President Harry Truman used to say, "There is no end to the amount of good you can do if you don't seek the credit." That principle keeps coming to mind as I think about the political career of Gus Garcia. He has a long list of accomplishments and a lot of people know it, but somehow the breadth of his impact seems understated and underappreciated. Yet, as he retires after nine years on the council and more than three decades in public service, Garcia is being toasted at one fete after another -- sort of like a sports star on his last road trip around the league. The grand finale is a "citywide" celebration at Fiesta Gardens on Tuesday, June 6.
So he never sought the credit, or never seemed to anyway, yet here he is getting all kinds of credit and adoration. A politician couldn't possibly look better. A friend of mine once put a slightly more cynical spin on the same equation. He saw avoiding credit as a Garcia strategy, and admired Garcia for his wiliness. He said Garcia got more of his agenda accomplished than any other council member.
Before moving on, I should note that in 1991, when I was Politics editor of the Chronicle and an editorial board member, we did not endorse Garcia when he made his first run for City Council. Though he sounded great, and I wanted to believe, I ended up worrying that Garcia was playing us like a harp. Since then, I've become a Garcia admirer, then colleague, inseparable ally, and friend. Periodically during these years, Gus needled me and asked when he would get his endorsement. Well, here it is.
Born in 1934 in Zapata, Texas, Garcia and his wife, Marina, who grew up in Laredo, moved to Austin in 1957 so Gus could attend the University of Texas. He earned an accounting degree, then became a CPA. They are the parents of three boys, all grown now. Once Gus established his accounting practice, Marina attended UT and obtained a master's in education. She has taught at Sanchez Elementary (a year-round school) for 19 years and retires exactly a week after her husband leaves the council.
Garcia's father was from Ciudad Guerrero, Tamaulipas, about three and a half miles south of the border across from Zapata. His mother was from Zapata, although she was born in Mexico because women at that time often crossed into Mexico to give birth because the medical facilities and treatment were far superior.
Garcia's paternal great-great-grandfather, Don Jose Gregorio Martinez Bagarela, was the first mayor of Ciudad Guerrero in an independent Mexico. Martinez Bagarela took office in 1821 after the Mexican revolution and war for independence set off by Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla in 1810. Ciudad Guerrero was founded in 1750 and by 1900 had a population of around 40,000. In 1953, Ciudad Guerrero disappeared, buried under the waters generated by the Falcon Lake Dam. Garcia still mentions this often. The waters are now gone and the town is being restored. Garcia has made several recent trips to the area researching family history.
Garcia says the family believed in the importance of good government and that it makes a town a "better place." He says the same philosophy is a foundation of his public service today. "I'd rather be middle class or lower income in a city like this [Austin] than a millionaire in a dump," he says. "Bad government breeds contempt by the citizens."
The family owned a grocery store in Ciudad Guerrero and was prosperous. Garcia's father took over operation of the store when still a young man. Then in 1910 revolution broke out in Mexico. It took a couple of years for the war to work its way north, but it did. Garcia says his father was ready to support the revolution, having concluded that it would improve the life of the Mexican people. Revolutionaries visited the town to recruit, and his father, then 21, was offered the post of colonel in the revolutionary army. He wanted to accept, but his father -- Gus Garcia's grandfather -- wouldn't let his son go.
Soon thereafter the family moved across the border to Zapata, Texas. Garcia's father never liked the United States, reports his son, and "hated the political system."
The family ran a store in Zapata, but not a store on the scale it had in Mexico. "It was a bare existence kind of store," recalls Garcia; he recalls one daily intake of 52 cents. Many people in Zapata were on government relief during the Depression and into the war years. Relief, Garcia recalls, consisted of "Wisconsin cheese, butter, and Washington apples." The cheese and apples were foreign to many residents of Zapata, who bartered them at the Garcia store for rice, beans, and tortillas. The Garcias would then offer the bartered government commodities for sale to other customers. Garcia also recalls that boys in the town used the apples as baseballs, with boards as bats.
The Garcias moved to Laredo when Gus was 10. He graduated from high school, then along with several friends volunteered for the army in 1954. This was soon after an armistice was called in the Korean War. Garcia expected to be drafted, but in 1954, rumors swept the countryside that the GI Bill was going to be eliminated. Garcia and his friends saw the GI Bill as their only way to get an education, so they enlisted. Garcia made it under the wire and got his college benefits.
Garcia was stationed stateside for his whole enlistment, then returned to Laredo where he fell in love with Marina Gonzalez. The two were married in 1957. They soon moved to Austin, where Gus began attending UT.
