EDINBURG, RGV – Edinburg CISD board member Juan ‘Sonny’ Palacios is hoping that the political divisions that have surfaced in his city over the past couple of years do not influence the outcome of the Congressional District 15 race.
Palacios is a candidate for the open congressional seat but support from a few large and influential families in Edinburg that he could have likely relied upon in the past is not currently there. He hopes those families and their voting blocs come back in the fold before the March 1 primary.
“These sons of Edinburg would cut off their nose to spite their face. I understand who they are backing. They are backing someone with no practical experience, no community service. I grew up with these guys. We have done great things together. They would rather back someone who has no proven history, who has no plan for the future, who was not born here, who was not raised here.”
In a wide-ranging interview about his candidacy, Palacios, an attorney, does not mention the name of the candidate that could stand to benefit from the divisions in Edinburg politics. However, few would doubt he is talking about McAllen-based attorney Vicente Gonzalez.
“If they want to send someone up to Congress who has no practical experience, has no ties to this community, who has a lot of money and wants to buy this election, more power to them. I hope he stays friends with them. But, I don’t think we should just give this congressional seat away. There are some that want to do it. They want to give it to a candidate with no proven record, no community service.”
Just to recap, the power structure shifted at Edinburg City Hall at the last election when businessman David Torres defeated Mayor Pro Tem Elias Longoria. Now, what some might call an “anti-Palacios” faction, has the majority, with Torres, Homer Jasso, Jr., and Richard Molina sometimes lining up against Mayor Richard Garcia and J.R. Betancourt.
Palacios said he is very much aware that there is an anti-Palacios element playing into the congressional race. He responds to it this way: “We know that people look at us and say, the Palacios family is trying to control everything. That could not be further from the truth. If somebody else wanted to run, I would support them. Just do a good job. That is what we did in the 1980s and 1990s, we supported others.”
Palacios says he is witnessing the impact of Edinburg’s political divisions on the campaign trail. When he asks store owners and longtime friends of the Palacios family in Edinburg if his workers can erect Palacios signs he finds the Gonzalez campaign has beaten him to the punch. To get the store owner to replace a Gonzalez sign with a Palacios sign, he said, he is asked to pay more than what is rival has paid. He said he refuses to pay anything.
“I cannot compete with his money, I am not a millionaire,” Palacios said. “Everyone thinks we grew up with a silver spoon, that we grew up rich. No. People tell me, Sonny I wish I had your life. I say, well take it from the beginning because it was tough. I didn’t have a car in high school. I rode a ten-speed. We were seven kids. I walked to school most of the time. We were so poor we could not afford to pay the fee to watch the baseball games at Jody Ramsey stadium. People think all this was handed to us. It wasn’t.”
Palacios makes another point about Gonzalez and his wealth, without naming him. “There is no reason any person should spend an obscene amount of money to get paid $170,000 a year. If somebody spends that amount of money to get that amount of money, they are going to get it back, one way or another.”
Palacios then discussed his humble upbringing. “We grew up in the fields. If you had followed us back 30 years ago you would have found my brother Omar, Terry, the municipal court judge, Ruben, my cousin, cousin Nicky, who passed away, Ricky, the city attorney, my cousin Joseph, the county commissioner, cousin Ricky Rod, the Hidalgo County DA, my cousin Beaver, my cousin Ernie, ten of us, we were our own crew, picking cabbage. We used to run together, have vacations together, work together. We did everything together. So when my uncle Terry went to college we all went to college. I picked water melons in San Ignacio. I picked cabbage in Sullivan City. I picked cantaloupe and honeydew melons here on Monte Cristo and Ware. Texas A&M is going to be built on the very fields that I was picking vegetables. My tears, my sweat is in that dirt. I take great pride that my labor, my dreams are in that dirt. Am I proud my blood, sweat and tears are in that dirt? Oh, yes. I am going to tell that story every day because there can’t be many people that can tell that story. My hands were in that dirt.”
Asked if this is where the family’s penchant for hard work started, Palacios said: “We all learned to work hard. If we didn’t work, we did not eat. It’s a common story in the Valley. You had to take care of your workers and then they will produce.”
