Don't Rock My Boat!

A port commission opening fuels a three-way Hispanic fight

When there's a choice between doing things nasty or nice, it seems nasty generally wins out at Houston City Hall these days. Maybe things are just more fun that way for the politicos.

Case in point: a developing behind-the-scenes firefight over the de facto Hispanic city seat on the Houston Port Commission. Republican attorney Vidal Martinez holds that position, but his term expires next month. The opening has become the flash point for an unlikely struggle between factions that include former political allies of Mayor Lee Brown who have gotten seriously crosswise.

Players include freshman District I Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, who is pushing attorney Janiece Longoria for the appointment to the influential post. Longoria is an partner with the firm Ogden, Gibson, White & Broocks and treasurer and board member of the Houston Convention Center Hotel Corporation. In that role she has cultivated some potent political contacts, including former mayor Bob Lanier.

After three terms, port commissioner Vidal Martinez is feeling the heat.
After three terms, port commissioner Vidal Martinez is feeling the heat.

District H Councilman Gabe Vasquez, the other Hispanic on council, has championed Martinez's efforts to get a fourth term. It's just one more episode in a nonstop feud between Vasquez and Alvarado that began when she served as an aide to Brown and previously backed a Vasquez opponent. Vasquez returned the favor last year by supporting Al Flores against Alvarado. She won without a runoff.

Martinez replaced Betti Maldonado in 1996 after she was indicted for bribery and conspiracy in a federal sting investigation. He claims to have the signed commitments of eight of the 15 members of City Council. No one knows if that's really true, since Vasquez is allegedly sitting on the letters. Last week he was in Brazil on a city trade junket and unavailable for comment.

What is apparent is that sentiment for Martinez's reappointment has nosedived over the past month. Influential former port chairman Ned Holmes has thrown his support behind Longoria.

The Insider caught up with Holmes on his way back from a Colorado vacation. "Vidal and I have been friends for a long time, and he's a nice guy and affable," says the developer. "But he's become a lightning rod, and it's not good for him and not good for the port."

Holmes praises Longoria as "a bright, principled, mature individual with good judgment and without any agendas." He adds, "There's just always things that Vidal seems to get in the middle of that cause him problems and the port. So I think it's time for a change."

Hispanic elected officials like state Representative Rick Noriega have criticized the commission recently for the small share of port work going to Latino businesses. As the only Hispanic board member, Martinez has been the target of their dissatisfaction.

The most interesting wrinkle in this political telenovela is the third candidate for the port slot, Democrat attorney Roland Garcia, a supporter of Brown and gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez. According to at least one councilmember, Garcia was Alvarado's choice, then she went with Longoria instead and promptly dumped Garcia in the grease. Garcia declined to go quietly into the good night, and instead is fighting back.

"I have talked to every councilmember, and I feel very good about my chances," says Garcia. "I think I can add immediate value as a port commission member. I'm familiar with the operations of the port and admiralty law and the port tariff, and very interested in the economic functions of the port."

Martinez says Garcia sought the port appointment before, and wonders about the element of self-interest. Garcia's law firm, Locke Liddell & Sapp, does business with the port.

"He's always been interested in this," says Martinez. "I can't tell if Roland wants to be a lawyer for the port or wants to be a port commissioner, 'cause he can't be both. He's always pitching for work at the port for his firm, and they've gotten bond work, so Roland has done well getting work from the port."

Councilman Bert Keller initially committed to Martinez, but he says there's serious pressure on councilmembers to switch to Longoria.

"There's no question about it," says Keller. "When you have that much force get organized on Janiece's side, there is the potential for erosion or loss. When you get the mayor and supporters, and strong women in politics spending that much time on an issue, a lot of people don't survive that two days."

Keller says councilmembers committed to Martinez will be meeting with him soon to discuss "some concerns" over the appointment. At the same time he doubts Garcia will get much support from Republicans on council because of his prominent support for Sanchez in the governor's race.

"I am supporting Tony Sanchez," confirms Garcia, who says he is a volunteer in that campaign. "But I'm not aware of partisanship being an issue."

Garcia has refused to drop out of contention for the port post, infuriating the Alvarado camp, particularly her political consultant Marc Campos. During a lunch with Garcia, he claims, the attorney called Alvarado a "liar" for reneging on an early promise of support.

"Carol decided she was going to go with Janiece, who is a supporter of Carol's, and they're friends," says Campos. "Roland didn't like that and has gone out and waged what I think has been a distasteful and personal campaign against Carol."

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