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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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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 email@example.com.