Clash of La Clica

For Richard A. Moya, the race for the Democratic nomination for county commissioner in Precinct 4 is a matter of style. His style versus that of the incumbent, Margaret Gomez. What is Moya's style? To answer that question, one only need talk to supporters and detractors from the days when he served as Travis County's first Hispanic commissioner from 1970 to 1986. In general, Moya tends to operate by these rules: Don't be afraid to get in their face! Pound your fist on a table if you have to! Yell if you must! Don't be afraid to get even! Never let anyone get the best of you. Never forget anyone who has screwed you over. Speak up! Dress well. Get in front of the camera. Get quoted. Be quotable. Push the envelope. Challenge authority. Enjoy a cold one. Have a good time. Be charming. Fight for the little guy. Exert power and influence. Deal, bargain, cajole, and occasionally coerce. Never forget where you came from. And never, ever, ever forget who your friends are.

Gomez, meanwhile, has her own style - though she admits to being considerably less flamboyant than Moya, her former mentor and boss. Gomez does not relish a good fight. She prefers polite debate. She is patient and methodical in presenting her arguments - almost to a fault. Attend a county commissioner's court meeting and it is sometimes hard to notice that Gomez is there. She does not make a scene. She does not yell. She is nice to almost everyone. She is a self-described "great listener." She is not a party girl, but she can belt out a mariachi tune along with the best of them. She does not lead as much as represent her constituency. In short, Margaret Gomez is no Richard Moya. And she likes it that way.

That's the problem, says Moya - Gomez's low-key manner conveys a lack of leadership skills. Moya supporters agree, and generally long for the "good old days" when everyone knew exactly who ran Pct. 4. But Gomez's supporters, many of whom are noticeably younger than Moya's backers, say the days of boisterous, pugnacious representation in the commissioners' court have passed.

Moreover, Gomez's backers think Moya's time has passed. Moya, 65, is widely known as one of the original members of the "Brown Machine," a loose-knit political coalition sometimes facetiously referred to as the "Mexican Mafia," at other times disparagingly referred to as La Clica, Spanglish for The Clique. Past and present members of La Clica include a Who's Who of Austin's Latino political leaders: Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, Austin City Councilmember Gus Garcia, former Councilmember and current Capital Metro Board Member John Treviño, former State Rep. Lena Guerrero, Moya and, yes, even Margaret Gomez.

La Clica served several functions, the most important of which was to get Hispanics elected to public office. Barrientos, Treviño, and Moya all made history by winning their respective posts. Once there, they assumed the responsibility of helping others along, including Guerrero and Gomez. Lately, though, Gomez, 53, has been on the outs with La Clica. She said it is because she is not always willing to play by their rules. Her supporters claim one of the main reasons Moya is running is because La Clica is out to get Gomez.

Democrat Richard A. Moya
photograph by Jana Birchum

Democrat Margaret Gomez

Republican Bob Larson
photograph by John Anderson

Moya scoffs at suggestions he is doing La Clica's bidding. He decided to run, he said, because Gomez is a lousy county commissioner, particularly when it comes to representing the interests of Hispanics in Pct. 4. Gomez thinks it has more to do with her stances on the issues, including her decision not to support Treviño's appointment to the Capital Metro board. Gomez instead voted to appoint a visually impaired community activist named Barbara Epstein, because, according to Gomez, "She actually rides the bus, and John [Treviño] doesn't."

As for not representing Pct. 4's Hispanic constituency, Gomez responded by noting her support for a new program that uses deputy constables as truant officers - the program has already reduced absenteeism at public schools in the area - her vote to build a 300-acre park in Southeast Travis County, and her strong support to raise funding to build a Mexican American Cultural Center.

Still, Gomez never passes up an opportunity to mention, no matter how brown the crowd, that Pct. 4 is not a predominantly Latino district, and that she knows there are other constituents out there. The precinct is about 35% Hispanic. To win it, a candidate has to win the white, liberal, middle-class, pro-environment vote. Bluntly stated, they turn out to vote, and in big numbers. One Gomez supporter described the optimal political strategy this way: "We're going to get together with the white liberals and kick Moya's ass!" Moya acknowledges that such a strategy would work. "If I won every Hispanic vote in Precinct 4, I could still lose," he said. Still, Moya considers Hispanics as his core constituency.

