MISSION, RGV – One of the most eye-catching results on election night in the Rio Grande Valley involved the race for Hidalgo County Democratic Party chairman.
Incumbent Ricardo ‘Ric’ Godinez was heavily favored to win re-election but only came in second. The McAllen-based attorney secured 17,998 votes, or 38.76 percent. First place went to Mission-based Democratic Party activist David Garza. He captured 21,869 votes, or 47.09 percent. Edinburg-based Democratic Party activist Patrick Eronini came in third with 6,572 votes, or 14.15 percent.
Some Democratic Party establishment figures in Hidalgo County were left scratching their heads, asking “Who is David Garza?” Some had never heard of him. State District Judge Jesse Contreras, who is also in a Hidalgo County Democratic Party primary runoff, asked to meet Garza a few days after the primary election. “So you are the famous David Garza! You made history!” Contreras is reported to have said, when Garza walked into a McAllen restaurant.
While some Democratic Party leaders have not heard of Garza, many party activists have known of him for years. He has been a precinct chair in Mission and helped many other candidates win office. “David has been fighting in the trenches for the past decade, helping this community in so many ways,” said Mission-based activist Ester Salinas.
Last week, the Rio Grande Guardian caught up with Garza at one of his favorite hang outs, Rosie’s Restaurant on Conway Avenue, in Mission. Over breakfast he explained how he burst on the scenes during the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton bust-up in 2008 and listed some of the reforms he wants to see enacted if elected Hidalgo County Democratic Party chair.
David Garza was born and raised in Pharr. His mother has her family roots in Mission. After one year at college in the Valley, at UT-Pan American, Garza moved to Dallas to continue his education. He soon became an airline attendant with American Airlines. He has worked for the world’s largest airline carrier for the past 21 years and is now a senior airline attendant. Garza returned to the Rio Grande Valley in 2006 and settled in Mission. Along with his work in the travel industry, Garza buys and manages real estate. He said:
“I left the Valley at 18 years of age, in my sophomore year, to go to Dallas. I got a great offer to see the world and broaden my horizons. Now, I am a senior international flight attendant for American Airlines flying Spanish routes. It opened up my eyes to the world. But, I never lost my connections to the Valley. I kept my residency here because I knew I would come back and invest in real estate.
“I lived in Miami and New York City but the cost of real estate there is astronomical so I decided to focus on picking up rental properties down here, managing them, coming down every month. But I always kept in touch with local politics. I was very proud to cast my first vote for Bill Clinton. Since then I have been a big, avid supporter of the Clintons and a big supporter of the Democratic Party. I knew my roots were here and that I would come back.
“I am very fortunate to work in the private sector. I do not owe favors to anybody in order to keep my employment. I work for the largest airline in the world. I am a senior flight attended. I have been employed with them for 21 years. I choose my work schedule. I choose where I go. I choose where I go to work. It may seem like leisure to everybody else but I am a trained employee.
“I am also a real estate investor, managing my own rental properties. I buy homes and I flip them. I invest in real estate. I live in some of these homes. The Valley is growing so rapidly I decided to invest, from Cameron County to Mission, from residential to commercial. That is my livelihood in the Valley. I am also president of homeowner associations in McAllen and South Padre Island.”
Justice Advocacy Group
Garza, Salinas and other Hidalgo County Democratic Party activists formed the Justice Advocacy Group in 2008, initially to fight what they believed was an attempt to “hijack” the results of the 2008 Democratic Party primary. Hidalgo County had gone for Hillary Clinton in a big way on Election Day. But, it seemed as though those running the Hidalgo County Democratic Party at the time were trying, at the County Convention, to stack the County’s delegation to the State Convention with Obama supporters.
“When I came back to the Valley in 2006, I tried to seek out the Democratic Party to see how I could get involved. The first people I met were Leslie Gower and Rosalie Weisfeld. Nobody seemed to know where the party office was. After the 2008 primary, it seemed as though the party leaders were trying to hijack it for Obama. It was not going to happen, not with the history the Clintons had in the Valley. My mother would tell me how the Clintons would register people to vote and help migrant workers. That meant a lot to me, that the Clintons were doing that in during their college days,” Garza said.
