Faded Love

When romance wanes, the politics can turn really personal

The chanting, expectant crowd jamming the Galleria hotel ballroom temporarily quieted as two figures stepped to the microphone. On stage to usher in the arrival of Bob Lanier at the December 1991 celebration of his first mayoral victory, Marc Campos and Betti Maldonado embraced and beamed. Few in the moneyed, Republican-tinged audience knew the loving couple.

Maldonado, now 36, was familiar at that time primarily to viewers of KUHT/Channel 8, the public television station, where she hosted a local news magazine show, and to listeners of Pacifica Radio, where she got her first on-air public exposure. Her victory promenade at a late eighties "Bayou Queen" ball, a send-up of beauty contests staged by local artists, produced an instant Public Access Channel cult classic that provided exposure of a different sort. The mischievous Maldonado raised her skirt, exposing fishnet hose and some distinctly non-commercial video vistas.

Campos, now 42, was a household name -- or epithet -- only for participants in the city's internecine Hispanic political wars, where he absorbed and inflicted plenty of bruises as strategist for then-state Representative Al Luna as they battled City Councilman Ben Reyes. In the late seventies, Campos teamed with a Roman Catholic nun to operate an advocacy center investigating Houston police brutality. In the years since, he has honed a reputation as a tough political combatant and a ladies man whose consorts were not exactly convent material.

Lanier's ascension to City Hall opened new vistas for both Campos and Maldonado. For a while, the pair seemed to have it all: passion, political clout and big-bucks consulting contracts. But then the romance waned, and the politics got really personal.

"The mayor made her a player and now she's trying to prove she can get power on her own," claims Campos, who broke up with Maldonado last year and accuses her of pursuing an ex-lover's vendetta by using her influence as a Houston port commissioner to disrupt his business. He says that despite a commitment Maldonado made not to lobby for Mexico while on the Port Commission, she's demanded he give her a share of his lucrative lobbying contract with the Mexican government.

"I didn't realize I had so much power," deadpans Maldonado, who refuses to comment directly on Campos' charges. "I really wish he would move on. I hope this doesn't mean that each time Campos fails at a project, me and the Port are going to be blamed."

Campos and Maldonado are only two strands in a tangled web of strained personal-political relationships. Campos, previously married to Mayor Lanier's legislative lobbyist, Sabrina Foster, is now romantically involved with HISD board member Paula Arnold, who's working as Governor Ann Richards' Harris County campaign coordinator. Meanwhile, Maldonado has formed Maldonado Consulting with Lisa Hernandez, an embittered ex-employee of Campos' who previously was local director of the Southwest Voter Education Registration Project.

Hernandez nuked Campos and Arnold in a sizzling broadside in the Hispanic bimonthly La Politiquera a few months back. "The extent of Paula Arnold's involvement in the Hispanic community is in the romance department," wrote Hernandez. She closed her open letter to the Hispanic community by quoting a Campos critic to the effect that Campos is "a member of that ubiquitous tribe of savages who take pleasure in urinating in the camp soup." La Politiquera also printed a letter Hernandez wrote to Kirk Adams, Governor Richards' son-in-law and campaign manager, unsuccessfully entreating him not to use Arnold as the governor's campaign chief in Harris County.

"It is obvious to me that you and the governor are totally in the dark regarding the campaign antics which are taking place at her expense here in Harris County .... How is Paula Arnold doing everything possible to meet the goal [of Ann's victory] when she excludes longtime Richards supporters and allows her boyfriend to promote his business under the guise of reelecting Ann?" A La Politiquera footnote to the letters warned that Hernandez "currently resides in Houston, Texas and is taking martial arts lessons." Yikes!

Campos says he gave Hernandez a job and loans in the wake of the folding of the local Southwest Voter Education Registration Project, which worked to register new Hispanic voters and lobbied for Hispanic interests in redistricting battles. "I took her on when no one else would hire her," says Campos, who contends Hernandez is out to get him because he replaced her and briefly hired Arnold to finish Hernandez's assignments. He credits the Maldonado and Hernandez tag team with accomplishing the near impossible.

"I've got people actually feeling sorry for me," he declares. "People tell me privately: 'God, I can't believe she's doing this. Why'd you ever go out with her? I told you about her!'"

In hindsight it is hard to believe, but for a while the Campos-Maldonado union seemed to click on all cylinders. Having helped Lanier round up an overwhelming majority of the Hispanic vote in his mud-splattered runoff with Sylvester Turner three years ago, they shared in the plums that come with being in the vanguard of a new city political order. Maldonado was named to the mayor-elect's transition team and Campos continued as a paid consultant to Lanier and an advisor in the mayor's kitchen cabinet.

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