Gomez and Moya do not see eye to eye on other key issues. Gomez, for instance, is a staunch environmentalist. Early in her career, she campaigned against the South Texas Nuclear Project. She was a spokeswoman for the Coalition for Renewable Energy. She gathered support in East Austin for the Save Our Springs ordinance. She supports turning Capital Metro's entire fleet into natural gas burners. And her supporters include Councilmember Jackie Goodman and Austin's poster child for environmental activism, Brigid Shea.

For his part, Moya makes no qualms about utter disdain for the Save Our Springs ordinance. "It's too restrictive," he said during a recent interview in his campaign office. "They got it where you can't do anything with your property. I agree that you've got to control water pollution and all of that, but [S.O.S] really prohibits construction. It's bad for the property owners."

If elected, Moya said, he would support doing away with the "executive managers" who run each precinct's bureaucracy. He wants more power returned to the county commissioners. Additionally, he wants to restructure the county's pay raise system so that employees are virtually guaranteed an annual raise.

Jesse Ortiz - who worked 25 years for the county, is now retired, and volunteers for the Moya campaign - liked the old days better. He said there were several years after Moya left in which he did not get a pay raise. Moya is said to have strong support among county employees, though neither he or Gomez were able to win the endorsement of the Central Texas Labor Council.

One complaint Gomez has had about Moya's campaign style in the race has centered around his charges that she is doing a bad job, while failing to be specific about what he would have done differently. Asked to point out specific issues on which he would have voted differently had he been county commissioner for the past four years, Moya said, "I haven't really tracked her that much. I'm not going to look back on the agendas and measure every damned vote she makes."

The Gender Issue

And if race and environmental issues were not enough, gender has become a hot topic in the campaign. Marta Cotera, for instance, a feminist activist and lifelong Democrat, said she committed early to the Gomez campaign, not because Gomez is a woman, but because she appreciates her achievements. Other notable women on Gomez's side include Lena Guerrero, now a high-powered lobbyist and political consultant.

Moya insists there is no gender gap. He points out that Emma Barrientos, the senator's wife, Ellien Navarro, a longtime community booster, and other prominent women are supporting his campaign. Yet when asked how he felt about Guerrero's public support for Gomez, Moya said, "She's just doing that because she's a feminist." Cotera, who considers Moya a friend, said comments like that will not sit well with feminists. "That's not the most political thing to say."

Gomez, meanwhile, says she would like nothing better than to stick to the issues. She touts the fact that the county has been expanding services "without a tax increase." Under her tenure, five more sheriff's deputies were assigned to Eastern Travis County, and $2.6 million will be spent to build a new park in Southeast Travis County near the new Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

While Gomez's campaign claims that issues are the focus, her campaign workers are not above conducting a little old-fashioned opposition research, then sending the results to friendly neighborhood journalists. County records, the Gomez campaign uncovered, show that the IRS has a $25,000 lien on Moya's home.

For his part, Moya has complained vigorously throughout this campaign about the proposed pay increase the commissioners court considered last year. As Moya describes it, the court, including Gomez, would have given themselves a 36% pay raise had it not been for the public uproar over the size of the increase. Gomez has a different view. She said the pay raise was recommended by an independent auditor contracted by the county to compare their salaries with comparable-sized counties, such as Tarrant County. She denies that the commissioners themselves proposed that much of a pay raise.

Ultimately, the commissioners gave themselves a more modest 12% pay hike, raising their salaries to about $68,000, while leaving them far below a state average for similar-sized counties. For his part, Moya said, "I never voted to raise a county commissioner's pay more than the county employees received." He noted that his salary increased from about $13,000 in 1970 to about $50,000 in 1986.

Staying out of the political fray for now is the lone Republican Pct. 4 candidate, Bob Larson, 57, a former Austin city councilmember who is unopposed in the Republican primary. Larson, who touts a fiscal conservative message, is active in his southeast Austin neighborhood association, and has on more than one occasion lined up on the same side with progressives on certain issues - but not always for the same reasons.

Which puts the focus right back on former allies Moya and Gomez. "This is really a heart-breaker," said longtime political consultant Peck Young, who spoke highly of both candidates. "This race is very much a clash of generations, and it's also a difference in gender and in style."

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