Great Brown Hope

With her arms pinned to her sides, Gracie Saenz stood frozen on the elevated stage in front of City Hall, buffeted, literally, by a force that was beyond her control.

A few minutes earlier, the councilwoman had formally declared her candidacy for mayor. The mariachi band had played a number or two, and the crowd that had gathered for her announcement was breaking up. But some of Saenz's Chinese-American supporters had arranged for a dragon dance as a finale, and the troupe of teenagers in the dragon's costume was now snaking around the candidate, rubbing up against her in a manner that could only be described as sensuous.

Saenz managed a faint smile, but her rigid body language -- and the way she politely tried to lean away from the nuzzling dragon -- suggested extreme discomfort. A week later, she could laugh about it. "I wasn't sure what was gonna happen there," she explained. Nobody told her that the dance was for good luck.

It was an awkward moment, even for someone like Saenz, who, after winning three citywide elections, is probably accustomed to the small, routine indignities of campaigning for office. But multiculturalism can be an awkward business, especially if you're running for mayor of Houston this year. Facing an electorate splintered among black, brown and white voters, with Asian-Americans a much smaller but not inconsequential component, none of the contenders -- black, brown or white -- can rely solely on their own tribe to win. The trick for each, then, is to ensure that he or she can get enough of his or her tribe to the polls on November 4 and survive for the inevitable runoff -- without alienating or polarizing the other tribes.

It's no trickier for Saenz than it is for any of the other candidates. Yet she, of all of those who have declared their intent to run, has been the most open about the nature of her endeavor. In her announcement speech, Saenz twice referred to her candidacy as "historic." She says the obligatory things about her white and African-American support, and she certainly has some, but she's clearly pinning her hopes on energizing the normally tepid Hispanic vote in a way that it's never been energized before. Even the most generous estimates peg that vote at no more than 15 percent of the total, but with five big-name candidates and maybe more, one who can claim a sizable share of a double-digit percentage has to be taken seriously.

It's not the first time a serious Hispanic contender has sought the mayor's office -- former city controller Leonel Castillo mounted an unsuccessful bid in 1979, after quitting as the Carter administration's INS commissioner -- but Saenz will be the first since the massive and continuing immigration of Mexicans and Central Americans that has been transforming Houston since the early 1980s, not to mention the first woman. And her candidacy comes at a time when Hispanic political strength, if nowhere near commensurate with the Hispanic population, has crossed the line from hope to reality. Four of the 14 members of City Council are Hispanic -- six years ago, there was one -- and a Latino surname now provides a definite edge in a county Democratic primary.

Saenz, however, would seem a peculiar candidate to carry the hopes of the city's diverse Hispanic populace. She doesn't possess the forceful personality of a Ben Reyes, or the nuts-and-bolts shrewdness of a John Castillo. Deservedly or not, she's acquired a reputation as a lightweight on Council. That may indeed be unfair, but it's hard to imagine her jawboning with, say, Les Alexander. When I asked her to list the top three accomplishments of her five and a half years as an at-large councilwoman, she cited assignments and areas of concern, rather than specific initiatives: her chairing of the committee that recommended increasing the city's affirmative action goals; her work promoting international trade as president of the city-sponsored Houston International Initiatives; and her service on the Joint City-County Commission for Children and Youth and other organizations addressing juvenile crime issues.

One specific achievement she mentioned was the installation of bilingual signs at the zoo, the civic center and the airports -- a nice and necessary gesture, but, for better or worse, hardly in the same league with the work on CURB and SOB ordinances by Helen Huey, the other councilwoman who wants to be mayor.

On top of all that, Saenz is not an especially commanding public speaker -- her speech at City Hall was a bit of puffery, weakly delivered (as opposed to Lee Brown's announcement address, which was a bit of puffery, forcefully delivered). Or that's how it appeared to me. The mostly Hispanic crowd obviously heard and saw it differently: There seemed to be a genuine buzz in the audience as Saenz spoke, and afterward, I noticed a couple of people had tears in their eyes.

One person who usually knows what he's talking about suggests that Saenz is as popular among Hispanics as Henry Cisneros was in San Antonio when he first ran for mayor; that same person is quick to note, however, that the demographics of the electorate are nowhere near as favorable to Saenz as San Antonio's were to Cisneros in 1981. He reels off a number of reasons for Saenz's popularity: she speaks good Spanish; she and her police officer husband still live in the same modest home near Austin High where they've lived for years; she gets intensive and highly favorable coverage from the Spanish-language media; and "she goes out and does all the community stuff."

Another thing Saenz has going for her is an inspirational personal story, one that has more to do with what Houston is, and what the city is becoming, than those of any of the other candidates. Rob Mosbacher talks about what a great head for business he's acquired working in a company his daddy founded, but Gracie Saenz can speak of more common, and perhaps more valuable, experiences: about how and her friends feared the cops while she was growing up in barrios on Houston's north side -- and how she later married a high school classmate who signed on with HPD and, on his first day out of the academy, was dispatched to help quell the Moody Park Riot. Or she can talk about what it was like speaking only Spanish at home while being discouraged from using her parents' tongue in school -- and how those contradictory dictates spawned "confusion" in a young child's mind.

Hers is a story that recognizes the value of hard work and personal initiative, but also acknowledges the positive role that government and other public institutions can play in people's lives. When Gracie Guzman Saenz says Yo soy su hija, it's one of the truest statements that any of the candidates will utter during the coming campaign.

