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The new chair of the Texas Border Coalition, J.D. Salinas, is flanked by state Reps. Armando Martinez, Eddie Lucio, III, René Oliveira, and Ryan Guillen. Guillen's daughter Cinco is also pictured.

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, RGV – A familiar face in the Rio Grande Valley is now at the helm of the Texas Border Coalition, former Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas.

The ex-regional administrator for the General Services Administration took over as chairman of the TBC at its summer meeting on South Padre Island last Thursday. In an in-depth interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Salinas said he is excited to be leading the organization and plans to make it as visible and relevant as it used to be.

“We want to become again the go-to group for border issues. We have been before and we can be again,” Salinas said.

J.D. Salinas
J.D. Salinas

The Texas Border Coalition was started by the late Mike Allen, president of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation. Allen and others believed border cities and counties were not getting their fair share of funding from state government, particularly when it came to transportation dollars. Allen thought that if the border region was united it would have a stronger voice in Austin.

In its heyday, the TBC boasted membership from El Paso to Brownsville. Mayors from the larger border cities played an active role in its leadership team, such as Blanca Vela from Brownsville, John Cook from El Paso, Raul Salinas from Laredo, and Richard Garcia from Edinburg. It was under the leadership, though, of the late Chad Foster, mayor of Eagle Pass, that the TBC had its finest hour, speaking up for its communities in loudly protesting construction of the border wall.

Salinas says he wants to return TBC to its former glories by encouraging old members to rejoin and bringing in new partners.

“We are going to be more proactive and aggressive about including the private sector, school boards, chambers of commerce, economic development corporations, healthcare communities up and down the border so they can help us formulate the issues of the Texas border,” Salinas said. “I think it is important we work with the Rio Grande Valley Partnership; that we work together with the Border Trade Alliance, and all the other groups that have similar interests, so that we can have one united voice along the Texas border. That, in a snapshot, is going to be our goal.”

Salinas took over as TBC chair a little earlier than expected due to the resignation of former Pharr Mayor Pro Tem Adan Farias. Salinas, who is director of external affairs in South Texas for AT&T, was serving as vice chair of TBC. His period as chairman will run for two and a half years.

“This organization has a legacy in informing on federal and state issues, like the levees and other issues. There is no reason why we can’t be a great sound, unison, voice for the border again. We hope to do this soon,” he said.

Salinas was Hidalgo County Judge when Foster chaired TBC. He said he learned a lot from him.

“Leaders lead in different ways. I learned a lot from the late Chad Foster and those were the days when the Texas Border Coalition was the go-to group to learn about the border. We hope to do that again. But we need to do it together and in an organized way. This is why we were here today. I hope that in the next two years of my tenure, two and a half years because I am taking over early, that we become more organized, more efficient and that we run a very educated organization. We are only as good as our members allow us to be. With Chad I educated him on the issues of Hidalgo County so he carried some of that for us. If you remember, we were against the border wall but we were also for a local solution and it allowed us to fix our levees at the time. I learned from that.”

Asked how the summer retreat went, Salinas said it was very positive and a great opportunity for members to reunite. The event included a guest appearance from Paco Valentin, Texas state director for rural development at USDA, remarks from state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., and a legislative panel discussion with state Reps. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco, and Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito.

The chairs of the various TBC standing committees also gave reports. Blas Castañeda spoke about workforce training, Olga Gabriel spoke about healthcare and Monica Weisberg-Stewart spoke about border security and immigration. Elizabeth Lippincott, of Austin-based Vianovo, spoke about transportation. Vianovo are TBC’s business management consultants. Billy Moore, also of Vianovo, spoke via a conference call about issues in Washington, D.C., impacting the border region.

“We had great participation from our legislative members of South Texas. The idea was to give our communities a flavor of what happened, a snap shot of what happened in the 84th legislative session. We were also able to hear from Paco Valentin, who is the USDA State Director, who spoke about rural economic development opportunities. The definition of rural is a lot different than many people think. Paco taught us that just because he sits within the Department of Agriculture it does not mean he is only thinking about meats and potatoes, no pun intended. He spoke about broadband, housing, city halls, and fire trucks,” Salinas said. “We had a great day today. I think it was a great opportunity to meet and now it is time to start working for the 85th legislature. That was our purpose today, to learn, to recap and to move forward.”

Asked what he thought about Valentin’s remarks that a paradigm shift is happening in South Texas, largely because of oil and gas exploration and production, Salinas said: “Paco is right. We need to be prepared. Destiny is in our own hands so let us prepare. There was an element of deer in the headlights with the sudden emergence of the Eagle Ford Shale. We need to be prepared for developments in Mexico with our infrastructure so that we can be an asset to economic development, not a liability.”

Asked what he thought about the fact that border security issues dominated the legislative panel discussion, Salinas said: “It was important we allowed our members to have that conversation, it is the elephant in the room.”

Salinas said that moving forward he would like border legislators to view the Texas Border Coalition as a think tank for the border. “I want us to become a sounding board for their ideas before they write legislation and pass legislation. My message to them is, let us to talk to you about how it will impact the local community so that you can make sound decisions in Austin. We can help you. We see ourselves as an arm of the South Texas legislators and the border legislators. We want to become again the go-to group for border issues. We have been before and we can be again.”

The TBC meets four times a year. The next meeting is slated for October 1, probably in Laredo. Salinas said he will be reaching out to El Paso in the hope that its leaders participate in TBC once more. “As you know, state Sen. Jose Rodriguez of El Paso was a board member of the Texas Border Coalition and is very in tune with some of our issues. We hope to reach out to El Paso so that we can get them more involved, like we did in the past.”

Salinas finished the interview by pointing out the great strides that have been taking place along the South Texas border region.

“The Texas border region, we are not done. This is only the start. UT-RGV and its medical school is a game changer. I-69 is a game changer. The regional mobility authorities are game changers. We need to get back to economic development as a major agenda item. We need to discuss education, homeland security and transportation. In my 20 years of experience in government, including federal, state and local, and with my Masters in public administration I think I am poised to help make sure that happens. We must listen to our members and make sure we deliver on the issues.”