Gentleman's Disagreement

Say goodbye to the so-called gentleman's agreement in the Place 5 race for city council. What we have instead is a big, old gentleman's disagreement -- disagreement over whether to do away with the unspoken rule of reserving this particular seat for guaranteed Hispanic representation on the dais.

Not surprisingly, it's the non-Hispanic contenders for Place 5, and their backers, who say it's time to break from tradition. The Hispanic candidates beg to differ -- at least as long as at-large elections are still the rule in this city. Did Councilmember Gus Garcia know he would create such a flap when he decided to give up his Place 5 seat for a shot at Place 2? It's hard to tell, though Garcia did say he'd like another Hispanic to replace him.

But right now, the Place 5 landscape looks pretty hazy. Somewhere along the line, Garcia began growing wary of Manuel Zuniga -- the man long thought to be his successor -- and was overheard after a recent council meeting to be lending support to his aide, Bobbie Enriquez, should she decide to run for his seat. Enriquez, who's had four years under Garcia's tutelage, says she is "very strongly" considering giving it a go and is prepared to give up her city employment should she heed the call.

At any rate, the field of Place 5 candidates and prospective contenders is growing by the day. At this writing, there are at least six people (including Zuniga and Enriquez) eyeing the seat. That includes two non-Hispanics -- activist Karen Hadden, a longtime high school science teacher, and Bill Spelman, an associate professor in UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs. Hadden is the Earth First!-er who successfully sued Mayor Bruce Todd for denying her First Amendment rights when he banned her from speaking out at council meetings. And Spelman is another environmentalist who drew strong support when he ran unsuccessfully for the Austin Community College Board last year. Spelman says he's still mulling things over, but with political consultants David Butts and Mark Yznaga (the same pair who helped send Councilmember Daryl Slusher, and others before him, into office) lined up to work in his behalf, his candidacy looks like a sure thing.

A few weeks ago, Spelman didn't exactly fancy the notion of upsetting the status-quo by jumping into a Hispanic race. At the time, he expressed concern that his entry into the fray would drive a wedge between environmentalists and the Hispanic community. But this week he sounded like he had his dander up in a big way. "I think the real issue here is Manuel Zuniga. We need a strong alternative to Zuniga," said Spelman of the candidate who, despite Garcia's dissatisfaction with him, is still the clear front-runner in the race.

But at least one East Austin business leader, Planning Commission member Cathy Vasquez-Revilla, takes issue with the suggestion that the gentleman's disagreement should conveniently disappear this time around. "We're not considering that seat open for outside competition," said Vasquez-Revilla, a Zuniga supporter. "The number-one issue here is that it remain a Hispanic seat." What's more, the prospect of a non-Hispanic environmentalist such as Spelman entering the race poses a major threat. "I think," she surmised, "we're being set up to lose Place 5."

Just how real that threat is may depend on whether Spelman decides to run, at which point the race would become a head-butting contest between him and Zuniga. Recall that Zuniga, a successful business owner, made his first bid for council last year, coming in a close third behind runner-up Jeff Hart and Slusher, the victor. It was in that race that Zuniga gained a reputation for being rather chummy with the money-grubbing development crowd, although his Hispanic East Austin supporters say that's not the Manuel Zuniga, self-made entrepreneur, that they've come to know. That's reassurance enough for Zuniga, who believes strongly -- perhaps a little too strongly -- that he's going to win the race hands-down, without a run-off.

This is not to sell short another viable contender, Gus Peña, a longtime neighborhood activist who is picking up strong community support with lots of honest leg work. Peña is scheduled to announce his candidacy at 4pm Friday in council chambers. Rounding out the current list of hopefuls is Hector Ortiz, a newcomer to the political arena but no stranger to community involvement. He is the liaison for UT's Neighborhood Longhorns program in East Austin. State employee Tom Guerrero has also made motions to run.

Although awfully tempting, it's too soon to be placing bets on favorites. This race promises lots of surprises.

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