Twilight of El Jefe

While Victor Trevino's political career seems to be just coming of age, Ben Reyes, the man who's reigned for decades as the boss of Houston's internecine Hispanic political scene, appears to be reaching the twilight of his.

Reyes is the last surviving officeholder from the crop of then-young minority politicians -- including Anthony Hall, the late Mickey Leland and Craig Washington -- who entered the Texas House together in the early 1970s. Now the options seem to be narrowing for the political future of the grizzled District I councilman. Reyes can't run for re-election this November if the city's toughened term limits ordinance remains in effect, and his long-held dream of going to Congress seems very, very dim.

Reyes has lost three Democratic primary elections to Gene Green for the 29th Congressional District seat, if you take into account the second Reyes-Green runoff a judge ordered in 1992 after it was discovered that the first Green victory had been marred by "crossover" voters from the Republican primary. Their first runoff was close, but Green won the court-ordered election by a wider margin. The congressman had an even easier time against Reyes in their third primary match last year, despite the councilman's support from Mayor Bob Lanier.

Reyes was never the ideal candidate for the congressional seat, given his scandal-tarred past and his acrimonious relations with other Hispanic politicians and leaders. That split enabled Green to carry enough Hispanic votes to overcome the intent of the designers of the 29th District to seat the Houston area's first Mexican-American member of Congress.

In a recent missive to supporters, Reyes indicated he may not be ready to relinquish his Council seat just yet.

"Presently, several groups and law firms are formulating what I consider to be a viable challenge to the present term limits law," wrote Reyes. "I do not plan to be a plaintiff to the suit; however, I firmly believe the law is unconstitutional and when properly challenged will be overturned in our courts." Even if the term limits ordinance is not overturned, Reyes added in his letter, one thing is certain: he has a campaign debt from previous City Council races to retire and plans a "'Help Me Retire' fundraiser." That sounds like an event both Victor Trevino and Gene Green could get up for.

Reyes is refusing to name which law firms, if any, are involved in preparing a term limits challenge, dismissing questions on the topic as "premature." One firm that definitely won't participate is Sussman Godfrey, whose counselors helped Reyes in his election challenge against Green and contend the councilman stiffed them on the fee arrangement. Another source says that the Mayor Day Caldwell & Keeton firm -- one of whose partners, Jonathan Day, is tight with term-limited Councilwoman Eleanor Tinsley -- also has no plans to work on a suit challenging term limits.

Houston attorney Gerald Birnberg says he's had a "brief, preliminary" conversation with Reyes about pursuing a suit, but nothing has been formalized. One ground for a challenge, Birnberg says, could rest on the retroactivity of the city ordinance. "Essentially, [under the law] you created two classes of people who can run for office: those who have never run before and are unprohibited, and those who previously served and have some prohibitions. That may very well have some problems under the Texas Constitution," he says. Another possible point of challenge: whether cities have the authority to proscribe who people can vote for, or whether the state has exclusive jurisdiction.

The author of the Houston term limits initiative, Republican activist Clymer Wright, says he's heard about the nascent challenge from Reyes but isn't losing any sleep over it. "He's the guy that introduced the measure to allow them to get back on Council using signatures, which passed and then we knocked it out last time with 79 percent of the vote," Wright says of the 1994 referendum that closed the loophole allowing the incumbents to get around the three-term limit by petitioning themselves on the ballot. Wright says local and state term limits laws have survived every court test so far, with the only cases pending before the Supreme Court involving challenges to state laws limiting the terms of members of Congress.

"The chances of Ben Reyes and his group are slim and none," Wright opines. "It looks like he may have to go get a job. This is a perfect reason why we need term limits. Some people think that they're entitled to stay on the public payroll for life. Seventy to 80 percent of the people in polls favor term limits at all levels."

The possibility of a term limits challenge isn't stopping several would-be candidates from salivating over Reyes' seat, including John Castillo, the former Reyes aide who the councilman backed in Castillo's unsuccessful bid against Trevino for the Precinct 6 constable's job in 1988. Castillo doubts the courts can resolve a term limits challenge before next November, so he's preparing for a race.  