“I had to get involved because we could see that certain people were trying to railroad the process at the county convention. People stood there until past midnight trying to find out who the delegates were. We had seniors, veterans, the fabric of our community, being ignored. At the end, the Chair, Juan Maldonado, seemed to be handpicking the delegates. They were all his people, his secretary, his nephew, his friends. The crowd was furious, he shut down the convention. I immediately contacted Channel 5 reporter Will Ripley. He sent a crew out there and we voiced our complaints, at 2 in the morning. Channel 5 ran the story the next morning and it took off. There were a lot of unhappy voters. The delegates were Obama supporters. We formed a group, the Justice Advocacy Group so we could stand on issues like these. I became the spokesperson. I took the complaints to Austin. They gave Maldonado a slap on the wrist because he was on the way out. I was an avid supporter of Dolly Elizondo, who succeeded Maldonado, because I saw how the Party was being run.”
Other JAG activities
JAG was a loosely formed grassroots group. Its members in the early days included Democratic Party activists such as Garza, Salinas, Mary Martinez, Erica O’cana, Alberto O’cana, Eloy Treviño, Esther Peña, Blanca Beltran, and Sara Ojeda, JAG worked on other community issues, such as Mission Superfund. There, toxic chemicals used at a former pesticide plant had leached into the ground. The EPA eventually tore down the building.
“Through JAG I met other important activists, such as Ester Salinas, who educated me on issues like the Mission Superfund. She wanted elected officials to stand with her and those who lived in the Superfund area but Congressman Lloyd Doggett was the only one who did. I learned about a lot of injustices in the Valley. I was with Ester when she went to court. I was with her when the EPA came down and tried to say everything was okay. It was not. I became very passionate. We decided to stand up for the little guy, the guy no one in the leadership would listen to. Because these people come from the wrong side of town, south of the railroad tracks, city leaders do not listen to them. They feel they are not important but they are paying taxes just like everybody else. That is where I come in. I coach them, I let them know who they need to talk, which department in the City they need to go. If they get nowhere I make calls to get things done.”
Garza gave an example of how he and JAG have helped the “little guy.” He said a resident living in the Alton area whose first name is Connie was left distraught after Hurricane Dolly flooded her home.
“For three weeks she could not go in or out of her property. The water was up to her knees. No one would return her calls. After we contacted County Commissioner Joe Flores and they started the ball rolling. Once they knew I was getting Channel 5 out there they took care of it. The story aired at 12 noon and by 5 p.m. the trucks were there pumping the water out of her property. Those are the important people to me. They do not feel they have a voice. That is who JAG has been standing up for.”
Another example of community activism, Garza said, was his push to get a tract of land in Mission turned into a children’s playground.
“This park was a dumping ground after Hurricane Dolly. I am part of the solution. I do not go to complain to my neighbors. I go directly to the people who can make a decision, make the changes we need. It took four years to get the funds allocated. I was the pebble in their (the City Commission’s) shoe. It is now called Arnulfo ‘Tatan’ Rodriguez Jr. Park, after Sandra Rodriguez’s father. The Rodriguez family is very pleased I got the ball rolling. I never sought recognition but I did go to the ribbon cutting. Brad Bentsen thanked me. He was on the parks and recreation board. Now he is the director. He thanked me for pushing and pushing. Every day I drive by there, it feels good to see kids playing in the park. Precinct 10 knows I have been a leader in the community.”
Activism inside Hidalgo County Democratic Party
Garza said he wants to provide new leadership for the Democratic Party locally. He said he was appointed chair of Precinct 10 in by Hidalgo County Democratic Party in order to fill a vacancy. “My good friend Ester Salinas had applied to be chair but somehow the Party lost her application. I asked Ester to co-chair the precinct with me.”
Garza laughed off suggestions that he is an unknown.
“People here who do not know me think I am a nobody. I could not have gotten all those votes without knowing people in the community. I have been building up relationships in the community all my life. From Weslaco to La Joya. And these are friendships, not acquaintances. My work takes me out of the Valley but I am never out of touch. I get a view of what is happening in the rest of the world and how far behind we are. I bring ideas to community leaders.”
Garza pointed out that he has worked on campaigns to help elected Democratic Party candidates such as Linda Yañez, Dori Contreras Garza, Letty Lopez, Sergio Muñoz and others. In Pharr, where he used to live, he said he has worked on city commission campaigns for Roberto ‘Bobby’ Carrillo, Eddie Cantu, and Oscar Elizondo. In Mission, he said he has worked on campaigns for Dr. Armando O’cana, Patricia O’cana-Olivarez, and Jessica Ortega-Ochoa.
Garza said that when he applied to be party chairperson he immediately got a call from a senior figure in the party telling him not to run.
