Lines & Shadows

A former farmworker wanted only a utility system for her Fort Bend colonia. Seven years later, there's still tainted water and untreated sewage -- but raw words and the stench of politics flow freely.

"From there, she started taking over," he says.

Details of her background remain sketchy, and Reid seems to like it that way. She calls herself first and foremost an American, then a Democrat, then a Christian. Around her neck she wears a pendant that says, "# 1 Mom." Reid says she's a lobbyist. That label seems to be over-reaching, since she registered only once with the state and listed no clients.

The woman also says she's a court mediator and consultant. Reid offers scant information about those lines of work. But there's no doubt that she was a fresh Rio Brazos volunteer embraced by Hernandez in her crusade.

"They've waited far too long. They've been promised a lot of things over the years. It's unconscionable," says Reid. "It's an emergency for this community, which was almost without any voice until recently."

Once she had Hernandez's trust, Reid made herself that voice -- a very harsh voice that regularly jolted other allies of the colonia's efforts. A mere three weeks after the Ozarka event, Parras and the Environmental Justice Clinic received a curt letter signed by Hernandez. It asked for a full accounting of all grant money the clinic had received.

A similar letter targeted Fort Bend Interfaith Council. Along with the request for an accounting was an allegation that they owed Hernandez $75,000 for teaching citizenship classes to immigrants. She'd actually volunteered for those duties.

Olivo, the former Fort Bend Interfaith leader, called the allegations against the organization "ridiculous."

Reid systematically sniped away at virtually everybody who had been working on the issue. Local politicians, USDA officials and nonprofit organizations became the target of shrill accusations and stern rebukes.

"Ms. Reid was just cutting everybody's throat," Parras says. "We personally believe that she saw a situation here where she could move her agenda forward and be the white goddess who came into a Hispanic community and got them out of their miseries and troubles."

Reid makes no apologies for her pugnacious style.

"I'm kind of like a surgeon -- I don't dally," she says. Asked if her approach alienates people, she answers, "No one burns bridges that are useful."

The way Reid sees it, too many people have been working too long on the water issue with too little to show for it. She denies that she's looking for grandeur through her actions in the colonia controversies. "I don't need this publicity, be it positive or negative.I'd just as soon be in the background, way at the end of the wings, and let somebody else be at the curtain call," Reid claims.

Why would Hernandez condone the assaults on former allies? Parras believes that left high and dry by the indifference of some leaders, Hernandez no longer sees that there are others who are legitimately trying to help.

Those baffled by Reid's hardball tactics felt they had an answer for her motives in March, when her lanky, fresh-faced son Nathan came out this year as a candidate against Charlie Howard for state representative. Some believe that her heavy advocacy for the colonias represented a good campaign issue for her boy.

"I think her deal was more political," Meyers says.

Reid says her interest in Rio Brazos far predates any plans her son had to run for office.

Hernandez got firmly behind Nathan Reid's campaign, writing letters and press releases that praised the good work of the young man in words that many took to be ghostwritten by his mother. As the election neared in late October, Hernandez circulated a pair of press releases.

One dispatch trumpeted, "Scandal in Fort Bend County" and announced that community members had asked the FBI to investigate past and current county executives, U.S. Department of Agriculture staffers, Olivo, Howard and the Fort Bend Democratic chairwoman. The broadside accused them of interfering with residents' efforts to get a utility system.

The second media release was headlined "Emergency Health Crisis in Fort Bend County." It thanked Nathan Reid for his assistance to the community.

Even as relations deteriorated with the Rio Brazos activist, the county forged ahead with the plan to create a water district. Earlier this year officials circulated petitions to authorize the county to go ahead with the proposal. Savvy enough to see that the plan might be their best shot for water and sewer services, Hernandez rallied Rio Brazos residents to sign up. She wanted to keep all her options open.

By June she delivered the requisite signatures to Judge Adolphus. But when August came and no new action had been taken formally to advance the project, Hernandez exploded.

She and Reid turned to the highest levels of government. "We feel that President Clinton and [Secretary of Agriculture] Dan Glickman and you sir are ready to assist our community," they wrote to a USDA official in Washington.

When Commissioner James Patterson recommended that Hernandez be on the proposed water district board, she declined in a letter to commissioners that concluded, "May your conscience be pricked daily as you drink and bathe in your homes with potable water and sewer."

By this time, county officials were growing annoyed with the escalating saber rattling from the Rio Brazos crusaders. "The only thing the county can do is ignore the inflammatory rhetoric of a few and proceed with the direction we are taking," Adolphus says. "It's very tempting to say, "The hell with it.' We're not doing that, because we think it's something that needs to be resolved."

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