With a few exceptions, blacks were barred from restaurants, theatres, hotels, motels, parks, and many other public places. Garcia says discrimination was usually somewhat more subtle against Mexican-Americans, but pervasive. The young couple found an inexpensive duplex off Kinney Avenue in South Austin on Juliet Street. When they tried to move closer to the university, however, they felt the sting of racial discrimination.
One day Marina answered an ad for an apartment near the university. The voice on the other end was friendly, and answered a series of questions. When she gave her name, however, Marina was told "we don't rent to Mexicans," and the person hung up on her. It was the first time she had experienced racial discrimination, explains Marina, her voice still reflecting the pain more than 30 years later. There might have been class discrimination in Laredo, she explains, but virtually everyone was of Mexican descent.
The Garcias experienced similar discrimination when they tried to buy a house. Realtors steered them either to East Austin or to one neighborhood of small homes just south of Ben White. They bought a home in northeast Austin. In later years, after barriers fell, they bought another home, again in northeast Austin, where they live today.
Garcia entered the job market in 1962 and once again encountered racial barriers while interviewing with major accounting firms. Finally, one firm explained that they would hire him if he would be willing to move to New York City. There he could move up the ladder, and when he made manager -- one step below partner -- they would move him back to Texas. Garcia met others who experienced this. The corporate thinking, explains Garcia, was that clients did not want Hispanics or blacks to look at their records.
Garcia refused the offer. A professor helped him find work with a local firm. Then one day he found brutal proof that some clients did not want non-whites looking at their financial records. He was assigned to do the books of a contractor, who ironically contracted mainly with the city water/wastewater department. After completing the business books, Garcia went into the contractor's office and asked for the personal books. The contractor rudely refused on the grounds that no "Mexican" was going to inspect his books. He then went to a phone in an adjoining room, and, with Garcia in easy earshot, chewed out Garcia's boss for sending "a Mexican kid" to look at his books. After a lengthy conversation, the man returned and told Garcia, "he [Garcia's boss] says you know what you are doing." He handed over the books. Two years later, the man sought out Garcia and apologized.
Next Garcia opened his own firm, but the pickings were slim. He found that even many Hispanic businesses refused to hire Hispanic accountants. Marina recalls that for many years, Gus was the only Hispanic accountant in Austin. Business finally picked up and Garcia went on to develop partnerships and successful businesses.
In September 1967, the City Council created a Human Relations Commission (HRC). This capped three years of effort led by local NAACP president Volma Overton, dating back prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The commission was to act as an advisory board to the City Council on a wide array of civil rights and human relations issues. On Oct. 26, 1967, the council appointed 21 members to the commission. Headlines on the front page of that morning's Austin American (which would later merge with the Austin Statesman)reflect the climate of the times. They included: "Jets Slam Hanoi Spans" (rail and road bridges leading into the North Vietnamese capital); "Human Relations Appointments Due"; and "MoPac Boulevard Plan Presented."
The council appointed only one Hispanic to the HRC. Hispanic leadership demanded more representation. The council put the matter on the agenda. Garcia's politically involved friends urged him to attend. The meeting took place at City Hall in what is now the city manager's office but was then the council chamber.
Garcia arrived late. The room was packed and he crowded in near the doorway. Council Member Dick Nichols suggested expanding the commission to 25 and filling the additional seats with Hispanic citizens. Nichols then began moving through the crowd asking people to serve. He asked three people who agreed and by that time he was at the back of the room where his gaze fell on Garcia. Nichols asked him if he would serve. Garcia answered yes. Thus came his "accidental" entry into local politics.
The HRC was granted very limited powers. It was denied, for instance, one of Overton's top goals, subpoena power to help the commission expose discrimination and end it. It functioned mainly by bringing attention to inequities and thus often bringing action. The 1969 HRC annual report shows the wide sweep of its activities: investigating housing and employment-discrimination complaints, working for educational equality, focusing on police-community relations, trying to resolve the Economy Furniture strike, improving ambulance service to minority communities, and calling for the paving of streets in East Austin.
Charles Miles, the executive director of the HRC, recalls Garcia as a "forceful" advocate for justice. Overton, who served on the commission, concurs. Miles also recalls a visit he and Garcia made to what is now called Trinity Square, an Austin Housing Authority residential tower on Town Lake. The commission suspected that this jewel of the Austin public housing system was segregated.
