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Don't Cry for Me, Houston

Friends join in as Betti sings her final convictions

The song was Madonna's. The singer wasn't. Betti Maldonado, impersonating the superstar in her Evita role as Eva Peron, welcomed guests at the Spotlight Karaoke club with a rendition of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina":

Have I said too much? / ... all you have to do is look at me / to know that every word is true....

The political consultant and former port commissioner did a different kind of singing to FBI agents in their City Hall sting, then changed her tune for a trial jury. And she will be facing the music in her February sentencing on convictions for bribery and conspiracy of City Councilmembers.

But on this recent night, she crooned for an audience of more than 200 friends at her combination birthday bash and legal-defense fundraiser.

Though the lyrics of "Don't Cry for Me" were sad, the music and the crowd were not. Several partygoers danced and cheered Betti on. In blue jeans, she frolicked in a way that might not be repeated at her sentencing. Betti's convictions could carry up to 25 years in prison, although attorneys say she is realistically facing a term of perhaps two or three years.

Supporters arrived and left by hugging the smiling Maldonado. Some cried, leaving tears on the shoulders of her red blazer.

Placards, invitation fliers and friends urged that "in lieu of gifts" contributions be made to a multipurpose Maldonado "Money-Legal Fees-Birthday Tree" next to the head table from which Betti and Company presided.

In from Los Angeles was Hollywood producer and friend Nancy de los Santos. Her works include the movies Mi Familia and Selena. De los Santos put more life into the party with her own impersonation of Madonna singing "Material Girl." It brought Maldonado to the dance floor along with others, including Olga Soliz, former Houston Hispanic Forum leader.

Maldonado's father, said to be devastated about the verdict, dedicated the traditional Spanish song "El Reloj" ("The Time") to his daughter. Lyrics tell of time ticking down for a parting love, with the singer professing that life cannot go on when the one he loves is gone. Hearing her father's song touched a cord with Maldonado -- because of the trial, she was not allowed to leave the country to visit the grave of her mother in Mexico. Even as she continued to smile, tears rolled down from her reddened eyes.

The show returned to its intended festive atmosphere when William-Paul Thomas, chief of staff for state Senator Rodney Ellis, hauled Betti and a few of her friends to the the mike to rap to Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It." Thomas, unable to keep up with the speedy lyrics, "wooed" and screamed his way through the rest of the tune for a delighted Betti.

Between songs, a companion of Taco Bell franchise-owner Dolores "Lolita" Guerrero took the mike to plead for more "support" for "Betti's legal tribulations." People clapped and began pulling out their wallets for bills to hand to their martyr.

The party hit high gear when U.S. Marshal Art Contreras, who will serve as Betti's chief jailer after sentencing, made a grand entrance to attempt to sing Frank Sinatra's "My Way." He never hit the upper notes, resorting instead to speaking the words.

"Regrets," Contreras semicrooned, "I've had a few."
Gracie Saenz, the former councilwoman and mayoral candidate, followed Contreras with a plea that sentencing Judge David Hittner "look toward fairness and compassion" on Maldonado's anticipated appeal.

"Amen!" the crowd yelled back.
"She is a good person. I am asking that each of you remember Betti in your prayers," Saenz said. In case anyone missed the point, Saenz reminded the crowd that she holds weekly prayer meetings for Betti.

Guerrero then urged "all of Betti's girls" to the stage, prompting a stampede of about 25 of Maldonado's closest comadres into a chorus of "That's What Friends Are For." Betti looked on, and -- yes -- she was back to crying before the tune was halfway finished.

Ben Reyes, the former councilman convicted with Maldonado, was nowhere to be seen. Based on the sometimes bitter comments about him at the gathering, absence was wise. Some attendees consider him the Newt Gingrich of Houston Hispanic politics -- a once-powerful leader now exiled from old supporters. That made Maldonado their Bill Clinton; caught on tape, but still with a support base and refusing to surrender.

"Betti is a victim," a supporter said. "She is not a crook."
Others seemed proud to add that she is no Ben Reyes. Despite her bleak outlook, that contrast gave Maldonado and her friends something to sing about.

By evening's end, her tree sported new branches of pinned cash, some of it in $100 bills. Left unsung from her Evita selections were two other fitting titles: "And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out)," along with "Requiem for Evita / Oh What a Circus."

However, the party was not over until guests sang another apt tune from Madonna: "Holiday."

E-mail Russell Contreras at russell_contreras@ houstonpress.com.

 
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