WEDGED AMONG THE KARAOKE BARS, orchid shops, halal butchers, sari stores, dim sum restaurants, taquerías, African groceries, Zen meditation centers, and Persian rug dealers that line Bellaire Boulevard in west Houston is Sally Jo’s Old Houston Bar-B-Que. Sally Jo’s is one of the last Anglo-owned businesses on this stretch of Bellaire, and anyone who stops in for the $6.95 brisket plate can sense that the restaurant’s time has passed. In the afternoons, after the lunch rush, it is quiet inside except for the gurgling of the deep fryer. A photo of John Wayne hangs on the wall, above the red-checkered tablecloths. Across the street—where red pagodas mark the entrance to the vast Hong Kong City Mall parking lot—are Arab women in white head scarves and long black abayas; stylish Vietnamese women, a few of whom shade themselves with parasols; West African, Filipino, and Pakistani couples with children in tow. The most popular bumper sticker on the cars parked outside the mall is red, white, and blue and reads “God Bless America.”
Sally Jo’s has served barbecue on Bellaire since the Carter administration, when Alief, as this pocket of west Houston is called, was overwhelmingly Anglo and Republican. (In 1976, 78 percent of the electorate voted for Gerald Ford.) Dairy farms still dotted the landscape then, as did the new subdivisions that appealed to whites moving out of Houston’s urban core. Alief’s demographics began to shift in the late eighties, when the city’s growing Asian community was drawn to the suburbs for the same reasons that whites had relocated there a generation before: safer neighborhoods, better schools, larger lots, and cheaper homes. As immigrants moved in, whites began moving out, pushing farther west to Katy and south to Sugar Land. The exodus has been dramatic: 61 percent of the area’s residents were Anglo in 1990, compared with just 34 percent last year. Now it’s easier to find a bowl of pho in Alief than it is a hamburger. Some of the street signs have been embellished with Chinese characters. Japanese pop songs drift out of passing cars, and at the Bollywood Cinema 6, the feature films are in Hindi. Alief has become one of the most diverse places in Texas; more than sixty languages and dialects are spoken in its school district alone.
Not coincidentally, one of the Democratic party’s few success stories last November came out of Alief. Republican incumbent Talmadge Heflin, who had represented District 149 in the Texas House for eleven consecutive terms, was ousted by Hubert Vo, an unknown Vietnamese American businessman. Vo had been a long shot from the start. He had never run for public office, he had no fund-raising experience, and he delivered his stump speeches in a pronounced accent. By contrast, Heflin enjoyed widespread name recognition in Alief after 22 years as its legislator. He had the backing of Kay Bailey Hutchison, Tom DeLay, and other high-profile Republicans. As chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, he had no difficulty finding donors; by Election Day his campaign had outspent Vo’s by more than three to one. But Vo ran a better campaign, using ethnic radio stations to disseminate his message and a multilingual block-walking operation to get out the vote. Although he won by the thinnest of margins—a mere sixteen votes after a recount—his victory confirmed what Houston political strategists and demographers had been predicting all along: As the suburbs grow more ethnically diverse, Republican candidates will have to redefine themselves to stay relevant.
With whites moving out to the exurbs of surrounding Fort Bend and Brazoria counties, Vo’s campaign could provide a blueprint for Democratic candidates who see opportunity in the Houston suburbs. Even Republican territory that seemed impenetrable a few years ago now appears to be in play, including Tom DeLay’s congressional district, whose northern border, the Fort Bend County line, is the southern boundary of Vo’s House district. “By 2010 Alief will be less than twenty percent Anglo,” says Richard Murray, the director of the University of Houston Center for Public Policy. “The same racial and ethnic tide is moving toward Sugar Land, and it will make DeLay vulnerable.” The change is plain to see; on a recent drive through the congressman’s district, I came across a gold-domed mosque and a Hindu spiritual center before I saw any master-planned communities. DeLay received just 55 percent of the district’s vote in November, running against an obscure Anglo candidate—and that was before allegations of ethics improprieties became front-page news. Seeing an opening, former U.S. representative Nick Lampson has announced that he will challenge DeLay for his seat in 2006. Houston city councilman Gordon Quan, a Chinese American immigration lawyer, is considering a run as well. Whoever secures the Asian vote will be the likely winner.
IN AN ELECTION CYCLE THAT PUNDITS believed turned on “values,” Hubert Vo’s life story seemed to have particular resonance. The oldest son of seven children, Vo was nineteen when Saigon fell to the communists, in 1975. His family fled, and after a ten-day boat journey across the South China Sea, they sought asylum at a U.S. naval base in the Philippines. Eventually they arrived in Lubbock, where a Methodist church sponsored their stay. Vo moved to Houston in 1977, and despite the first-class education he had received in Saigon—he was schooled at French lycées and majored in economics and political science in college—he could find only menial jobs. He put in long hours as a busboy, waiter, short-order cook, phone book updater, steel worker, and cashier. (As a convenience store clerk, he was robbed at gunpoint—twice.) He went on to earn a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Houston and helped support his family by working the graveyard shift at Hughes Tool, where he made drill bits. In 1985 he borrowed $20,000 to start Microland, a direct-sales computer wholesaler. The company made him a millionaire before he turned forty.
Vo, who is now 48, had always dreamed of running for office, so he watched with interest when Heflin was challenged