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Just Say Vo

If the Democratic Party in Texas is to have a successful future, it will be found in places like state House District 149 in Houston. Located just north of Sugar Land, right inside the Harris County line, the district features a relatively new and thriving Texas demographic: suburban minority. Republican Rep. Talmadge Heflin, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, currently represents the 149th. Heflin is among the true-believer ideologues who form the core of Speaker Tom Craddick’s leadership team. Twenty-four years ago, when a younger version of the jowly, red-faced Heflin first won his seat, the district looked a lot like him. Today, in addition to being conservative Anglo, it is Vietnamese, Bangladeshi, Nigerian, Colombian, and a wash of other immigrant communities of varying sizes. The 149th is perhaps the most diverse district in the state, a place where Anglos are outnumbered by a ratio of almost two to one.

It takes many years for a demographic trend to become a political power. Almost twice as many Anglos as minorities are registered to vote in the 149th. In 2002, despite some GOP dilution after legislative redistricting, Heflin won his race with 55.5 percent of the vote against an underfinanced Vietnamese paralegal. A weighted average of the district’s votes that year put it at 58 percent Republican. But this November 2, the future could kick in a bit early in the 149th, and in the process take down one of the most powerful Republicans in the Texas Legislature.

It will be a lot easier for Democrats to secure the victories of the future if they have more candidates with the positive attributes of Heflin’s challenger, Hubert Vo. For starters, Vo is Vietnamese and the president of the local Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce. There are about 4,000 registered Vietnamese in the district, and all of them can appreciate the American success story that Vo relates. He came to this country in 1972 as a teenager and immediately went to work at his parents’ convenience store. In 1979, Vo entered the University of Houston, where he met his wife, Kathy. They’ve been married 20 years. His schedule while in college was grueling. In addition to being a full-time student, he worked the graveyard shift at Hughes Tool Company. Vo also continued to pitch in at his parents’ store. He graduated with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering in 1983, and, despite promotions at Hughes, left the company to open a computer business. “I did pretty well with that,†Vo, a compact man in a blue suit, says with a smile as he sits in his office in the shopping center he owns named “Universal.†Vo’s computer company exported machines abroad, as well as providing equipment for local government facilities. He ran the business during the day, but in the evening he still worked at his family’s convenience store.

In 1995, Vo went into real estate, returning to school to become a licensed realtor. The apartment complexes he owns have Spanish-speaking employees. Vo wanted to be able to communicate with them, so he took classes for three years to learn Spanish. (Vo speaks four languages: Vietnamese, English, French, and Spanish.) The candidate also studied to get an EPA license to fix air conditioners and earned a degree in jewelry making. “I value education,†he says. “If you don’t understand something, go to school and learn it.â€

Vo says he feels a responsibility to give back to his adopted country that has afforded him so much. On the stump, he speaks in a Vietnamese accent about education and health care. “Education is not just an item in the budget; it should be a top priority,†he says, noting that the state’s contribution to the local Alief School District has dropped from 52 percent 10 years ago to 38 percent today.

Vo has applied the same work ethic and positive attitude on his campaign that has served him in business. “I think the race is winnable, and I’m willing to spend my own money to do it,†he says.

As of the beginning of October, Heflin had outraised Vo, about $311,000 to about $60,000. As befits a chairman of appropriations and a key cog in the Republican machine, Heflin has received tens of thousands of dollars from special interests, including insurance and banking PACs as well as GOP sugar daddies like Bob Perry and his wife ($55,000) and Texans for Lawsuit Reform ($10,000). Vo has received union support as well as help from public interest groups like the League of Conservation Voters, but the bulk of his contributions seem to come from the Houston area. His civic participation in everything from the YMCA to the local Super Neighborhood Council has certainly not hurt. Vo also received $10,000 from Swift Boat ad-backer Albert Huddleston, who is apparently exasperated by the state GOP’s inability to provide school finance reform.

Fortunately for Vo, there is a finite amount of money that a candidate can spend in the district. Television advertising, the traditional reason that campaigns are so expensive, would be impractical because commercials would go out to the entire city of Houston. Instead, the Vo campaign will spend its money on a total of seven mailers, phone banks, door knocking, and events. The candidate claims to have knocked on 2,500 doors himself. The campaign has been block-walking since June, talking with people at 19,000 homes. Mustafa Tameez, who does political work for Mayor Bill White and the Vo campaign, says that more than 12,000 new voters have been registered—four times as many as the winning margin in Heflin’s last race.

Vo says that for many of the people he encountered, it was the first time they had been approached by someone to involve them in the political process. He charges that Heflin is out of touch with his district. The chairman’s campaign aides dispute the assertion and point to a full slate of endorsements from the community. (Despite five requests to his staff, Heflin declined to make himself available for an Observer interview.) If politically unaware Houstonians do know Heflin, it is likely because of a bizarre, aborted adoption case that occurred late this summer.

On July 27, Associate Judge David Farr, filling in for Family District Judge Linda Motheral, who was out of town, approved an emergency order granting custody of a 20-month-old baby boy to the Heflins. Another Family District Judge, Frank Rynd, signed off on the highly unusual action. The child belonged to a Ugandan woman who had lived in the Heflins’ home for a year and claimed to have worked as a maid for cash payments. Heflin insisted that he gave the money to the woman just to help her. The Heflins claimed that the woman and her Nigerian husband abused the child. In testifying later at a custody hearing that returned the child to the mother, Heflin defended his actions: “We all know the terrible problem that black male children have growing up into manhood without being in prison.â€

The Vo campaign has gone out of its way not to exploit the troubling tale, and Heflin staffers downplay its importance. “It’s a non-issue,†says Chris Cronn, a Heflin aide. “People talk about what a nice guy [Heflin] is. He is everybody’s favorite uncle.â€

However, if the September issue of the International Guardian, one of three African newspapers in the district, is any judge, the issue is very much alive. A banner headline reads: “Legislating Roguery! Child-stealing may cost Heflin his job.†The piece goes on to compare the chairman to slave masters who raped their female laborers. A picture of Vo, apparently lifted from the campaign’s website, accompanies the piece with “Heflin’s Nightmare†written above it.

Conventional wisdom has it that Republicans vote early and Democrats vote on Election Day. The Vo campaign hopes to counter that with a Kickoff Cook-off at Vo’s shopping center on October 23. The event will be followed by a parade to a nearby polling station, where first-time voters and elderly immigrants can get help voting. As they gather at Vo’s strip mall, it will be hard to miss the large statue that the businessman and his wife designed and put in the center of the parking lot. It features three sets of immigrants looking into the future. The first is a European who arrived in the 1920s. Next to him is a Vietnamese couple holding a small boy. A step behind them is a Chinese railroad laborer. “I was looking for something that symbolized ‘universal,’†Vo says. “This country is a country of immigrants.â€

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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