The Hispanic Factor

Place 5 Poses Moral Quandary for Some Latino Voters

Bobbie Enriquez declines to endorse either Spelman or Zuniga.
photograph by Alan Pogue

Bobbie Enriquez may have picked up less than 10% of the vote on May 3, but an endorsement from her would have meant the world to the two remaining candidates in the Place 5 city council race. Bill Spelman and Manuel Zuniga have been tripping over themselves trying to woo her support since the polls closed on election day, but after both runoff candidates walked away empty-handed, Zuniga's campaign strategists took matters into their own hands.

In a press released issued on Monday, May 12, the campaign boldly announced: "Enriquez' Team Going to Bat for Zuniga." A quick read of the statement might have given the impression that Enriquez and her campaign staff had signed on to the Zuniga team. But that was hardly the case, as a subsequent Enriquez press release made clear.

Enriquez wasted no time repeating a recurring theme in the Place 5 race: That a Hispanic should continue the tradition of holding that seat. Then she volleyed this shot: "The spirit of that sentiment is to have someone close to the community. We must remember that just because you have a Spanish surname does not mean you are in touch with the community."

To be sure, there are other issues besides the Hispanic debate in the Place 5 race, but this week it is the Latino vote, and little else, that is weighing on a lot of minds.

The fact that neither Enriquez nor the other Hispanic Place 5 candidate, Gus Peña, both of whom ran strong but low-budget grassroots campaigns, has rushed to endorse Zuniga, a wealthy businessman, suggests a growing polarization among the Hispanic population, similar to the age-old split between developers and environmentalists.

So therein lies the question: Who is best qualified to serve the Hispanic community and, more specifically, the economically deprived Eastside -- a white, socially conscious liberal or a self-made conservative Hispanic businessman? Tough choice, that one.

It could be said that the person responsible for this dilemma is Councilmember Gus Garcia. He may be flush from his over-the-top victory in the May 3 city council election, but he is a disappointed man nonetheless. Disappointed that things aren't shaping up the way he envisioned when he gave up his Hispanic seat on the council for a history-making move to the white man's seat, so to speak.

Indeed, the political landscape has changed considerably since Zuniga and Spelman moved into the run-off for the Place 5 council position that Garcia will vacate next month when he is sworn into the Place 2 post.

"The race has turned into something a little different than what I expected," Garcia said. "While the Hispanic community has become a lot more energized, I expected there to be a lot more unity."

While the Place 5 seat is a point of local Hispanic pride, particularly among East Austin residents, Garcia hastens to add that Austin's Latino voters are, at the same time, endlessly discerning. "They want the best candidate, and they want you to prove that you're the best candidate," he said. Also, with Enriquez and Peña out of the running, "There is a significant amount of confusion about which way their supporters should go. And if you look at Zuniga's area of support in the Hispanic community, it's coming from the more conservative elements."

Still and all, Zuniga supporter Cathy Vasquez-Revilla says that her candidate is quickly picking up support from the long-time "cultural warriors" of East Austin, many of whom had supported Peña the first time around. That in itself demonstrates Zuniga's ability to mobilize support among a cross-section of both conservative and liberal-minded Hispanic voters, says Vasquez-Revilla, who publishes La Prensa.

Manuel Zuniga surrounded by family and friends on election night
photograph by Alan Pogue

Of course, the city charter prohibits Garcia from publicly endorsing a city council candidate, but chances are good that he had hoped his former aide, fourth-place finisher Enriquez, would by this time be in the run-off for his old seat. After the May 3 election, Zuniga and Spelman wasted no time soliciting Enriquez' support, to no avail. Zuniga went a step further and called on Garcia to ask him to intervene on his behalf. "I told him I know Bobbie and she is going to make up her own mind; she's a very strong-willed individual," Garcia recalled of the conversation.

Enriquez said she weighed the endorsement decision carefully for several days before opting out of throwing her support behind either candidate. In a statement issued this week, Enriquez characterized the two choices as "one who offers lip service and another who is a Johnny-come-lately." (Enriquez wouldn't elaborate, but one can assume that Enriquez had Zuniga in mind as the lip-service candidate and Spelman the newcomer, given that Zuniga is making his second bid for council.)

Spelman had hoped to capture the Enriquez endorsement because the two see eye-to-eye on many social issues. "I know Bobbie was under a lot of pressure to make a decision, but I'm confident that many of her supporters will be coming to me," he said.

Zuniga took the non-endorsement news in stride. "I respect her opinion and I respect the fact that she made it public," he said. On another front, however, Zuniga did manage to score the support of two of her paid campaign staffers and a handful of volunteers. Her campaign manager, Manuel Medina, went with Zuniga, as did a support staffer, Edward Medina, and volunteer field director Tom Guerrero. Another Enriquez supporter, Andy Ramirez, an influential East Austinite and Garcia cohort, also climbed on the Zuniga bandwagon.

Zuniga didn't win any points with Enriquez, however, when he touted that the Enriquez team was "going to bat" for his campaign. Enriquez had marketed her campaign under a similar slogan, only she was "...going to bat for our children and families!"

Manuel Medina explained his decision to endorse Zuniga this way: "It's not a Hispanic or an Anglo issue, and it's not a Democrat or Republican issue. It is the fact that the S.O.S. leadership is out of control," he said of the Save Our Springs organization that wields a powerful get-out-the-vote wallop. "They haven't addressed East Austin environmental problems, and they haven't supported the Mexican-American Cultural Center. People of my generation (of twentysomethings) just feel it's time for new leadership."

As for Peña, there were suggestions this week that he would back Spelman, but at press time there was still no word whether that endorsement would materialize. El Concilio, a coalition of East Austin neighborhood groups that endorsed Peña in the first go-around, is backing Spelman in the run-off. "Bill has a better vision for Austin and a better history of working with neighborhood groups," said Gavino Fernandez, president of El Concilio.

There are still grim reminders, Fernandez said, of Zuniga's days as an electric utility commissioner who supported keeping the controversial Holly Power Plant in operation, an opinion that ran counter to the wishes of East Austin residents. For the record, Zuniga has since stated that he would adhere to council's more recent decision to close down the facility.

As for the debate over Place 5 remaining the Hispanic seat, Fernandez observed: "A lot of people waving that banner are the same people waving the flag for Glen Maxey," he said of the District 51 representative who broke tradition when he successfully ran for the Hispanic spot in the Texas Legislature. Fernandez cited Vasquez-Revilla as one who practices this double standard.

Vasquez-Revilla said the situation is altogether different because District 51 is a single-member district, while the city holds to an at-large system of voting. "I supported a Hispanic candidate the first time Glen ran," she said. "I am not opposed to Glen having won that seat, because everyone has had a fair chance to run against him."

Despite Vasquez-Revilla's upbeat enthusiasm about Hispanics joining forces behind Zuniga, Councilmember Garcia knows all too well the power of the liberal environmental voting bloc -- a factor that pushed him over the top in Austin's central city ballot boxes.

"The way the land is laid out politically, Manuel Zuniga has an uphill battle now that [Ronney] Reynolds and [Kirk] Watson are out of the picture," he said. "Now it's a matter of `who cares?' No one should underestimate the force of the environmental machinery working for Spelman, because the superhighway that runs from Hyde Park to Travis Heights is very powerful. That's where the votes are, and the political operatives working for Spelman know how to get those votes."

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