Great Brown Hope

With her arms pinned to her sides, Gracie Saenz stood frozen on the elevated stage in front of City Hall, buffeted, literally, by a force that was beyond her control.

A few minutes earlier, the councilwoman had formally declared her candidacy for mayor. The mariachi band had played a number or two, and the crowd that had gathered for her announcement was breaking up. But some of Saenz's Chinese-American supporters had arranged for a dragon dance as a finale, and the troupe of teenagers in the dragon's costume was now snaking around the candidate, rubbing up against her in a manner that could only be described as sensuous.

Saenz managed a faint smile, but her rigid body language -- and the way she politely tried to lean away from the nuzzling dragon -- suggested extreme discomfort. A week later, she could laugh about it. "I wasn't sure what was gonna happen there," she explained. Nobody told her that the dance was for good luck.

It was an awkward moment, even for someone like Saenz, who, after winning three citywide elections, is probably accustomed to the small, routine indignities of campaigning for office. But multiculturalism can be an awkward business, especially if you're running for mayor of Houston this year. Facing an electorate splintered among black, brown and white voters, with Asian-Americans a much smaller but not inconsequential component, none of the contenders -- black, brown or white -- can rely solely on their own tribe to win. The trick for each, then, is to ensure that he or she can get enough of his or her tribe to the polls on November 4 and survive for the inevitable runoff -- without alienating or polarizing the other tribes.

It's no trickier for Saenz than it is for any of the other candidates. Yet she, of all of those who have declared their intent to run, has been the most open about the nature of her endeavor. In her announcement speech, Saenz twice referred to her candidacy as "historic." She says the obligatory things about her white and African-American support, and she certainly has some, but she's clearly pinning her hopes on energizing the normally tepid Hispanic vote in a way that it's never been energized before. Even the most generous estimates peg that vote at no more than 15 percent of the total, but with five big-name candidates and maybe more, one who can claim a sizable share of a double-digit percentage has to be taken seriously.

It's not the first time a serious Hispanic contender has sought the mayor's office -- former city controller Leonel Castillo mounted an unsuccessful bid in 1979, after quitting as the Carter administration's INS commissioner -- but Saenz will be the first since the massive and continuing immigration of Mexicans and Central Americans that has been transforming Houston since the early 1980s, not to mention the first woman. And her candidacy comes at a time when Hispanic political strength, if nowhere near commensurate with the Hispanic population, has crossed the line from hope to reality. Four of the 14 members of City Council are Hispanic -- six years ago, there was one -- and a Latino surname now provides a definite edge in a county Democratic primary.

Saenz, however, would seem a peculiar candidate to carry the hopes of the city's diverse Hispanic populace. She doesn't possess the forceful personality of a Ben Reyes, or the nuts-and-bolts shrewdness of a John Castillo. Deservedly or not, she's acquired a reputation as a lightweight on Council. That may indeed be unfair, but it's hard to imagine her jawboning with, say, Les Alexander. When I asked her to list the top three accomplishments of her five and a half years as an at-large councilwoman, she cited assignments and areas of concern, rather than specific initiatives: her chairing of the committee that recommended increasing the city's affirmative action goals; her work promoting international trade as president of the city-sponsored Houston International Initiatives; and her service on the Joint City-County Commission for Children and Youth and other organizations addressing juvenile crime issues.

One specific achievement she mentioned was the installation of bilingual signs at the zoo, the civic center and the airports -- a nice and necessary gesture, but, for better or worse, hardly in the same league with the work on CURB and SOB ordinances by Helen Huey, the other councilwoman who wants to be mayor.

On top of all that, Saenz is not an especially commanding public speaker -- her speech at City Hall was a bit of puffery, weakly delivered (as opposed to Lee Brown's announcement address, which was a bit of puffery, forcefully delivered). Or that's how it appeared to me. The mostly Hispanic crowd obviously heard and saw it differently: There seemed to be a genuine buzz in the audience as Saenz spoke, and afterward, I noticed a couple of people had tears in their eyes.

One person who usually knows what he's talking about suggests that Saenz is as popular among Hispanics as Henry Cisneros was in San Antonio when he first ran for mayor; that same person is quick to note, however, that the demographics of the electorate are nowhere near as favorable to Saenz as San Antonio's were to Cisneros in 1981. He reels off a number of reasons for Saenz's popularity: she speaks good Spanish; she and her police officer husband still live in the same modest home near Austin High where they've lived for years; she gets intensive and highly favorable coverage from the Spanish-language media; and "she goes out and does all the community stuff."

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