Port candidates make their pitches; Two seats in contention for this year’s election

Three Brownsville Navigation District Board seats are on the ballot this coming election, though incumbents in only two of those seats are facing challengers.

BND Place 3 commissioner and Chairman John Reed, first elected to the board in 2008, is facing franchise hotel builder/manager Julio Graña in the election, while Place 5 commissioner and Vice Chairman Sergio Tito Lopez, whose first term began in 2010, is being challenged by University of Texas Rio Grande Valley professor emeritus and retired chairman of UTRGV’s engineering department Bill Berg. Place 1 commissioner and board Secretary Ralph Cowen, first elected in 2008, is running unopposed.

The Herald asked the candidates for Places 3 and 5 why they consider themselves the best choice to steer the Port of Brownsville for the next four years.

Graña, who graduated from the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, said his experience growing up in his family’s hotel business taught him “what it takes to grow a business.” He is a former board member of the Brownsville Convention and Visitors Bureau and current senior adviser to Texas Regional Bank.

“I am very committed and heavily invested in my community,” Graña said. “Brownsville’s location is strategic with so much untapped potential.”

The longtime Brownsville resident said the incumbent Reed has been “complacent over time” and failed to fully take advantage of the port’s potential for economic growth, job creation and “development in the community.” Graña argued that he’s the better candidate for Place 3 because he is a self-starter who takes advantage of opportunities, and because he is self-employed has the time necessary to “maximize the port’s economic development and build a stronger relationship with our community.”

On the issue of development of liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals at the port, which BND is pursuing, Graña said he is in favor of LNG “as long as there are good negotiations done properly” that benefit the community and are environmentally responsible. He said he would be an effective leader on the BND board because of his hands-on experience creating new businesses and jobs and building strong and effective teams. Graña said he manages more than 100 employees and that he knows how to motivate them and teach them “the importance of giving back to the community” and having passion for what they do, and how those things lead to success.

Reed said he should be elected to another term based on his record over 12 years on the BND board, with four years as chairman. The growth of the port during that time is the result of the “very hard work” that he and his fellow commissioners and port staff have put in.

“This is achieved by listening, working together and understanding not only the current needs of the port but what the needs will be into the future,” he said. “That is why I have been a strong proponent of putting money into infrastructure projects and lowering taxes. By having the infrastructure in place and low property taxes you not only attract industry and create jobs but you help the overall economy of Brownsville and the region.”

Reed said that since he was first elected to the board the port has invested more than $100 million in docks, roads, water lines, lighting, cranes, buildings and other facilities. All of it was done with no increase in taxes and, in fact, a lower tax rate almost every year, he said. Reed said he has been entrusted by the district’s residents to be a good steward of port assets, and that he takes the responsibility very seriously to make sure taxpayer money is “invested wisely and with the greatest overall positive impact to our community.

Reed said his 35 years of banking experience, dozen years on the BND board, ability to work well with others and complete grasp of the port’s needs and value as an economic engine put him in a position to “effectively continue to help guide the port as a commissioner.” The Brownsville native, who graduated from Texas State University with a bachelor’s in business administration, has served on a number of community boards including the American Red Cross, Boys and Girls Club, Brownsville Chamber of Commerce, Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport, Episcopal Day School and Valley Regional Medical Center.

Reed said his top priorities for the port include securing funding to deepen the Brownsville Ship Channel, continue to seek out companies to locate at the port and bring ship traffic and high-paying jobs, continue to assist existing port tenants with expansion, finalize a project next year that will make the port one of the world’s biggest steel importers and exporters, and continue investing in the infrastructure necessary to keep growing the port.

Berg, who moved to Brownsville in 1997 with a faculty appointment at the University of Texas at Brownsville and retired as engineering department chairman in 2013, is firmly anti-LNG and said his transparent purpose in running for Place 5 is “to keep our port clean and protect the environment so that we can eat the fish we catch there, enjoy the view as we drive past and smell the ocean, not petrochemicals.”

He described the Port of Brownsville as “the cleanest port in Texas” compared to the state’s other ports, which are either already polluted or heading that way. The Port of Corpus Christi for instance is “expanding its petrochemical commitment rapidly,” Berg said, adding that higher rates of cancer, asthma and childhood illnesses surround polluted ports.

“We can’t let that happen here,” he said.

Berg said he would fight to “hold the port back from the petrochemical abyss” and against extending leases to refineries of crude oil and fracking products, and would oppose extending further leases to LNG companies for future projects. He said he would not try to stop current business at the port such as shrimping, which he described as “an important contribution to our economy and culture,” and said gasoline and diesel shipments out of the port are important as long as a market exists. Berg said he would encourage “synergistic manufacturing” as between ship-breaking, shipbuilding and steel mill operations.

He added that he would bring board technical and engineering expertise to the BND board that it currently lacks and be the board’s sole voice against climate change. Berg holds a doctorate in applied physics and energy engineering from the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Lopez said he brings 30 years of international trade and logistical experience to the BND board. The lifelong Brownsville resident owns Jonick-Lopez International Transport, a freight-forwarding business with shipping and warehouse operations in Brownsville and Matamoros that employs more than 100 workers. Lopez has also served as the local president and national vice president of the Mexican transportation group Camara Nacional de Carga.

“I have the actual experience and knowledge to move cargoes to and from both countries, which by the way Mexico is the port’s number-one customer,” he said.

Lopez, whose education includes a transportation degree from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said that if reelected to Place 5 his priorities would include continued growth and fiscal transparency, promoting the port and bringing in new investment, and helping create jobs “directly and indirectly.”