Battle Lines

The weird shape of a new Houston congressional district guarantees a power struggle between Hispanic and Anglo politicians.

IN EVERY WAY, THE NEW 29TH CONGRESSIONAL district is the future of Texas politics. The shape, population, and importance of this Harris County district all foreshadow a new kind of urban politics that will be the norm for the nineties—more ethnic and more divisive than Texas has known. The 29th district is not configured to elect the kind of consensus-seeking politician Houston has sent to Congress in the past—George Bush in the sixties, Barbara Jordan in the seventies, Mike Andrews in the eighties. Its odd boundary was drawn for the sole purpose of electing Houston’s first Hispanic congressman. Yet the likelihood is that it won’t.

The 29th District looks like a sacred Mayan bird, with its body running eastward along the Ship Channel from downtown Houston until the tail terminates in Baytown. Spindly legs reach south of Hobby Airport, while the plumed head rises northward almost to Intercontinental. In the western extremity of the district, an open beak appears to be searching for worms in Spring Branch. Here and there, ruffled feathers jut out at odd angles. The district’s zigzag perimeter is the offspring of a union between the federal Voting Rights Act and modern computer technology. The law requires that electoral districts be drawn to give ethnic minorities a good chance to elect one of their own. Technology makes it possible. The 29th District lines follow Houston’s exploding Hispanic population through the city and beyond. “Drawing districts is like playing Pac-Man,” a Hispanic political consultant proudly explained. “Just find census blocks with high percentages of Spanish surnames on your computer screen, and gobble ’em up.”

The gobbling produced a district that is 60 percent Hispanic, 10 percent black, and less than 30 percent Anglo. This numerical edge was enough to entice three prominent Hispanic politicians into the March 10 Democratic primary: controversial city councilman Ben Reyes, fresh from beating a felony theft charge with a plea bargain; former legislator  Al Luna, a longtime Reyes nemesis; and Sylvia Garcia, Houston’s chief municipal judge.

But population is not the same as voters. Only 31 percent of the registered voters in the district have Spanish surnames. Another 10 percent are black, leaving Anglos with more than 58 percent of the voting pool. Most  of these are Democrats in modest neighborhoods near the Ship Channel or in the northern part of the district, around Aldine. On election day it will be a major surprise if Hispanics are more than a third of the Democratic turnout and Anglos are not a solid majority. That is why the betting favorite is an Anglo state senator named Gene Green.

When he announced for Congress last December, Green said, “We need someone who will go up to Washington and kick them in the shins.” But during two decades in the Texas Legislature, Green was just a go-along-to-get-along politician with lots of congeniality and little spark. In the House he was known for taking consumer positions on insurance issues and for amassing a monochromatic wardrobe that befitted his last name. In the Senate he was invisible until last year, when he advocated allowing Texans to carry handguns—a proposal that brought him more publicity in one legislative session than he had received in his previous eighteen years in office. Now Green finds himself in the familiar predicament of white urban Democratic politicians—squeezed between a growing minority population on one side and Republican suburbs on the other, struggling to hold on to a dwindling constituency. Although he had a dependably pro-labor, pro-consumer voting record reflective of his working-class district, Hispanics in the 29th couldn’t care less. “Do you know what we say about him?” asked a Hispanic get-out-the-vote activist. “No more Greengo.”

That, of course, is what the Voting Rights Act was supposed to accomplish. But a drive through the tortured contours of the 29th District highlights the difficulties a Hispanic candidate will have in breaking the tradition of apathy. Houston is not like San Antonio, where old Hispanic neighborhoods spread out across the west and south sides of town around parish churches. Houston is more like Los Angeles, where the majority of Hispanics are newcomers who live in neighborhoods built for whites. On Bingle Road, in the middle of suburban Spring Branch, a sign beckons customers to La Raza Shopping Center. At nearby Ridgecrest Elementary School, twelve temporary buildings try to keep up with the overflow of new arrivals. Only 38 percent of Houston’s Hispanics live in traditional barrios north and east of downtown.

Houston’s Hispanics are poorer, more immigrant, and less tied to the Catholic church than San Antonio’s. The area’s Hispanic population spurted from around 200,000 people in 1970 to more than 700,000 in 1990. Many of the newcomers are peasants from rural Mexico—“illiterate in two languages,” said one social worker. Hispanic Houston is even more rootless than white Houston. In San Antonio, Henry Cisneros lives in the house where his grandparents once lived; in Houston, candidate Al Luna says he hardly knows anybody whose grandparents ever lived there. In the western part of the 29th, nomadic Hispanic apartment dwellers move frequently to take advantage of advertised rent reductions at other complexes. The Spring Branch school district asked apartment owners to give tenants incentives to stay put so that students wouldn’t have to keep changing schools. Outside the barrios, Hispanics attend big Anglo churches, which have Spanish masses and separate priests for their newer members. But the social and leadership structure of these churches remains Anglo. In much of the 29th District, the conditions that get people interested in politics, from being part of a community to the anticipation of immediate reward, simply do not exist.

It is hardly surprising, then, that two decades of social upheaval in Hispanic Houston have produced few new political leaders. Ben Reyes, Al Luna, and their chief advisers all entered politics together before 1970 through PASO, the long-defunct Political Association of Spanish Organizations, which grew out of Jack Kennedy’s 1960 campaign. (Sylvia Garcia is an exception; her entrée to politics came

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