Sylvia Garza-Perez, chairman-elect of the Cameron County Democratic Party, says she decided to seek the office because she wanted to unite and re-energize the party, which she sees as somewhat disorganized.
The Brownsville native and dark-horse candidate beat out Brownsville attorney John Shergold and current Democratic Party assistant chairman, Jared Hockema, on May 29 for the chairmanship.
Garza-Perez said she observed during the Texas Democratic caucus four years ago that the county party wasn't as effective and engaged as it should be. Part of her plan is to make the party better at communicating with and being accessible to voters. She wants to establish a full-time party office in Brownsville and at least a part-time office in Harlingen.
"We've never had that before in the county," she said, noting that the party office is being run out of current chairman Gilberto Hinojosa's law office. Hinojosa handed the reins to Hockema upon announcing his bid to chair the Texas Democratic Party -- a bid that ended successfully Saturday when he was chosen for the position during the Democratic State Convention in Houston.
At the county level, Garza-Perez said she wants everyone in the party to pull their weight.
"I'd like to reorganize every group of precinct chairs and make them a little bit more responsible and more accountable," she said. "We have some precinct positions that people have been in there for 10 or 15 years and they don't come to any of the meetings."
Another goal is to get more young people involved and engaged with the party, Garza-Perez said, noting that civic responsibility isn't emphasized in schools as much as it should be.
"Their voice needs to be heard," she said. "They're the leaders of tomorrow. If we don't change our party and don't turn to the younger people and get them engaged, our party's not going to move forward. Our country's not going to move forward."
Garza-Perez said she wants to re-establish women's and veterans' groups within the party and get the party's elected officials into the community.
"I don't want to have a party that just comes and talks to you during election time," she said. "We need to show the community that we care. I would like to organize town hall meetings throughout the county. People are hungry to know what their elected leaders are doing for them."
Garza-Perez acknowledged that the county party is deeply divided in the wake of scandals involving Democratic officials, such as the racketeering case against former Judge Abel C. Limas. It's vital, therefore, that the party regain voters' trust, Garza-Perez said.
Political corruption is a fact of life and always will be, she said, though she doesn't intend to let it stop her from working toward her goals as Democratic Party chair. It might help if the party would vet candidates and decide which ones best represent the party's interest, Garza-Perez said.
"It hasn't been done in the past, but it can be done," she said. "But it's going to take the precinct chairs attending the meetings and finding out what's going on."
Garza-Perez said there's no truth to rumors that her campaign received help from "politiqueros" -- people who are paid by candidates to get out votes. Herminia Becerra, a well known Brownsville "politiquera," is a distant relative of Garza-Perez.
"Her husband was my grandmother's brother," she said. "We don't have a close relationship. I guess people thought that she was helping me or campaigning for me. She wasn't. We didn't pay anybody to come and do anything for us."
Garza-Perez concedes she was "probably the long-shot candidate," noting that her campaign had very limited financial resources. She credits her win to a wide network of friends and extended family, political relationships she's forged over the years, and also ties with ordinary members of the community through her various volunteer efforts -- more than 20 years volunteering with United Way of Southern Cameron County, for instance.
Garza-Perez is a graduate of Hanna High School, earned a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Texas at Brownsville and a master's in health care administration from Phoenix University. Despite her full time job as network administrator for HealthSpring/GulfQuest in Harlingen, she said she's committed to "making a difference" as party chair. Incidentally, her election appears to be historic: Garza-Perez believes she's the first woman and the first non-attorney to be elected to the position.
"I have a long wish list," she said. "I don't know if I'll be able to go through the whole wish list, but I'm going to try. I really am going to try."
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