Vasquez's calls to contributors gave opponents an early warning.
Vasquez's calls to contributors gave opponents an early warning.
Kent Manor

A Little Jump to the Right

Annise Parker, the Houston councilwoman and city controller candidate, had just returned to her City Hall office from a morning committee meeting when she got an urgent call from another candidate. The word was out that Gabe Vasquez, who recently changed his political calling card from Democrat to Republican, was planning a last-minute jump into the controller's race from his district seat on City Council.

After her campaign staff confirmed the development, Parker walked down the hall to district Councilman Bruce Tatro, up until then the main GOP hopeful in the officially nonpartisan contest for controller.

According to Parker, "I stuck my head in his office and said something to the effect of 'Hey, your Republican colleagues are about to drop you in the grease. Did you know that?' "

A disbelieving Tatro thought it was a bad joke. "No, Gabe wouldn't do that," replied the councilman. Parker ended the conversation with "Bruce, I'd call my people if I were you."

It seems Tatro was among the last to learn that GOP strategists plotting the shape of this year's municipal elections had stolen a page from new University of Houston football coach Art Briles.

The choreographed position switches of candidates Michael Berry, Vasquez, and Hector Longoria certainly resemble Briles's Motion Sickness offense, where the backfield and the receivers suddenly skip off willy-nilly in one direction or another before the ball is snapped. It's a lot of fun to watch, at least until a serious opponent like Michigan stops laughing long enough to blow them out of the stadium.

"I did it all and I'm taking credit," joked GOP consultant Allen Blakemore, who represents a number of conservative municipal candidates joined in an informal slate. "Sometimes in my role as marionette master, the strings get a little tangled."

On a more serious note, the consultant claims he labored most of the weekend before the filing deadline on Berry's departure from the mayoral race, and was surprised by the Vasquez maneuver. According to other sources, a group of GOP movers and shakers, including Blakemore and former Metro chair and attorney Robert Miller, had a role in working out the complicated scenario and convincing those candidates to go along.

One of the elements had been rumored for days. After a Houston Chronicle-KHOU poll gave Berry single digits in the four-way contest, it was clear that a political liquidation sale was inevitable.

The candidate raffled off his nuisance value to fellow Republican candidate Orlando Sanchez in exchange for promises of future political support from Sanchez backers -- even though he had repeatedly stated that he is not a professional politician and his only interest was in serving as mayor. In bailing from the mayor's race, Berry's chosen landing pad might as well have been emblazoned with a "Welcome Political Opportunist" banner.

After proclaiming his respect for and support of the black community during his council tenure, Berry dropped into the race for Position 5, the one at-large seat occupied by African-Americans over the last two decades. He could have stayed in his current Position 4 seat, but that would have messed up the GOP plans to elect District G incumbent and DWI veteran Bert Keller to that post.

Ironically, leaders of the African-American community had labored hard to try to broker a consensus candidate for the position (see "Herding Cats in District 5," July 31) and avoid the very thing that Berry's maneuver now threatens: a conservative takeover of the seat. The consensus-building was only partially successful, with two black candidates, Dwight Boykins and Beulah Shepard, remaining in the contest.

While he was running for mayor, Berry told The Insider, "I have a lot of moderate to liberal African-American supporters who say [Berry's] more concerned with filling my potholes than yelling he's a conservative Republican."

Now we know the truth: Filling council seats with Republicans is a higher priority for Berry than potholes, or black representation on council, for that matter.

Berry's assumption of the campaign for Position 5 created another little problem. Hispanic conservative Hector Longoria had been the GOP choice. Now he was expendable, and was told he needed to move. Since all the other at-large seats had conservative contestants, the only option was his home District H, currently held by Vasquez. So back to the Heights barrio Longoria went.

Since he switched parties, Vasquez has been touted for possible administrative appointments in Austin and Washington, D.C. He had little to lose by shifting into the city controller contest against Tatro, a contrarian who has never fit very well on the municipal conservatives' team.

There was only one hitch in the plot. The plan leaked out in the morning hours before the filing deadline.

According to Parker, Vasquez tipped his hand by calling several big campaign contributors early that Monday. Some of them alerted other candidates they supported, and the news spread rapidly through the political community and on to the media. That gave the Democratic Hispanic establishment time to rustle up a consensus candidate of their own in District H, where they enjoy a partisan advantage on the order of 70 percent. That's the percentage of district votes that went to Democrat Tony Sanchez in his gubernatorial race against eventual winner Rick Perry last year.

Adrian Garcia, an HPD officer and director of the mayor's anti-gang office, had planned to run for District H but decided to wait until Vasquez was term-limited out of the post in 2005. Thanks to the early warning, Garcia hustled in his filing papers for the position ahead of the deadline. He's expected to receive endorsements from Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, District I Councilwoman Carol Alvarado and other elected Democratic Hispanics.

Another prominent Democrat, former state rep Diana Davila Martinez, also entered the District H race, but she has a handicap in getting the liberal vote. Her husband, former state senator Roman Martinez, is backing Orlando Sanchez's bid for mayor.

Whether all the political maneuvering actually will have any effect on the outcomes of the races involved is open to question.

"Clearly this is an effort to boost turnout in Hispanic neighborhoods for Orlando," says councilwoman Parker. "Those of us who really want to be controller have been out campaigning for months...I think a last-minute entrant will have a really difficult time finding a place in the field."

Tatro says he's worked his GOP base from the grass roots up. "I don't think Gabe has that history or has adopted that tactic."

In the Position 5 at-large race, Democratic consultant Dan McClung isn't willing to concede a free ride for ex-mayoral candidate Berry, either.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see the minority community rear up and put him in a runoff," says McClung. "It could be a place where Hispanics and blacks come together on one thing: Let's pop Michael Berry."


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