AHA refused to provide the records, so Garcia and Miles went to the tower unannounced and began knocking on doors. They found only white residents. After learning that the two were there, the management turned over the records. As suspected, the project was lily-white. It was integrated soon thereafter.
Such situations sparked a key HRC initiative, a citywide fair housing ordinance aimed at stopping housing discrimination. A council majority supported the efforts and voted the ordinance into law. Voting yes were Nichols, Emma Long, and Nighthawk proprietor Harry Akin, who had integrated his restaurants well before other Austin eateries. Voting no were Travis LaRue and Richard Janes.
Austin wasn't ready for such action. The ordinance set off a backlash led by the Austin Board of Realtors (ABOR), which led a petition drive putting repeal of the Fair Housing Ordinance on the municipal ballot in 1968. The repeals passed by a two-to-one margin. ABOR, recalls Garcia, argued that no local ordinance was needed because there was a federal law prohibiting housing discrimination -- a disingenuous argument, says Garcia, since ABOR had opposed every attempt to stop housing discrimination.
The following year, Austin voters punished the council majority for its support of Fair Housing: Nichols, Long, and Akins were all turned out of office.
It was a time of great turmoil in the Austin school system and around the nation. The Austin district had been declared in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The school district and the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) were parrying back and forth over integration. It went on for years.
As Garcia points out, "Blacks were discriminated against far more than we were." Nonetheless, Mexican-American kids faced serious challenges that white kids did not. Garcia says that although some Mexican-Americans attended alongside whites, there were also many schools that were virtually all Mexican-American. There were few Mexican-American teachers, virtually no administrators, and no Mexican-American principals. Few minority businesses won school contracts. Spanish was generally forbidden in the schools, meaning many kids could not understand the language of instruction.
Garcia sought an unexpired term on the school board in 1971. Wilhelmina Delco, elected to the school board in 1969 as the first African-American ever on the board, led the effort to forge a board majority for Garcia. She fell one vote short. Garcia says he lost out when the head of the Austin chapter of CPAs told interviewers that he was a good guy, but had a "warped mind."
Determined, Garcia then sought an open seat in the spring 1972 election. (The Austin Statesman carried his announcement on January 27, 1972. Other stories that day included reports of a stalemate at the Paris peace talks, body counts from Vietnam, and Maurice Stans' resignation as secretary of commerce to become a top official in President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign. In a state story headlined, "Water Chief See Eco-Radical Peak," Texas Water Development Board director Harry Burleigh happily reported that he believed the "radical wing" of the environmental movement "peaked" in 1971.) Garcia won, becoming the first Mexican-American ever on the AISD board. His election followed that of Richard Moya to the Travis County Commissioners Court in 1970. Moya was the first Mexican-American to ever hold elective office in Travis County. Barrientos was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1974 and John Trevino to the Austin City Council in 1975.
The challenges facing Garcia were immense. Busing had just begun. The federal discrimination case was in the courts, and would be throughout his two terms. There was racial tension among students in the schools. Amid all this, Garcia made slow but steady progress on hiring minority teachers and administrators. He won more contracts for minority firms. Seeking more parental involvement, he convinced local priests to let him address their congregations about school issues. He became a consistent no vote, on the short end, against appealing the district's repeated losses in the discrimination lawsuit. The appeals managed to delay desegregation a little longer.
As always, there are Garcia stories which help illustrate the era. One involves a contractor who Garcia says was getting virtually all the school construction contracts before he joined the board. At a luncheon one day, the contractor took Garcia aside and complained, "Since you've been on the board I haven't gotten a single contract." Garcia shot back, "That's all right. Before I was there you got them all."
Another time, Garcia was the only vote against locating a high school in Oak Hill. Garcia argued that the school was too distant from population centers to be successfully integrated. In frustration he made a remark that he remembers going something like, "Ya'll can do whatever you want, but the [federal] judge has eight votes." He was quoted in the next morning's Statesman and it didn't do much for his popularity in Oak Hill. Garcia was right, however. The judge intervened and the high school was never built (although around a decade later, developer Gary Bradley persuaded the district to build Bowie High.)
After he won a second term in 1975, Garcia's colleagues elected him president of the board. He left office in 1978 at the end of his second term. Later that year he ran for the State Board of Education, but lost to former board colleague Will Davis. He ran against Davis in 1982 and lost again. Garcia then settled into his accounting practice, but remained active in public service.
Simultaneously, the Mexican-American community had broken into political factions, roughly categorized as insurgents challenging what they saw as an entrenched Old Guard. By the turn of the decade, things had gotten pretty unpleasant. Some minority citizens and officials felt the environmentalists cared only about the environment and not about social progress -- or that social progress was far down the priority list.
Those on the other side of this widening divide were dismayed as some minority politicians became certain developer votes. Some local legislators even sponsored Austin-bashing laws on behalf of local developers -- including a 1989 law designed to assure approval of Freeport-McMoRan's Barton Creek PUD.
It was into this atmosphere that Gus Garcia re-entered Austin politics. In late 1990, Garcia announced for the Place 5 seat held by Robert Barnstone. A Hispanic from Laredo, Barnstone had won the seat in 1988 when John Trevino left the council. Place 5 was by then designated for a Hispanic under the unofficial "gentlemen's agreement."
Barnstone shook up City Hall. He virtually single-handedly (among council members) stopped the Manor Airport. He blended fiscal conservatism and environmentalism, and routinely hammered the Chamber of Commerce. He led the council in turning down the Barton Creek PUD after the famous all-night hearing on June 7, 1990. And, he pounded the Mexican-American Old Guard week after week on things like the over-appraisal purchase of the Avante building from a member of the Old Guard.
Barnstone, however, was extremely controversial and his style was seriously abrasive. The Chronicle view on this was best summarized in the 1991 mayoral endorsement of Barnstone: "If ever any place needed a jerk who didn't always care about other people's feelings, it's Austin's City Hall."
Gus Garcia was no Barnstone fan, and he particularly didn't like Barnstone being in Place 5. He told the American Statesman he wanted a "head-on" confrontation with Barnstone.
That was not to be. Barnstone had not yet announced whether he would seek re-election, and shortly after Garcia's kick-off, Barnstone announced he would not run again. Soon thereafter, Barnstone announced he would run for mayor to fill the seat being vacated by Lee Cooke. Bruce Todd, a Travis County Commissioner and Chamber of Commerce/American-Statesman favorite, soon announced against Barnstone.
Banker and investor Gilbert Martinez, a former ally of Garcia, announced for Place 5. Martinez -- closely allied with Barnstone, and also heavily associated with the developers -- had lost two previous runs for the council as an openly developer-friendly candidate.
Garcia, who had briefly employed Todd in his accounting firm, was seen as aligned with Todd, and Martinez with Barnstone. Even Garcia portrayed it this way during the campaign. Concerns about Garcia's connections to Todd and the Old Guard, along with worries over his environmental commitment, led to the Chronicle's non-endorsement.
The campaigns were rough, even by Austin standards. Eventually, Garcia narrowly edged Martinez in a runoff. Todd narrowly beat Barnstone, with the environmental community bitterly split. At the same time, Ronney Reynolds won Place 2 and Charles Urdy was easily re-elected to Place 6. They joined Bob Larson, Louise Epstein, and Max Nofziger.
Garcia was on the council from the beginning of construction for the new airport at Bergstrom to its successful completion and opening last year. He was key in saving the public electric utility from being sold, and in preparing it for state deregulation. He also played a significant role in acquiring thousands of acres for parks and nature preserves.
The new council gutted the ordinance, and passed the infamous "composite" ordinance which allowed about three times as much development as the interim. That evening, Garcia gave a stirring speech about the need for environmental protection, but then voted for the "composite." Only Nofziger voted no. A lot of people were disappointed.
Environmentalists responded with a petition drive for the citizen-drafted SOS (Save Our Springs) ordinance -- patterned on the interim. SOS gathered more than enough signatures to require an election. This led to the rise of the RULE coalition, the anti-environmental voting bloc of Reynolds, Urdy, Larson, and Epstein (or sometimes RULET, with Todd added to the majority). Garcia routinely voted against them.
The big showtime for the RULE came when they defied a court order as well as the city charter and delayed the SOS election. Aquifer developers wanted a delay so they could get in development applications before the election, and thus grandfather them under the much weaker "composite" ordinance. Finally, on August 8, 1992, Austin voters passed SOS by a two-to-one margin. Next, developers went to court. Freeport-McMoRan affiliates led a legal challenge, filed in Hays County where SOS applied to a relatively small amount of acreage.
In December 1994, an 11-person jury in Hays County overturned SOS. It then came down to whether or not the city would appeal that decision. In a brazenly raw spectacle, the parties who would benefit the most from the demise of SOS led a campaign ridiculing any thought of further legal appeals. Appealing, went the rap, would be a waste of money on a failed idea. The American-Statesman editorial board volunteered as head cheerleader.
