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Governor Candidates Sparring Over 'Third World' Remark

Laura Buckman / Bob Daemmrich

The latest debate between the major candidates for governor is taking place in the letters to the editor section of McAllen's newspaper, The Monitor. The sparring began after remarks about the border made by Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, in which he compared public corruption in South Texas to “third-world country practices.”

Abbott made the comment during a campaign stop in Dallas last week. Democrats immediately took issue with his comparison. His expected Democratic opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis, joined them with a letter to The Monitor on Sunday. She called on Abbott to apologize for his remarks, disputing his comparison and calling it hurtful to the state and harmful to economic development in border communities.

“Our state needs leadership that is grounded in facts and is ready to open up new opportunities with trade and commerce which currently support hundreds of thousands of jobs in Texas,” Davis said in a statement to the Tribune that mirrored her comments in the paper.

After his initial comments, Abbott had been silent on the matter until Sunday. In response to her letter, he called the senator "clueless" about the region and vowed to respond, apparently in a letter to The Monitor that his campaign declined to share in advance.

Abbott unveiled a border security plan last week. While Davis has not done the same, her remarks suggest that she intends to take a different approach to the border than the attorney general’s proposal to increase security personnel at an expected cost of about $300 million.

“If we're going to spend more money on the border, let's work to reduce wait times at our ports of entry and create more jobs for Texas,” Davis added in both her statement and in her letter to The Monitor. “Instead of using divisive rhetoric, as governor I will fight to expand opportunity for all Texans.”

On Tuesday, Abbott referred to recent drug cartel bribery investigations in South Texas that allegedly involved a state district judge and others as part of his remarks while announcing new policy proposals in which he called for increased border security.

“The creeping corruption resembles third-world country practices that erode the social fabric of our communities and destroy Texans’ trust and confidence in government,” Abbott said during the event.

Davis’ criticism of Abbott came two days after a Monitor editorial bashed Abbott for his Dallas remarks and called on him to apologize. His full answer will apparently come in Tuesday's edition of the paper. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment, and the attorney general's only response to Davis’ critique came via social media.

“Wait till you see my response to her Monitor piece. It will show how clueless she is about the RGV,” Abbott wrote in response to a Tribune reporter on his Twitter account.

Others along the border have criticized Abbott and demanded that he issue an apology, including state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, and Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas, who told a local Fox affiliate that Abbott's remarks were "discriminatory, racial and out of line."

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, questioned Abbott's “demeaning” remarks and said several metrics prove that the border is secure, including crime rates, undocumented crossings and federal boots on the ground.

“Statements to the otherwise from high-ranking state officials not only fly in the face of the facts, they harm our communities' economic development efforts, a point consistently made by our local business and civic leaders,” Rodríguez said. “Apparently, their concerns have not been heard, although [Attorney General] Abbott certainly comes to El Paso often enough to raise money.”

Abbott is scheduled to make a campaign stop in El Paso on Monday to promote his border security plan.

Richard Dayoub, president and CEO of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, said comments that elicit a negative perception of areas along the border are bad for business for all communities in the region because they lead others to question safety.

“The unfortunate thing is that we have vibrant economies all along the southern border despite misstatements and misrepresentations that occur,” Dayoub said, adding that several state officials in high-ranking positions have made “blanket statements that are detrimental” to the area. “But for every ounce of sweat that we put into the effort of trying to appeal to corporations across the country, statements like that set us back.”

Former state Rep. Aaron Peña of Edinburg, who is the chairman of the Republican National Committee’s Hispanic engagement team, defended Abbott and said the attorney general’s remarks had been “twisted for partisan gain.”

“I want to say without reservation that the border region is not third world,” Peña said, but added that most public officials ignore the corruption that exists in the area. “Many of us are very pleased with any public official who’s willing to stand up and face the obvious and ask citizens to rally behind him to try to make a positive change. I think Greg Abbott is going to make a difference because he’s not afraid to talk about it.”

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