|McALLEN, January 6 - The FBI’s recent arrest of a number of politiqueras in Donna could hurt turnout in the upcoming March primaries, according to a veteran election campaign worker in Hidalgo County.
Paul Vazaldua was one of the main speakers at an event called Politiqueras and Pizza that was hosted by the Young Democrats of South Texas College and held at Russo’s New York Pizzeria in McAllen on Friday evening. President of the Young Democrats at STC is Rafael Soto, Jr.
“I think the FBI’s arrest of politiqueras in Donna could impact the turnout in many different ways,” Vazaldua told the Guardian, at the conclusion of the meeting. “People who depend on information, people who depend on politiqueras for election information are going to shut their doors now. They are not going to want to talk to these individuals. Sometimes it will be candidates who are trying to reach out to voters and now they (the voters) will not want to hear them.”
Vazaldua is running for Justice of the Peace in Precinct 2, Place 2. He was asked to attend the meeting and discuss the role of politiqueras in Hidalgo County politics because he has worked on local election campaigns for the past 24 years. In his remarks, Vazaldua spoke strongly against the politiquera system. He said it was “illegal, immoral, and unethical” for people to bribe voters to exercise their civic duty. “I want people who vote from their heart,” Vazaldua said.
The FBI arrests of Diana Castañeda, Guadalupe Escamilla and Rebecca Gonzalez follow claims that people were enticed to vote for certain candidates in a 2012 Donna school board election with bribes of money and cigarettes. It is thought the arrests are part of a larger investigation by the FBI into candidate expenditures in Hidalgo County. Political analysts believe the arrests will make candidates think twice about hiring politiqueras.
At Friday’s event, Vazaldua offered suggestions to lessen the dependence on politiqueras. He said the local Democratic Party should raise funds to run a hotline and bus system in order to take housebound voters to the polls. He said this transportation effort should be independent of individual candidates. He also said South Texas could learn a lot from Mexico, where the federal government requires TV stations to run independent public service announcements informing the public of upcoming elections months in advance.
A fellow veteran of local election campaigns, Don Medina defended the role of politiqueras. He said the politiquera system has its roots in efforts by large Valley families to fight the impact of the poll tax, which often prevented poor people from voting. He said the Valley should not allow the media or the FBI to define the term politiquera. “I am not saying it is perfect but to say it is a bad system is wrong. It is not a bad system. This is a system we need to defend and clean up, not get rid of,” Medina said.
Interviewed by the Guardian afterwards, Medina expanded on his thoughts: “Politics is the art of persuasion and here we are denying people from going out and advocating for democracy by calling them a politiquera and taking that definition from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and tagging that all politiqueras are people that are bribing. That is not the case at all. It is just like any industry, there are a few bad apples.”
Vazaldua disagreed that the FBI and the media are dictating the way politiqueras are portrayed. “We are not allowing an agency to identify us. We know what is going on out there with the politiqueras. We know it is illegal and we know it is immoral. We have to put a stop to it,” Vazaldua said.
John Michael Torres is communications manager for the non-partisan La Unión del Pueblo Entero. Torres said one way to “disrupt the economics” of the politiquera system is to mount non-partisan Get Out the Vote efforts. “Some of the cities, as we know, are controlled by certain families, and you have your job because you vote a certain way. If you are not supporting a certain candidate you may not have your job in the future. You have your job because you control a certain amount of votes,” Torres said.
Juan Maldonado is a former Hidalgo County Democratic Party chairman who is running for the same post this year. Maldonado said one of the problems with politiqueras is that some do “double-dipping,” in other words, taking money from two or more candidates in the same race. Maldonado said he once called a meeting of about 60 to 70 percent of the candidates in Hidalgo County to see what could be done about politiqueras. He said his suggestion was that all candidates agree to only pay politiqueras by check so a paper trail could be created. “That flew like a dead duck. Most of the candidates said, great idea but not this cycle.” Maldonado said he was not opposed to the politquera system per se. “I am not saying we must eliminate it, more how can we go in and manage a program like that.” He added that it is difficult to change the system but it can be done. “You elect me chair and you will see some effort,” Maldonado said.
Miriam Martinez is a former TV reporter and state representative candidate from McAllen. She is running for governor in the Republican primary in March, Speaking at Friday’s event, Martinez said the influence of politiqueras would be lessened if voters were provided with better information on elections and candidates. She said PBS ought to give airtime to all candidates so that voters are better educated. “We have to start something without thinking about parties and just the values and the project itself, which is about protecting the vote.” Martinez said that with 26 years of experience in the world of marketing, she would be willing to help with a voter education plan for PBS.
Young Democrat Matthew Pasqual said politiqueras are only effective in the Valley because voter turnout is low. If turnout increases, he argued, their influence would wane. “If voter turnout increases, and that is the plan, focusing on neighborhood models, just like we did 20 years ago, it will change. Voter turnout is so low, you can afford to pay these people and the system runs how it is. We are going to have to increase voter turnout,” Pasqual said.
“Has the politiquera system increased the voter turnout to what we need it to be to represent the people? The answer is no, it hasn’t. It is not the model that works. It is the model that works for each politician with money. It is not the model that helps the most people out. That is the problem. People don’t vote. That is the biggest problem. The politiquera system does not work,” Pasqual added.
Daniel Diaz, a community organizer with La Unión del Pueblo Entero, was asked to moderate discussion at the meeting. “Politiqueras show up a couple of months before the election. How beautiful would it be if they were working year-round, if politicians were investing all year long to keep re-engaging with people?” Diaz said. That engagement with voters should be centered on issues that matter to working people, Diaz added, not just political candidates. He said Friday’s meeting was a “good start in the discussions” on what to do about the politiquera system.