Send in the Election Clowns

Don't worry, they're here

What a difference a couple of years make. In the Houston Press Best of Houston issue in 2001, Houston's District H councilman Gabe Vasquez received Best Politician honors. Last week, he missed the runoff in the race for city controller after earlier deciding not to seek re-election to his City Council seat.

Come January, Vasquez will be busted back to private citizenship.

In an informal Insider poll of the biggest blunders of the 2003 local election, media members and politicos named Vasquez's ballot switcheroo as No. 1. The nearest runner-up was activist Brenda Flores's botched attempt to recruit a bogus Bill White for the ballot. So what happened to golden boy Gabe and his Midas political touch?

After a promising start, Vasquez is on the political ropes.
Kent Manor
After a promising start, Vasquez is on the political ropes.

Only months ago, Vasquez was the toast of state and national Republicans after abandoning the Democratic Party for the GOP. It was a strategic move to bypass the Houston Hispanic Democratic establishment, with which Vasquez has feuded since getting elected to council four years ago.

Vasquez was expected to receive a plum state or federal appointment from Governor Rick Perry or the George Bush administration as a reward for his partisan conversion, which alienated liberal supporters. Then, just before the election, the councilman voted against a conservative-led tax rollback effort and for a municipal drainage fee, moves that effectively poisoned his standing with many of his new GOP buddies.

On a personal level, things weren't going much better. Vasquez sued for divorce last summer from wife Cindy, who has since moved to Corpus Christi. The divorce was finalized a few days before the election. Vasquez's City Hall chief of staff Lisa Dimond, who took temporary leave to work on his failed controller campaign, denied a rumor circulating by e-mail from Democratic activist Carl Whitmarsh that she and the councilman are romantically involved, commenting, "We're friends." Vasquez refused to discuss his divorce and denied having a sexual relationship with his staffer.

Vasquez also has broken off a longtime political engagement with consultant and former council staffer Frank McCune, once the beneficiary of fat paychecks from the councilman's campaign even when Vasquez ran unopposed. McCune confirmed that he and Gabe are buds no longer.

Republican consultant Allen Blakemore opines that Vasquez's vote against the tax rollback was a bigger blunder than jumping late into the controller's race.

"I firmly believe that if Vasquez had voted correctly on those two votes, he'd be in the runoff with Annise [Parker]," says Blakemore. "It's disappointing just to watch somebody blow themselves up like that."

Consultant Craig Varoga sees it from a Democratic perspective.

"The Republicans are starting to eat themselves," chuckles Varoga. "What happened to Gabe is pathetic. To think that five or six months ago he was being courted by [Bush adviser] Karl Rove, and then he comes in a miserable fourth barely ahead of Steve Jones" in the controller's race. "It's a terrible wreckage."

UH political scientist Richard Murray compares Vasquez's self-demolition to that of former city controller Lloyd Kelley and Congressman Craig Washington.

"It probably will rank among the decade's bonehead moves," chuckles Murray. "It has zero upside as far as I can see, unless he was tired of hanging around City Council. In terms of other political opportunities, to finish so poorly in a citywide race does not augur well for future elective ventures."

Councilman Vasquez says he has no regrets for the actions that cost him both his council seat and the shot at controller. "I did the right thing by putting the city first and taking care of my district, but others didn't see it that way."

As for future political races, Vasquez says, "I'm a person that believes that everything happens for a reason. And I'm sure there's going to be something bigger and better out there for me."

Other Republican Hispanic municipal candidates did almost as poorly as Vasquez. Mayoral contender and former councilman Orlando Sanchez came in second behind front-runner Bill White, but the real shocker was his poor performance in Latino neighborhoods. Whereas Sanchez had carried a majority of Hispanic voters in his losing 2001 runoff against Lee Brown, an Insider survey of eight key precincts in last week's election showed a dramatic reversal.

In Magnolia Park's Box 11, Sanchez had beaten Brown by 294 to 183, a 63 percent majority. Last week Bill White took the same precinct 279 to 160, a 58 percent majority for the leader. Likewise, in Denver Harbor's Precinct 560, a Sanchez majority of 77 percent over Brown was reversed with White receiving 127 votes to 103 for Sanchez. Sanchez carried only two of the key precincts surveyed.

"The Hispanic community figured out that Orlando is a Republican," analyzes Varoga.

"I think the Republican outreach effort to Hispanics has a lot of explaining to do," agrees Marc Campos, who worked for Sylvester Turner's mayoral campaign.

As we went to press some big-bucks Sanchez supporters were reportedly chewing over the idea that their candidate might be better off dropping out of the runoff in a unity gesture. If that happened, Orlando would in defeat have made Houston political history.

Conservative Hector Longoria had equally rotten luck after switching his campaign from At-Large Position 5 to Vasquez's heavily Democratic District H. He failed to make the runoff that now pits mayoral anti-gang task force director and former HPD officer Adrian Garcia against former state rep Diana Davila Martinez.

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