'McAllen first' philosophy propels small businesses to back conservative in deep blue South Texas
Small business owners in majority-Hispanic McAllen, Texas weigh in on election of conservative minded mayor.
Last summer Eliza Garza had a dream – to open a snow cone stand on the beach in South Texas. A few months later, Eliza and her business partner Margret Debruyn turned that dream into a restaurant, opening their first Iced Cube Shaved Ice in Edinburg, TX in November 2020.
Debruyn says people told them they were crazy to open a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic. Despite this, the pair doubled down on their investment, taking over the Iced Cube franchise and opening two more locations, including one in McAllen, TX.
"We opened in other cities around the [Rio Grande Valley], and it wasn't this difficult. There was a major struggle to open here in this city," says Garza.
Garza blames miscommunication with city leaders for their issues, but hopes the city’s new mayor, Javier Villalobos, will help cut through the red tape in city hall.
"The fact that he identified with my struggle, and that he wants to create solutions for it moving forward, not only for me, but any small business owner here - it really captivated me," says Garza, who endorsed Villalobos during his campaign.
Paul Zimmer, owner of Smallcakes Cupcakery and Creamery, says Villalobos’ victory is big deal.
"He wants McAllen first, he wants the people of this community to be put first," says Zimmer.
"I kept on saying, we gotta help the small businesses, the ones that put their capital at risk, immediately, and we haven’t done that as well as we should," says Mayor Villalobos.
Villalobos, the former chair of the Hidalgo County GOP, made national headlines when he defeated Veronica Vela-Whitacre by about 200 votes in a runoff election earlier this month. The race was nonpartisan, but Republicans celebrated the victory.
"Amazing news! McAllen, Texas is a major border town of 140,000 people. 85% Hispanic — and just elected a Republican mayor. The macro realignment accelerates in South Texas, and elsewhere, as Hispanics rally to America First: Strong Borders Economic Nationalism Pro-Police," tweeted former Trump 2020 campaign adviser Steve Cortes.
Hidalgo County, home of McAllen, went to President Biden by roughly 17 points in the 2020 election.
"If you say, ‘what's the most immediate or the most important thing?’ it's always going to be the economy and putting food on the table, making sure there's enough jobs for our residents," says Villalobos.
Andrew Smith, a political science professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, says it is dangerous to use the election as a bellwether.
"You have the first republican to win down here in God knows how long," says Smith. "But there were only about 10,000 [voters], and based on the preliminary evidence, it was mostly older voters who tend to go conservative down here anyway, as opposed to the younger voters who might have swung the election in a different way had they shown up," says Smith.
After the election, McAllen’s congressman, Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D) refuted any idea the town is going red, posting via his campaign Facebook account:
"McAllen is NOT a Republican town. I won 3 elections & the city of McAllen gave me 57.5%, 62.54% & 65.57%. And yes, my Republican friends voted for me too. Don’t be misled with with political fallacies! Thank you McAllen. #truth #truthbetold #honesty #HonestyAlwaysWins"
In a statement provided to Fox News, Rep.Gonzalez said:
"2020 was a once-in-a-lifetime election that took place amid a pandemic. Hidalgo County alone lost more than 3,000 lives and South Texans faced hard times economically. But thanks to Democrats and the American Rescue Plan, the vaccine is helping us get back to normal and the economy is running full steam ahead. I'm going to continue to support policies that secure more resources for South Texans to recover from the pandemic, promote oil and gas production, create good paying jobs and give those in my district more opportunities to achieve the American Dream."
Smith says that Gonzalez and other democrats ignore the shifting political landscape at their own peril.
"I do see, at least among the older generation, more of a shift coming to the Republican Party," says Smith. "Whether that will be enough to offset younger Hispanics in the area going to the Democratic Party remains to be seen."
"Hispanics are pretty conservative," says Villalobos. "They're finally being able to say, you know what, I am conservative. Some of them say I am Republican, and things are changing."
Villalobos, who runs a law practice in McAllen, says he will not quit his day job during his term. The mayor of McAllen receives a salary between $600-$1,200 per year.
Garza and Debruyn, who plan to take Iced Cube national next month, say small business owners in McAllen are defined by their hustle and grit, qualities they see in their new mayor.
"I'm really excited because I think our mayor is part of the new generation," says Debruyn. "It's time to get like the big kids, right? Let's open doors. Let's be pro-business, and let's help business owners. Because at the end of the day, the business owners are what provide the jobs, and with those jobs, comes an upgrade in socio economic level comes the support for better education and ultimately creates a better system and a better society."