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The cramped side room of the Dinner Bell Cafeteria on Lawndale Street in east Houston hardly seemed a requisite stop on the route to Houston City Council's District I seat. An attic fan as big as a ship's propeller whirred loudly overhead, stirring the steam-table-scented air on a weekday evening. Amid the aromas, three candidates made pitches to a few dozen diehards of the East Lawndale Civic Association.
The term-limited incumbent, John Castillo, a cagey, silver-haired City Hall veteran with a vested interest in selecting a successor, watched intently from the audience.
Political consultants call this retail politics at its purest. In a district of more than 200,000 people where turnout at the polls is abysmal, 8,000 votes is likely a winning total. Newspaper advertising has minimal effect, and radio and television spots are too expensive and unfocused. The east side has to be won the old-fashioned way: in dozens of small skirmishes before civic groups, and with miles of block-walking before candidates sleep on Election Night.
Created in 1979 as the result of a voting rights lawsuit by black and Hispanic activists to gain minority City Council representation, District I sprawls east and south from downtown along the Gulf Freeway to encompass working-class neighborhoods and industrial zones. Only two men have occupied the seat since its inception.
The first, legendary eastside political jefe Ben Torres Reyes, for years directed a machine fueled by his ability to skirt the line between legal patronage to supporters and illegal graft to himself and cronies. Repeated investigations by the Harris County district attorney did little more than tarnish Reyes's image enough to prevent him from winning a congressional race. Finally removed from office by term limits, the cash-strapped Reyes bit into the hook of a federal bribery-conspiracy sting in 1996. He's serving a nine-year sentence in a Georgia penitentiary.
When he left office at the end of 1995, Reyes backed his longtime council aide Castillo for the job. Castillo stood trial along with his mentor but survived two hung juries, and the feds dropped his bribery charges. His council office is currently the target of an IRS-FBI probe for election fund irregularities dating back to 1997. Castillo is considering running for the Harris County commissioner Precinct 3 position next year, although the latest investigation threatens to scuttle those ambitions.
One by one at the Dinner Bell, candidates vying to replace Castillo offered varying versions of the predictable campaign rhetoric: multipoint plans to improve services; vows to return every constituent's phone call; pledges to pave deteriorating streets, cut weed-choked lots and drain stagnant ditches. "Infrastructure" seemed to pop up in every other sentence.
Carol Alvarado, a tall, striking 34-year-old with her glossy black hair pulled back in a bun, touted her activist roots. She grew up in eastside industrial neighborhoods around the Ship Channel and matured into the highest-ranking Hispanic in Mayor Lee Brown's two-term administration. Along the way she logged time for two of the savviest of local politicians, eastside Constable Victor Trevino and District 29 Congressman Gene Green. She is the odds-on favorite in the council race, having corralled the bulk of major endorsements and contributions.
Publicly, Alvarado plugs her own qualifications and carefully avoids criticism of the incumbent. Privately, an associate quotes her on the district's past representatives: "I can hardly do worse than those two."
When asked about that sentiment, Alvarado chuckles and says, "I don't know -- who knows if I said that?"
Al Flores, a stocky, affable commercial law attorney with the mayoral appointment to be municipal judge, plays up his credentials as a family man with two daughters. His slogan is "Your Neighbor at City Hall." Flores is also a neighbor of Castillo's in the comfortably middle-class Idylwood subdivision off the Gulf Freeway at Wayside. Flores's opponents view him as handpicked by the councilman, believing Castillo wants to retain influence at City Hall. Flores has no experience as an officeholder, and his candidacy was something of a surprise. Castillo's former chief of staff Johnny Soto had been expected to carry the incumbent's banner until a bitter falling-out with the boss earlier this year.
Flores also has been embraced by Councilman Gabe Vasquez, whose former council aide, Frank McCune, is working in the campaign. That plot line goes back two years to Vasquez's victory against Yolanda Black Navarro, who was backed by Alvarado, state Senator Mario Gallegos and a handful of Hispanic state representatives. It continues a traditional Houston Latino political split between the Reyes machine and a younger generation of Hispanic politicians, with Vasquez now in the role of Reyes. The rule of the game: Get mad and get even.
The third candidate, burly, blustery W.R. Morris, is no stranger to the District I ballot, having run twice against Reyes and once against Castillo. He also has sought the at-large seat currently held by Carroll Robinson. Last week Morris hauled in his major endorsement: the Houston Chronicle.
Supporters describe him as a community activist and agitator. For detractors, labels like buffoon and verbal bomb thrower come to mind. When Hispanic controversies bubble up at City Hall and the Houston Independent School District, Morris is sure to be found in front of the TV cameras.