SPECIAL INTERESTS AT WORK?
Wed, 2015-02-25 09:21 News Staff
PHARR-- As the two political slates/teams start to take shape in this city, there’s an undercurrent running through this race: are any special interests going to benefit from its outcome? Are special interests already playing a part in this campaign? And if so, who do they represent? The same question popped up in McAllen two years ago when Jim Darling ran (unopposed as it turned out) for mayor. Was local developer Alonzo Cantu somehow at the heart of it all, working to get “his guy” inside McAllen city hall? Hoping that Darling’s election would somehow benefit Cantu’s construction/development business (Cantu Construction)? Not to mention, the privatelyowned Doctors Hospital at Renaissance (DHR), of which Cantu owns the most shares? Was this all some sort of backroom plot? Darling works full time as legal counsel for DHR. It’s the same position he held when he ran for mayor in 2013. Didn’t that constitute some sort of “special interest” between he and Cantu? During a public debate (Futuro McAllen) prior to the McAllen city election two years ago, in response to a question about his relationship with Alonzo Cantu and how that might compromise his job as mayor, or vice versa, Darling said: “Let’s talk about this big elephant in the room -- the fact that I work for Alonzo Cantu. Actually, I talk to the people at Futuro McAllen more than I talk to Alonzo Cantu. And I’ve done that over the last six years (while he was both DHR’s legal counsel and McAllen city commissioner). During that time, I’ve had more contact with the Futuro people than I have with Alonzo Cantu. I’ve had an association with Alonzo Cantu for a lot of years, but I never developed any property with him in McAllen because I did not want to have that conflict of interest.”
THE PHARR RACE
Fast forward two years, and the same claim is being made: Alonzo Cantu’s behind this race. Not only him, but DHR as well. “That’s what I believe,” said Pharr City Commissioner Arturo Cortez. “I think it’s the big boys wanting to take over in Pharr.” Cortez is running for place 1 city commissioner on a slate with Adan Farias, mayor; Aquiles “Jimmy” Garza, place 5; and Mario Bracamontes, place. 6. Their slate is billed as: Pharr First. The candidate leading the charge against them is Ambrosio “Amos” Hernandez, MD. Like Darling, he has a DHR connection with Alonzo Cantu. Hernandez currently serves as medical director of surgical services (pediatric surgeon) in the Rio Grande Valley for Driscoll Children’s Hospital and is the chief medical compliance officer for DHR. As a surgeon, he’s also associated with DHR’s Bariatric and Metabolic Institute. Hernandez’s bid for Pharr mayor started out as a solo endeavor, but three men later joined him, saying that they were inspired by his decision to run and were impressed with his vision for the city – more transparency and more accountability. The three men joining him as a team (slate) include: Eleazar Guajardo, place 1 city commissioner; Ricardo Medina, place 5; and Ramiro Caballero, MD, place 6. Caballero is a neonatologist. But he doesn’t work at DHR. Instead, his pediatric subspecialty (the medical care of newborn infants, especially the ill or those born premature) is practiced at McAllen Medical Center, Rio Grande Regional, and hospitals in Mission, Edinburg and Weslaco. The Hernandez slate is calling itself Pharr Forward. Like Jim Darling two years ago, Hernandez said the decision to enter this race was of his own choosing. “I do everything with the blessings of my wife, and that’s it,” he said when asked to respond to Arturo Cortez’s charge that this election is all about “the big boys wanting to take over in Pharr.” Hernandez said he’s spending his own money in this race. There are no special interests at work in his race to the top, he said. Alonzo Cantu hasn’t given him a dime, and neither has he asked for one. Same goes for Cantu Construction, the Driscoll corporation or DHR. “I have neither asked, nor (have they) offered.” Hernandez said he doesn’t know what the problem is with regard to comments being made by the opposing slate. “But the corollary is also true. It seems to me that there is an unfortunate connection between their treasurer (newly appointed Hidalgo County Commissioner “Eddie” Cantu) and his spearheading of their campaign, mustering up support for his little vendors, helping muster up support for the groupies they still have.” Hernandez said he doesn’t believe it’s right that the newly-appointed county commissioner got involved in Pharr city politics. “This race has nothing to do with him. I don’t think it’s right that he butts into local politics. And the vendors get involved. There’s the biggest conflict of interest for you. He’s in this race (working as the treasurer) based on his own self-interests for his own family’s livelihood, which is inappropriate.” To try and see if his conflict-of-interest argument pans out, Hernandez has sent the city of Pharr several public information requests, asking for the city’s past audits and also a complete list of the vendors and consultants the city has used over the past several years, trying to uncover any connection that might exist between past political contributions and city contracts or work being let. “If you are getting work or a contract from the city, and you’re a vendor giving money to the same people awarding you the contract, then yes, I do think there is a little conflict of interest there. The city talks about how it is transparent. I think being transparent is not being conflicted.”
County Commissioner “Eddie” Cantu (no relation to Alonzo Cantu) said there’s one reason and one reason only that he chose to serve as campaign treasurer for Adan Farias and his Pharr First campaign slate: “To get the right candidates elected. And to make sure that Ricardo Medina doesn’t get back in office. He’s been there before, and we saw how that went. Let’s continue the progress, that’s why I’m involved in this election. I don’t want Ricardo Medina coming back into office and taking the city back to where we were before (the new guard) was voted into office in 2008 (Bobby Carrillo, Oscar Elizondo and Cantu).” For his part, Medina stands by his previous record on the Pharr city commission. “(Eddie Cantu and the candidates he’s supporting) want to try and make it seem as if there’s a disagreement on the city commission, that’s a bad thing,” he said. “And if you don’t agree with them, they call it a fight. But last time I checked, a city commission that has people with different viewpoints isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good thing. It shows that they’re not all a bunch of puppets, all voting the same.” Cantu said it’s not a matter of serving as puppets, but laying aside personal interests in favor of the public good. He said that’s another reason he’s supporting the Pharr First slate. “(Amos Hernandez and Ramiro Caballero) are great guys, great physicians, with a great family, great kids,” Cantu said. “But how much have they given of their time with regard to local non-profits over the years? Compare that to how much the guys on (the Pharr First slate) give of their time.” And look at the kinds of decisions the recent city commission has made, he said. “They’ve been transparent. They’ve been open. And the decisions they have made have been for all the right reasons.” Even though he’s now county commissioner, Cantu said he can still get involved in any local political race he wants to get involved in. “I used to serve on this (Pharr) city commission. And I know there’s a big difference between how this city commission runs vs. how it used to run.” The issue of illegal campaign finance – getting something in return for giving money to a political campaign or candidate, for example – doesn’t come into play, said Cantu, “as long as the candidate(s) aren’t accepting money from a person or company that’s done something illegal or shady. And as long as the candidates aren’t asking for money (or accepting money) in exchange for something. There is nothing illegal about a vendor who does business with a city, for example, donating to a particular campaign.” Look for an interview with all eight candidates next week.
By G. Romero Wendorf