EDINBURG, April 1 - If Hidalgo County Commissioners have one eye on the general election when selecting an interim sheriff they might want to check the political affiliations of the candidates they are considering.
Commissioners Court will appoint an interim sheriff on Wednesday. That person will head the 800-person Sheriff’s Department until the November general election, when Hidalgo County voters get to have their say.
County commissioners are likely aware that if a candidate for sheriff voted in the Democratic Party primary, he or she cannot run as a Republican or an Independent in the general election. Likewise, if a candidate for sheriff voted in the Republican Party primary, he or she cannot run as a Democrat or an Independent in the general election. However, a person can run as a Write-In candidate if they voted in the Democratic or Republican primaries. These rules are laid out in the Texas Election Code.
The party affiliation of a sheriff candidate could be crucial to his or her chances of success at the ballot box, says Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia.
“Sheriff Treviño was a Democrat and ran as a Democrat and was elected as a Democrat. More likely than not, the next sheriff of Hidalgo County will also be a Democrat. Historically speaking, the voters of this county, in recent history, have been voting solidly Democrat. I would assume that would probably keep on being the case, if you are asking me for an opinion. Do I know? No, nobody knows,” Garcia said.
There is no time to run background checks or to seriously vet the candidates for interim sheriff. The vacancy only occurred last Friday when embattled Sheriff Lupe Treviño abruptly announced he was resigning with immediate effect. On Wednesday, the five-member Commissioners Court will choose an interim.
According to the scuttlebutt at the courthouse, opinions are split on who to select as interim sheriff. Judge Garcia and Hidalgo County Commissioner for Precinct 4 Joseph Palacios are thought to support the appointment of former Hidalgo County Sheriff Henry Escalon. Hidalgo County Commissioner for Precinct One A.C. Cuellar and Hidalgo County Commissioner for Precinct 3 Joe Flores are thought to support the appointment of Hidalgo County Constable for Precinct 4 Eddie Guerra. If this is so it would leave outgoing Hidalgo County Commissioner for Precinct 2 Tito Palacios with the casting vote.
Speaking on KURV Radio on Monday, Judge Garcia said he favors someone from the outside taking over the Sheriff’s Department.
“My preference is outside the department. We have got to restore some trust and confidence in this department, with the community. I feel it would be better to bring someone in from the outside, someone who is not connected with any internal group,” Garcia said. Asked to define “outside,” Garcia said he would consider a constable to be outside the Sheriff’s Department. “Constables are being considered, police chiefs are being considered, federal people are being considered, former DPS, present DPS have expressed an interest. Hopefully a consensus will come through quickly.”
Once an interim sheriff is appointed, much of the focus will likely turn to who might run for sheriff in November. Because the primaries are over, selecting the candidates to appear on the November ballot will be left to the precinct chairs of the Hidalgo County Democratic Party and the precinct chairs of the Hidalgo County Republican Party. The precinct chairs cannot meet until late June, when new precinct chairs are sworn into office. One candidate from the Democratic Party and one candidate from the Republican Party can be added to the general election ballot. In addition, there could be a number of Independent or Write-In candidates on the ballot.
Political pundits believe that having an election for sheriff will undoubtedly lead to a higher turnout in November, with voters likely wanting to have their say on the tarnished reputation of the Sheriff’s Department. Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra is a friend of Sheriff Treviño’s. However, Guerra has said the public’s trust in the Sheriff’s Department went from “absolute to zero” because of what happened with the so-called Panama Unit. In late 2012, indictments were handed down against various members of the Panama Unit, a special task force set up to target street-level drug dealers. However, many of those in the unit were actually helping drug dealers steal from other drug dealers. Sheriff Treviño’s son Jonathon, a Mission police officer, effectively led the Panama Unit. Sheriff Treviño said that the day the Panama Unit’s illegal activity became public, Dec. 12, 2012, was his “9/1.” Another dark day was Christmas Eve, 2013, when Commander Jose Padilla, a trusted colleague of the sheriff’s, was indicted on drug and money laundering charges.
Treviño defeated Escalon in 2004 to become sheriff. He was re-elected in 2008 and 2012. His Democratic Party primary opponent in 2012, Geovani Hernandez has applied to become interim sheriff. He is currently police chief in La Joya. Other known applicants for the post of interim sheriff include:
• Francisco Gallegos
• Juan Gonzalez - San Juan police chief
• Daniel Garcia - Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office commander in charge of the jail
• Fred Ball - former special agent in charge of the DEA McAllen district office
• Tom Whitten - former Harlingen police chief
• Ricardo Herrera - Rio Hondo reserve police officer
• Adan Munoz Jr. - former Kelberg County sheriff
• Esteban Soto - former deputy U.S. Marshal in the southern district of Texas