Lest anyone thinks this is a two horse race there are actually seven candidates running in the Democratic Party primary for CD 15. In addition to Palacios and Gonzalez, the field includes former Hidalgo County Commissioner and Mercedes Mayor Joel Quintanilla, McAllen CPA Randy Sweeten, Mission real estate developer and former Hidalgo County Democratic Party Chair Dolly Elizondo, former Libertarian Party candidate Johnny ‘JP’ Partain of McAllen and U.S. Army reservist Rubén Ramirez Hinojosa of McAllen. There are three Republican Party challengers, Ruben Villarreal, Xavier Salinas and Tim Westley. The seat is open because of the upcoming retirement of longtime Congressman Rubén Hinojosa.
Palacios said he has been considering a run for Congress for a number of years and was always planning to run once Hinojosa stepped down. He said he is confident he can win without a runoff. The way to do it, he says, is to highlight his experience and deep roots in the community. He has spent the last seven years on the Edinburg CISD board, including a stint as president.
“I thought I would have four to six more years to prepare for this but here we are. People ask me, how can I hope to go from school board member to Congress. I answer it this way. The largest county in Congressional District 15 is Hidalgo. The largest employer in the district is Edinburg CISD. While Edinburg City Council has a budget of $150 million and Hidalgo County has a budget of $125 million, the school district’s budget is $350 million. We have 4,700 employees, 37,000 students, 945 square miles, that’s half the area of the Grand Canyon. We have four high schools, with two more on the way. We have been recognized as the outstanding school board by Region 1 and TEA.”
Palacios says that with his experience in education he can work well with Hinojosa in the future.
“I am hoping that if Hillary (Clinton) wins the presidency she takes Congressman Hinojosa to be Secretary of Education. I hear the whispers. Imagine him as Secretary of Education and a congressman from his district that can work hand-in-hand with him? There is no other candidate that has my experience in education, when it comes to public service. We deal with issues like homelessness and healthcare. We need to duplicate the successes we have had with ECISD,” Palacios said, pointing out that he puts an average of 60 hours a week into school district matters.
Palacios said his work on the school board also provides great experience in the world of healthcare.
“On the school board we have partnered with Doctors Hospital at Renaissance to provide a clinic on the school grounds. If kids are sick, they can go there for preventative healthcare. If the parents are sick, they can go there. If the grandparents are sick, they can go there. Our philosophy is, it costs us millions of dollars if students are absent. We have 85 percent attendance and the absenteeism costs us a lot of money. Sometimes the kids are sick and they cannot attend school, sometimes the parents are sick and they cannot take the kids to school. We thought it necessary to provide affordable healthcare,” Palacios said.
On another healthcare-related point, Palacios said: “I love the Affordable Care Act. My daughter was born with condition called Rieger syndrome. I could not get her insurance because it was a pre-existing condition. It was not until ACA was passed that I could get her health insurance. Unfortunately, some of our people cannot afford the minimum payments for their healthcare. We are not going to let them suffer and we are not going to let the district suffer. So, we provide a service out of the taxpayer’s pocket. Our attendance rate is improving. We have also partnered with UHS, for those who cannot attend the clinic we send a bus to them. We learned the value of partnerships, with the City, with the private sector, UHS, DHR, with neighboring school districts, McAllen, Donna.”
Palacios says his experience as an attorney has helped him understand another important topic for a border congressman, immigration.
“As an attorney, with the cases I take, I see the dangers of domestic violence. I have seen the dangers of hand guns going into Mexico. I have been appointed to represent those who came here undocumented, those who were held as sex slaves, or forced to be drug traffickers. I have seen the underbelly, the dark side of it, how families have been split apart due to the way the rules are applied. I know people say, well, build a fence. I say, how high? Show me a 20-foot fence, I will show you a 21-foot ladder. If a person wants to come across they are going to come across. And what are we going to do with the people who have been here for generations? All they know is the United States. I have been dealing with these issues on a very practical basis, day to day.”
Palacios is hoping this experience is appreciated by voters.
“With the other candidates, they say, this is what I plan to do in the future with education. Well, this is what we have been doing for the past five years. They say, I plan to support legislation to help Dreamers. That is something we have been doing at ECISD for the past five or six years. They say, I plan to support legislation that helps foster early college high schools. That is great. I applaud you for wanting to do that but we have been doing that for the past four years. They say, I plan to break the glass ceiling for the promotion of women. I spearheaded a program to take the athletics coordinator position, which, traditionally, was the football coach, and cut it in half and make an athletics coordinator for male sports and one for female sports. Now, there is equal concentration on female sports programs. Now, women can be athletics coordinators, which allows a woman to become athletic director for the whole district. Previously, they could not be an athletics coordinator because they had to be football coaches. And they get the same pay as the men.”