Monday, October 16, 2006

22 (+1) Candidates Spoke in Houston Last Night

So I was sitting on the floor at Depak and Neeta Sane’s house this past Sunday, and Depak asked me if I was going to the Candidates Forum that evening. I had forgotten about it and asked where it was. “The Shahnai Restaurant on Hillcroft”, he said. Oh . . . that’s far. But he talked me into it and I went; and I have no regrets.

I couldn’t find a place to park. The place was packed. I finally edged into a non-space next to dumpsters.

Now you’re not going to believe this. Here I am at a nice south Asian restaurant in the heart of southwest Houston, an area where the aroma from rich spices mingle from a variety of restaurants in an ethnically diverse community. No cash register in evidence. Everyone was grabbing plates and getting dinner from a buffet table. Free food. Free savory exotic food.


The Candidates Forum was hosted by The Coalition of New American Communities (CONAC) and the Pakistan American Council of Texas (PACT). There were by my estimate, about 150 people there, but I think more came after my head count. And twenty two of them were candidates. Candidates for Harris County and Fort Bend County offices, state house seats, U.S. Congressional seats and a state-wide race. Dominantly, the candidates were Democratic, but several Republican candidates showed up as well.

I sat in back, but as the speaking started, I noticed that there was no microphone and the roomful of diners were having their conversations. And I couldn’t hear. So I found a chair near the front and got my notebook out. Just about that time, a microphone appeared and I relaxed a little.

There was no apparent order of speakers so I imagine they had chose the order by lots. Each speaker was given a list of questions that they were to address, and they had 3 minutes each. 22 speakers times 3 minutes plus intro.

It was going to be a long night.

First up, my man Farhan Shamsi. Farhan took issue with racial profiling. As a JP in Fort Bend County, Farhan said it would not be allowed. He mentioned Brady Elliott’s discrimination of a non-English speaking Hispanic man, telling his audience that the judge ordered the man to jail until he could speak English. He decried past practices of pulling someone over for not wearing a seat belt, then having them throw in jail for not having sufficient citizenship documentation.

Sheila Jackson Lee spoke next. Jackson Lee noted the diverse audience, and proclaimed it a “celebration of democracy that is real". She acknowledged her endorsements: 80:20 and the South Asian Alliance. She spoke of her opposition to the Iraq war, and said that there was misdirection (aka lies) about going into Iraq. The Iraq war, said Jackson Lee, created terrorism. By our very presence in Iraq, terrorism surged to new highs.

She went over her three minute limit, but as she was sitting down, someone mentioned that it was the shortest Sheila Jackson Lee speech he had ever heard.

Up next, Richard Garcia. candidate for Harris County Treasurer. Garcia was running for the office to see that it was abolished. It is a complete redundancy. (Note to Fort Bend County voters, this is not the case here in our county).

Jim Sharp, who is running for Justice on the 1st Court of Appeals mentioned his ally, Leora Kahn, also a Democrat, running for 14th Court of Appeals. Citing James Madison, Sharp noted that there are too many Republicans holding office in Texas, particularly in the judicial branch. Madison’s quote? “Any same-hands group or faction having effective control of all government is the very definition of tyranny”.

Chuck Silverman was 4th. Running for Harris County District Judge, the 189th Court, mentioned that justice should be administered fairly to all. If people don’t believe that they can get justice in Harris county, that justice is not administered fairly, then there is social breakdown. He decried the fact that judges must run as partisan candidates. Good point. Silverman is 46, but looks 35. People who see him think he is too young to run for judge. Silverman introduced himself to me and handed me a campaign paper cutter. I told him to save it for a Harris County voter but he thought I should just have it. It's around here somewhere.

Then up stood Neeta Sane. She talked of her expertise in development of fraud detection software in the banking industry. That’s what she does. She is the only candidate running for this office with the expertise to customize some very complex software that Fort Bend County is installing. Customization for optimal efficiency. She is there to break up the good-ole-boy aging angry white man confab that has become the norm in Fort Bend County leadership.

Up arose Ahmad Hassan. The first Republican of the evening. He was wearing an American flag T-shirt. Speaking to a dominantly immigrant audience, he wore “immigrant” on his sleeve. He’s running for Congress against Sheila Jackson Lee. Rambled …rambled … rambled. The man hasn’t a chance.

A Pakistani immigrant who couldn’t sell his message to a Pakistani immigrant audience.

Jim Henley. A man after my own heart. He’s a middle school speech and debate teacher. Not surprisingly, he really spoke well. He’s running in CD-7 against John Culberson. Culberson couldn’t make it to the forum. He mentioned his ethnically diverse classes, and his ethnically diverse campaign staff – some of them one and the same. My favorite quote? “We will not use immigrants as scapegoats in this election”.

Another Republican, Martha Wong, running for re-election to the Texas state house, got up. Martha is another stealth Republican. Her sole reason for running for re-election? “The reason I run is to open the door for Asian Americans”, not for power. Uh-huh. Got to admit, though, she uses her name to great effect: “Be right to vote Wong”.

Eric Story, running against Democratic incumbent Gene Green in CD-29 has a Rick Perry head of hair. He rattled off Green’s voting record, mostly social issues, and I found myself nodding my head in agreement to Green's record. He must have had the impression that he had like minded people watching him rant as he ended with a very lame - and might I say condescending -“You don’t want this.”

Up sprang Nick Lampson. Nick gave his best impression of “Peace be upon you” in Arabic, and got the traditional “And also with you” reply. He mentioned his visits to mosques, and visits to Muslim homes during Ramadan, He emphasized his immigrant roots. In short, Nick was very much one of them. Then he fell into his “Education is important to me” story about his sister who came down with polio as a child. If you haven’t heard it, get him to tell it to you. It’s a pretty good story.