"I've been talking to community leaders throughout the district," he says. "Basically I've just been laying the groundwork so that probably toward the end of May I will make an announcement and move on."

State Representative Diana Davila is rumored to also be considering a run for Reyes' seat, and she won't rule out that possibility. The two-term legislator says she's been approached by supporters "who are excited by the prospect of me running."

"Without a doubt, I do have some interest in that position, but I am really not focused or had the time to either research who the other candidates might be or if I would be a viable candidate," she says.

Someone who might have the time to do that for her is Davila's boyfriend, former state representative Roman Martinez, who lost state Senate bids in 1992 against John Whitmire and last year against Mario Gallegos. Martinez recently signed on with Reyes as the chief of the councilman's staff, but he lives outside the district and has no intention of trying to succeed Reyes.

Lacking a staff manager since Jessica Farrar was elected to the State House last year, Reyes called in Martinez, who was at loose ends after his last Senate race, earlier this year. "After Farrar's departure, Reyes' office had become disorganized," says one source familiar with the operation. "Ben's great at what he does, but that doesn't make him a great person to run a staff."

Martinez agrees that whoever takes over Reyes' seat will be in a position to set the tone for Houston's Hispanic leader-ship heading into a century of expected political dominance.

"It will be a very significant race. District I was the first City Council seat that we had here in Houston, and it encompasses pretty much what is the power base of the Hispanic vote here in Harris County -- the traditional neighborhoods of Denver Harbor, Magnolia Gardens, Pecan Park," he says.

On the other hand, District I is no longer the only base of Hispanic power on the 14-member Council, with Gracie Saenz holding an at-large seat and Felix Fraga representing District H, which encompasses most of the Heights-North Houston area. And whoever succeeds Reyes would surely lack his legendary political craftiness and ability to mobilize a decades-old political machine.

As for encouraging Davila to run, Martinez says, "We do have strong a personal and political relationship, and I'm going to support her in whatever she does, but I don't think she's made a decision."

Two other likely candidates for the race are Luciano Salinas, a community college placement director, and activist W.R. Morris, who works for Lanier's Citizens Assistance Office.

Beyond next fall's Council races lies the Democratic primary for Green's congressional seat, a prize that continues to frustrate and attract Hispanic politicians in Harris County.

"The thing that really rallied everyone in the redistricting effort was the congressional seat," says Martinez, who as a state representative helped craft the district's lines. "Even now there's a lack of understanding about how significant our community is in Harris County. We don't have someone at the national level to represent us. We will reach our goal of true political power when we reach the elusive goal of winning that congressional district."

With Reyes a three-time loser for the seat, Saenz, the only Hispanic holding a citywide office, is seen by many as the strongest Mexican-American challenger to Green. After an expected third election this year, Saenz would be in her final term on Council -- the same situation that Sheila Jackson Lee found herself in last year when she ousted Congressman Craig Washington in the Democratic primary.

According to Saenz, she's been approached by many people to run for Congress -- or for a position on Commissioners Court, a judgeship or even a state legislative post. "That gives me a lot of confidence I'm doing something right," she says. "The thing I'm learning is that the minute you say anything, it comes back to haunt you. The thing I'm trying to do is concentrate on my re-election."

Saenz would not be able to transfer any funds raised for her Council campaign to a congressional race, but that did not prove an overwhelming problem for Lee. And Green, by voting against NAFTA, irritated the downtown business establishment, which might provide a handy source of funding for Saenz, as it did for Lee. And when you consider the possibility that the expected blockbuster Republican presidential race could draw many of Green's Anglo supporters into the GOP primary, the 1996 election may provide a rare window of opportunity for a Hispanic contender in the 29th District's Democratic primary.  

Saenz's main drawback is that she has no experience in partisan Democratic politics. That, perhaps, would be an indispensable quality in upsetting a seasoned incumbent like Green, a hardworking, constituent-oriented congressman who's hustled to enlarge his own support among Hispanics.

-- Tim Fleck

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