Smackdown at City Hall

Candidates clash in a castaway district, exes attack, and Bell wringers rumble for a final round with Brown. Voters, pick your fight.

True to form, he has been the only candidate to drop the niceties and come out swinging. Morris quickly began taking shots at Alvarado for her connections to Mayor Brown, ignoring the fact that his own paychecks for the last four years came from the same office.

"This is the worst administration this city has ever had," declared Morris. "If you like Lee Brown, you'll love Carol." Morris is on the Chris Bell mayoral bandwagon, lauding Bell as a critic with solutions.

Morris had been on the mayor's community assistance staff until his firing three weeks earlier. In Morris's telling, he called in the media after a Red Cross official refused to approve reimbursements for an indigent woman with a flood-ravaged home. His supervisor reported he had bullied the agency official and behaved unprofessionally. Anyone who has dealt with Morris over the years could easily believe both sides.

Alvarado started campaigning at the age of 12.
Alvarado started campaigning at the age of 12.

After the candidate presentations, the Dinner Bell audience of middle-class, older homeowners had a smattering of questions, mainly about bread-and-butter neighborhood issues like street improvements, park maintenance and school safety. Oddly, there were no comments on the pervasive ethical questions that have dogged the District I office for the last two decades. It seemed like one of those ugly family secrets everyone on the block knows about but no one really wants to air in public.

Carol Alvarado hurries up the stairs to her second-floor campaign office on Capitol Street in preparation for an evening of hop-and-stop meetings of civic associations. Following an afternoon of going door-to-door buttonholing voters, she's discarded her sneakers and dressed up in black-heeled boots, a black tailored pantsuit and a purple blouse to match her campaign buttons.

Like her mentor, Congressman Green, Alvarado is a blockwalkaholic, meticulously scribbling handwritten greetings on door hangers to leave behind for absent residents. With the exception of a two-year stint as Green's congressional aide in Washington, Alvarado has never been far from home. She knows each district precinct by heart and has served as a precinct judge for years. While earning a political science degree at the University of Houston, Alvarado started a civic association in the Manchester industrial neighborhood where she grew up. Alvarado cultivates those grassroots connections like a master gardener, knowing that harvest day comes at the polls November 6.

Alvarado lists her voting residence at the home of parents Frank and Ida on East Avenue N, though she has leased a Rice Lofts apartment for the past year.

"I really go back and forth," she explains. "The Rice is okay, but I feel like I'm never there. Now I'm either at the campaign office or at home."

According to Alvarado, her infatuation with politics started with the first District I election, when she was a volunteer for her godfather, Mario Quinones, against Reyes. "I tell people I've actually been campaigning for this seat since I was 12," she says.

Setting the Machiavellian tone for the district's politics, then-state representative Reyes encouraged Quinones to run, then jumped into the race himself.

"It was rough and I learned very quickly," recalls Alvarado. "I saw a lot of the things that go on: the sign wars, the door-to-door campaigning, the phone banking. I was just a kid, but I was doing all of that. Even though we lost, I was hooked."

Alvarado says the Reyes legacy in District I is a mixed bag.

She relates an encounter with an Anglo Republican voter who says he disliked Reyes -- but was impressed that Reyes could take care of district problems at City Hall. "So despite what people thought about his ethics and behavior, they felt that he was an advocate for the community," she says.

Alvarado wants to assume that portion of the Reyes mantle. At Johnson Chapel in the heavily black Smith Addition, she flashes the familiarity of a sorority sister in greeting the handful of older women gathered for a monthly meeting. Group leader Teresa Williams wears a large Alvarado button. Castillo operative A.B. Olmos rises to offer the group a Thanksgiving turkey from the councilman's office.

"What are you going to bring?" Williams teases Alvarado.

The candidate razzes back, "Maybe some of those pies, like last time." The women laugh, leaving little doubt about who would be served up the votes from that room.

An hour later at the Pecan Park Civic Association, a similar scene unfolds when she is introduced to the audience by president Winnie Tolson, also wearing the candidate's button. Even at the next stop, the Idylwood home base of Flores and Castillo, friendly faces await her. Alvarado's sister Yolanda just happens to be the precinct judge there.

Even her opponents admit that Alvarado is probably the most influential Hispanic in a mayoral administration in Houston's history. She reports directly to the mayor and has overseen Brown's Super Neighborhood program, the sports authority, Metro, the Port of Houston and the Census 2000 project. While she lists the arena negotiations with the Rockets as one of her accomplishments, a councilmember believes she was out of her league.

"She's probably a little light to be carrying the portfolio she's carrying," says the source, who recalls Les Alexander and Rockets general manager George Postolos sitting across from Brown and Alvarado. "I remember thinking at the time," the source says, "if I were negotiating with those sharks, I'd have the biggest, baddest, meanest lawyer sitting next to me. I wouldn't have Carol."

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