The Great Brown Hope

Gus Garcia's Gaffes

If Channel 6 displayed sound meters during telecasts of council meetings, it'd be a lot easier to predict Gus Garcia's vote. You'd only have to determine which faction made the most noise. It would help Garcia too, since he could just look at the meter to figure out where he stands on an issue. Indeed, when Eric Mitchell complains of councilmembers "folding like accordions" to persuasion, he no doubt has the Pro Tem in mind.

There are numerous examples, but Garcia served up the waffle especial back in February. The council chambers were electric with revolt. A packed house thundered for approval of another Eric Mitchell development proposal, and maybe Garcia lost his head. After the rabid public debate, the eldest councilmember, the Mayor Pro Tem, would do an about-face before his core constituency -- the brown ballot of East Austin proper.

Only the night before, at a public gathering of a key Hispanic bailwick, the Guadalupe neighborhood, he had promised to help jettison the old SCIP II (Scattered Cooperative Infill Housing) project. SCIP II would create 100 "low-income" houses in East Austin's Blackshear neighborhood, but Hispanic residents in the area dislike the plan because SCIP II proposes primarily rented homes, not home ownership, a situation that threatens neighborhood stability. Garcia would quash the deal, or so they thought.

Now, every councilmember errs at one time or another, but this was major. In the eyes of his people, his integrity plummeted like the value of the peso. David Zapata, a long-time member of the Guadalupe Association for an Improved Neighborhood (GAIN) in Central East Austin, says, "I'm a lot unhappy with Gus right now. He's proven that he can look the Hispanic community in the eye and lie to us."

That sentiment seems far removed from Garcia's first term in office, after which he rode a crest of popularity into an uncontested re-election bid in 1994. Now, with a year left in his second term, everyone is watching. Though he's never made it official -- rumor has a strange way of fossilizing into fact -- he's on everyone's short list for a mayoral bid in 1997. Recently, though, he's made a series of blunders that could haunt his political life.

In addition to the aforementioned example, Garcia shared an accomplice role with Mitchell in a shady deal last fall. Each convened a group of well-connected friends -- one Hispanic group, one black -- to covertly designate $2.8 million in orphan federal housing money to various East Austin causes of the groups' choice. The scheme unraveled when more grassroots Hispanic groups caught wind of the secret society, known as East Austin 2000, and arrived at a meeting with their own proposals.

"I thought that was sleazy of both of them," says Lori Renteria, of the United East Austin Coalition, one of the groups that "outed" the shenanigans. Renteria is not alone in her opinion of Garcia's behavior with the funds, but Garcia's stately disposition -- his ability to disagree without attacking his colleagues -- and his longtime service to the Latino community, beginning in the Seventies as the first Hispanic on the AISD board, helps defuse accusations of wrongdoing. With East Austin 2000, many think Garcia was just led down the wrong path, and wanted desperately to save face after all Mitchell had done for the black community. "Latinos have been pissed," adds Renteria, "because Eric Mitchell got $9 million [for the redevelopment of East 11th and 12th streets] and what did we get?"

Very little, in comparison. While Garcia won council approval to decommission the Holly Street Power Plant after several explosions, many complain that he has only reluctantly supported Mexican-American political causes. For instance, the proposed Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) and Saltillo Plaza both remain virtual quixotisms, and though Garcia has aided the projects along, he hasn't gone full-throttle à la Mitchell and his redevelopment plans.

Voters rejected the MACC in a 1992 bond proposal, but Hispanic visionaries believe it vital to their heritage and have kept the flame alive. They successfully pushed Garcia for a council designation for a site two years ago -- on vacant, downtown property that used to be Mexican-American ground until gentrification forced a trans-highway migration to the Eastside. Now it's part of what's called the Rainey Street neighborhood, and being prime downtown real estate -- the northwest corner of I-35's Town Lake overpass -- it recently came under siege by unnamed private developers who wanted an option on the land after the council designation expires in 1999. Shivers spread through the Hispanic Eastside, and supporters called for a permanent designation. They got one in April, but complain that Garcia was almost retrograde in pursuing it.

"We do not have a champion on the council," says one MACC activist. "Gus was never supportive of it."

Garcia is also taking a beating for his involvement -- or some would say lack thereof -- with the Saltillo Plaza. The driving vision there is a Central East Austin zocalo -- a retail/public transit hub to draw "the other side" to the business and restaurant district along East Sixth and Seventh Streets. Business leaders are awaiting a $542,000 grant for the plaza, but a near-deal between the city, Capital Metro, and the Longhorn Railway Company nearly ruined their efforts. According to the plans, Longhorn would transport aggregate to the Capital Metro railyard at Fourth and Waller. From there, 180 trucks a week would pick up the aggregate on route to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, cutting through neighborhood streets and using East Seventh as the main thoroughfare. "It would have been catastrophic to this area," says Diana Valera, president of Olé Mexico, a group dedicated to seeing Plaza Saltillo accomplished.

Garcia claims no knowledge of the proposal, and that seems likely considering that the contract the council agreed to in February excluded the railyard. The proposal surfaced last week and Garcia reacted quickly; on today's agenda is an item to push the aggregate-exchange site farther east, preferably beyond Ed Bluestein. But Eastside Hispanics are a hard lot to please, and they say it's just as bad that he had no knowledge of something within the community that needs him the most. "Hopefully," says Valera, "this has served as a warning that Gus has to be more careful about this community, that he should pay a little more attention because we're in a very vulnerable position."

That would be a wise move, considering he'll need his traditional support base if he decides to face off in 1997 against heavyweight Ronney Reynolds, who has made his mayoral dreams abundantly clear. Garcia can ill afford mistakes, lest he go from the great brown hope to the great brown dope, something Hispanics don't want to see. "Despite that the community is frustrated, if Gus decides not to run for Place 5 and runs for mayor and loses, we're fucked," says Kathy Vasquez-Revilla, doña of La Prensa. "Who knows the system like he does? He has so much credibility, despite all the shortcomings. It's just that we need so much." n There was no council meeting on June 20. Coming up this week: Reynolds and Mayor Todd are sponsoring the repeal of the pedestrian coordinator position. Central South West Communi-cations, the company that promises a citywide broad-band network, is seeking approval of a city franchise agreement.

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