel, political director of Ground Game Texas.

Siegel said residents sometimes feel hopeless, that their vote or signature doesn’t matter and that action is futile.

“To me, that’s the biggest ‘threat’ to our campaign –– it is frankly convincing folks that their voice does matter,” Siegel said.

Ground Game has had some success in advancing progressive social policies through campaigns like the one in McAllen.

Since 2021, they have run or co-led about a dozen campaigns, including a handful of successful efforts to decriminalize marijuana in 2022. In a state like Texas where there is no process for a voter-driven statewide referendum, these local initiatives are one of the few courses of action available to voters to enact their own policies.

In Hidalgo County, they successfully pushed for resolutions in the cities of Edinburg and Alton that raised the minimum wage for city employees to $15 an hour.

They’ve also had failures. In El Paso, voters rejected their proposed charter amendment for a citywide climate policy. In San Antonio, a “Justice Charter,” or Proposition A, in 2023 also failed. These charter amendments aimed to decriminalize abortion and low-level marijuana possession, codify and expand cite-and-release, ban no-knock warrants and police chokeholds, and create a city justice director to oversee criminal justice-related policies.

Even if their proposals aren’t successful at the ballot box, Siegel said they hope they can improve voter turnout in local elections just by having measures on the ballot that people care about.

For their McAllen campaign, Ground Game conducted a survey in January which found that of the 661 respondents, an overwhelming majority –– at least 80% among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents –– felt it was important to them to reduce political corruption in McAllen.

About 81% said they were either strongly or likely in favor of limits on campaign contributions, while approximately 73% said they were either strongly or likely in favor of ballot initiative powers.

McAllen officials say changes aren’t needed

City officials don’t see the need and strongly take issue with the insinuation that corruption exists in the city.

City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez called Ground Game’s use of “anti-corruption” in their campaign as disingenuous considering McAllen’s lack of scandals like those that have seen the arrests of officials from neighboring cities.

“If you go back decades, McAllen is a pillar of ethical behavior,” Rodriguez said. “All I can point to is positive things about our community.”

Rodriguez said that if residents ultimately decided changes to the charter were necessary “then, so be it,” but Mayor Javier Villalobos and commission members were clear they did not support lowering the cap on political contributions.

Villalobos argued political contributions were a free speech right under the First Amendment and said the city’s process for procuring vendors and contractors left little opportunity for officials to approve contracts in exchange for contributions.

“We don’t have the issue here because in McAllen, the city officials do not get involved in procurement,” Villalobos said. “We hire the city manager, the chief of police, the fire chief and then we let them work.”

The city commission does grant final approval of those contracts but Villalabos said their approval is mostly a formality as long as everything is done correctly.

“We don’t get involved, so I don’t think there’s any influence from any engineer, architect or anybody on myself or any of the commissioners that I’m concerned about,” Villalobos said.

Aside from those perceived protections within the process, City Commissioner Victor “Seby” Haddad rejected the premise that the commissioners are more likely to listen to people or entities that contribute to their campaigns.

“It’s a false assumption based on zero evidence,” Haddad said. “We are 100% available on social media, through city hall, I give out my cellphone constantly, we have town halls, we walk different neighborhoods from time to time, and we always try to stress to the voting public or the general public in general that we are always available.”

Haddad noted that people who make political contributions are far more likely to be civically engaged by paying attention to the city commission’s actions and likely have the commissioners’ contact information handy.

“A donation doesn’t prioritize anyone nor does it guarantee anything,” Haddad said.

Both Villalobos and City Commissioner Joaquin “J.J.” Zamora said they didn’t see the need for adding initiative, referendum and recall rights to the city charter. In their view, their residents already had the power to hold them accountable.

“I feel like this group is making something about nothing,” Zamora said.

Many home rule cities include the powers of initiative, referendum, and recall –– what Ground Game refers to as “direct democracy rights.” Among the Valley cities that have them include Edinburg, Mission, San Juan, Mercedes, Weslaco and Harlingen.

Those that don’t include those powers of initiative and referendum are Brownsville, Pharr and Alamo, though their charters do include the ability to recall an elected official.

McAllen is unique in the Valley in that its charter has none of the three, however it does state that any resident or property taxpayer of the city can file a petition with a district court in the county to remove an elected official.

Omar Chavira signs a petition to amend the city charter to place a limit on campaign contributions in McAllen.
Michael Gonzalez for The Texas Tribune

Recall provisions in city charters typically allow voters to bypass the courts and deal directly with the city. The requirements of a recall petition vary by city but if successful, it will likely trigger a recall election of the elected official targeted for removal.

Texas and local control

While some in office may view the addition of these “direct democracy” rights as redundant or campaign reform as potentially harmful to free speech, Robert Velez, a political scientist at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, views the petition as a step in the right direction for democracy.

Velez especially highlighted the initiative and referendum powers as having the greatest potential to open up the political process for residents at the local level.

“Those are one of the big reasons why half the states have some kind of legalized marijuana,” Velez said. “That’s largely done through ballot initiatives.”

No city has legalized marijuana. And Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is seeking to block efforts in a few cities that have decriminalized low levels of the drug.

Even if McAllen residents do approve initiative and referendum rights, and residents utilize them to adopt an ordinance, Velez pointed out that the state government could invalidate their efforts by outlawing that ordinance if state lawmakers disagree with it.

Velez pointed to the City of Denton as an example where in 2014, a group of local activists persuaded nearly 59% of Denton voters to approve a fracking ban.

The following year, Texas lawmakers passed a bill that would preempt local efforts to regulate a wide variety of drilling-related activities. And during the last legislative session, the Legislature approved a law that effectively prohibits cities from putting in place certain policies that might go beyond state law, such as requiring employers to have paid sick leave. The law is in effect but is currently being challenged in court.

“It’s really kind of a paradox in Texas,” Velez said. “They say big bad government’s no good, we want decisions to be made by local people, but then if a local municipality makes a decision that the government doesn’t like or the legislature doesn’t like, then we’re just going to say no, you can’t do that.”

Organizers like Salazar and her team are optimistic that incremental changes can be accomplished at the local level like those achieved in neighboring Edinburg and Alton. But Velez warns that significant victories won’t be possible until more people exercise their right to vote.

“These efforts that we could categorize as good government are going to have a hard time finding traction in Texas until more people acknowledge the fact that democracy is not a spectator sport,” Velez said. “You’ve got to participate.”

Reporting in the Rio Grande Valley is supported in part by the Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc.