Bad Blood on the Tracks

As conservative opponents gear up to derail Metro's transit referendum, there's also dissatisfaction with the agency from an unlikely quarter: Hispanic rail allies. They are unhappy over the decision by the pro-rail Citizens for Public Transit political action committee to hire a San Antonio-based ramrod for the campaign.

The campaign manager, Eddie Aldrete, also worked for former Democratic congressman Ken Bentsen in his unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid last year. Critics claim he was hired at the behest of former Bentsen congressional staffer Pat Strong. She signed a personal services contract early this year with Metro to coordinate communications activities with a maximum payout of $120,500 through next month.

Aldrete's last Texas rail experience was hardly encouraging. He managed the San Antonio transit agency's unsuccessful light rail referendum three years ago.

"It's totally insulting to our community and our politics," says consultant Marc Campos. He works for mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner and did not apply for the campaign manager position himself. Campos argues Houston has plenty of experienced candidates for the job who are familiar with the community, but Metro PAC officials made it clear they were not interested in the locals.

He says he told Metro chair Arthur Schechter that "we don't deserve to be treated that way. You guys do all this stuff and come to us and expect us to be there for you. Those days are over."

Although Strong is not supposed to be working on the rail campaign, Campos claims, "I know for a fact that she's involved in the campaign. If Shirley DeLibero or Arthur Schechter tell you otherwise, they're fucking lying."

Campos sent DeLibero an open records request for Strong's contract and documentation of her activities. Strong did not return an Insider inquiry about her duties.

According to a fact sheet provided by the transit agency, "Pat Strong brings a unique knowledge of the Houston Metropolitan region and the communication of issues of community interest. No other consultant services are available that can best address Metro's needs."

A Democratic source says Strong has been at odds with the local Hispanic leadership for several years, since they opposed one of Bentsen's federal judicial picks while she was chief of his staff. More bad blood came when the same officials endorsed Ron Kirk over Bentsen in last year's U.S. Senate race.

Metro board member Janie Reyes says she urged the Metro PAC to hire local campaign officials but that her advice went unheeded.

Aldrete says he was contacted by Citizens for Public Transit chairman Ed Wulfe about the manager position. Although his "Keep San Antonio Moving" campaign lost there in 2000, Aldrete says there were significant differences between that referendum and the effort in Houston.

"They were trying to build 73 miles in one fell swoop as opposed to the stages they're doing here," notes the campaign manager. "That one was rail only, as compared to this being rail, roads and more buses and bus routes."

Aldrete says he's also reaching out to elected Hispanic officials, and expects to incorporate some of their representatives into the campaign effort.

Even so, with anti-rail activists finally mounting a coordinated campaign headed by developer Michael Stevens and a phalanx of Republican officeholders, Metro officials may wish they had used a more diplomatic touch in the Hispanic political community come Election Day. -- Tim Fleck


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