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The early-September night couldn't have been much steamier and oppressive, at least until Houston Independent School District Trustee Gabriel Vasquez and state Representative Jessica Farrar crossed paths. Both were leaving a meeting in the Montrose, where the Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus membership was voting on candidate endorsements in the upcoming municipal elections.
Vasquez is battling for the District H seat of Councilman Felix Fraga, pushed into involuntary retirement by term limits. A six-year-old ordinance restricts incumbents to no more than three two-year terms in office. This fall it is producing a second generation of turnover and turbulence, as five of the 15 councilmembers find themselves at the end of their six years. Two other contested races involve vulnerable incumbents, District A's Bruce Tatro and District G's Jean Kelley.
All the contests are spirited. A grudge match developed between Tatro and a challenger seen by many as a surrogate for Tatro's predecessor, Helen Huey. In District F, a nasty anonymous flyer circulated to smear many of the candidates with unsubstantiated charges. But as the events of that August night at the HGLPC meeting demonstrate, none of the other contests are as mean-spirited as the battle for District H.
Vasquez, considered by political consultants as the leading candidate in that district, raised more early money than all his opponents combined. But he had just been blindsided at the caucus.
The HGLPC endorsed Yolanda Black Navarro, a cafe owner and Democratic Party activist considered one of Vasquez's main opponents. The setback stung, because Vasquez's base of support is in the heavily Anglo precincts of the Heights, where gays are an increasing political force. District H is an amalgam of Heights and the near-north and east side dominated by Hispanic voters.
The HGLPC action was also a payback for a previous endorsement fight at the Tejano Democrats' candidate caucus. Vasquez's forces carried the day there, despite an intensely personal diatribe by state Representative Rick Noriega against their candidate.
Within seconds, the Vasquez-Farrar encounter outside the Lovett Inn meeting room degenerated into an ugly public exchange of obscenities and accusations. Witnesses such as Councilman John Castillo stood by slack-jawed as the confrontation unfolded.
Vasquez, the champion of bilingual education reform on the HISD board, can't speak serviceable Spanish himself. But in their showdown, he and Farrar stuck with English -- much of it the four-letter gutter variety.
Witnesses say Navarro called several other bystanders "assholes" and threatened to "get them" for their role in tilting the endorsement to Navarro. Then, they say, Vasquez grabbed Farrar's arm and spat out, "You screwed me. If you want a war, you got it."
According to Vasquez, "the first words out of her mouth were, 'Now you know what it's like to fuck with me, you fucking motherfucker. You didn't get the endorsement.' "
"Not very ladylike," Vasquez said later. He denied touching Farrar, a claim refuted by several eyewitnesses.
Farrar primly denies that she used the exact words Vasquez attributes to her. She declined to give her version of the conversation, saying she didn't want her parents to read the language she used.
"I think he acted very inappropriately," says Farrar. "I think he just lost it. I've known that all along about him."
That's one of the reasons the District H fight has become so intensely personal. The participants seem to think they alone are privy to the ulterior motives of their opponents.
Earlier on the day of the HGLPC meeting, Vasquez received a call from his boss, University of Houston Provost Ed Sheridan, asking whether he was using the school's time or equipment for his campaign. The communications professor concluded that his political opponents, some of them legislators who vote on UH funding, were using their clout to try to get him fired.
"For the last two months the Hispanic leadership has made racial attacks, anti-Semitic attacks, threatened my friends and supporters, and now they're calling my employers to get me fired," Vasquez says. "Who wouldn't be upset?"
During Vasquez's confrontation with Farrar, witnesses say, bystander Giovanni Garibay stepped in to separate them after Vasquez grabbed her arm. Garibay, campaign manager for Council At-Large Position 2 candidate Dwight Boykins, says Vasquez earlier threatened 'to get' him and Navarro's campaign manager, Jose Soto.
Soto, a senior at UH in the same department where Vasquez teaches, filed a complaint with the school's dean of students, William Munson, claiming that Vasquez threatened him.
According to Soto, Vasquez told him, "What comes around goes around. Are you listening, Jose? Because you're next. And tell your boss if you want some war, you'll get some war."
Soto says Vasquez apparently assumed, wrongly, that Soto still worked for state Representative Rick Noriega.
The complaint was filed to protect himself, Soto says, because Vasquez "is a tenured professor in my college and I'm on my last semester at UH." Soto says Vasquez has access to his academic records and could influence his professors and future graduate school recommendations.
"It's unfortunate a person who I respected at one point has sunk to this level," says Soto. "When you're in politics you are going to be attacked in many ways, and you'll get some endorsements, and you won't get others. The HGLPC was an important endorsement. Just because he didn't get it doesn't give him the right to go around threatening people."