Term Limits: The Next Generation

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

Few of the residents seem aware that their incumbent councilman is Felix Fraga, and the few who do have nothing positive to say.

(Perhaps out of diplomacy, Vasquez and Navarro shy away from criticizing the man they hope to replace. Only Lalo Torres has been critical. Referring to Fraga's role in the investigation that eventually netted Reyes, the candidate observes, "Whether he got scared or whether he was guilty or whatever the deal was, we've had a very nonproductive councilman for the last six years. Try to take a shower at my house -- no water pressure. Most of the constituents I've talked to feel the same way -- he was a good man, but nothing was done.")

Navarro, in trousers and tennis shoes, banters easily in Spanish with clusters of residents enjoying barbecues in the late afternoon's golden sunlight. It's difficult to imagine Vasquez moving as easily -- or effectively -- through the area.

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

Vasquez's inability to speak fluent Spanish is an undeniable handicap. When he talks at community meetings or block-walks in the Hispanic portions of District H, he sometimes needs someone to serve as translator.

"I have very good comprehension and aptitude skills. I just don't have the speaking skills," says the candidate with a touch of defensiveness. "Now, there's a whole generation of Hispanic families who are like that, that experienced prejudice and discrimination and chose for their children not to learn to speak Spanish. Not a phenomenon unique to me, but a phenomenon of the entire culture, the entire community."

Predictably, that's not how the Spanish-speaking Navarro and Torres see the matter. While they claim to be running on their own records of community involvement, both quickly challenge Vasquez's suitability to represent a majority Hispanic district.

"I think speaking Spanish is very important," contends Torres, who counts his base of support in the north Houston neighborhoods along Lindale Road. "We're getting immigrants here by the hundreds, and whether they are legal or illegal residents, they are going to reside in one of our precincts, and we need to communicate with these people and provide basic city services. The more we can communicate and understand their needs, the better we can serve them."

A Navarro backer is blunt: "Gabe's a coconut, man. You know, brown on the outside, white on the inside."

Vasquez bristles as the implication he is not as Hispanic as his critics.

"I was raised Mexican-American. I came from a fourth-generation Mexican-American family," the trustee says. "I know who I am. I know where I come from. I know what I stand for. I don't have to explain it to anybody.

"Just because I can't speak Spanish, that has nothing to do with the fact that all those kids are failing English reading. I don't have to speak Spanish to read the statistics, the demographic data and numbers, to read that and to see that."

He also doesn't have to speak Spanish to see the voter statistics that are tilting the race in his direction.

The event at the Doubletree Hotel in the Galleria several weeks ago was billed as a candidate forum, but it came off more as a parody of one. Jointly sponsored by the Young Democrats, Young Republicans and the Jaycees, the evening affair drew a crowd mostly composed of candidates, their handlers and hangers-on. On hand was a media panel to question the candidates and a format where the candidates could ask one another a question. All that was missing were the voters.

District H went first. Yolanda Black Navarro stressed her community involvement with youth and recent stint on the Metro board. Lalo Torres detailed his fire department experience, including his background as an arson investigator. Vasquez touted his four-point plan for neighborhood improvement, health and safety, friendly economic development and can-do. Everybody at the forum seemed to have a three- or four-point program for neighborhood improvement, courtesy of their consultants.

Abel Davila, the Houston Community College trustee who is also in the race, did not show up and had been mostly AWOL on the early campaign trail. A former boxer, Larry Rambo, took the mike for an awkward introduction and quickly demonstrated a harsh political truism: Everybody has the right to run for elective office, but not every candidate has the right to be taken seriously.

Then the candidates fielded their media question: Would they support the basketball arena proposal on the November ballot? Torres said no, Vasquez pledged to vote for both the arena and the Main Street rail, and Navarro was noncommittal. Pressed, she reluctantly said she would vote for the arena.

When it came time to ask one another questions, the candidates seemed strangely deferential. Carefully picking his way around the issues of language and ethnic solidarity that have made the contest so poisonous out in the real world, Vasquez tossed Torres a softball about parity between firefighters and police. Navarro directed an inquiry to the political black hole otherwise known as Rambo, and Torres asked Navarro a toughie: Would she be a full-time councilmember? Even Rambo could have gotten that one right.

And then the candidates were off into the night, leaving not a hint of the intra-Hispanic political feud that will no doubt rage through the municipal runoffs in early December.

For Fleck's sidebar list of contenders go here.

E-mail Tim Fleck at tim_fleck@houstonpress.com.

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