Family Ballot Split

A family name divides a candidate and her stepson

Dr. Shelley Sekula Rodriguez is campaigning for City Council's At-Large Position 3 liberally using the name and image of her late husband, popular KHOU-TV anchorman Sylvan Rodriguez. But in the closing weeks of the dermatologist's runoff race, a surprising voice of opposition has emerged: Sylvan "Bobby" Rodriguez III, Sylvan's 20-year-old son by a previous marriage.

Bobby, a University of Houston sophomore majoring in hotel and restaurant management, is angry that his stepmother adopted the Rodriguez name only when she decided to run for City Council. He claims she is using his father's memory and Hispanic surname simply to get elected.

In an effort to have her defeated, Bobby voiced his dissatisfaction to The Insider and met with Shelley's runoff opponent, Andrew Burks. Then Burks contacted the Houston Chronicle.

"The last straw was when my friends came up to me and asked, 'Why is your stepmom running such a hokey campaign based on [your] father's name?' " says Bobby. He took offense at her campaign advertising that showed wedding pictures and a family portrait, and he snorts at her claim to be the mother of five children.

Bobby says he and his two sisters have a mother, namely Sylvia Diaz, Sylvan's first wife. Shelley has two children by a previous marriage.

Bobby helped care for his father in the months before Sylvan died from pancreatic cancer, and claims his stepmother was frequently on professional trips out of town during that period. "She was gone. She'd be gone to some conference," Bobby says. "When the man you love is sick and on his deathbed, you're not going to be gone all the time."

He recalls his father's final birthday in April 2000, just 17 days before his death at age 52.

"All his family came in from San Antonio, and we had a great time just enjoying my father, knowing he didn't have too much longer to live -- and Shelley was not there," Bobby recalls. "Then she comes out saying, Oh, she loved him and was a devoted wife. Well...what she says and does do not add up."

Bobby remembers his mother taking off her wedding band shortly after his father's death, saying it depressed her. In campaign forums, Burks has claimed his opponent already plans to remarry and uses the name Rodriguez only for political purposes.

Shelley responds that her stepson is directing some of his remaining grief for his father against her in an irrational, if understandable, manner.

"I loved Sylvan beyond anything I can describe, and I think Bobby's still suffering a lot of grief and so do I. Like a lot of children, he doesn't understand why a parent would be taken away. [He thinks] it's unfair, and that it's also unfair that I survived and his beloved father didn't. I think there's a transference of anger there."

Other members of the San Antonio-based Rodriguez family support her. The late anchor's siblings Lawrence and Gerald, the executor of the estate, both e-mailed Bobby, defending Shelley and urging him to stop his attacks.

Before his cancer was discovered, Shelley says, Sylvan planned to run for Congress.

"Since that wasn't meant to be," says Shelley, "I asked him, 'How would you feel about me using the name Rodriguez and running for council?' " Sylvan initially urged her to consider a congressional race, but she argued that her lack of experience and name recognition dictated a more modest goal, like seeking a council seat.

Sylvan agreed and said he'd be honored if she used his name, she says. "And of course, I told him at that time if I remarry I may not use it for very long."

That comment particularly galls her stepson. He says Shelley quickly removed the wedding ring, vacationed in Mexico shortly after his death and now dates a corporate executive.

"How are you going to add a name only for a political campaign?" he asks. "C'mon, that's not very ethical."

That name guarantees her a sizable chunk of the Hispanic vote that she might not otherwise receive. But the irony is that it also cost her the one voter who bears her late husband's name.

 
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