Cracking the Club

Latinos find little sympathy from Commissioners Court

It's the most exclusive good ol' boys club in Harris County, and the members are not about to make it easy for a brown-complexioned newcomer to join their ranks.

Last week a stream of Latino politicos cajoled, blustered and threatened the five-member Harris County Commissioners Court in a bid to redistrict retiring incumbent Jim Fonteno's Precinct 2 into a designer Hispanic district.

As expected, the boys weren't biting, not even El Franco Lee, the lone African-American on the court. He was the beneficiary of a racially tailored district 16 years ago, orchestrated to provide blacks a place at the county's head table.

Can't get no satisfaction: Hispanic officials, led by state Representative Rick Noriega (right), criticize the county redistricting plan.
Tim Fleck
Can't get no satisfaction: Hispanic officials, led by state Representative Rick Noriega (right), criticize the county redistricting plan.
Can't get no satisfaction: Hispanic officials, led by state Representative Rick Noriega (right), criticize the county redistricting plan.
Tim Fleck
Can't get no satisfaction: Hispanic officials, led by state Representative Rick Noriega (right), criticize the county redistricting plan.

As speaker after speaker reminded Lee of those long-ago times when Latinos licked envelopes to help him become the court's first minority, El Franco's eyelids drooped. After all, their plan gouges its additional Hispanics for Precinct 2 mostly out of Lee's Precinct 1, while dumping 30,000 more Anglos into his lap. Rainbow coalitions make good rhetoric, but self-interest is the golden rule in the commissioners' club.

Of course, Lee is not the only officeholder with personal political considerations in the balance. At least three elected officials with their eye on Fonteno's seat made pitches: City Councilman John Castillo, state Representative Rick Noriega and state Senator Mario Gallegos. Former Pasadena mayor Johnny Isbell, another Democrat testing the waters, watched intently from the back gallery.

After the sympathy pitches fell flat, Gallegos and Noriega turned to hardball. They threatened to hit commissioners in their pocketbooks by opposing a $445 million county bond election set for November.

"How do I explain to my community that they should vote in favor of bonds," asked Noriega, "when they are denied access…Taxation without representation is wrong, and what we're doing here today is why this community needs a voice up where you are sitting."

"The door swings both ways," Gallegos warned. "Whenever you're talking politics, we'll use whatever we can use."

When it came time to vote, Lee sided with frat brothers Steve Radack, Jerry Eversole and Fonteno. El Franco only aroused himself to a burst of sarcasm when County Judge Robert Eckels, the semi-ostracized geek of the club, offered an alternative that would have bolstered both Hispanics and Republicans in Precinct 2. It died for lack of a second.

Instead, the four commissioners approved a status quo plan over Eckels's dissent. It allows a continuing Hispanic population creep in Precinct 2 and guarantees a political free-fire zone in the southeast county district next year. Democrats have a slight population edge, but superior GOP turnout makes it possible for an Anglo Republican to take the seat. Particularly if the Democratic candidate has warts.

"It's not a sure-thing race for a Democrat or a Republican in the general election," analyzes Democratic consultant Dan McClung. "And I don't know that just any Hispanic could win it against an Anglo candidate in the Democratic primary."

McClung estimates the district population will have to be more than 60 percent Hispanic to guarantee a Latino's win.

"You have to get [the percentage] up there, because so many Hispanics are so young, and so many are not registered to vote."

The scenario is strikingly similar to the battle for the 29th Congressional District in Houston in the early '90s. State legislators drew the district explicitly to elect the area's first Hispanic to Congress. That backfired when Gene Green, an Anglo then state senator, got into a Democratic primary runoff with Ben Reyes, who was a city councilman tarnished by previous law enforcement investigations. Voting irregularities invalidated Green's initial primary runoff victory. But he beat Reyes again and has never been seriously challenged since.

The big difference from Precinct 2 is that the 29th Congressional District is rock-solid Democratic. Whoever wins that party primary has a plane ticket to Washington, D.C. By contrast, the newly redrawn Precinct 2 may have a combined 56 percent Hispanic and black adult majority, but the higher Anglo vote turnout makes it virtually a 50-50 proposition.

"Precinct 2 is bigger than a congressional district and it includes a much larger base of white, middle-class and Republican-oriented neighborhoods," explains Dr. Richard Murray. The University of Houston political scientist is one of the consultants who helped draft the redistricting plan adopted by commissioners. "Green mostly has a working-class district that just doesn't have very many of these upscale middle- and upper-middle-class developments."

In the early jockeying for Precinct 2, Castillo, Reyes's former aide and current District I councilman, is off and running. That could split the Hispanic community and make it more likely for an Anglo to win the seat next year. Castillo was indicted in the same federal bribery-conspiracy case that sent Reyes and former port commissioner Betti Maldonado to prison. After two mistrials, the government declined to try Castillo again, but his opponents will still have potent ammunition against him.

In addition, Castillo is involved in a messy feud with supporters of Carol Alvarado, Mayor Lee Brown's aide who is running for the council seat being vacated by Castillo because of term limits. Castillo is backing lawyer Al Flores in that race, and the political bad blood will likely spill over into a Castillo race for commissioner.

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