Smackdown at City Hall

The cramped side room of the Dinner Bell Cafeteria on Lawndale Street in east Houston hardly seemed a requisite stop on the route to Houston City Council's District I seat. An attic fan as big as a ship's propeller whirred loudly overhead, stirring the steam-table-scented air on a weekday evening. Amid the aromas, three candidates made pitches to a few dozen diehards of the East Lawndale Civic Association.

The term-limited incumbent, John Castillo, a cagey, silver-haired City Hall veteran with a vested interest in selecting a successor, watched intently from the audience.

Political consultants call this retail politics at its purest. In a district of more than 200,000 people where turnout at the polls is abysmal, 8,000 votes is likely a winning total. Newspaper advertising has minimal effect, and radio and television spots are too expensive and unfocused. The east side has to be won the old-fashioned way: in dozens of small skirmishes before civic groups, and with miles of block-walking before candidates sleep on Election Night.

Created in 1979 as the result of a voting rights lawsuit by black and Hispanic activists to gain minority City Council representation, District I sprawls east and south from downtown along the Gulf Freeway to encompass working-class neighborhoods and industrial zones. Only two men have occupied the seat since its inception.

The first, legendary eastside political jefe Ben Torres Reyes, for years directed a machine fueled by his ability to skirt the line between legal patronage to supporters and illegal graft to himself and cronies. Repeated investigations by the Harris County district attorney did little more than tarnish Reyes's image enough to prevent him from winning a congressional race. Finally removed from office by term limits, the cash-strapped Reyes bit into the hook of a federal bribery-conspiracy sting in 1996. He's serving a nine-year sentence in a Georgia penitentiary.

When he left office at the end of 1995, Reyes backed his longtime council aide Castillo for the job. Castillo stood trial along with his mentor but survived two hung juries, and the feds dropped his bribery charges. His council office is currently the target of an IRS-FBI probe for election fund irregularities dating back to 1997. Castillo is considering running for the Harris County commissioner Precinct 3 position next year, although the latest investigation threatens to scuttle those ambitions.

One by one at the Dinner Bell, candidates vying to replace Castillo offered varying versions of the predictable campaign rhetoric: multipoint plans to improve services; vows to return every constituent's phone call; pledges to pave deteriorating streets, cut weed-choked lots and drain stagnant ditches. "Infrastructure" seemed to pop up in every other sentence.

Carol Alvarado, a tall, striking 34-year-old with her glossy black hair pulled back in a bun, touted her activist roots. She grew up in eastside industrial neighborhoods around the Ship Channel and matured into the highest-ranking Hispanic in Mayor Lee Brown's two-term administration. Along the way she logged time for two of the savviest of local politicians, eastside Constable Victor Trevino and District 29 Congressman Gene Green. She is the odds-on favorite in the council race, having corralled the bulk of major endorsements and contributions.

Publicly, Alvarado plugs her own qualifications and carefully avoids criticism of the incumbent. Privately, an associate quotes her on the district's past representatives: "I can hardly do worse than those two."

When asked about that sentiment, Alvarado chuckles and says, "I don't know -- who knows if I said that?"

Al Flores, a stocky, affable commercial law attorney with the mayoral appointment to be municipal judge, plays up his credentials as a family man with two daughters. His slogan is "Your Neighbor at City Hall." Flores is also a neighbor of Castillo's in the comfortably middle-class Idylwood subdivision off the Gulf Freeway at Wayside. Flores's opponents view him as handpicked by the councilman, believing Castillo wants to retain influence at City Hall. Flores has no experience as an officeholder, and his candidacy was something of a surprise. Castillo's former chief of staff Johnny Soto had been expected to carry the incumbent's banner until a bitter falling-out with the boss earlier this year.

Flores also has been embraced by Councilman Gabe Vasquez, whose former council aide, Frank McCune, is working in the campaign. That plot line goes back two years to Vasquez's victory against Yolanda Black Navarro, who was backed by Alvarado, state Senator Mario Gallegos and a handful of Hispanic state representatives. It continues a traditional Houston Latino political split between the Reyes machine and a younger generation of Hispanic politicians, with Vasquez now in the role of Reyes. The rule of the game: Get mad and get even.

The third candidate, burly, blustery W.R. Morris, is no stranger to the District I ballot, having run twice against Reyes and once against Castillo. He also has sought the at-large seat currently held by Carroll Robinson. Last week Morris hauled in his major endorsement: the Houston Chronicle.

Supporters describe him as a community activist and agitator. For detractors, labels like buffoon and verbal bomb thrower come to mind. When Hispanic controversies bubble up at City Hall and the Houston Independent School District, Morris is sure to be found in front of the TV cameras.

True to form, he has been the only candidate to drop the niceties and come out swinging. Morris quickly began taking shots at Alvarado for her connections to Mayor Brown, ignoring the fact that his own paychecks for the last four years came from the same office.

"This is the worst administration this city has ever had," declared Morris. "If you like Lee Brown, you'll love Carol." Morris is on the Chris Bell mayoral bandwagon, lauding Bell as a critic with solutions.

Morris had been on the mayor's community assistance staff until his firing three weeks earlier. In Morris's telling, he called in the media after a Red Cross official refused to approve reimbursements for an indigent woman with a flood-ravaged home. His supervisor reported he had bullied the agency official and behaved unprofessionally. Anyone who has dealt with Morris over the years could easily believe both sides.

After the candidate presentations, the Dinner Bell audience of middle-class, older homeowners had a smattering of questions, mainly about bread-and-butter neighborhood issues like street improvements, park maintenance and school safety. Oddly, there were no comments on the pervasive ethical questions that have dogged the District I office for the last two decades. It seemed like one of those ugly family secrets everyone on the block knows about but no one really wants to air in public.

Carol Alvarado hurries up the stairs to her second-floor campaign office on Capitol Street in preparation for an evening of hop-and-stop meetings of civic associations. Following an afternoon of going door-to-door buttonholing voters, she's discarded her sneakers and dressed up in black-heeled boots, a black tailored pantsuit and a purple blouse to match her campaign buttons.

Like her mentor, Congressman Green, Alvarado is a blockwalkaholic, meticulously scribbling handwritten greetings on door hangers to leave behind for absent residents. With the exception of a two-year stint as Green's congressional aide in Washington, Alvarado has never been far from home. She knows each district precinct by heart and has served as a precinct judge for years. While earning a political science degree at the University of Houston, Alvarado started a civic association in the Manchester industrial neighborhood where she grew up. Alvarado cultivates those grassroots connections like a master gardener, knowing that harvest day comes at the polls November 6.

Alvarado lists her voting residence at the home of parents Frank and Ida on East Avenue N, though she has leased a Rice Lofts apartment for the past year.

"I really go back and forth," she explains. "The Rice is okay, but I feel like I'm never there. Now I'm either at the campaign office or at home."

According to Alvarado, her infatuation with politics started with the first District I election, when she was a volunteer for her godfather, Mario Quinones, against Reyes. "I tell people I've actually been campaigning for this seat since I was 12," she says.

Setting the Machiavellian tone for the district's politics, then-state representative Reyes encouraged Quinones to run, then jumped into the race himself.

"It was rough and I learned very quickly," recalls Alvarado. "I saw a lot of the things that go on: the sign wars, the door-to-door campaigning, the phone banking. I was just a kid, but I was doing all of that. Even though we lost, I was hooked."

Alvarado says the Reyes legacy in District I is a mixed bag.

She relates an encounter with an Anglo Republican voter who says he disliked Reyes -- but was impressed that Reyes could take care of district problems at City Hall. "So despite what people thought about his ethics and behavior, they felt that he was an advocate for the community," she says.

Alvarado wants to assume that portion of the Reyes mantle. At Johnson Chapel in the heavily black Smith Addition, she flashes the familiarity of a sorority sister in greeting the handful of older women gathered for a monthly meeting. Group leader Teresa Williams wears a large Alvarado button. Castillo operative A.B. Olmos rises to offer the group a Thanksgiving turkey from the councilman's office.

"What are you going to bring?" Williams teases Alvarado.

The candidate razzes back, "Maybe some of those pies, like last time." The women laugh, leaving little doubt about who would be served up the votes from that room.

An hour later at the Pecan Park Civic Association, a similar scene unfolds when she is introduced to the audience by president Winnie Tolson, also wearing the candidate's button. Even at the next stop, the Idylwood home base of Flores and Castillo, friendly faces await her. Alvarado's sister Yolanda just happens to be the precinct judge there.

Even her opponents admit that Alvarado is probably the most influential Hispanic in a mayoral administration in Houston's history. She reports directly to the mayor and has overseen Brown's Super Neighborhood program, the sports authority, Metro, the Port of Houston and the Census 2000 project. While she lists the arena negotiations with the Rockets as one of her accomplishments, a councilmember believes she was out of her league.

"She's probably a little light to be carrying the portfolio she's carrying," says the source, who recalls Les Alexander and Rockets general manager George Postolos sitting across from Brown and Alvarado. "I remember thinking at the time," the source says, "if I were negotiating with those sharks, I'd have the biggest, baddest, meanest lawyer sitting next to me. I wouldn't have Carol."

City Hall's rumor mill also has been churning about Alvarado's romance with her administration coequal, Donald K. Hollingsworth, responsible for public safety and drug issues for Brown. Some observers question if there should be a personal alliance between Brown's top two aides.

"I'll just say my personal life is that, and I wish to keep my personal life private," says Alvarado, firmly shutting the door on the line of inquiry. "I'm single and I live alone."

According to one councilmember, "The relationship is a source of amusement, but considering the stuff that's gone on between councilmembers and other councilmembers' wives, so what?"

Before Alvarado took a leave of absence to campaign, mayoral candidate and Councilmember Chris Bell offered an ethics ordinance clearly aimed at forcing her resignation. Alvarado's campaign treasurer is Jim Edmonds, a high-powered lobbyist who chairs the port commission. Both Morris and Flores agree that the situation created at least the appearance of impropriety.

"If someone is in [Carol's] position whose treasurer is chairman of the port authority, or chairman of other agencies within the city of Houston, and funds will be contracted for in those agencies, then there's a problem," says Flores.

"It's about ethics, and I don't think Carol has any," snipes Morris. "She's made her bed, and she's going to have to lie in it. The thing that gets me is Brown knows about it and he allows it to happen."

Alvarado counters that the ethics ordinance targeted her while ignoring Flores's position as a municipal judge. Castillo and Vasquez pushed for the law, which convinced her it was just a political ploy by two supporters of Flores.

According to Alvarado, she tried to stay on good terms with both councilmen.

"After the 1999 race, I went to Vasquez and said, 'Look, you know I wasn't with you, but you're here now and I'm here, and let's make the best of this. Let's try to help each other.' " Alvarado says that agreement lasted until her candidacy. She also approached Castillo for his support, hoping he would reciprocate for her work on his campaign in 1995.

"He said he felt I was a good candidate," recalls Alvarado, "but that he wanted to support someone who would turn around and support him for Commissioners Court. Which I think was very selfish, because you'd think he would want the best-qualified person…I thought it was very self-serving."

A council colleague figures Vasquez, like Castillo, is looking to his political future.

"He's trying to build a power base for a future mayoral race. Carol wouldn't owe him diddly and has worked against him. So this is a chance for him to thumb his nose at the Hispanic leadership and possibly gain a council ally."

Vasquez counters that he supports Flores because he's the best candidate and that Alvarado has not been a good representative for the Hispanic community.

"As an executive assistant of the mayor, she's been challenging and difficult to work with," says the councilman. He admits the census effort produced better results than in previous years, although "we still came in undercounted and one of the worst cities in the country."

According to Vasquez, most of his problems with Alvarado have been behind-the-scenes conflicts over efforts to improve his district's libraries and facilities.

"It's just been difficult to get her to be a partner in getting things done," he says. "She's been more of an obstacle."

Alvarado is banking on her long-nurtured neighborhood roots to win without a runoff. Along the way, she isn't willing to criticize Mayor Brown or to separate herself one inch from the administration.

Asked whether, as councilmember, she would oppose Brown if her constituents' interests required it, she replied immediately: "I don't think I'll have to, because I don't think he's going to deprive the people in District I from any services."

Sheets of rain rippled across the parking lot of a strip center off the Gulf Freeway at Wayside, as a double-decker yellow bus rolled out on a sort of political Magical Mystery Tour of District I. Tornadoes had touched down to the east a few hours earlier, and the sky was still a threatening gray-blue. Al Flores's staff had rounded up a crowd of retirees and students for a lunch capped by a field trip through the low points of the district he hopes to represent.

South Texas native Neftali Partida, a young aide who had come from an Austin legislative assignment to work Flores's campaign, scouted the bus route in advance. He admitted shock at finding conditions reminiscent of a border colonia, a shantytown without paved streets or sewage systems.

Playing up the warts of the district is a tricky gambit for Flores, since he's politically joined at the hip to incumbent Castillo. Before playing emcee on the bus, Flores tried to shift the onus from Castillo.

"This district has been so ignored since its inception that it's like putting fingers in a dam," said the attorney. "He's done a good job with the resources that he's had, but there have been so many problems riddled throughout the district."

Flores got a business degree at the University of Houston before his time at Texas Southern's Thurgood Marshall School of Law. He touts numerous activities in poverty law organizations as well as the Idylwood Civic Association.

The charge that he's a handpicked Castillo front man riles the candidate.

"It's amazing how they can say that," counters Flores. He says he considered a candidacy for years, and made up his mind while he was vice president of the Idylwood group. "There's no handpicking anywhere. I decided to run for this seat because I'm the best candidate."

Still, most City Hall people apparently got their first look at him on the arm of Castillo.

"He's a very nice man -- we serve on the Midtown Redevelopment Authority together," Alvarado says. "But he's very quiet, and I've never known him to have political aspirations."

"John wants to be the person who anoints this guy?" Morris snaps. "I don't think that's gonna fly. God bless his heart, I'm sure the guy means well, but to get handpicked by John, who's under investigation right now? That doesn't smell right."

Flores, unlike his two opponents, is staying neutral in the mayoral race, saying he respects all the candidates and can work with any administration.

In contrast to the political animal credentials of Alvarado and Morris, Flores hopes his political inexperience will be a plus.

"People that I talk to throughout the district don't care about politicians. They're really sick of politics. I'm not a professional politician -- I'm a professional problem solver…When it's all said and done, and when the smoke clears, is it just more politicizing of issues, or is it getting out there and getting things done?"

Through the rain, the tour bus rolls slowly down narrow streets that can hardly handle a garbage truck, much less this motorized behemoth, a passenger jet on wheels. Tree branches scratch the second deck, as Flores points out the sights: a concrete ditch decorated with gang graffiti near Ingrando Park; an abandoned sewage plant whose tanks brim with a thick green pudding; ramshackle houses with mattresses and tires dumped along the streets in the old Harrisburg neighborhoods; access roads so rutted in the Clinton Drive industrial park that distribution companies are moving out, taking trucks and their jobs with them. Viewed cumulatively, it is a stunning, depressing vista.

"In the fourth-largest city this just shouldn't be accepted," Flores tells his captive audience. "I'll work hard to make sure to ring the bell loud enough to show we need enough funds in this district to take care of some of these major infrastructure problems."

What Flores doesn't comment on is the preponderance of Alvarado campaign signs in the poorest neighborhoods. They are inside residents' property lines rather than spiked by campaign workers on public medians or plastered on vacant buildings. Her years of religiously attending neighborhood meetings and working these heavily Democratic precincts seem to be paying off.

The tour concludes in the Shadow Glen subdivision just north of the East Freeway, an area that was inundated by up to eight feet of water during Tropical Storm Allison. Street after street of gutted houses has been transformed into an instant trailer park, with new mobile homes purchased by grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in each front yard. Every few houses, residents wave to the passing bus from their perches in lawn chairs or sofas resting in open garages.

One element is missing. There are no political signs for any of the candidates to be seen throughout the flood zone. Wherever the benighted residents of Shadow Glen are looking for salvation, it doesn't seem to be the District I council race. Maybe they've learned from experience.


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