A district judge ordered a new election to be held in the run-off for Kleberg County Pct. 4 Justice of the Peace Tuesday, after ruling that seven votes cast in the May 22 election were invalid.
The ruling came at the end of a two-day hearing in the election contest, which was filed by challenger Ofelia “Ofie” Gutierrez against incumbent Cheque De La Paz. Gutierrez lost the May 22 run-off by six votes, 318 to 312, and filed suit contesting the results on June 8.
Visiting District Judge Joel Johnson presided over the hearing, which was held in the 105th District Court. Although technically a hearing, the setting operated in a manner similar to a trial, with attorneys for both parties presenting evidence and questioning witnesses.
Gutierrez was represented by Kingsville attorney Frank Alvarez, who focused on five adults who registered to vote using Cheque De La Paz’s home address on Santa Gertrudis Boulevard. Those included De La Paz’s daughter Mariselda Ann De La Paz and her boyfriend, Modesto Garza, De La Paz’s granddaughter, Vanessa Delbosque and her boyfriend, Eloy Hernandez, and De La Paz’s daughter Margo De La Paz.
Testimony also centered on Rogelio and Rachel De La Paz, who claimed to live in a home on Avenue B with several other relatives.
Evidence presented during the hearing showed Mariselda De La Paz and Rogelio and Rachel De La Paz owned homes in the Ricardo area, while Margo De La Paz owned a home and worked in Boerne, Texas in Bexar County.
Margo De La Paz and Modesto Garza were not called to testify in the case, but Rogelio De La Paz, Rachel De La Paz and Mariselda De La Paz all testified they did live at the Precinct 4 addresses on their voter registration cards.
In her closing arguments, De La Paz’s attorney, Natasha Torres, said Gutierrez was entitled to contest the election, but the evidence was not in her favor.
“If you can’t handle the heat, stay out of the kitchen,” Torres said. “She lost fair and square. She lost by seven votes and she wasn’t happy, so she asked for a recount. And she still lost by six votes. She lost fair.”
In his closing, Alvarez said De La Paz was concerned when he found himself in a run-off election for the office he has held for more than 20 years.
“What that proves, your honor, is what extent a family will go to continue on in this position,” Alvarez said. “They talk about ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,’ but in this case if you can’t win fairly, you can’t cheat.”
Judge Johnson said evidence presented on four individuals did not meet the criteria of being “clear and convincing” that was required by law. That included two men Alvarez had said were registered to vote by Vanessa Delbosque, De La Paz’s granddaughter, placing them at an address Alvarez argued was vacant.
Johnson ruled votes cast by Modesto Garza Jr., Mariselda De La Paz, Margo De La Paz, Rogelio De La Paz, Rachel De La Paz, Vanessa Delbosque and Eloy Hernandez were not valid.
“As to Rogelio and Rachel De La Paz, I find that you have established by clear and convincing evidence that those folks were not honest when they testified regarding their residence, and they are not residents of Precinct 4,” Johnson said. “As to Margo (De La Paz), I find that she is not a resident of even this county, and certainly not the precinct. As to (Modesto) and Mariselda, their story didn’t hold water, and I find that they are not residents of the precinct.”
Judge Johnson ruled quickly on those five, but paused for several minutes before passing judgment on the remaining two voters.
“The issue of credibility on the last two, Eloy and Vanessa, is problematic for the court. Their story could be true and it could not be true. But it isn’t lost on me that Vanessa is the person who signed up the two people you are so vehemently convinced that you’re correct on,” Johnson said to Alvarez. “I find that you’ve established by clear and convincing evidence that Eloy and Vanessa are not residents of this precinct’s dwelling.”
De La Paz disagreed with the court’s finding Tuesday, and insisted Hernandez and Delbosque do live in his home.
“I’m not happy,” De La Paz said. “We’re going to have a new election. That’s not right. You can go over (to my house) right now and you can see that they live there.”
Gutierrez said she was disappointed the judge did not declare her the winner of the election, but said she was ready to campaign in the new election.
“It’s not what I wanted, but I’m here for my constituents and all the Precinct 4 people who wanted change,” Gutierrez said. “We worked very hard for this election. We played it clean.”
Court officials could not immediately determine when a new election will be held.
Christopher Maher can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (361) 221-0242.