IT’S NOT EXACTLY BRITAIN ceding Hong Kong back to China, but the May election in which McAllen mayor Othal Brand was turned out of office was significant on two fronts. First, Leo Montalvo’s razor-thin victory—a 144-vote margin out of more than 13,000 votes cast—earned him the distinction of being the first Hispanic to lead one of the Rio Grande Valley’s biggest and most-Hispanic cities. Second, and more important, it ended Brand’s twenty-year reign, the longest tenure of any big-time Texas mayor and certainly one of the most colorful.
Though there were obvious Anglo-versus-Latino implications, the differences between Montalvo and Brand boiled down to style. Montalvo, 53, is a relatively low-key former public school educator who earned a law degree from the University of Texas while in his thirties and went on to serve for fourteen years as one of McAllen’s city commissioners. By contrast, the 77-year-old Brand is an agribusinessman who made his name trucking onions from Georgia to the Valley in the forties. He’s also a gruff, opinionated ex-Marine who has never shied away from confrontation or controversy. As a grower in 1975, he requested that then-governor Dolph Briscoe call in the National Guard to put down a strike by the United Farm Workers. As mayor he fought price gouging by local gasoline retailers by selling cheaper gas to the public from his own pumps. And he was the kind of politician who refused to change with the times: In August 1995, for instance, when Brand issued a ticket to Houston truck driver Ramiro Montes—whom he alleged was doing 65 miles per hour in a 35 mile-per-hour zone—he informed him, “This is the United States; this isn’t Mexico.” (A jury ultimately dismissed Montes’ ticket.) And after the election Brand grumbled to a McAllen Monitor reporter that he saw “hundreds of people who didn’t speak a word of English hauled out” to vote.
Such antics belie the broad support Brand long enjoyed among Hispanics as well as Anglos. He was instrumental in bringing water and sewer facilities to numerous colonias. He helped build orphanages. The McAllen Boys and Girls Club building bears his name, a tribute to his tireless fundraising efforts. And his leadership helped McAllen grow and prosper, despite having one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.
But for all his civic acumen, Brand was occasionally tone-deaf when it came to the politics of perception. As the McAllen Monitor reported, Brand received a $36,000 commission from the 1995 sale to the city of property he managed for an out-of-town landowner. Though the mayor had abstained from voting on the site acquisition, and though the purchase was well below market value, the buzz was that he had profited from an insider deal. Signs reading “$36,000”—nothing more—popped up around town, and the issue nagged him during the campaign’s waning days.
What now for McAllen? Mayor Montalvo has already instituted at least one symbolic change, retiring the gavel Brand relished wielding to maintain order at city commission meetings. And what lies ahead for Brand? Ever the curmudgeon, he refused to be interviewed for this story.