Taking Aim

Marching with an evolving minority electorate, a Vietnamese immigrant may just whip the GOP's old guard

In a banquet room high in the Greenspoint Radisson, a former Las Vegas lounge singer disco-struts across the stage. One moment he's flirting with a political wife across her plate of stuffed chicken, the next he's engrossed in an endless note, clutching his Johnny Mathis hair. The act takes a welcome pause when he spots Texas legislative candidate Hubert Vo, stops singing mid-song, and says, "Good evening, Mr. Vo!" Despite the theatrics, the exchange poses little threat of leaping onto the society page.

Indeed, most would-be politicians assembled here, at the obscure campaign endorsement dinner hosted by the Asian-American Political Movement, are Democrats without a prayer, victims of redistricting, weak fund-raising and feckless speechifying. And on the surface, few appear set for a tougher race than Vo, a minor real estate mogul from Alief who has emerged from virtual oblivion to challenge one of the most powerful Republicans in Texas, 22-year state Representative Talmadge Heflin.

"The odds are stacked against me," Vo admits to the audience, dominated by Filipinos in starched barong Tagalog shirts. "And you know what? Just like many of you, the odds were stacked against me when I first came to this country, with a little more than the shirt on my back. But I beat those odds."

Veteran political analyst Richard Murray's study 
concluded that Vo can win.
Veteran political analyst Richard Murray's study concluded that Vo can win.
Martha Wong says her '93 council victory surprised 
those skeptical of Asian candidates.
Martha Wong says her '93 council victory surprised those skeptical of Asian candidates.

The applause is hearty, as one would expect from a small crowd that sees itself in the foreign-born Vietnamese-American. But in a development unprecedented for an Asian immigrant in Houston, Vo is appealing to a much wider audience -- and making Republicans sweat.

"Most people think Harris County is going to flip from Republican to Democrat," explains University of Houston political science professor Richard Murray, "but the question is when it's going to happen. Politicians like Heflin are kind of like the canaries in the mine."

And for the Democrats, Vo could be the chisel that strikes gold. The 48-year-old former factory worker and convenience store clerk has become one of the party's greatest hopes for a new beginning, in a race that reflects the rapidly shifting political bedrock in urban Texas.

Murray sees an upset in the works. "I think he's going to win."

The last time politics shifted in southwest Harris County, Vo's Alief neighborhood was still a spread of muddy cow dairies and rice paddies -- home to old farmers and fat mosquitoes. Yet by the 1960s it was rapidly becoming a desirable destination for Anglos, who were fleeing the integrating schools and spiking crime of the inner city. Like other burgeoning suburbs, this was fertile ground for the rebirth of the Republican Party.

Alief taxpayers funded new schools to serve the settlers, and Heflin rode the expansion. A former construction manager for petrochemical plants in Louisiana, he won a spot on the Alief school board in 1973 and rose to president on a reputation as a demanding right-wing purse-pincher. (One school even bears his name.) Houston annexed much of Alief in the 1970s, yet the white-as-milk school system remained a lure to the region.

By 1982, newly arrived Anglos were a comfortable majority in Alief, and Heflin made his move. He ran for the Texas House of Representatives in newly created District 149, pledging to keep taxes low and morals Christian. He won by a 5 percent margin and wouldn't face another tough race for years.

But along the culs-de-sac and strip centers of Alief's freshly minted subdivisions, the political currents continued shifting.

In the mid-1980s, the Hispanic and Asian populations in Houston were bursting at the seams. Vietnamese immigrants such as Vo -- who had poured into Texas cities in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, and later as "boat people" fleeing communist persecution -- wanted communities to call their own; north Spring Branch had already become majority Latino, and educated Chinese and Indians were looking well beyond Old Chinatown.

These groups followed Anglos into neighborhoods in areas such as Clear Lake, Sugar Land and Friendswood. One of the biggest draws was Alief. Its quality schools strongly appealed to education-minded Asians, and its modest ranch-style homes were affordable. Alief's first Asian-oriented strip center, Diho Mall, opened in 1981 and is still a good place to find sushi and an immigration physical.

Whites began emigrating from Alief in droves by the mid-1990s. Developers, who'd squeezed nearly as many subdivisions into the area as possible, had nothing left to offer, and Anglo families were demanding newer homes and well-fortified gated communities. They found them in Katy and Fort Bend County, which became the new destinations for white flight. Four months ago, Alief's rapid evolution caught the attention of Murray, director of UH's Center for Public Policy. His small office high in the central campus's Hoffman building is crammed with decades of yellowed voting district maps, which he uses to study how demographic changes will affect this year's elections in each of the city's 917 precincts. "I am particularly interested in all of this racial/ethnic change," he says, "and the epicenter of that is the Alief area."

Alief has now become so ethnically mixed that dinner out feels like a trip to the United Nations. Visitors to the Hong Kong Mall on Bellaire can order liver-and-stomach rice soup at Choy's BBQ, but next to the crowds playing Chinese chess, the tables are piled high with mudbug shells from crawfish and beignets. Down the block, the options range from Ostioneria Mazatlan No. 3 Seafood to Al Sultan Mediterranean. And for a serious date, try the Thien Phu Wedding Restaurant. District 149 is now 36 percent white, 21 percent Hispanic, 20 percent black and 18 percent Asian-American, making it among the most diverse neighborhoods in the nation.

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