Cracking the Club

Can't get no satisfaction: Hispanic officials, led by state Representative Rick Noriega (right), criticize the county redistricting plan.
Tim Fleck

It's the most exclusive good ol' boys club in Harris County, and the members are not about to make it easy for a brown-complexioned newcomer to join their ranks.

Last week a stream of Latino politicos cajoled, blustered and threatened the five-member Harris County Commissioners Court in a bid to redistrict retiring incumbent Jim Fonteno's Precinct 2 into a designer Hispanic district.

As expected, the boys weren't biting, not even El Franco Lee, the lone African-American on the court. He was the beneficiary of a racially tailored district 16 years ago, orchestrated to provide blacks a place at the county's head table.

As speaker after speaker reminded Lee of those long-ago times when Latinos licked envelopes to help him become the court's first minority, El Franco's eyelids drooped. After all, their plan gouges its additional Hispanics for Precinct 2 mostly out of Lee's Precinct 1, while dumping 30,000 more Anglos into his lap. Rainbow coalitions make good rhetoric, but self-interest is the golden rule in the commissioners' club.

Of course, Lee is not the only officeholder with personal political considerations in the balance. At least three elected officials with their eye on Fonteno's seat made pitches: City Councilman John Castillo, state Representative Rick Noriega and state Senator Mario Gallegos. Former Pasadena mayor Johnny Isbell, another Democrat testing the waters, watched intently from the back gallery.

After the sympathy pitches fell flat, Gallegos and Noriega turned to hardball. They threatened to hit commissioners in their pocketbooks by opposing a $445 million county bond election set for November.

"How do I explain to my community that they should vote in favor of bonds," asked Noriega, "when they are denied access…Taxation without representation is wrong, and what we're doing here today is why this community needs a voice up where you are sitting."

"The door swings both ways," Gallegos warned. "Whenever you're talking politics, we'll use whatever we can use."

When it came time to vote, Lee sided with frat brothers Steve Radack, Jerry Eversole and Fonteno. El Franco only aroused himself to a burst of sarcasm when County Judge Robert Eckels, the semi-ostracized geek of the club, offered an alternative that would have bolstered both Hispanics and Republicans in Precinct 2. It died for lack of a second.

Instead, the four commissioners approved a status quo plan over Eckels's dissent. It allows a continuing Hispanic population creep in Precinct 2 and guarantees a political free-fire zone in the southeast county district next year. Democrats have a slight population edge, but superior GOP turnout makes it possible for an Anglo Republican to take the seat. Particularly if the Democratic candidate has warts.

"It's not a sure-thing race for a Democrat or a Republican in the general election," analyzes Democratic consultant Dan McClung. "And I don't know that just any Hispanic could win it against an Anglo candidate in the Democratic primary."

McClung estimates the district population will have to be more than 60 percent Hispanic to guarantee a Latino's win.

"You have to get [the percentage] up there, because so many Hispanics are so young, and so many are not registered to vote."

The scenario is strikingly similar to the battle for the 29th Congressional District in Houston in the early '90s. State legislators drew the district explicitly to elect the area's first Hispanic to Congress. That backfired when Gene Green, an Anglo then state senator, got into a Democratic primary runoff with Ben Reyes, who was a city councilman tarnished by previous law enforcement investigations. Voting irregularities invalidated Green's initial primary runoff victory. But he beat Reyes again and has never been seriously challenged since.

The big difference from Precinct 2 is that the 29th Congressional District is rock-solid Democratic. Whoever wins that party primary has a plane ticket to Washington, D.C. By contrast, the newly redrawn Precinct 2 may have a combined 56 percent Hispanic and black adult majority, but the higher Anglo vote turnout makes it virtually a 50-50 proposition.

"Precinct 2 is bigger than a congressional district and it includes a much larger base of white, middle-class and Republican-oriented neighborhoods," explains Dr. Richard Murray. The University of Houston political scientist is one of the consultants who helped draft the redistricting plan adopted by commissioners. "Green mostly has a working-class district that just doesn't have very many of these upscale middle- and upper-middle-class developments."

