Twilight of El Jefe

State Representative Diana Davila is rumored to also be considering a run for Reyes' seat, and she won't rule out that possibility. The two-term legislator says she's been approached by supporters "who are excited by the prospect of me running."

"Without a doubt, I do have some interest in that position, but I am really not focused or had the time to either research who the other candidates might be or if I would be a viable candidate," she says.

Someone who might have the time to do that for her is Davila's boyfriend, former state representative Roman Martinez, who lost state Senate bids in 1992 against John Whitmire and last year against Mario Gallegos. Martinez recently signed on with Reyes as the chief of the councilman's staff, but he lives outside the district and has no intention of trying to succeed Reyes.

Lacking a staff manager since Jessica Farrar was elected to the State House last year, Reyes called in Martinez, who was at loose ends after his last Senate race, earlier this year. "After Farrar's departure, Reyes' office had become disorganized," says one source familiar with the operation. "Ben's great at what he does, but that doesn't make him a great person to run a staff."

Martinez agrees that whoever takes over Reyes' seat will be in a position to set the tone for Houston's Hispanic leader-ship heading into a century of expected political dominance.

"It will be a very significant race. District I was the first City Council seat that we had here in Houston, and it encompasses pretty much what is the power base of the Hispanic vote here in Harris County -- the traditional neighborhoods of Denver Harbor, Magnolia Gardens, Pecan Park," he says.

On the other hand, District I is no longer the only base of Hispanic power on the 14-member Council, with Gracie Saenz holding an at-large seat and Felix Fraga representing District H, which encompasses most of the Heights-North Houston area. And whoever succeeds Reyes would surely lack his legendary political craftiness and ability to mobilize a decades-old political machine.

As for encouraging Davila to run, Martinez says, "We do have strong a personal and political relationship, and I'm going to support her in whatever she does, but I don't think she's made a decision."

Two other likely candidates for the race are Luciano Salinas, a community college placement director, and activist W.R. Morris, who works for Lanier's Citizens Assistance Office.

Beyond next fall's Council races lies the Democratic primary for Green's congressional seat, a prize that continues to frustrate and attract Hispanic politicians in Harris County.

"The thing that really rallied everyone in the redistricting effort was the congressional seat," says Martinez, who as a state representative helped craft the district's lines. "Even now there's a lack of understanding about how significant our community is in Harris County. We don't have someone at the national level to represent us. We will reach our goal of true political power when we reach the elusive goal of winning that congressional district."

With Reyes a three-time loser for the seat, Saenz, the only Hispanic holding a citywide office, is seen by many as the strongest Mexican-American challenger to Green. After an expected third election this year, Saenz would be in her final term on Council -- the same situation that Sheila Jackson Lee found herself in last year when she ousted Congressman Craig Washington in the Democratic primary.

According to Saenz, she's been approached by many people to run for Congress -- or for a position on Commissioners Court, a judgeship or even a state legislative post. "That gives me a lot of confidence I'm doing something right," she says. "The thing I'm learning is that the minute you say anything, it comes back to haunt you. The thing I'm trying to do is concentrate on my re-election."

Saenz would not be able to transfer any funds raised for her Council campaign to a congressional race, but that did not prove an overwhelming problem for Lee. And Green, by voting against NAFTA, irritated the downtown business establishment, which might provide a handy source of funding for Saenz, as it did for Lee. And when you consider the possibility that the expected blockbuster Republican presidential race could draw many of Green's Anglo supporters into the GOP primary, the 1996 election may provide a rare window of opportunity for a Hispanic contender in the 29th District's Democratic primary.

Saenz's main drawback is that she has no experience in partisan Democratic politics. That, perhaps, would be an indispensable quality in upsetting a seasoned incumbent like Green, a hardworking, constituent-oriented congressman who's hustled to enlarge his own support among Hispanics.

-- Tim Fleck

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