Mayor Juan “Trey” Mendez III is a lawyer and an entrepreneur when he’s not acting out his civic duties. Sometimes you’ll find him complaining about his lack of mayoral salary. On other days, he’s using his platform to credit Elon Musk for making his hometown a viable investment project.
“The Renaissance of Downtown Brownsville,” as Mendez put it in remarks for the 2021 State of the City address, has brought investment to the city he once could only dream of. Banks struggled to “understand the vision” when Mendez first started investing in downtown a decade ago. “In 2021, banks are not only comfortable lending to projects Downtown, but actively seek to fund even more…”
The mayor bracketed his state of the city speech with the space industry. He mentioned Musk’s March 30 tweet encouraging relocations to Brownsville. He spoke about the SN11 launch, obscured the part about the explosion and rocket debris, then incorrectly stated that “Starbase” is located in Brownsville.
Mendez co-owns downtown’s Dodici Pizza & Wine. He also owns properties and a law firm, some of which are located in a Texas Enterprise Zone and are eligible for tax breaks, according to maps from the Texas Economic Development & Tourism Office. Like other business owners, his downtown investments may stand to benefit as property values rise, tourism grows, and investors are no longer afraid to dive in.
One of the documents from a records request shows GBIC’s expenditures. Included on the list was a $394.39 charge from Dodici for a June 2021 dinner meeting with the city of Brownsville and “Project Momentum.”
Last year, when officials realized Mendez’s LLC Urban 8 Properties had been awarded a $200,000 grant from the Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation (on which he is a sitting board member) to flip the old Coca-Cola building into a retail space, they investigated him on a formal ethics complaint. According to The Brownsville Herald, officials contemplated rewriting the advisory board’s investigative authority to prevent anyone from doing it again.
BCIC had stipulated that board members could apply, so officials eventually dismissed the complaint. But Ramiro Gonzalez, also managing member at Urban 8, resigned from his position in city government when the information came to light, the article stated. The story identified that $2 million in funding for the program had been donated by the Musk Foundation.
A researcher I spoke to who works at the intersection of economics and public policy made clear that at the end of the day, this is the system at work. State and local officials have incentive to interact with Elon Musk and other aerospace industry investors in ways that bolster public image and uphold that status quo. In order to entice investment and create a base of taxpayer money, leaders must first attract investment by pushing poverty out of sight. And as property values rise, displacement grows.
The goal of those with wealth and power becomes an effort to keep signs of poverty invisible, dissent silenced, and those with a voice comfortable enough not to ask questions. After all, people with money simply work harder, are smarter and more innovative than the rest of us working for wages that barely cover rent.
Musk, Mendez, and others like them won’t acknowledge the harm most people experience as they profit in part because doing so would mean unraveling the system itself.
Inclusive growth means examining capitalism at its roots and rethinking narratives that ask us to ignore reality. To address the problem is to roll back the blinders and take hold of a collective identity – one that doesn’t exclude the people below you.