In the early jockeying for Precinct 2, Castillo, Reyes's former aide and current District I councilman, is off and running. That could split the Hispanic community and make it more likely for an Anglo to win the seat next year. Castillo was indicted in the same federal bribery-conspiracy case that sent Reyes and former port commissioner Betti Maldonado to prison. After two mistrials, the government declined to try Castillo again, but his opponents will still have potent ammunition against him.

In addition, Castillo is involved in a messy feud with supporters of Carol Alvarado, Mayor Lee Brown's aide who is running for the council seat being vacated by Castillo because of term limits. Castillo is backing lawyer Al Flores in that race, and the political bad blood will likely spill over into a Castillo race for commissioner.

"It's curious," observes Murray, "that John, a veteran, experienced politician about to move into a very demanding race, would get involved in what is shaping up to be a bitter fight."

Consultant Marc Campos, whose clients include Brown, Alvarado and Gallegos, vows to make Castillo a marked man in a county race.

"All they have to do is resurrect those [FBI] tapes that were played in court, of John accepting a [cash-filled] envelope," Campos says of Castillo's opponents. "To a lot of us, a candidacy by John is an embarrassment."

Campos says that after the fall city election, "I'm going to spend a whole lot of my time making sure John Castillo feels political misery as he runs for county commissioner."

Possible Anglo candidates on the Democratic side are Isbell and Steve Phelps, a Pasadena appointee to the Port of Houston Commission. Phelps is close to incumbent Fonteno, who may back Phelps if he gets in the race.

Early consensus Republican candidates are state Representative Robert Talton and term-limited City Councilman Rob Todd. Consultant Allen Blakemore is working with Todd to project a populist message to moderate Democrats and conservatives in Precinct 2. Historically, city officials who've run for county seats have not done well. Take for example former councilwoman Eleanor Tinsley, who lost to Commissioner Eversole in 1990.

Blakemore figures Todd will be an exception to the rule because of his flamboyant role as a council opponent to Mayor Brown.

"He's happy to sue the mayor, sue Metro; he's ready to go toe-to-toe with government for the little guy," says Blakemore. "Here's a guy who's ready to go kick the city of Houston in the balls at every turn."

Democrat McClung figures both Talton and Todd have drawbacks. By his reasoning, Talton is likely too conservative to win in the general election. Conversely, Todd would probably have trouble with hyperconservatives in a primary because of his council high jinks, including a much-talked-about affair with colleague Bert Keller's wife.

Blakemore admits he'd relish a Todd-versus-Castillo matchup.

"Castillo has very narrow appeal, is not a particularly good campaigner, and should have substantial difficulty raising money. Hey, what's not to like there." Isbell would be a more solid candidate, Blakemore says, but he is little known outside Pasadena and has his own set of political enemies.

"He's been so involved in the Hatfield and McCoy Pasadena politics that a sizable group knows him well and really doesn't like him."

While McClung has long-standing ties to former mayor Isbell, he sees one potential candidate over the horizon who could run the table in Precinct 2.

"Sylvia Garcia could get in it and beat anybody in the primary, and anybody in the general," says McClung. He's the man who helped talk Garcia into challenging and beating then-city controller Lloyd Kelley.

Ironically, in the bellwether 1992 congressional race, Garcia came in third behind Green and Reyes. Had she and Reyes not made the runoff, McClung and many other political observers believe, Garcia would be a congresswoman today. Those close to the controller say she's been urged to run for commissioner by a diverse group of politicos, including Metro chair Robert Miller and state Senator Rodney Ellis. Garcia is expected to be re-elected easily as controller this fall, and she could run for commissioner without resigning her city office in 2002.

Garcia plays down her own interest in the race but stresses the necessity of getting a Hispanic voice on Commissioners Court.

"Now more than ever, there's really no excuse not to have a precinct that has a majority voting population that is Hispanic," says Garcia, "because that's where Harris County is going."

And could that also be Garcia's future political destination?

"I'll think about it some more, now that people have been so flattering," allows Garcia. The controller, who had an unsuccessful race for county attorney, concludes, "I thought about going to county government before, so it's certainly not a new idea for me."

That should really give the good ol' boys on the court something to chew on.

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