Running for state house, Scott Brann got up and talked about his race with Austin fixture Beverly Woolley, who he says does not represent the district, but herself and her party.
He was first, but not last, to mention that local police should not be required to act as federal immigration officers. They have enough to do protecting the people.

Then Shelley Sekula-Gibbs’ name was called. Well. . . .almost. The emcee flubbed and called her Sheila Sekula-Gibbs. The place came apart. Several shouted “Shelley”, “Shelley”. I was shaking with laughter as she passed by me in my seat. She got the joke. She proceeded to tell the crowd that it would be nice if they remembered her name AND how to spell it as she was a write-in candidate. So she said her name again, then spelled it. Then another thing started happening. The room started to empty. I found out later that they were going to mosque for 9 o’clock prayers. But I wonder what she thought about that. She laid out her program, judiciously steering around her support for police reporting illegal immigrants, and Iraq. She finished on social issues, saying that she was in favor of marriage being "a union of one man and one woman".

After sitting down, the emcee gently chided Sekula-Gibbs, saying that “some of us have a marriage of one man and up to four women”.

And this is for muse: Shelley was wearing a black pantsuit, black pumps, and a blouse that was an indescribable shade of green. I would call it puke green, but that would be too complimentary.

Hubert Vo got up and laid out his voting record. Interesting story: he definitely has a thing against crime. As a teenager he was robbed at gunpoint when he was working in his father’s convenience store.

And who should get up after Vo? Talmadge Heflin, Vo’s opponent again. Recall that Vo won against Heflin in the ’04 election due to changing demographics in HD-149. It was a squeaker win and the Vo’s win wasn’t certified for some time after the election. Heflin is the reason I am a Democrat. He is the essence of Republican hubris. Heflin said that school districts spend money foolishly and is proud of his efforts to keep taxes low by stopping “runaway spending” in schools.

The local Democratic state representative, Scott Hochberg (HD-137) spoke next. His constituency is dominantly Muslim and he knows it. He recalled his bill to stop false advertising of food companies who were labeling their products “halal” when they were not.

Maria Luisa Alvarado, the only state-wide candidate present (Lt. Governor), got up next and announced she wants One Texas for All, even for Republicans. She allowed that she didn’t dislike Republicans. She just wants fewer of them to win their races. Alvarado also mentioned that local police are overworked, and adding to their plate a federal duty to detain illegal aliens was not a smart move.

Dora Olivo was next. On immigration, Olivo had an anecdote about her mother that she shared. She mentioned that in the 50’s Hispanics were often approached by bigots who offered to pay their way back to Mexico. On Iraq, Olivo wants an exit strategy that doesn’t leave Iraqis hanging. She says that they are becoming too dependent on the United States and that needs to change.

Sherrie Matula identified herself with Nick Lampson, saying her district lies within the “other arm of CD-22”. Sherrie announced that when elected she will form a citizens advisory council. Community members who will meet and advise her on how she should vote.

Kristi Thibaut is the Democrat running for an open seat in HD-133. I have the impression that she and Sherrie Matula are friends and allies as Sherrie kept raising her hand in the air with “thumbs up” as Kristi was speaking. Thibaut is quite a character – lots of funny asides. She mentioned her endorsement by the Texas Parents PAC and that she is running, like Sherrie, because she is mad about what is being done in Austin.

Up got Ted Ankrum, Democratic incumbent in Texas CD-10. Ankrum was sitting facing me about 8 feet away, so he was watching me scribble my notes. As he passed by he handed me his push card. “Thanks,” I said. To cut things short he said that he was “proud to associate himself with Nick Lampson’s answers to their questions”. He then proceeded to mention the Op/Ed piece he wrote for the Austin American Statesman last Thursday. Rather than repeat it here, go take a look there. Oh, and here's something from his push card: Ankrum served four tours in Vietnam. The man has earned a special right to his opinion on the Iraq War.

James Pierre , running for Harris County County Clerk, was next. Most of the questions presented by the hosts were irrelevant to the office, so he just simply stated that he originally wanted to run for the office because he wanted to remove barriers created to scare and intimidate people in their vote. He supports getting a receipt for electronic voting machines, and a paper ballot for backup.

A very short Mary Kay Green, running for Harris County’s 245th family court made her way to the stage as people called out for her to stand up. She was bitter about how she had torn up two very expensive pairs of shoes in the campaign, and she needed to win so she could have money to buy replacements. She ended with this: “You really do need to know your judicial candidates. We’re the ones who can mess with your lives.”

A Pakistani running as a Democrat for HD-126, Chad Khan got up as the long last candidate to speak (we all thought). He has an interesting race. His poll has him in a near dead heat with his Republican opponent, at 27 to 28% each. 42% undecided. A good joke from him: while block walking he introduced himself as “Straight Democrat”.

That was it for the candidates who appeared. Someone got up to speak for David Van Os who couldn’t make it, but I was done. I got up and edged over to the door, and stopped to pick up campaign brochures, fliers and push cards. In walks an elderly gentleman who looked like he was up past his bed time. He laid down a pinch of his own push cards, and I noted the name: Don Richardson. Don Richardson had arrived to speak on his CD-22 write-in candidacy. I couldn’t leave now. This is the guy who stubbornly refused to take his name off as a write-in candidate until he got assurrances from the RNCC that they would come through with the $3 million. He went in and interrupted the emcee who was just wrapping things up and said he had come to speak. Then he got up to speak, spoke haltingly about who he was and what he was doing, how he thinks we should stay the course in Iraq, where, incidently, they need more troops. And then he caved in and just said, "I don’t know, how about if I just answer any questions you may have?” He was politely informed that there was no Q&A in the forum’s format and that he had 2 more minutes.

“2 minutes?”

I couldn’t watch any more, so I left.

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