Term Limits: The Next Generation

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

The policy puts emphasis on mainstreaming Spanish-speaking students into English language classes as soon as possible. In the short run, it is little more than a statement of the district's future goals. But the policy touched raw political nerves. Opponents quickly denounced it as a nativist "English First" program disguised in rhetoric about teaching children multiple languages.

In fact, the controversy was as much about the process as the particulars. By pushing approval without cultivating the Hispanic political powers that be, Vasquez ignited a political war. State Representatives Rick Noriega, Joe Moreno and Farrar lined up behind Navarro. State Senator Mario Gallegos issued a more general pox on Vasquez's political house, declaring he was endorsing "anybody but Gabe." The confrontation has turned Vasquez's anticipated genteel run for Council into a walk on the political wild side.

Vasquez says he notified fellow Hispanic trustees Olga Gallegos, the mother of the state senator, and Esther Campos of the proposed policy and made attempts to contact other officials. "There's no conspiracy on this thing," scoffs Vasquez. "We called the elected officials. Some didn't call back, some did. So we continued to go forward."

Navarro: Her opponent went from "suave" to a "street guy."
Kent Manor
Navarro: Her opponent went from "suave" to a "street guy."

His opponents don't see it that way.

"I think the system needed a change, but there are a lot of qualified Hispanic leaders who should have had an input," contends retiring Houston Assistant Fire Chief Hilario "Lalo" Torres, another candidate. "There are a lot of people out there who know what they are talking about, and he failed to open the door for their input. It's indicative of his arrogance. As a Hispanic leader, he should be open to other opinions, for and against. But it looked like he took it upon himself alongside two other Anglos, and that didn't look too good, to come out with this policy."

Navarro used the subject to take a shot at Vasquez's academic credentials. "I think it was handled very poorly, for a doctor of communications to not communicate like that. Even though they said they met with parents, teachers and had stacks of research, I think the whole process was handled in a way that did not build consensus. It was an issue of 'I'm the board member, I create policy, I vote, and if you don't like it, too bad.' "

Navarro worries that the new policy will pressure Hispanic students into mainstream classes before they can fully understand English, putting them at a disadvantage.

After HISD last week assured U.S. Department of Education officials that it would continue to follow previous guidelines for keeping Spanish-speaking students in bilingual classes, Gallegos accused Vasquez of needlessly creating a community uproar.

"If HISD knew all along it was going to stick to a monitoring agreement [with the feds], then why all the fanfare, the tax dollars being spent on a board policy that is never going to be implemented? I think it's poor judgment, and I put the blame where it belongs: on Mr. Vasquez."

Vasquez has no apologies.

"I got involved in politics to make a difference. When I ran for the school board, I said I'd put the children and the community first, above all else. And that's what I've tried to do, even in the face of extreme political pressure. It was in the best interests of the children to pass that policy."

The issue of bilingualism has been raised not only in the context of the HISD policy, but also in the speaking ability of the candidates. Torres and Navarro speak fluent Spanish. Vasquez does not.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Navarro led a group of volunteers, including her young cousin Maria Elena Higgs, on a block walk through north Denver Harbor. At about the same age as Higgs 40 years ago, Navarro block-walked for Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy.

The 52-year-old Navarro's upbringing contrasts sharply with that of Vasquez. Her divorced mother raised Navarro on the east side in a Spanish-speaking home. Velia Black opened a breakfast taco shop, and her daughter, after earning a finance degree at UH night school, worked for Southwestern Bell. She continued her late mother's taco business while operating Velia's Cafe on Navigation. Velia's became an informal meeting place for Hispanic Democratic politicos and a networking forum for East End community activists.

Navarro once campaigned for former councilman Ben Reyes, now serving time in a Beaumont prison for bribery and conspiracy convictions. Navarro still praises Reyes's early years in office, because "he changed the system a lot and did good work for the residents." The area has since been transferred from Reyes's old District I to District H, to bolster the Hispanic vote in an area once represented by an Anglo, Dale Gorcynski.

Registered voters are relatively scarce in the neighborhoods along Brownsville and Laredo streets. Following the advice of her consultant, Navarro sticks to 1997 voter lists, which makes a walk through the area a speedy proposition. Some blocks have only two or three addresses containing voters, and more often than not those voters cannot be found.

It's an effective political science lesson in why Vasquez's Heights stronghold, where almost every upscale home contains several registered voters, will weigh so heavily in the outcome of the race.

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