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Ballot Brawl

Rio Grande Valley officials are fighting to hold a special election in November to fill a seat on the Hidalgo County Commissioners' Court — even though the secretary of state and a district judge say they have no legal authority to do so.

Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade and Hidalgo County District Attorney René Guerra

Texas’ top election official says it’s illegal. Local attorneys say they can’t do it. A judge ordered them to stop.

No matter; Rio Grande Valley officials are planning to go ahead and hold a special election in November to fill a seat on the Hidalgo County Commissioners' Court. Despite a letter from the Texas secretary of state and an order from a district judge each concluding that the county has no legal authority to conduct the election — and that the results won’t be certified — the county plans to press the issue, which could wind up before the Texas Supreme Court. “The secretary of state made a terrible mistake, in my opinion,” says Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra.

Guerra says Secretary of State Hope Andrade incorrectly interpreted the laws that govern the replacement of elected officials who resign. He says he just wants to make sure the county follows the proper procedure and that voters get a full say in choosing their leaders. But some in the county, including state Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, allege that more nefarious motives are at work. Peña argues that the commissioners' court's current power players are working to keep their majority so they can continue awarding government contracts to their allies. “It’s the remnants of the old era of patronage, corruption and self-dealing,” he says. “It needs to end, and I’m not going to stay silent anymore.” 

The whole kerfuffle started in March, when County Commissioner Sylvia Handy resigned her position after being indicted on and pleading guilty to charges of tax fraud and harboring undocumented immigrants. When Handy left the court, County Judge Rene Ramirez appointed A.C. Cuellar Jr., the president of a local concrete company, to the open spot. “I wanted somebody with a history of successful business practices who could go in and manage [the office] properly,” Ramirez says.

But Handy's term, which does not expire until December 2012, needed to be filled permanently by a candidate of Hidalgo County voters’ choosing. So the county started the process of putting candidates on the ballot for the November general election. Under the usual process, each of the political parties’ executive committees would nominate a candidate. Those candidates and any successful write-in candidates would then appear on the ballot. A number of candidates presented themselves to the Hidalgo County Democratic Party for nomination, including Cuellar and Mercedes Mayor Joel Quintanilla.

In May, the Hidalgo County Democratic Party’s executive committee met to select a nominee. Most expected Cuellar to easily slide onto the ballot, since he had already served in the position for two months. Instead, the committee narrowly chose Quintanilla.

Guerra, the county attorney, says he wasn’t too interested in the matter until Cuellar’s representative came to him with concerns about the outcome of the party’s nomination process. He began researching the mechanism for filling vacant offices. The way he reads the law, the political parties have no authority — in this case — to choose which candidate will be on the November ballot. A party can only choose a candidate if the person chosen in the March primary election cannot or will not run in the November general election. In this case, there was no primary election, so voters should still get the opportunity to choose who goes on the final ballot. Guerra says that should happen through a nonpartisan special election at the same time as the November general election. Then, provided no candidate wins a majority of the vote, the top two vote-getters would move on to a runoff election. “It’s a necessary procedure,” he says.

So Guerra told County Judge Ramirez he should call a special election instead of proceeding with the general election in November. At a commissioners' court meeting on Aug. 3, Ramirez ordered the special election over the objections of lawyer Steve Crain, who had previously advised the county. “He is the lawyer on this issue. He’s the one that represents our county,” Ramirez says of Guerra. “At end of the day, all we want is to make sure it was done right.”

But the secretary of state insists that's the wrong way to fill the open commissioner’s seat. In an Aug. 5 letter requesting an opinion on the matter from the Texas attorney general, Andrade wrote that the county has no authority to call a special election. “Should Hidalgo County proceed as planned with an election process never intended or authorized for the circumstances at issue, there will be complications,” she wrote. The county would have to invent a raft of rules for the election, including new filing deadlines, new filing fees, a system for write-in candidates to gather signatures — all of which, she wrote, would require preclearance under the federal Voting Rights Act.

Guerra remained convinced, however, that his interpretation of the election statutes was correct, and he told Hidalgo County elections administrator Yvonne Ramon that she should follow his instructions and ignore any directives from Andrade — the state's top election official. “I know the Secretary of State gives you a lot of guidance; I really appreciate this, because it reduces my load. On our special situation, I need for you to follow my advice,” Guerra wrote in an e-mail to the administrator.

With Andrade’s letter in hand, Quintanilla, the candidate the Democratic Party chose for the November ballot, filed a lawsuit to stop Guerra and Ramirez from pushing ahead with the special election. Although Quintanilla could theoretically run in the special election, just like Cuellar or any other candidate, if he were to win, he could never actually take office, says his attorney, Gilberto Hinojosa. “The secretary of state has declared [the special election] would be a nullity,” says Hinojosa, who is also chairman of the Cameron County Democratic Party.What happens, essentially, is Cuellar remains as holdover for two years more.”

Hidalgo County District Judge Rudy Delgado agreed with Quintanilla and on Thursday ordered the county to stop the special election process and to follow the procedures set out by the secretary of state for a general election in November. “There is no basis in law for Defendant Rene A. Ramirez to have ordered a special election,” the judge wrote.

Still, the fight continues. Guerra appealed Delgado’s ruling, and Ramirez says he will continue following the district attorney's advice to proceed with the case and let the courts settle the matter. “The last thing anybody wants to do is to wake up one day and find out the process wasn’t done correctly,” Ramirez says.

Peña, in the meantime, has also asked Attorney General Greg Abbott to weigh in on the legal question, hoping the state’s top lawyer can put the issue to rest before the county spends more time and money on the court battle. “It’s just sad and embarrassing as we begin the 21st century that this sort of stuff is going on,” Peña says. He argues that county officials fighting to keep Cuellar on the ballot care not about what’s right but about preserving their power.

With their cronies on the court, Peña says, Ramirez and his allies can continue granting lucrative contracts to their friends. If Quintanilla or another candidate wins, he says, the balance of power and control of the county checkbook will shift. “It’s frustrating to me, because it’s your run-of-the-mill dirty South Texas politics,” he says.

Ramirez says Peña’s accusations are “so far from the truth” and nothing more than political theater. The empty commissioner’s seat, he says, is just one vote of five on the court. “I don’t know where he’s coming from,” Ramirez says. “At end of day, all we want is to make sure it was done right.”

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