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Send in the Election Clowns

After a promising start, Vasquez is on the political ropes.
Kent Manor

What a difference a couple of years make. In the Houston Press Best of Houston issue in 2001, Houston's District H councilman Gabe Vasquez received Best Politician honors. Last week, he missed the runoff in the race for city controller after earlier deciding not to seek re-election to his City Council seat.

Come January, Vasquez will be busted back to private citizenship.

In an informal Insider poll of the biggest blunders of the 2003 local election, media members and politicos named Vasquez's ballot switcheroo as No. 1. The nearest runner-up was activist Brenda Flores's botched attempt to recruit a bogus Bill White for the ballot. So what happened to golden boy Gabe and his Midas political touch?

Only months ago, Vasquez was the toast of state and national Republicans after abandoning the Democratic Party for the GOP. It was a strategic move to bypass the Houston Hispanic Democratic establishment, with which Vasquez has feuded since getting elected to council four years ago.

Vasquez was expected to receive a plum state or federal appointment from Governor Rick Perry or the George Bush administration as a reward for his partisan conversion, which alienated liberal supporters. Then, just before the election, the councilman voted against a conservative-led tax rollback effort and for a municipal drainage fee, moves that effectively poisoned his standing with many of his new GOP buddies.

On a personal level, things weren't going much better. Vasquez sued for divorce last summer from wife Cindy, who has since moved to Corpus Christi. The divorce was finalized a few days before the election. Vasquez's City Hall chief of staff Lisa Dimond, who took temporary leave to work on his failed controller campaign, denied a rumor circulating by e-mail from Democratic activist Carl Whitmarsh that she and the councilman are romantically involved, commenting, "We're friends." Vasquez refused to discuss his divorce and denied having a sexual relationship with his staffer.

Vasquez also has broken off a longtime political engagement with consultant and former council staffer Frank McCune, once the beneficiary of fat paychecks from the councilman's campaign even when Vasquez ran unopposed. McCune confirmed that he and Gabe are buds no longer.

Republican consultant Allen Blakemore opines that Vasquez's vote against the tax rollback was a bigger blunder than jumping late into the controller's race.

"I firmly believe that if Vasquez had voted correctly on those two votes, he'd be in the runoff with Annise [Parker]," says Blakemore. "It's disappointing just to watch somebody blow themselves up like that."

Consultant Craig Varoga sees it from a Democratic perspective.

"The Republicans are starting to eat themselves," chuckles Varoga. "What happened to Gabe is pathetic. To think that five or six months ago he was being courted by [Bush adviser] Karl Rove, and then he comes in a miserable fourth barely ahead of Steve Jones" in the controller's race. "It's a terrible wreckage."

UH political scientist Richard Murray compares Vasquez's self-demolition to that of former city controller Lloyd Kelley and Congressman Craig Washington.

"It probably will rank among the decade's bonehead moves," chuckles Murray. "It has zero upside as far as I can see, unless he was tired of hanging around City Council. In terms of other political opportunities, to finish so poorly in a citywide race does not augur well for future elective ventures."

Councilman Vasquez says he has no regrets for the actions that cost him both his council seat and the shot at controller. "I did the right thing by putting the city first and taking care of my district, but others didn't see it that way."

As for future political races, Vasquez says, "I'm a person that believes that everything happens for a reason. And I'm sure there's going to be something bigger and better out there for me."

Other Republican Hispanic municipal candidates did almost as poorly as Vasquez. Mayoral contender and former councilman Orlando Sanchez came in second behind front-runner Bill White, but the real shocker was his poor performance in Latino neighborhoods. Whereas Sanchez had carried a majority of Hispanic voters in his losing 2001 runoff against Lee Brown, an Insider survey of eight key precincts in last week's election showed a dramatic reversal.

In Magnolia Park's Box 11, Sanchez had beaten Brown by 294 to 183, a 63 percent majority. Last week Bill White took the same precinct 279 to 160, a 58 percent majority for the leader. Likewise, in Denver Harbor's Precinct 560, a Sanchez majority of 77 percent over Brown was reversed with White receiving 127 votes to 103 for Sanchez. Sanchez carried only two of the key precincts surveyed.

"The Hispanic community figured out that Orlando is a Republican," analyzes Varoga.

"I think the Republican outreach effort to Hispanics has a lot of explaining to do," agrees Marc Campos, who worked for Sylvester Turner's mayoral campaign.  

