Battle Lines

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

March 1992By Comments

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 through ties to former mayor Kathy Whitmire.) San Antonio has produced three generations of Hispanic politicians since PASO’s heyday there; Houston, just one.

For most of that time, Reyes has been the dominant figure in Houston Hispanic politics. A relentless, fearless, ruthless ex-Marine, he operates like an old-time ward heeler, dispensing and collecting favors. The incident that led to his indictment was typical Reyes: To dramatize that the city wasn’t responding to his complaints about drug problems in his district, he demolished a crack house, after which his workers took a tree from the lot and planted it in Reyes’ yard. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor theft charge last November; the sentence of three months probation is scheduled to be expunged from his record. To the people in his district whom Reyes helps, he is a hero. But others see him as a sinister force who insists that powerful Anglos deal only with him on Hispanic issues and who takes all the credit for projects in his district. (One community worker who asked Reyes for help with a project was told, “I’ve been interested in that for a long time, and I’m glad that you want to help me.”)

Luna is a different kind of politician—cleaner, smarter, and more substantive, but less canny, less driven, and less thick-skinned. He broke with Reyes in the late eighties over whether Reyes could dictate whom other Hispanic politicians should support in a constable’s race. In their direct skirmishes Luna held his own, but personally the ongoing feud consumed him; bitter and obsessed, he left the Legislature and politics in 1990 to go to law school. Luna announced for the 29th District seat expecting to face a Reyes protégé, only to find himself matched against his old enemy when Reyes entered the race.

Reyes has the advantage over Luna in the battle to get in a runoff against Gene Green. (Garcia, with fewer community ties and less name identification than her male opponents, is not expected to be a major factor.) Reyes is better known throughout the district, though not always favorably, and he has an organization in place. He will be able to raise more money because contributors know that if he loses, he will remain on the city council, in position to hand out rewards and punishments. Luna’s hopes rest on winning Anglo votes in the gentrified Heights area and on the connections of political consultant Marc Campos. Campos helped put developer Bob Lanier in the mayor’s office last December by delivering 75 percent of the Hispanic vote—despite Reyes’ endorsement of black legislator Sylvester Turner.

The runoff will have lasting implications for Houston politics. The Lanier-Turner race initiated an era in which blacks and Hispanics will be vying to see which ethnic minority will be number one in Houston and get the larger share of the social-service pie. Before the mayor’s race, Hispanics were a hopeless second. Now the game is on. To beat Gene Green, Hispanics will need to better their turnout in the mayor’s race, which was an unprecedented 33 percent of their registered voters (up from 12 percent in the previous city election). If Green wins, though, it will embolden other white Democratic politicians to run in minority areas with low turnouts. Hispanics risk losing credibility and clout.

Thus the election is also a test for the Voting Rights Act. The act assumes that minority voters will turn out, given the incentive of having their own districts. But the act was passed with black ghettos in mind, not the scattered apartment complexes of suburban Houston and the waves of immigrants who, early in the next century, will make Hispanics the largest racial group in Houston. It is clear that the Voting Rights Act can create a congressional district. But it can’t create a community where there is none, and that is why Houston Hispanics may have to wait another ten years before having a district they can truly call their own.

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