By MICHAEL RODRIGUEZ
In an overwhelming call for change in leadership, unofficial results of Saturday’s general elections in San Benito saw citizens elect the community’s first female mayor and institute a shift in power on the San Benito CISD Board of Trustees.
According to uncanvassed votes in the San Benito City Commission and SBCISD races, 2,286 ballots in the former and 3,108 in the latter were cast in the respective elections – numbers which include early voting tallies. However, the number of provisional ballots that may be pending was not confirmed as of presstime.
Celeste Z. Sanchez – former San Benito City Commissioner, soon-to-be retired SBCISD Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction and now Mayor-elect – was ecstatic about the turnout, which saw her defeat incumbent Joe H. Hernandez by a 448-vote margin, 1,390 to 942.
“I’m humbled and grateful that the citizens of San Benito put their trust in me to be their mayor, and I will work hard and try not to disappoint them,” Sanchez said. Concerning her margin of victory, she noted, “I attribute that to my grassroots campaign. I got out with the public, visited their homes, listened to people and their concerns, and I also think that the majority of the people I met wanted a change.”
On her election as the first female mayor in San Benito, Sanchez said, “I’m very humbled to finally break that glass ceiling that used to sit here in San Benito, but I hope that I’ll be a role model for other women that are interested in public office.”
“I think my first order of business,” she added, “is to familiarize myself with the revenues of the city and the expenditures, because people ask me, ‘Where is my water increase going.’ So my first order of business is to get a thorough presentation and review of the budget to let people know where their money is being spent.”
Hernandez, who has served as Mayor of San Benito for nearly 10 years, expressed shock, saying, “I can’t believe it,” immediately after the results were announced. When asked if he would consider running again in the future, Hernandez said, “I think this would be it. I had already mentioned to my family that, win or lose, this was going to be it.”
Furthermore, Hernandez partially attributed his defeat to allegations levied against him in recent years. Specific accusations include making terroristic threats to a former City Commissioner and abuse of official capacity in the raspagate scandal, in which he was accused of circumventing the City permitting process by providing City utilities to a snowcone stand owner who operated on Hernandez’ barbershop property. Said claims have since been dismissed via a not guilty jury verdict in the first case and through the completion of a pre-trial diversion program in the second.
“Maybe what they’ve done to me in the past, the allegations, did have an impact on it (election turnout),” Hernandez said. “And, of course, she (Sanchez) did spend a lot of money – that could have been the outcome of it.”
Hernandez, however, expressed pride in his tenure as mayor. “I am actually very proud of what I did while I was the Mayor of the City of San Benito and had the citizens and the city of San Benito in mind all the time,” Hernandez said.
Taking the Place 1 City Commissioner race was incumbent Antonio “Tony” Gonzales over Joe F. Rodriguez, 1,212 votes to 1,036.
“I was expecting it a little closer than that,” Gonzales said. “This gentleman (Rodriguez) worked really hard. I was victorious though, and I’m very happy with that. San Benito has been very progressive with this commission we’ve had these three years. We’ve worked very [well], but politics are politics. Everybody thought I was going to win by a lot, but I was worried. The gentleman did what he had to do and I did what I had to do.”
Rodriguez, a former budget consultant and computer, mainframe, systems and pricing analyst, said he did not expect such a large turnout in his favor given that he did not accept any political contributions nor did he make many expenditures. “I believe I sent out a good message, that if you like what’s going on, don’t vote for me, but if you don’t like it, vote for me,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t put as much effort as I should have, mostly because the last few weeks my mom was ill, so I didn’t go out and campaign as much.”
Still, Rodriguez attributed his turnout to a single expense: a political advertisement seen on the San Benito News website, sbnewspaper.com.
“You don’t need a lot of money to win,” Rodriguez said. “The San Benito News web ad helped me a lot because it reached a lot of people, and it got my message out that I’ve got the experience and the knowledge to do this job.”
Pl. 2 Commissioner Rene Villafranco, though the would-be victor in his race against challenger Shirley Vega, will face a recount as he narrowly took the tally by six votes, 1,146 to 1,140.
