The chanting, expectant crowd jamming the Galleria hotel ballroom temporarily quieted as two figures stepped to the microphone. On stage to usher in the arrival of Bob Lanier at the December 1991 celebration of his first mayoral victory, Marc Campos and Betti Maldonado embraced and beamed. Few in the moneyed, Republican-tinged audience knew the loving couple.
Maldonado, now 36, was familiar at that time primarily to viewers of KUHT/Channel 8, the public television station, where she hosted a local news magazine show, and to listeners of Pacifica Radio, where she got her first on-air public exposure. Her victory promenade at a late eighties "Bayou Queen" ball, a send-up of beauty contests staged by local artists, produced an instant Public Access Channel cult classic that provided exposure of a different sort. The mischievous Maldonado raised her skirt, exposing fishnet hose and some distinctly non-commercial video vistas.
Campos, now 42, was a household name -- or epithet -- only for participants in the city's internecine Hispanic political wars, where he absorbed and inflicted plenty of bruises as strategist for then-state Representative Al Luna as they battled City Councilman Ben Reyes. In the late seventies, Campos teamed with a Roman Catholic nun to operate an advocacy center investigating Houston police brutality. In the years since, he has honed a reputation as a tough political combatant and a ladies man whose consorts were not exactly convent material.
Lanier's ascension to City Hall opened new vistas for both Campos and Maldonado. For a while, the pair seemed to have it all: passion, political clout and big-bucks consulting contracts. But then the romance waned, and the politics got really personal.
"The mayor made her a player and now she's trying to prove she can get power on her own," claims Campos, who broke up with Maldonado last year and accuses her of pursuing an ex-lover's vendetta by using her influence as a Houston port commissioner to disrupt his business. He says that despite a commitment Maldonado made not to lobby for Mexico while on the Port Commission, she's demanded he give her a share of his lucrative lobbying contract with the Mexican government.
"I didn't realize I had so much power," deadpans Maldonado, who refuses to comment directly on Campos' charges. "I really wish he would move on. I hope this doesn't mean that each time Campos fails at a project, me and the Port are going to be blamed."
Campos and Maldonado are only two strands in a tangled web of strained personal-political relationships. Campos, previously married to Mayor Lanier's legislative lobbyist, Sabrina Foster, is now romantically involved with HISD board member Paula Arnold, who's working as Governor Ann Richards' Harris County campaign coordinator. Meanwhile, Maldonado has formed Maldonado Consulting with Lisa Hernandez, an embittered ex-employee of Campos' who previously was local director of the Southwest Voter Education Registration Project.
Hernandez nuked Campos and Arnold in a sizzling broadside in the Hispanic bimonthly La Politiquera a few months back. "The extent of Paula Arnold's involvement in the Hispanic community is in the romance department," wrote Hernandez. She closed her open letter to the Hispanic community by quoting a Campos critic to the effect that Campos is "a member of that ubiquitous tribe of savages who take pleasure in urinating in the camp soup." La Politiquera also printed a letter Hernandez wrote to Kirk Adams, Governor Richards' son-in-law and campaign manager, unsuccessfully entreating him not to use Arnold as the governor's campaign chief in Harris County.
"It is obvious to me that you and the governor are totally in the dark regarding the campaign antics which are taking place at her expense here in Harris County .... How is Paula Arnold doing everything possible to meet the goal [of Ann's victory] when she excludes longtime Richards supporters and allows her boyfriend to promote his business under the guise of reelecting Ann?" A La Politiquera footnote to the letters warned that Hernandez "currently resides in Houston, Texas and is taking martial arts lessons." Yikes!
Campos says he gave Hernandez a job and loans in the wake of the folding of the local Southwest Voter Education Registration Project, which worked to register new Hispanic voters and lobbied for Hispanic interests in redistricting battles. "I took her on when no one else would hire her," says Campos, who contends Hernandez is out to get him because he replaced her and briefly hired Arnold to finish Hernandez's assignments. He credits the Maldonado and Hernandez tag team with accomplishing the near impossible.
"I've got people actually feeling sorry for me," he declares. "People tell me privately: 'God, I can't believe she's doing this. Why'd you ever go out with her? I told you about her!'"
In hindsight it is hard to believe, but for a while the Campos-Maldonado union seemed to click on all cylinders. Having helped Lanier round up an overwhelming majority of the Hispanic vote in his mud-splattered runoff with Sylvester Turner three years ago, they shared in the plums that come with being in the vanguard of a new city political order. Maldonado was named to the mayor-elect's transition team and Campos continued as a paid consultant to Lanier and an advisor in the mayor's kitchen cabinet.
The newly influential Campos Communications also won a $25,000-a-month contract from the government of Mexico to lobby for its interests, including passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Maldonado had a piece of the contract. The Monterey-born Maldonado, a high school dropout who had become a U.S. citizen in a stylish ceremony at the Lanier mansion, found that her friendship with Bob and (especially) Elyse Lanier endowed her with some serious political jets. Her work for Mexico on behalf of NAFTA didn't stop Lanier from installing her as his City Hall NAFTA liaison at $42,000 a year. Before long, the mayor had seen to it that Maldonado was named to replace lawyer Michael Solar as a city representative on the influential Port Commission, a non-salaried post that provides appointees with a wealth of ready-made political and business contacts. Included are free trips to exotic ports of call like Rio de Janeiro, where Maldonado journeyed this summer, generous expense accounts and top-flight lodgings.
Campos says Maldonado is now using that position to make him pay for breaking up with her. "I think there's a question about whether she's properly handling her roles," he says. "I think there's a question of abuse of power .... She ought to be out being a port commissioner, not utilizing that Port Commission to enrich herself, particularly in an area where there's been so much publicity raised about potential conflicts of interest." (Solar came under fire for working as a paid NAFTA lobbyist on Mexico's behalf while he was on the commission.)