The council votes divided evenly. Todd and the remaining members of RULE, Reynolds and Urdy, opposed the appeal. Nofziger, along with Jackie Goodman and Brigid Shea, who both joined the council in 1993, favored it. They argued the city should make every possible effort on the citizen mandate. It was up to Garcia. His decision would affect the city for years to come, and many people would remember. Ronney Reynolds wore a three stooges tie to a Thursday council meeting to commemorate the impasse. "Now I have to find out if the fourth one joins them," Reynolds quipped to the American Statesman.
Garcia broke the suspense with enthusiastic support for the appeal. In the summer of 1996, SOS was reinstated by the Appeals Court, then later upheld by the Texas Supreme Court. Without Garcia's swing vote -- or those of Nofziger, Goodman, and Shea -- the ordinance would have died in 1995. Today it is in effect although many projects are still grandfathered under state law.
After that crossing of the Rubicon, there was no longer any question where Garcia stood on the environment. He branched out further, becoming a strong advocate for sustainability, pedestrian safety, bicycles, energy conservation, and light rail. He attended a conference on global warming in California and was particularly taken that the conference was funded by property insurance companies. He returned as an emissary on global warming. Last year at a National League of Cities Conference in Oregon, Garcia rose from his seat during a discussion of problems facing cities, to opine that: "One of the worst problems is that developers are so greedy."
In his final days on the council, Garcia is teaming with outgoing colleague Bill Spelman to try and make the long-term regional transportation plan more environmentally sound. Sounding reminiscent of Dwight Eisenhower's parting warning against the military-industrial complex, Garcia warns that the plan is environmentally unsustainable and heavily favors suburbs outside the city. "What it ignores," says Garcia, "is that we have to change [transportation habits]." The message carries a particularly powerful wallop coming from someone who has traveled the long path Garcia did to reach his current stature.
Garcia has a long list of accomplishments, but as they say in sports, those are just the statistics. Then there are the intangibles that don't show up in the box score. Garcia is a master of the intangibles: constituent service, teamwork, sagacious advice usually sought not volunteered, early morning phone calls on choice occasions, the occasional blunt talk, drop-in visits for chats and sometimes tirades, tension-relieving sarcasm, and just a joy in living.
Gus Garcia's greatest achievement, in my view, is that he grew, but he never left anything behind. For example, he rose to enormous stature on the environment, but is still relentlessly pushing forward on the original issues that drew him into public life. In fact, throughout his tenure he worked hard and successfully to heal rifts between many minority citizens and environmental advocates. He rebuilt the coalition that was in tatters when he took office.
This was all in evidence recently when Garcia attended a Cinco de Mayo celebration at Porter Junior High. Speaking for only a few moments, sandwiched between students' theatrical and musical performances, Garcia got right to the point: "We live in a great city ... but we need something that only you can provide. We need leaders in this community."
He then laid out the leadership challenges: "We take a lot for granted ... One of the things we take for granted is the quality of the air that we breathe. We breathe it. We don't think about it. But, as the city grows and more cars get on the road and more traffic jams are seen all over the city, the air keeps getting dirtier. And, more of our young people are getting respiratory ailments -- asthma, hay fever. So, you as leaders need to prepare yourselves to find out how we can live in this world and breathe clean air."
Then, he continued, "this city is becoming more diverse -- more Asians, more Hispanics, more African-Americans, more people from the European background. And we need to learn to get along."
He then tied diversity to Cinco de Mayo, noting that Mexico opposed slavery and that the Mexican defeat of Napoleon II helped keep France from coming to the aid of the Confederacy during the Civil War. So, concludes Garcia, "It is a celebration for all of us."
Next Garcia switched back to the environment warning: "Another thing taken for granted is water. We just go to the water fountain and drink water. ... As we build more things over the water supply, the water is getting dirtier. So my hope is that the younger generation of today studies the issues of how to supply clean water so that our city can be sustainable, not just for the next five or 10 years, but for the future, for future generations." He wrapped up by asking students to "think about the right of people to self government," because, "That is what Cinco de Mayo is all about."
It was a poignant moment: the retiring leader, who first entered public life in a largely segregated Austin -- where only white citizens had full political rights -- beseeching the next generation to utilize the rights that he and many others fought so hard to win, planting seeds that he hopes will pay off in making Austin and the world a better place tomorrow.
For source material, thanks to Charles Miles, Volma Overton, Paul Saldaña, the books Volma, by Carolyn Jones, and Austin, by David Humphrey, and the Austin History Center.
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