“I’m still confident that six votes are not going to come out,” Villafranco said. “[There may be] one or two, but that’s always the case during a recount.”
“I’m very impressed and just honored that people have that much confidence in me,” Vega said of her voter turnout. “I did see some discrepancies when I was there at City Hall taking care of business. I saw elderly people walk in and they didn’t have their driver’s license, so they couldn’t vote even though they didn’t drive anymore and were very disappointed. And I understand there were some provisional votes – people that didn’t have their ID but they let them sign a waiver and let them vote. That is a cause of concern for me, so I owe it to my constituents and my supporters to request a recount.”
School board races saw two incumbents re-elected and as many challengers successful in their bids.
In the Pl. 4 race, Arnold Padilla, former City Commissioner and current executive director of the San Benito Housing Authority, defeated incumbent June Aguilera by a significant margin of 1,288 votes – 2,170 to 882.
“I’m happy about the way things turned out, and from my part I’m pleased that the constituents and all the people voting felt that they had enough confidence in me to step forward, be involved and help bring this district back to where it should be: fiscally sound with strong educational programs and successful programs for our community,” Padilla said. “I’m extremely pleased and happy with the result. We’re not going to take anything away from my opponent. I’m happy that someone that young gets involved and I really do not ever want to take away from someone wanting to get involved, but I think that what we’ve seen is a lack of experience cause some problems in that representation, and maybe the community felt that we needed someone a little more seasoned who has been involved in federal programs and understands budgets well. I believe I bring enough of that to the table to be a productive trustee.”
A visibly emotional Aguilera did not rule out running again in the future. “It’s definitely something that I’m considering,” Aguilera said. “I want to be here for the kids. If they (new board members) do anything to hurt those kids or anybody in this district or our community members, staff or anybody, then I’ll be the first one to come out and now they’ll have two Aguileras for public comment.”
Aguilera was referring to her father, Jesus “Chuy” Aguilera, who is a regular speaker during the public comments portion of regular board meetings.
Hector Leal, Pl. 5 incumbent and longtime board member, won the vote with a resounding 1,675 ballots cast in his favor to City of San Benito employee Roberto “Bobby” Benavides’ 650, Progreso teacher Rene Salinas’ 452 and U.S. Customs and Border Protection employee Joyce Aguirre’s 274.
Leal was unavailable for comment Saturday night; his son, Hector Leal Jr., said the Pl. 5 board member and photographer was shooting the local high school prom that evening.
Benavides and Salinas, though displeased with the outcome, said they enjoyed the experience of running for public office and were uncertain whether they’d consider running again.
Pl. 6 incumbent Oscar Medrano won his race against challenger Orlando “Papas” Lopez, a radiology manager, by 642 votes, 1,855 to 1,213.
“It means a lot to me,” Medrano said of his victory. “I thank all the volunteers that helped me out, my supporters and the voters of San Benito. The voters have spoken, and I just want to thank everybody for coming out to vote. We’ve got to get this district ahead. We have a lot of work to do and I want to thank everybody.”
Lopez said, “I’m very fortunate to have my family and I’ll be moving forward with them after this race. I just hope the new clan going in will do what’s right, hold people accountable and focus on the kids. So now I’ll sit down with my family to see about running again in the future.”
In what was arguably the most contested race of the school board election, Angel Mendez, a college readiness specialist, took 1,094 votes to secure a win over Pl. 7 incumbent Julian Huerta (788), former City fire chief, ex-Commissioner and retired SBCISD truancy officer Gilbert Weaver (721); and business owner Esteban “Steve” Rodriguez (453).
“I think the community wants change,” Mendez said about the vote. “They really want a stable board, and I think that the new group of individuals coming in is coming with that vision and that hope that stability comes back to the district. We’re here for our community and our kids and that’s what we’re going to be concentrating on.”
Huerta declined comment after the voting tally was announced; Rodriguez and Weaver, like Benavides and Salinas, were grateful for the opportunity to run for public office.
Votes are expected to be canvassed at the next city commission and school board meetings.