Campos says that after Maldonado won the appointment, she paid an unannounced visit to his combination home and office in the Heights to demand a portion of Campos Communications' contract with Mexico, which had been extended into a third year at a reduced rate of $10,000 a month. But, he says, he refused to cut her in on deal. "I told her that because of our personal relationship and the fact she had an employee, Lisa Hernandez, who was out chewing in public on me big time, that I couldn't work under that kind of arrangement. But I told her the bigger issue is the ethical question, that you pledged to the mayor and City Council that as long as you were port commissioner you weren't going to do business with the government of Mexico. You shouldn't be out doing this. Then she said I should hire her brother back." Her brother, Juan Maldonado, had worked in Campos' office back when Campos and Maldonado were a team. After their breakup, Campos terminated him.
"She said if I hired him he wouldn't even have to report here. I said, 'I'm not going to go for that kind of arrangement. I really don't want this conversation to continue,'" Campos says.
Given several opportunities, Maldonado refused to comment directly on the allegation that she requested a share of Campos' Mexico contract.
Campos says Maldonado has interfered with two other contracts his consulting firm had negotiated, including one with the International Longshoreman's Union at the port, a $10,000-a-month deal he made with Leroy Bruner, the union's chief and a colleague of Maldonado's on the Port Commission. The work lasted but three months, during which Campos produced a hard-hitting newsletter, Port Watch, that blasted Port Commission Chairman Ned Holmes and raised questions about some financial arrangements at the port.
"One of the reasons I was brought on is I can play hardball," Campos brags. "They felt they needed a PR agency like mine .... I don't do dinners, you know? Everything that we put out was approved by the union. There were some things we scaled back. Like instead of using a sledgehammer, [we would] use a two-by-four."
But Campos says Bruner told him the deal was off because Maldonado had pressured the union. Since Bruner is one of seven commissioners and needs all the votes he can get on union issues, Campos claims Maldonado's pressure was decisive.
Asked for comment, Bruner displays the blue-collar street smarts that doubtless have come in handy in his years as a union leader. "I'm not gonna comment," he says with a laugh. "Man, I ain't crazy!"
Then there's the contract Campos had nearly finalized recently with a group of Hispanic contractors, engineers, and accountants to represent them at City Hall. In the wake of a recently released study indicating African-American businesses are not getting a fair share of city contracts, Campos and associate John Castillo pitched the idea to a group of Hispanic businessmen meeting at Merida's restaurant that their interests need to be represented at City Hall. Campos claims Maldonado again intervened to disrupt the pending agreement.
"We go back later to meet with these folks, and we're told by some of the contractors she had called them and said they shouldn't hire us, that the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce [where Maldonado is the incoming chairperson] could provide the same services," says Campos. "That if they were raising money to pay our fee they should give it to the chamber. Everybody knew what this was all about. It was 'Betti Maldonado has a personal ax to grind.'"
Metro board member Rafael Acosta, an engineer and the owner of Merida's, backs Campos' account. "All I know is I got calls from engineers saying Ms. Maldonado is saying we shouldn't be represented by Marc, that there are other people who could be doing it, like the Hispanic Chamber." But Acosta, like Bruner, is not anxious to get caught in the fallout from faded love. "I don't want to really get in the middle of that. All I know is that when this whole commotion about affirmative action and this contracting program at the city broke out, the Hispanic contractors, engineers, vendors had no one to represent them at City Hall."
Maldonado denies she disrupted the Campos deal. "I think you should call the chamber. There's so much hearsay, and I don't really know what Marc is talking about on a lot of these issues. I just wish he would move on with his life, because we've all moved on." A Press call to the Hispanic Chamber went unreturned.
Meanwhile, Maldonado and Hernandez have opened a new front in the verbal war by signing a contract to work for Republican Robert Eckels' campaign for county judge. Campos says Maldonado, as a port commissioner, has no business working the campaign of a man who, if elected, will be appointing the county's representatives to that body. He also sniped at Hernandez, an Ann Richards' appointee to the now-defunct Texas Dental Commission, for selling out to Republicans.
Maldonado initially denied she was involved in the Eckels campaign. A few days later, Hernandez phoned the Press to acknowledge she and Maldonado had struck an agreement to place Eckels' ads on Spanish-language radio stations.
Hernandez says she's less than impressed with Campos' protestations of partisan purity. "First of all, Betti is a brand new voter and has no political past, if you will," she says. "I was a delegate to the State Democratic Convention. But this is not personal, this is business."
"Marc can say a lot of things," she continues, warming to the subject. "Half a year, baby, half a year, and the guy's still beating his chest, roaring and wanting somebody to listen. I don't understand how someone can carry a grudge for so long. I think it's pretty sexist of him to continue this and to blame everything on what he calls an old love affair. Jesus, I think they have therapy for problems like that."
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Campos contends the only problems he has at the moment are named Betti and Lisa. "They're both over there," he laments. "One isn't going to leave me alone because we no longer date. The other because I let her go. They're just taking it out on me. And to go after Paula Arnold, who never did anything to them...."
Campos says he's complained repeatedly to Lanier that "bouncing Betti" is out of control. As for Maldonado, he has this message: "Get on with your life. Don't spend your time messin' with me. I ain't messin' with you. That's the last thing I want to do."
And Campos insists the feud has gone far beyond an ex-lovers' quarrel.
"It's her abuse of power, power that somebody gave her. She needs to cool it, because it's real easy to crash and burn in politics in this community. This Hispanic community does a real good job of cannibalizing each other."
It seems the political cannibals have quite a choice of entrees on their table these days.