“When I submitted my application I had a call the very next morning by a party elder who tried to discourage me from running. She said she would work very hard against me. I told her, I am here to listen. If you want to talk about the issues I will talk about them but I will not be intimidated. I found it very offensive. The Democratic Party is supposed to be inclusive. If I am elected chair, any candidate that comes to me to say they want to run, they will get my full support. The newcomer brings in new faces, new ideas. It increases voter turnout. My view is, let the best candidate win.”
Garza said he did not put up yard signs to promote his campaign for party chair out of deference to his good friend, Patrick Eronini. Now he is in the runoff, however, he will do so. A secret weapon he possesses is a large family, spread across Hidalgo County. An aunt or “tía” of his, Gloria Gonzalez, is a politiquera in Elsa. He said she told everyone she knew to “vote for the two Davids.” David Garza for Party Chair and David Fuentes for County Commissioner. Garza secured a large vote in the Delta as a result and Fuentes won, defeating incumbent A.C. Cuellar by the narrowest of margins.
One of Garza’s top platform issues is to bring politiqueras out of the cold, so to speak. He wants the Democratic Party to acknowledge them, respect them and help them understand election law.
“I know all about the important work politiqueras do. I have done what they are doing. I have been out there walking the colonias. I know they walk the streets in 100-degree heat. They do the hard work for the Party. They need the respect they deserve from their precinct chairs. They should be brought to the front of the meetings. I believe they need the resources to facilitate getting the vote out.
“Why are we not getting the politiqueras trained on technology? Show them the legal ways of getting out there. Politiqueras have a negative connotation down here. We need to change that. We need to praise them for their work. No one is going to get out there and walk the streets for free. It is not going to happen.
“Politiqueras should be called what they are, promotoras del voto. They need to know the legalities of what they do. They are seasonal workers. It is respectable work. They are propelling our best candidates to higher levels. Many of them are on social security, SSI, disability. They are afraid their income will be taken away if they disclose they are working on campaigns. It is not true. They need to be educated on their rights. Let’s have a training course for them.”
Garza said if elected to office he will fundraise to secure a proper office for the Hidalgo County Democratic Party. He said he also wants to encourage greater discussion on important local, state and national issues.
“We currently have no house meetings, no town hall meetings. I want to set up meetings so the Party can hear from all the non-profits out there that do have house meetings. We need to hear from them. We need to learn what the real issues are in the community. I want the precinct chairs to know the issues. I want to engage with these other community groups. At the moment, we do not engage.
“Hidalgo County Democratic Party also needs an office. Why are we not fundraising for this? We need a real office, not a broom closet. Why do we not have an office with computers set up so anyone in the Party can come in, use the computers and get the list? These candidates get good donations. They pay people to get out the vote.
“We need to show these candidates there is going to be honesty in the Party, starting with me. There will be transparency. We will have a treasurer. People will be comfortable donating money to the Party. They will be glad to help with fundraisers. Through my vast connections across the county I know we can put on fundraisers. Why can’t we have golf tournaments, marathons? Bring people in.
“I constantly meet people moving here on my flights down here. I ask them if they are Democrats. I ask if they have been contacted by the Party. No one is going after them. Where is the office for them to go and register? Every precinct chair deserves to be acknowledged. Every chair deserves the resources to do their job. That is what I plan to work on, so we achieve our goals of uniting the Party and increasing voter participation, voter turnout. We need to keep Hidalgo County as the Democratic stronghold it has been. We need to fight Republican encroachment.”
Preventing Voter Intimidation
Garza said he also plans to get city ordinances approved to stop campaign workers from intimidating voters at polling locations. He said he is starting in Mission and will then go to McAllen and other cities around Hidalgo County.
“I would like to change the law relating to polling sites. They are a circus, with people yelling and chanting. These campaign workers intervene with the voter’s privacy. In other states they only allow signs. You do not have people jumping into the middle of the road with their signs. I would like the council to place an ordinance to stop this intimidation. Let’s have a limit on how many signs can be there. Why should people be afraid of going to the polls? They (campaign workers) should not be there taking down numbers, trying to tally the votes for the day. Instead of paying people $50 a day to stand there in 100-degree weather holding up a sign, put them in a GOTV effort. Train those people to phone bank for you, or block walk for you. It is invasion of privacy of the voter. I took two ladies in my car to vote because they were afraid of going in their cars. If people don’t stop and talk to them those people think you are voting for the other side. Some people do not turn out and vote because of this.”
Editor’s Note: Next week we will have a feature on Ric Godinez, the current Hidalgo County Democratic Party chair.