Term Limits: The Next Generation

A fractious bunch fills the city ballot, but the blood flies in District H

Navarro says she had nothing to do with her manager's decision to file a complaint. As for the Vasquez incident, she says, "That doesn't speak well of the man. If it can happen once, it can happen again."

A touch of sarcasm creeps into Navarro's voice. "People would think that could never happen, not with Gabriel. Not the doctor, not the suave guy that knows everything. What happened was that from all accounts he was, like, being a street guy."

Vasquez denies he threatened anyone and says he has heard nothing from UH officials concerning the Soto complaint. He characterizes the HGLPC episode as just one more example of how Hispanic officials are trying to turn the Council race into a personal grudge match.

Vasquez and Farrar long before the four-letter words.
Vasquez and Farrar long before the four-letter words.
Torres: Vasquez showed arrogance in his HISD vote.
Kent Manor
Torres: Vasquez showed arrogance in his HISD vote.

Of course, Vasquez isn't above taking a few jabs at his opponents. He notes that Navarro, whose businesses are located in District H, did not move into the area until last spring, a legal requirement to be eligible for the race.

"I'm not running against them," says Vasquez. "My campaign is about neighborhood improvement, increasing health and safety, neighborhood friendly economic development and can-do public service. This other situation is more a political sideshow to the whole election."

Because of the lack of a competitive mayor's race, voter turnout is expected to drop below 10 percent in the upcoming election. With that, Vasquez may find that the so-called sideshow steals the attention from the neighborhood issues he'd rather talk about -- in English.

Although he denies he's driven politically, by some accounts Vasquez is a cocksure, ambitious 39-year-old eager to get places fast -- perhaps too fast.

Houston Port Commissioner Vidal Martinez recalls when Vasquez first visited him concerning a race for Council. The candidate, Martinez says, described himself as "the new wave of Hispanic leadership" and said he was aiming at becoming Houston's first Hispanic mayor, a job Controller Sylvia Garcia has set her sights on as well. Vasquez didn't stop there, saying he'd like to become the first Hispanic president of the United States. It's the sort of grand ambition that caused former controller Lloyd Kelley to self-destruct two years ago.

A bemused Martinez says he cautioned Vasquez to take his political career one race at a time. "I told him that he'd better hit a few singles and doubles before he went for a home run," recalls the attorney.

Gabriel Vasquez is not a typical Houston Hispanic politico, most of whom have deep roots in the barrios and lower-middle-class neighborhoods of the east side or north Houston. He was born in Corpus Christi and grew up in Austin. His parents, Gerard and Rosie, actively discouraged their four children from learning Spanish. The father, an educational consultant who advised school districts on bilingual education courses, was convinced that the language barrier was a prime source of discrimination against Latinos.

In Austin, Vasquez's family opened a barbecue restaurant and then The Pier, a food and supplies outlet on Lake Austin. He married young and subordinated his own career to that of wife Cindy, who was on the corporate fast track at Allstate Insurance Company. The family moved eight times, and he eventually he completed his education at Illinois State and Purdue, where he earned a doctorate.

Five years ago Vasquez accepted a professorship at the UH School of Communications and moved to Houston. He put down roots in the Heights, where daughter Angelica attended public school. Vasquez ran for the school board two years ago. When early opponent Rosie Perez dropped out, he was elected without opposition and with the support of the same elected officials who now detest him.

After taking office, Vasquez assiduously courted the increasingly affluent neighborhoods of the Heights, where a house under $200,000 is now difficult to find and a building boom is altering the face -- and ethnic makeup -- of the area. He is intensely popular with area parents, who have campaigned to upgrade inner-city schools to standards that are acceptable for the new gentry.

"He seems to have a really good handle on the complexities of the neighborhood, what's going on on our side of [Interstate] 45 versus the other side of 45," says employment consultant Marianne Smith. Her daughter attends Travis Elementary, an exemplary HISD school. "He seems to understand the needs and concerns of both of our neighborhoods, and how to work really effectively with people and get things done."

Travis PTA president Angie Nobles, a teacher at the school, concurs.

"He's been very receptive to helping us within the HISD system," explains Nobles. "We've had some facility problems at Travis, and he came out and talked to us about it. Anytime I make a phone call he returns it. He's done memos to [Superintendent] Rod Paige on our behalf."

Nobles wishes Vasquez would stick around longer. "My only regret is I hate to see him leave the school board rather than stay there and continue his work with us."

Vasquez is not taking the easy road in his run for City Hall. After announcing his candidacy for the heavily Hispanic District H, the HISD trustee antagonized virtually the entire Hispanic elected leadership. He did it by teaming with a westside Republican on the HISD board, Jeff Shadwick, to sponsor the recently passed bilingual education policy.
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