The Insider

Spanish Is the Loving Tongue...
Houston lawyer John Odam has faced a guy named Morales in both of his runs for statewide office, and the experience has left him an expert witness to the appreciating value of a Hispanic surname on a Democratic primary ballot. In 1990, Odam's chief opponent for the party nomination for state attorney general was well-financed legislator Dan Morales, the eventual winner of the office. The other half of his double nemesis, Victor Morales, came swooping in from the political asteroid belt aboard a pickup truck last week to lead Dallas Congressman John Bryant into a runoff to determine the Democratic nominee for Phil Gramm's U.S. Senate seat.

When Odam first learned there would be a Mesquite school teacher and political unknown named Morales on this year's Senate primary ballot, his reaction was, "Well, there goes a third of the vote." Actually, Morales wound up with 36 percent of the first-round tally, Bryant placed second with 30 percent and Odam finished fourth, behind East Texas Congressman Jim Chapman, with just 7 percent. Odam believes voters knew very little about Morales, other than his last name, and he rejects the suggestion that it would have been worthwhile for him, as well as Bryant and Chapman, to have spent more time working the Hispanic community to offset the attraction of the Morales name.

"The real problem in a statewide race, given the limitations on time and money, is how you can educate and affect that Hispanic voter," Odam lectures. He cites Gene Green's primary victory over Felix Fraga in Houston's 29th Congressional District as proof that in a limited area, where candidates can conduct door-to-door "retail" campaigns, the advantage of a Hispanic surname can be overcome. Given the vast expanse of Texas, Odam calls the assignment "near impossible" on the statewide level.

Morales carried heavily Hispanic areas from San Antonio south by better than 2-to-1 margins over his nearest competitor. In the runoff, Odam predicts, Bryant will have a tough time making inroads among those Hispanics who voted for Morales. And contested congressional primary races involving Hispanic candidates in El Paso and the Valley, plus a handful of local runoffs, are expected to bring those voters back to the polls for the April 9 runoff. Bryant will likely receive an avalanche of endorsements from Hispanic officeholders, but Odam is dubious that endorsements can tip the election, especially given Morales' newly acquired folk-hero status. "If every Hispanic officeholder came out and held a rally for John Bryant," Odam warns, "that could have a backlash effect that works to an anti-establishment candidate like Victor's benefit."

Other observers disagree. UH political scientist Richard Murray and Rice colleague Bob Stein both pick Bryant to win over Morales in the smaller, more knowledgeable pool of runoff voters. Whatever the case, Odam believes that in the near future, statewide Democratic primary contests will be dominated by the Hispanic vote. If an unknown such as Morales can finish ahead of three eminently better-financed candidates, Odam figures a clear message has been sent to potential Hispanic contenders with serious money and conventional political backing. When a candidate of the stature of a Henry Cisneros or a Dan Morales wades in, Anglo hopefuls should "write off half your base in the Democratic Party," Odam advises.

Locally, Sylvia Garcia, the chief judge of the municipal courts, stood out by winning the Democratic nomination for county attorney without a runoff over Terry O'Rourke and Al Leal. Between them, Hispanics Garcia and Leal took 70 percent of the vote. Garcia, of course, had the added edge that seems to go to women candidates by virtue of being the only woman in the race.

O'Rourke, a veteran assistant county attorney, points to the runoff presence of Democratic county chairman hopeful Leslie Perez, a transsexual and convicted murderer, as proof positive of the redeeming electoral power of a Hispanic surname. (Born Leslie Douglas Ashley, Perez took her current surname from her prison lover.) With tongue planted firmly in cheek, O'Rourke claims he'll switch rather than fight should he ever appear on a Democratic primary ballot in the future. "There will be no Terry O'Rourke to kick around anymore," vows the unsuccessful Irishman, "cause I'm changing my name to T-e-r-i Morales."

...But Not Always
Of course, just because Hispanics are finally flexing a political muscle that's more commensurate with their share of the populace doesn't mean they've lost their taste for each other's blood, at least in Houston municipal politics. Councilman Felix Fraga, fresh from his unsuccessful effort to oust Congressman Gene Green, has now taken aim at another incumbent, this one in a non-elective position. Fraga and Council aide Manuel Barrera are organizing a campaign to get Houston Community College System administrator Irene Porcarello appointed to the Metro board seat currently held by restaurateur Rafael Acosta, who ran as a Republican for county judge in 1994. Meanwhile, Acosta has been maneuvering to get himself appointed Metro chairman when and if Mayor Bob Lanier's pal Billy Burge decides to hang it up.

Something has to give, and Barrera claims it will be Acosta, whom he accuses of failing to adequately promote Hispanic interests at the transit agency. Acosta supporter Marc Campos counters that Fraga is going after Acosta because the Metro trustee refused to support the councilman in his congressional bid and declined to intervene when Fraga's brother Lupe was forced to return overpayments made to him on a Metro contract. Barrera retorts that it was Acosta who threatened Hispanic contractors with the loss of Metro business if they supported Fraga's run for Congress.

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