As we went to press some big-bucks Sanchez supporters were reportedly chewing over the idea that their candidate might be better off dropping out of the runoff in a unity gesture. If that happened, Orlando would in defeat have made Houston political history.

Conservative Hector Longoria had equally rotten luck after switching his campaign from At-Large Position 5 to Vasquez's heavily Democratic District H. He failed to make the runoff that now pits mayoral anti-gang task force director and former HPD officer Adrian Garcia against former state rep Diana Davila Martinez.

Vasquez, Sanchez and Longoria may be some of the bigger chumps, but there were plenty of other highs and lows in the 2003 municipal elections.

Worst Campaign Tactic: Bert Keller's embrace of Mayor Lee Brown. The District G councilman undercut his bid for an at-large seat by joining Vasquez in voting against a tax rollback, and even suggested to an African-American audience that Mayor Brown was voting for him. That was enough to provoke stridently conservative KSEV radio talk show hosts to begin promoting Keller's Democratic opponent Ron Green for the position. As a result, Keller now finds himself in a runoff with Green and facing attacks from partisans of both stripes.

Let Him Eat Crow: Congressman John Culberson singed the ears of the Metro board before they voted to put the Metro rail plan on the ballot earlier this fall. He warned that the members could be personally liable for cost overruns on the rail plan in the future, an overamped claim that had some listeners sputtering with outrage. But now that the referendum has passed, Culberson has made an about-face. "I gave it my best shot," he comments. "My district voted against it, but the majority of Houstonians voting in the city election have approved it. So I have to honor the will of the majority and support federal funding for what the voters have approved."

Biggest Surprise: Three-term at-large councilwoman Annise Parker was expected to make the runoff for controller, but not by the two-to-one margin she rolled up in the first round over opponent Bruce Tatro. Parker capitalized on her strong Inner Loop political organization and reputation as a moderate voice on council. She also raised enough money to launch an effective television ad campaign. "I would have expected her to top out in the 30s," says consultant Blakemore. Instead, Parker goes into the runoff strongly favored to inherit the controller's office in January from interim council appointee Judy Johnson.

Most Blatant Opportunist: Position 4 councilman Michael Berry scarfed up the publicity from an upstart bid for mayor, and then ran for cover at the last minute, filing for the Position 5 council seat traditionally held by an African-American since its inception. Berry edged out the distinctly uncharismatic Dwight Boykins to stay on council, where he'll no doubt be busy plotting his next jump to a higher office as soon as possible.

Sheila Jackson Lee Persistence Award: Just like the namesake of this award, who became a ballot perennial until she finally found an election she could win, District A winner Toni Bracher Lawrence just wouldn't take no from the voters. After two unsuccessful efforts against incumbent Tatro, the sister of 9/11 victim and author Barbara Olson finally made it on the third try. "Persistence pays off," says Blakemore. "After she lost the first time she started running again and never quit." Just like Sheila.

Biggest Underperformer: The Metro "Get Houston Moving" campaign. Slow to accelerate and short of financial fuel, the effort to corral a mandate for rail started with a big lead in the polls, and very nearly coughed up the ball in the closing days of the campaign. Metro forces got unexpected help from developer Michael Stevens, who headed up the anti-Metro effort but eschewed the hardball tactics used to kill rail in the past. "[Former GOP chair] Gary Polland and those guys would have called it Lee Brown's billion-dollar rail plan," says Varoga, "and would have picked up four points and the thing would have lost." Stevens, ever the gentleman, gracefully conceded after the election, while dyed-in-the-wool anti-rail fanatics are already plotting new schemes to blow up the tracks.

Chronic Overachiever: It's easy to forget now, but as recently as mid-summer most political observers didn't give businessman Bill White much of a chance to make a runoff against opponents Sanchez and Turner. Other candidates have poured millions into their campaigns, but few have ever gotten the bang for the buck that White achieved in leading into next month's runoff.

UH's Murray points to Precinct 217's River Oaks Elementary, where White outpolled Sanchez 762 to 510. Murray, who has seen just about everything in his decades of analysis of Houston city elections, is amazed: "A Republican losing one of the most affluent precincts in the city? Jesus!" According to the political scientist, "you rarely see a political plan executed as well as we saw with the White campaign."  

And momentum creates more momentum. "The only reason for anybody to be for Orlando Sanchez was that he was the front-runner and people thought he had it locked up," says Varoga. "The late train for Bill isn't in December, it's now. And it's leaving Orlando's station."


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