One story Gracie Saenz tells is about her father: how when he was in his fifties, nearing the end of a lifetime of hard manual labor and employed by a locally prominent company, he leapt off a truck to avoid falling pipe and badly damaged a knee.

"They weren't very accommodating to his injury," says Saenz. "Instead of allowing him to have lighter duties, they demanded hard work. He finally retired. At that point, he started selling fruit."

Saenz's father was born in Houston, where his parents had been brought up from Mexico to work railroad construction. But when the jobs disappeared, they were sent back to Mexico, with "no proceeding or anything," as Saenz puts it. He grew up in the south-central state of Michoacan but, as a U.S. citizen by birth, returned to Houston as an adult, married and with three kids. The future councilwoman was to be the middle child of nine.

"Daddy was a laborer. He was not educated; mom was illiterate. So it was a real struggle," says Saenz.

Saenz and her siblings all worked to supplement the family income, she by "cleaning up after a thousand drunks" at the Pan-American Niteclub off North Main, then one of the largest and most popular Hispanic dance halls in the city. "We made it enjoyable," recalls Saenz. "We'd put the jukebox on and dance with the mops."

A product of the city's public schools, all the way -- from Kashmere Gardens Elementary through Jeff Davis High, class of '71 -- Saenz later graduated from the University of Houston, where she majored in Spanish, and, after working as a legal assistant to immigration lawyer Charles Foster, obtained her law degree at UH. Married at 20, she and her husband have three children, the third arriving as she was finishing law school in 1986. She worked as an assistant district attorney for four years, then set up her own law firm with a partner before winning elected office on her first try in 1991.

Except for the part about becoming the city's most prominent Hispanic officeholder, Saenz's story is typical of that of many Mexican-Americans in Houston who've risen in one generation from the working to the professional class, forging a path for the thousands of more recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America who now perform most of the city's low-wage menial labor -- the people who staff the kitchens and man the leaf blowers and the mops and the shovels. How quickly and deeply the children of those immigrants are assimilated -- and whether they'll have the same opportunities that Saenz and others of her generation were able to seize -- are the great questions for Houston in the coming century.

For Saenz, a large part of that mission is promoting Houston as a center of international trade, a job she's embraced with fervor, chairing a special Council committee on NAFTA, serving on the 1-69 Coalition and presiding over the above-mentioned Houston International Initiatives. Saenz herself has benefited from closer ties to Mexico: For the past three years she has been "of counsel" to Broocks, Baker & Lange, a job for which she was retained to develop Mexican and Latin American business for the law firm, according to brief mentions in the press at the time.

Today, Saenz is vague in describing her duties for the firm: "A lot of times it's working with clients, there is business litigation, bringing clients in and facilitating joint ventures ... business agreement contracts." She says she faced only one potential conflict with her role on Council, but declines to reveal what it was, contending that it's proprietary knowledge of the firm. Whatever the case, she says she puts little time into the job, and her personal financial disclosures indicate that her compensation has indeed been modest: between $10,000 and $50,000 in both 1995 and '96.

But the emerging global economy had a definite downside for Saenz when it brought her into contact with the partners of the Cayman Group, the front for FBI undercover agents posing as South American investors who angled to get minority set-asides from the city, including a piece of the contract for the convention center hotel.

As of this writing, no indictments have emerged from the sting that shook City Hall more than a year ago, nor, for that matter, has anyone been directly accused of a crime. But the effect on the city's Hispanic political leadership has been devastating: Among the names that have been connected to the investigation are those of Councilmen John Castillo and Felix Fraga, former councilman Ben Reyes and former port commissioner Betti Maldonado, who has said she was used as a conduit by the FBI to pass cash to councilmembers, one of them being Castillo. Maldonado has also said that, prior to her pulling the plug on the undercover operation by calling a press conference to disclose her role, the agents pressured her into trying to arrange further meetings with Saenz and another minority councilmember.

Saenz has acknowledged meeting with the Cayman Group investors but has said she took no money from them. Both Maldonado and Castillo were prominent in the crowd at Saenz's City Hall announcement, and perhaps their presence signaled nothing more than Saenz's loyalty to friends. At the same time, it's not a stretch to imagine that one way to rouse Hispanics to the polls would be to raise the specter of persecution of Hispanic politicians by the federal government.

There is a theory of some currency that the U.S. Justice Department, despite the commander-in-chief's recent call for racial healing, has for some reason been waiting until closer to the November municipal election to spring indictments on blacks and Hispanics caught in the sting, with the intent of thwarting a black or Hispanic from becoming mayor. It's a difficult theory to accept, yet theories thrive in the absence of facts. And if you were of a mind to believe such a theory, you could certainly make the few known facts fit it.

Saenz is not ready to embrace the theory -- as a former prosecutor, she says she knows to refrain from such judgments until she sees the evidence -- but it's apparent she's frustrated by the lingering cloud the investigation has cast.

"I'm angry that they haven't finished, and gotten it over with," she says, "and I hope that it doesn't happen at some opportune time for [my] opponents, I guess. I dunno -- it's weird."

It is indeed. Gracie Saenz seems uncomfortable addressing unpleasant questions in public, but a forthright discussion of her own experience with the FBI is another valuable perspective she can bring to the mayoral campaign -- especially if, as she says, the reality of it is this: "I didn't fall. God has been most gracious."

Coming from another politician, that declaration might sound sanctimonious or self-dramatizing, but coming from the fifth of nine children of a laborer from Michoacan, it holds a world of meaning.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >