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Interview with: Representative Rick Noriega
Interviewed by: Jane Ely
Date: May 7, 2008
JE: This is May 7, 2008. Jane Ely interviewing Representative Rick Noriega. Rick, let’s do a little background first. Were you born in Houston?
RN: Yes, I am a 4th generation Houstonian. I always get confused whether to call it 4th generation or 3rd generation because when my great-grandmother arrived here, she was with her very young son and so, I do not know whether to count them once or to count them each as distinct generations.
JE: Count them twice.
RN: Count them twice. So, 4 generations.
JE: That makes you incredibly unusual.
RN: Yes, well, you know, I mean, Houston is really a fairly young city.
JE: It used to be hard to just find a native, period, much less somebody whose family had been here a little while.
RN: Sure, you will recall in the 1980s especially when people were flocking to Houston, and to say that you are a native Houstonian was somewhat novel.
JE: It really was. Where did you grow up?
RN: I grew up over in the southeast part of town near what was known as the old Golf Crest Country Club, kind of I would say the Gulfgate area, between Gulfgate and Hobby Airport.
JE: Yes, I know where that is. What did your parents do?
RN: Well, my father was a buyer for a large turbine repair manufacturing company. Eventually was a subsidiary of Westinghouse. I guess he was in one of those collateral businesses that supported the energy industry, the region of the state. My mother advanced to be an executive secretary with General Electric here in Houston. You know, this city, it provides opportunities for everybody and both of my parents were not able to complete high school in the normal sense because they had to go off and work and support their families, but both of them did extremely well in light of that and then when we were all adults, they returned and got their GED when they were near retirement just because it was something that they believed in deeply. My father attended Sam Houston High School when it was downtown. There was a downtown campus, and Marshall Middle School, then Junior High. My mother attended Deady Junior High School and Milby High School.
JE: Do you have brothers and sisters?
RN: One of each. My older brother graduated from Austin High School and my younger sister and myself, we both graduated from Mount Carmel High School. Save Mount Carmel High School!
JE: That’s right. You went to Alvin Junior College?
RN: I went to Alvin Junior College.
JE: How did you wind up at Alvin Junior College?
RN: I wanted to play baseball when I got out of high school and one of my best friends who was 1 year older than me was playing baseball there at Alvin so, you know, like a lot of young people, their decisions are driven not necessarily on a well thought out, calculated plan but on passion and desires, and Alvin looked like a place where I might get a chance to play.
JE: Did you?
RN: I did.
JE: Let’s go back a little bit. What did you do as a little boy in Houston, Texas? When were you born?
RN: I was born in 1958 in Hermann Hospital. My older brother and I were both born in Hermann Hospital. My younger sister was born at St. Joseph Hospital. My parents moved into their first home at 3801 Chaffin Street right off of Long Drive and Telephone Road area, and that was their first home. In fact, as my father was moving furniture into the house, my mother was expecting me that winter, that Christmas before I was born in January.
JE: Your first home, too.
RN: My first home, too. And growing up there on Chaffin Street, we had a big yard, mother would kick us outside, especially on Saturdays when she was cleaning house. We would go outside and play after we had done our chores. Just had a great experience there in the neighborhood.
JE: A whole lot of neighborhood kids?
RN: A lot of neighborhood kids and so we were always playing outside in the yard, playing football or whatever mischievous thing that we could get into that day. Took our swimming lessons at Reveille Park and attended the Cossaboom YMCA and Golfcrest Elementary School.
JE: How far could you range on your own?
RN: At a very early age, my father and mother would give us 25 cents or 50 cents to go to Lemke’s Store on the corner of Long Drive and Chaffin to go buy milk or bread and that was kind of a common, I guess, not just task but also learning lesson for us as kids to go get milk or bread or whatever it was that we needed immediately there at the house and so, whether it was there or walking to school which, now looking back, was a pretty good little hike, or going to Gulfgate Mall, we were pretty much . . . as long as we were home at a particular time, a designated time, we were pretty free to roam about.
JE: That is so different from today. I mean, I think that is a . . .
RN: It really is.
JE: When you were a kid, did you ever imagine that you would be in the position you are in today? Did you want to be in the position you are in today?
RN: I think that when we were kids, we believed there was nothing that we could not do. I mean, we would go out in the backyard and imagine, especially after having gone to the Saturday movies at the Santa Rosa Theater on Telephone Road and go see some particular adventure film and then we would go home and in the backyard, reenact the movie scenes – whatever that was. Whether it was Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or whether it was some other particular space odyssey movie or western . . . and so, I think growing up, we were of that era that we could do anything that we wanted to do and be whatever we wanted to be if we put our mind to it, worked hard, played by the rules and treated everybody with love and respect.
JE: What do you remember of Houston during your youth?
RN: I will tell you that separate, of course, my elementary school days but one of the things I think I was sharing with someone earlier . . . when I was in kindergarten, for whatever reason, my parents came home from work and my brother and I were gathered up and placed in the car and we headed off over to Broadway Street in November, I recall. And we sat on the curb and in a little while, this limousine drives by with the President of the United States and Jacqueline Kennedy in the back and they were on their way to the Rice Hotel. It was on the way to a LULAC Council 60 meeting at the Rice Hotel and then the next day, of course, the President and his wife flew to Fort Worth and then that tragic day in the state of Texas. That is real distinct, ingrained in my head as part of my youth. But also, to playing Little League for Freeway National Little League by Hobby Airport, again, my school experiences with classmates and so forth, some of whom I still keep up with. My third grade teacher, Ann Collum (sp?) who helps us in our political races. So, I would just describe it as a very happy time.
JE: Did you go downtown ever, much?
RN: What we would do at the beginning of every school year, my mother would take 1 day off of work prior to school starting and we would walk over on Telephone Road and we would catch the bus and we would go downtown, and we would go to the Foleys and we would go to all the stores downtown to buy our school clothes. And then, a few days later, a truck would come to the house and we would go to lunch. She would take us to Battlesteins or Sakowitz. There was a lunch counter in one of those stores and we would go . . . it was a treat.
JE: And then, they would deliver it?
RN: And then, they would deliver it to the house. And then, when we finished that day of activities and outing, we would catch the bus in front of the Rice Hotel. I remember as a kid, there was a pretty big cigar shop on that corner and we would catch the bus and ride it home. And so, that was a big treat.
JE: And your mother did not drive a car?
RN: She did not drive a car until 1970 or 1971. If we went downtown, we would catch the bus. My father was the only one that was driving at the time and it was due to his knee surgery in 1970 that really forced my mom to get behind the wheel and get a driver’s license.
JE: Did you teach her?
RN: I didn’t, no, not at the time, but it was about that time that she got her license. Now, you can’t keep her from driving!
JE: Were you aware that you lived in Houston? I mean, what was Houston to you? Just your hometown?
RN: You know, growing up, we were very much aware of living in Houston. I recall, of course, in the early 1960s with the real boom of NASA and what we were doing in space, we as kids and as part of our school project, and being just down the road from the Mercury Program to the Gemini to the Apollo Program, of knowing who all the astronauts were . . . I recall my first baseball game. I was probably about 4 or 5 and my Uncle Jessie, they lived on the north side, we gathered at their house on a Sunday around noontime, some time after church, and he took us to my first Major League baseball game which was the Colt 45s. It was at Colt Stadium which was in the parking lot of where the Astrodome is now. I recall him tying a bandana on his antenna so he could find his car when he came out, as if there were so many people at the time that you could not find your car. But following the Astros and then, of course, as an elementary school kid, following the Oilers and George Blanda up until 1966 when they were the dogs of the AFL until a guy by the name of Pete Beathard and Hoyle Granger and George Webster and Elvin Bethea and all these guys made the Houston Oilers quite a contender. And we would save bottle caps – you would have to scrape out the cork to try to get enough bottle caps to get a football that was given away after you collected so many bottle caps. And so, we very much were extremely clear of the fact that we were from Houston, Texas.
JE: Did you ever get a football?
RN: We did. I am trying to remember . . . we did go at what was then Jeppesen Stadium and the Oilers initially played there for some time in the 1960s. And so, we were always very conscious of the fact that we were Houstonians.
JE: Do you remember building the Astrodome?
RN: I remember seeing it and I remember the structure, the iron work going up. I remember, of course, Judge Hofheinz at the time and just the names that would flash at me as a kid, and the whole concept of the 8th wonder of the world and the marketing aspect that went with that, and the whole theme of . . .
JE: Did you think they could do it?
RN: Well, again, I mean, we had had a guy say that we were going to send someone to the moon and bring them back. I mean, there wasn’t anything that we could not do.
JE: You went from Alvin Junior College to U of H?
RN: University of Houston. I think I was a fairly prototype University of Houston in that I was on the 5 or 6 year program to earn my bachelor’s degree. In the true mission statement of the Cullen family, that this was going to be the premier institution for the working men and women of Houston. It was always intended that it was, to a large degree, a commuter school that recognized the importance of higher education, number one, but two, that we were a city on the move and, of course, you know, my dad, when he came back from the service, he was a post World War II veteran. He returned from his 3 year tour out of the service and he took classes at University of Houston using some of his G.I. Bill benefits in the hopes of maybe one day being an engineer. But that was very typical for a lot of Houstonians that either studied the law, studied engineering, etc., teachers, etc., that post World War II universities saw a real shot in the arm of veterans.
JE: Did you work while you went to school?
RN: Oh, yes, always.
JE: Where did you work?
RN: Well, I worked a full-time job with the state and at other times, was teaching.
JE: What did you do at the state?
RN: Working for the state board of insurance way back when, inspecting buildings. When I left Alvin . . .
JE: You were still wet behind the ears and you were out inspecting buildings for the state? That concerns me. You were in ROTC then?
RN: Yes, that was really the thing that got me through to finish my degree. I had already enlisted in the Army Reserves and I had been in the Reserves over at the 75th Maneuver Area Command on OST.
JE: That was Vietnam.
RN: Actually, I enlisted, it was post Vietnam. It was 1980. And so, up until about 1983, I was in the Reserve Unit here in Houston and a recruiter came out there looking for ROTC candidates to attend the University of Houston, and I applied. I unfortunately did not make that cut but I had gone through the process, through the paces so much, they said, “Look, we want you to come anyway,” and they offered me an in-house ROTC scholarship that I was able to attend my final 2 years of college and complete my undergraduate degree.
JE: What is it in?
JE: How did you avoid that trap? When you graduated from ROTC, were you still in the Army?
RN: Well, I graduated from ROTC. I transferred over to the Texas National Guard. I transferred to a National Guard Armory which is a Houston Light Guard Armory building over on Caroline Street which now is, hopefully, is right behind Houston Community College. It was the original armory for the Houston militia which has a distinct history all the way to the Houston Light Guard.
JE: Is that the one Hispanics are trying to . . .
RN: That is correct. I think the Buffalo Soldiers may be acquiring the property now but I am not sure of its current circumstance. But the Houston Hispanic Forum was in that building for a while. It was a National Guard armory built in the model of up east, New York style armories with gun ports and the like. It is a fabulous structure and I am glad the mayor has worked hard to try to preserve that structure.
JE: O.K., so you went there. Then, where did you go?
RN: I was a young lieutenant there. I was serving in the Guard. I continued to work for the state up until about 1989 when I realized I was approaching 30 years old, I had not made my first million, I had not made my first movie, and that I needed to do something else in terms of my educational attainment. So, you know, I looked at law school, looked at the foreign service, looked at grad school and one day out at the University of Houston campus, there were some recruiters. My wife, then my girlfriend, Melissa, brought home an ad showing that these folks from the Kennedy School were going to be at the U of H campus. And so, I said, that is what I want to do. And so, I went and met the recruiters and did everything I could to get in to the Kennedy School and was accepted and attended the Kennedy School in 1989, and graduated in 1990 with my master’s in public administration.
JE: Did Melissa go with you?
RN: A few times, she visited but no, she was here and I was there.
JE: O.K., first of all, you were in the Texas Guard and you were in the regular Army?
RN: No, actually, I never was an active duty soldier until I was called up to serve in Afghanistan. I served in the Reserves and then I transferred over to the Guard and have served in the Guard since when I was . . .
JE: And then, when you became a lieutenant, you were a lieutenant in the Guard?
RN: That is correct. I have been in the Guard since 1984.
JE: Why Harvard?
RN: I thought it was cool and I thought that the John F. Kennedy School, obviously, the reputation of the institution . . . a lot of folks that I had admired had attended there, people like Henry Cisneros and other people had attended the Kennedy School, and I thought that, you know, having that . . . I have never had a college experience where you are actually away, when you did not have to work and so forth. And so, I retired from my job with the state, cashed in that retirement money to go to grad school. And so, it was a fantastic experience.
JE: Did you live in Cambridge?
RN: I lived in Cambridge. Cronkite Hall. And so, enjoyed mass transit and walked everywhere we went.
JE: Boston is a great city.
RN: It is fantastic.
JE: O.K., did you consider staying in that part of the country?
RN: Never. You know, Texas is our home, Houston in particular. I am a flatlander. I was born below sea level. I very much had always intended to come home.
JE: O.K., so you came back and what did you do?
RN: Well, I came back and I thought that, you know, the world was my oyster and, of course, everyone would just, you know, knock down the doors wanting me to go to work for them, which was not the case. I still keep my humility file of my letters and so, for the next year, I taught school for HISD. I was an ROTC instructor at Waltrip High School and at Austin High School. And then at night, I would teach a government class for Houston Community College at the Milby campus. It was in Milby campus before the southeast campus was built. So, I did that for one year and then the following year, I got a job with Communities In Schools working at some different campuses of Communities In Schools.
JE: What is Communities In Schools?
RN: It is a nonprofit organization that is a dropout reduction organizations about trying to make interventions in kids’ lives to keep them in school, and they are involved in HISD schools across the state of Texas. So, that is what we did until . . . we ran for the legislature in 1992, as you will remember. We were not successful.
JE: Who did you run against?
RN: It was an open seat after redistricting. They had kind of cut up a district out in . . . it was a new district, and there were a bunch of folks in the field in 1992 that ran and Deanna Davila was the winner of that contest and served for 3 terms before she stepped down.
JE: When were you elected, then?
RN: In 1998.
JE: And it was that seat?
RN: It was that seat. District 145.
JE: Why did you run in the first place?
RN: Well, I think that, in the first place, in 1992, you know, I thought that . . . I always was raised about the way you serve yourself is by serving others and so I was particularly interested in the elected side of the House when I saw people out in the neighborhood like Victor Trevino and other people that I thought were very sincere in their motives about helping folks, and I thought to myself, you know, I can do that and I find that very rewarding. And so, I was always told to, after I had come from graduate school, I wanted to be involved in government relations and I enjoyed politics and enjoyed that whole piece of our environment, political process. And folks would say on the corporate side, “Well, you don’t have any Austin experience, you don’t have any Washington experience.” So, I said, well, if I don’t have those experiences, maybe the best way to get them is to run for office. I was very committed to that race but, you know, we learned a lot of lessons.
JE: When did you and Melissa get married?
RN: We got married in 1991 on Valentine’s Day. The Guard unit that I was with at the time, we frankly were not sure whether or not I was going to get called up for the first Gulf War. I will never forget, I was at Houston Community College campus when I came out of class and I looked up on the screen and our intervention in Iraq at that time, in the Gulf War of 1991, the night that rockets started flying, had begun. And, you know, Melissa and I thought that I was going to be deployed. And so, within 1 weeks’ time, she went and got a dress and her dad is a minister and we went to her parents’ house and we got married.
JE: That was the night of Ann Richards’ inauguration.
RN: Is that right? Wow!
JE: But you had gone to work for Centerpoint?
RN: I went to work for Centerpoint after I had worked for John Whitmire. I ran for office in 1992, I lost, and then after that primary season, I went to work for John Whitmire. So, I was in his office during the Special Session on Public School Finance the fall of 1992 and then the regular session in 1993 when John was responsible for the rewrite of the penal code. And then, after that, those legislative sessions, then I was hired by then Houston Industries. At the time, Don Jordan was the chairman and CEO of Houston Industries, the holding company of Houston Lighting & Power, and I was fortunate enough to get a job in the government relations department. They gave me an opportunity and so it has been good to me ever since.
JE: Do you still work there?
RN: I work for Centerpoint Energy. I am on leave of absence obviously for a year for this run.
JE: O.K., so you went to the legislature in 1999.
RN: That was my first session.
JE: What legislation in your whole career is the best thing you ever did?
RN: Well, I would have to say really the passage of House Bill 1403 which is what would be know, I guess locally as the Dream Act, which has been discussed in Washington for some time. Prior to 911, we were able to build a coalition of business folks and advocates and educators recognizing that we had a lot of kids and a lot of students in our schools who had been here all their lives but through no fault of their own, were still trying to wade through the immigration process. They were valedictorians, they were top kids but when they wanted to attend colleges and universities, they were faced with paying international school rates and so it put higher education out of reach for a whole bunch of our students here in the state of Texas. And so, we passed, by a vote of about 138 to 2, what is known as the Texas Dream Act, that lets these students attend higher education and pay in-state tuition rates. Eight other states followed the state of Texas to include Arkansas that Governor Huckabee signed into law to have similar legislation and it has continued to be debated in Washington, that hopefully one day, they will have a federal law that mirrors what we did here in Texas, but we were the first and as a result of that, today, higher education coordinating board says the number is around 10,000 kids that have been able to go to school as a result of that legislation. So, you know, in some circles, I suspect I would be attacked for that but I don’t see how somebody from this city that is about opening doors and creating opportunities for the future would ever shy away from the fact that they had 10,000 kids go on to college.
JE: I think you will find out.
RN: Don’t I know!
JE: In the legislature and from 1991 to 1999, who was mayor in 1999?
RN: Mayor Brown.
JE: Who did you work with in Houston or who in Houston tried to work with you to get legislation passed?
RN: Well, I always worked really well with the whole Houston delegation. You know, regardless of party affiliation, I think that we had a pretty good way of advocating for our city and finding ways to build coalitions based on issues and separating the partisan piece out of it but, you know, as a whole, I had built a lot of relationships with the members through my work with Centerpoint. And so, we had had those bonds of friendship with a whole host of members.
JE: How did the delegation hold up after you all walked to Oklahoma to keep the redistricting bill from passing?
RN: Well, it was a very contentious time. I think that there were a lot of hurt feelings and relationships strained as a result of that political move on the part of Democrats in the state. It was an act of last resort that felt needed to occur to stand up for voting rights in the state and not overturn the elections like they do in Third World countries but nonetheless, I think that those relationships had to be restored over time.
JE: Do you think they have been?
RN: I am not sure. I think, to a large degree, yes, but it is just disappointing in the state that we have had the infusion of so much partisanship.
JE: Going back and thinking of the Houston of your childhood that you remember and the Houston now, what is the difference?
RN: I think it is bigger obviously, a lot more people, a lot more congestion. I think that Houston was smaller in a different way. It was smaller in the relationships. You could, through association, connect the dots by a couple of names or if you said, “Oh, you went to St. Thomas High School, well, did you know the such and such family?” Or “You went to Reagan High School. Did you know the such and such family?” and I think a lot of that familiarity has dissipated to a large degree. I see that having changed a lot. But, I also see a resurgence of people, not just because of the rising gas prices but of folks coming back in to the city and the development of things that are occurring which means that you are going to have to say hello to people on the street in the morning. You are not going to be so inoculated in suburbia America anymore to not have those relationships with folks that you live with and around. And so, I think that is a good thing.
JE: Where do you live now?
RN: We live in Eastwood right over by Austin High School, by the Mandola Sandwich Shop. I gave him a plug. By the Houston Waterworks Building where Finger’s Furniture is. And, you know, Melissa and I, as fate would have it, in 1991, were faced with a dilemma, a life decision dilemma, and it was that we were approved for 2 houses on the same day that we had made offers on to live. One of the homes was way out off 290 in one of the creeks or Cys or something or other, which was a completely different environment, and the other home was in the old Eastwood neighborhood, a home that was built in 1936, and we would be the third owner of that house. A family by the name of Shiro were the previous owners and so, we were at that fork in the road. What is going to be our life for our children and for us and what are we going to do? We decided to be urbs versus burbs.
JE: And how many children do you have?
RN: We have an 11-year-old and we have a 24-year-old. I have the 24 from the previous marriage.
JE: Does the 11-year the-old love you or hate you for your decision?
RN: Oh, I think he loves it very much. We have a very . . . it is a different kind of environment in that, you know, when he and I go bike riding, we are able to go catch the hike and bike trail and ride our bikes over off of Harrisburg to get a raspa or nilote and he is familiar with a completely different flavor of our city that is unique and beautiful.
JE: Could he do that by himself?
RN: I don’t know. His mother would not let him do it by himself, nor would I. But I believe he could, yes. The answer is yes he could.
JE: But he couldn’t . . .
JE: Are there kids in your neighborhood?
RN: There are some kids in our neighborhood. Now, you know, we have friends that live in Idlewood and different . . . based on his school mates, he attends a University of Houston charter school and next year, will attend the Rice School over off of Braeswood, so, you know, his friends then tend to be . . . there are some in the neighborhood, but now tend to be those that he goes to school with or that he is in Boy Scouts with and those kinds of things.
JE: Who are some of the community leaders that you have worked with over the years?
RN: Well, it is a long list. I would tell you that folks like Howard Jefferson and Mamie Garcia and Johnny Mata and, you know, as I a mentioned earlier, Victor Trevino. Just a whole host of folks, I think, that I have had the privilege of knowing and working with and they have been mentors to me in terms of dedication to the service and trying to do the right thing.
JE: Is Bill White the first mayor that you have been friendly with?
RN: No, I actually worked real hard on Mayor Brown’s campaign and, as some degree, on Mayor Lanier’s campaign, more as just a soldier in Mayor Lanier’s campaign but then when it came to Mayor Brown’s campaign, took a much more active role in his first race, which would have been in 1997, I want to say, November of 1997. And then, as well, you know, of course, I have been fortunate enough to have a longstanding friendship with the Whites for 20 years, 20 some odd years.
JE: How did you meet them?
RN: Bill – we actually met at some different political functions initially. I had returned from graduate school and, of course, Bill was very much involved in the 1990s with a host of political campaigns and so forth, so we met through that environment.
JE: Did you have an actual function in his mayoral campaign?
RN: Not a job title, if you will, but frequently would do things on the Spanish language TV and things of that nature in support of his candidacy.
JE: Are you a money raiser?
RN: No, not really. I am trying to be now. Did you bring your checkbook, by the way?
JE: In traveling the state in your campaign for the democratic nomination to the United States Senate and now looking towards the general election where you are going to run against the incumbent, John Cornin, what reaction do you get when you tell people you are from Houston?
RN: Interesting. I think that people look at Houston, number one as a very large city, very congested, not close knit, if you will, folks in a hurry kind of thing, but at the same time, I think they recognize Houston especially after our city and our community’s involvement in reaction to the Katrina fiasco and crisis and so forth of how this city showed its medal, its heart. I think that people have a different view of Houston and understand its pride and I just think they have a very positive view of Houston other than those other distractions.
JE: Do you, really? I think that is the difference than what perhaps is true. O.K., you were in the legislature and you got called up to go to Afghanistan?
JE: What was your reaction to that?
RN: I was wondering which wrong vote did I cast that precipitated my call up? But seriously, I think my initial reaction was oh gosh, I’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure that Melissa and our family is O.K. It really opened my eyes to what families go through in making sure all your titles and deeds and wills and bills and on and on and on are all in order.
JE: What did you do in Afghanistan?
RN: In the first part of the tour, trained Afghan soldiers. We actually trained basic trainees from villages all across the country. We were in Kabul military training center and so that is what we did for the first part of my tour, and the last part of the tour, I was actually commander of that training center until we left in the summer of 2005.
JE: O.K., The summer of 2005. You got back in time to finish the session?
RN: No. Melissa, as you will recall, served in our place the entire 2005 legislative session. I actually returned, I want to say somewhere in the neighborhood of the first or second week of August. It was just before Katrina struck.
JE: O.K., that would be my next question – you had only been back a week or two the? What had you done to make Bill mad?
RN: Well, Melissa and I were calling the Whites, and I continue to tell this story and I know Bill is going to get tired of hearing it but, you know, trying to arrange dinner. And so, in the meantime, he eventually called me back and I thought he was calling me back so we could decide on where we were going to meet for dinner, what kind of food we were going to eat – Chinese or Italian or Mexican, whatever – he says, “We have this thing that has occurred. We have opened up the Astrodome. We want to see if . . . what do you think,” and whatnot. I said, “This is a real logistical mission. I mean, you are going to have to have a lot of moving parts and are going to have to really muster quickly,” and I had just returned from having commanded the Kabul military training center where we were building walls and building shelters and a water treatment plant and electricity plant and security and on and on and on. And so, when I came to the meeting, I attended the meeting the following morning at 8 o’clock between he and Judge Eckels. It was the agreement that Rick and Terrence Fontain would take on the duty at the George R. Brown Convention Center. We were prepared to receive guests that were coming off the buses wet and cold and with all their worldly possessions in their arms. And so, for the next 4-1/2 weeks or so, that is where we lived and that is what we did.
JE: Were you paid for it?
JE: It was considered a success certainly.
RN: Well, there is a secret to that.
JE: What is it?
RN: Well, the secret is, is that you have the finest Houstonians around, whether they are in the area of private industry, faith-based organizations, government nonprofits, and you circle them all and you put them in a room – they all go off and do their specialty lanes that they are good at. They achieve great things and have great success. And then, you take all the credit! But one of the other lessons, I mean, from that experience, and I don’t know how anybody ever, that participated . . . I have never been more proud of our city . . . that participated in that effort, how they walk away the same person, to see the magnitude of the grace, it just demonstrates what our capacity or what we are capable of when we have the will, and there is nothing that we cannot do or overcome. Phenomenal life changing experience. At the same time, I don’t call Bill for dinner anymore!
JE: Well, as I recall, you had trouble getting rid of a lot of people. They liked it so well, they just wanted to stay.
RN: They called it the George R. Brown Hilton. But we made it extremely clear, abundantly clear, that this was a temporary facility and we met all of our deadlines for giving them their choices and finding folks a place to stay and finding their family or reintegrating in whatever way they needed. And so, again, it is a salute to the people of the city of Houston, what a phenomenal job!
JE: What would you tell somebody who was thinking about moving to Houston?
RN: I would say that, you know, if you have the will and the right attitude, you can make it here. There is just an abundance of opportunity for folks that want to roll up their sleeves and do whatever it is that they truly want to do, whatever their dreams are - you can achieve them here.
JE: In your adult lifetime, the city has changed to the point that I think the Texas Medical Center now has more employees and is considered a bigger part of the economy, even than energy, so we have gone from just almost a totally energy-based town to at least the medical profession and all its ramifications. That is probably not a think that the average Houstonian is aware of; as a member of the Texas House and a candidate for the U.S. Senate, you probably are. What do you think it means?
RN: Well, I think it means opportunity. I think it means that I think we learned here, especially in the city of Houston and the oil bust of the 1980s, that we cannot be a single entity dependent economy; that we have to be diversified. And so, in the area of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and continue as well in the energy field, in the area of natural gas that we have the capacity here in the state of Texas that is abundant, and even still in NASA . . . people do not connect the dots that, you know, whether it is cellular phones or a whole host of things that we enjoy today are by-products of the research and development that occurred at NASA. We the have a great institution here that needs to be a tier one institution for research and development and, in spite of that, we still have great things going on there as well as at Rice University and so, I would just say that the best is yet to come, and we here in Houston have to be at the forefront or in front of the changing dynamics, the changing demographics, and the entrepreneurship and the spirit that we have always enjoyed here in Houston I have faith in. And I think the best is still yet to come.
JE: You are running as a Democrat right now against a Republican and Texas has been a so-called Republican state since they started the move in 1978, I guess up, and then made the great leap of faith a few years after that. I cannot even remember exactly when but certainly with the election of Reagan in 1980, and now, all statewide offices a lot more than that are held by Republicans, with the Republican speaker of the Texas House and a Republican lieutenant governor presiding over the Senate, and you are running as a Democrat but what changes do you see in this state that encourage you and make you willing to do this?
RN: Well, I think that Texans have always been the very independent. We are the lone star state. We have been a nation unto ourselves and what we recognize and what we have always stood for is that when our government is off track or going in the wrong direction, we always stand up, and that is kind of inherent in our fiber, in our souls as Texans. And so, I think that what I have witnessed across the state now is that people do care about accountability and, yes, competence does matter, and they are not so much enmeshed in these labels – Liberal Conservative, Democrat, Republican – they want their government to work. I mean, they want to know that if a city gets wiped off the face of the map in the United States, that the government is competent enough to go in there and help restore the physical side, the emotional side and the recovery effort of what occurred. They want to know that the government is competent enough that you or I could get on an airplane and the airplane is going to be safe. They want to know that they can go to the store and buy a toy for their kid and the child is not going to be poisoned. And they want to know that they can drive across a bridge and the bridge is not going to fall down. And I think that there is a point of accountability, a day of reckoning, if you will, that we have come to; that middle class Texans are getting squeezed. Each and every day, they are having to make choices between food or gas, and so these labels and these couching of these concepts – you know, fool me once, shame on you – we are the fool me twice side now. And these terms and clichés and whatnot and labels I don’t think mean much anymore. People want folks of experience and of competence and that will get the job done and stand up and fight for them.
JE: Are you campaigning, is part of your campaign making people aware of what you did during Katrina?
RN: Yes, I mean, that is part of our website and part of our biographic material and I am very proud of having had the opportunity to serve with so many great Houstonians in accomplishing what we did collectively.
JE: When you were growing up, Rick, did you think of yourself as Hispanic?
RN: I don’t think so. It never occurred to me. You know, I never knew. My grandfather had a Mexican restaurant over on Cavalcade. It was the garage of his house and it was called Santa Fe on Cavalcade, on Sebur (sp?) Street and Cavalcade and when we would go visit my grandparents, of course, we would hang out in the kitchen and steal pickles out of the pickle jar and do those kinds of things while our grandmother made us a hamburger or whatever. I do not think it ever occurred to us that . . . we were just Americans.
RN: Texans, especially. I don’t think that ever occurred to us.
JE: Well, when did you decide you were Hispanic?
RN: I think I have always considered myself an American and a Texan and I have a unique culture that I am fortunate to have heritage of, just like so many other Houstonians, whether they are a very proud Italian family or Greek or Czech or whatever.
JE: Yes, but Italians and Greeks and Czechoslovakians are not a political force in Texas.
RN: I don’t know . . . if you asked them, they would probably disagree but, you know, I just look at . . . I look at more ways of why we are the same than try to figure out how we hyphenate and slice each other. I do recall the first time in the third grade someone called me an ethnic name as if it were a pejorative, and then it occurred to me –I went home and I said, “Mom, what does Mexican . . . why did someone say that with anger?” as a child in the third grade? And it occurred to me that that was a learned thing on that child’s part. I mean, he was as innocent as I was but I do recognize that, you know, Houston is an international city and I think that is because of our tolerance and our welcoming of folks . . . you mentioned the Medical Center . . . folks from all over the world, that we are a great city. And so, I think we will continue that way.
JE: You are running for the Senate and you are running, at least to some degree, as a Houstonian, and you are using your experience at the George R. Brown and during Katrina as part of your campaign, if you will. Houstonians have not had really terrific success in being elected at statewide races. Some exceptions . . . right now, you know, in recent decades, the lieutenant governor’s office, I guess, because Bill Hobby was a native Houstonian and David Dewhurst, at least, the current lieutenant governor, is a Houstonian. I mean, he is considered a Houstonian – I don’t know if he was born here or not . . .
RN: Well, we did have a Hobby governor, too, I believe.
JE: Well, yes, but he succeeded and then Mark White was the . . . when you get down to it, there has just not been a lot of . . . and there have been people who have seriously considered it and come to the realization that no, it just wasn’t going to work, i.e., Louie Welch, the former mayor who considered running for statewide office. That cratered quickly.
RN: Well, it is time for a change.
JE: And you just said that there is only one guy from Houston who has ever been senator. I mean, that is kind of remarkable when you think about it in terms of Houston being the 3rd largest city; that Houston politics have little to do with statewide politics, unlike, say, New York where a New York mayor can presume to go from New York mayor to the presidency. I mean, they have had a bunch who tried it anyway. Why is that, do you think? I asked you earlier about how you are received as a Houstonian but, I mean, most people I encounter around this state, they say things like, they don’t want to go to Houston and fight the traffic, it is polluted and all this stuff. Is it a factor in your race pro or against?
RN: Well, I hope so. I hope so because of the population that the Greater Houston Area represents. I certainly hope so, that folks would be more familiar with our service, our commitment to service, our ability to get things done, and so in that regard, I hope it is a factor. I am a proud Houstonian. And, you know, as time goes by, I think that it will become a bigger factor because of just the demographic trends of where people are living. We continue to see exodus from different parts of the state inside the triangle, if you will, of the state. Everybody who comes east of I-35. And I don’t know, perhaps, you know, Dr. Murray and the Dr. Kleinbergs, Dr. Murdochs may or may not agree but I think they would confirm that those have been census patterns where the metroplex . . .
JE: Oh, yes, east of 35 is the state.
RN: Right, and I think that will continue. So, I think that how one then defines their “base” is important. And so, I would hope that the Greater Houston area certainly would embrace me as their hometown son.
JE: Well, but you can’t win on Houston alone or Harris County.
RN: No, of course not. It is a big state.
JE: Going back to your not considering yourself as Hispanic as a child and the Hispanic political force, if you will, in Houston has been an interesting thing to watch over the years. It kind of started out with Vinny Reyes . . .
RN: Let me just say something real quick before we go with that because I think this is interesting. It is very important dialog about how people perceive themselves. I think you are Hispanic. I mean, because when we say someone is Hispanic or not Hispanic, what does that mean? And, to some people, it means a lot of different things. I always like to say that I had a wise person once tell me that what is the difference between Hispanics and he would say, “The difference between Hispanics, es el color del frijoles.” The difference between Hispanics is the color of the bean. You have navy bean Hispanics and pinto bean Hispanics and black bean Hispanics, you have all shapes and sizes and colors of Hispanics. So, I think everybody . . . because it is more of a spirit, I think . . . when we talk about issues of love and of family and of culture and things like that, I just don’t distinguish it different from an American or anything else.
JE: Well, let me say this and my opinion is really of no value to this effort but . . .
RN: Of course it is.
JE: But I have always had a terrific problem as a political writer in Houston with people who want to identify the Hispanic vote, ergo that is how all Hispanics vote.
RN: Monolithic kind of . . .
JE: And I have always insisted that you absolutely cannot do that because the few areas of town that I consider absolutely probably Hispanic, at least everybody has a Hispanic name and probably, you know, Hispanic heritage, are what I have always referred to as barrio precincts and that is just simply not representative of the Hispanic population because the Hispanic population is all over town and you cannot rate middle class Hispanics and upper class Hispanics and all those other groups that you assign to Anglos. But there is nonetheless a group of people who do consider themselves Hispanic population politicians and it started with Benny Reyes and Flumencio Reyes and Leonel Castillo in the early 1970s, the late 1960s, early 1970s. And goes up to right now, Mario Gomez has got the Hispanic Senate seat. That is how it is portrayed. So, I understand exactly what you are saying but that does not mean that there aren’t people who want to peruse Hispanic pressures, all the way from Johnny Mata and LULAC to people who run for office. Now, my question is, after all this long thing, have you ever been, in any way, a part of that? I mean, do you do Hispanic politics?
RN: Well, you know, it is interesting – I think back to 1911, someone with a Hispanic surname actually ran for the mayor of Houston at one time and as you described, there is a gentleman by the name of Lauro Cruz that was on the HISD school board and was the first state representative when we had the at large system I the late 1960s. But having said that, I think that everything in its proper context, from those times in the 1970s, whether post Vietnam and actually through Jimmy Carter and his census, where, in 1980, we see the first use of the word Hispanic as a category for self identification and, you know, I mean, that is a whole another discussion of is that value added or is that separating who we are as Americans and that is a whole other discussion. But I will tell you, I have always been about the politics of standing up for folks that I thought needed a voice. If and the you do take some of these categories and you look at the socio-economic dynamics, you look at the educational attainment, you look at wages, you look at college completion, college enrollment, you look at incarceration, you look at a lot of different things and there is a pattern, they you say, “Hey, wait a minute. As a policymaker, we have interventions that we need to address here,” and then you couple that with fertility raised demographic changes, etc., and you say, do you know what, if we don’t do something about the dropout rate, we are going to become a welfare state. If we don’t do something about health insurance, we are going to have a lot of sick people with rising health costs. And so, as circumstances would have that, that does bring forth certain populations of Houston and our society. And the real question is whether you do the policy or you don’t, why aren’t we all doing that so that we are not eating our seed corn?
JE: Well, at the moment that we are taping this, there is certainly a movement particularly within the Republican Party of people who are maniacal on the subject of immigration.
RN: I like that word.
JE: Well, I think it is a fair description. And, you know, to the extent that the United States government is actually supposedly building a fence across the border of Mexico to keep the people from coming over into this country. The people who want to deport every non-documented person in the country, regardless of what effect it would have on the economy which would just be enormous, you cannot deny this. I mean, this is a reality that is going on.
RN: I have seen focus groups where they are asking, O.K., despite my 27 years of service, serving in the combat zone, despite 4 generations, is he American or is he Mexican American? Where do his loyalties lie? That is a really . . . it is an interesting revealing of how I think it is unfortunate in some political sects of whether it is on hate radio programs or how these fears and intolerances are fed because it is like that kid in the 3rd grade. That is learned. That is not genetic. So, it is interesting. I mean, we are at a point in time where I think that fundamentally, people want to feel safe. They want to feel safe in their job. They want to feel safe that they are not going to lose their job, they are not going to lose their home, that someone isn’t going to do harm to them, they want to make sure that their government keeps them safe. Now, having said that, if our economy is in the ditch, we are stuck in the quicksand in the Middle East, prices are going through the roof, etc., etc., all the things that we see today, what is unfortunate as a strategy of political practitioners . . . O.K., how can I play to that fear of your safety and who is to blame for it and how do I punch those emotional buttons to make sure that I maintain power or I acquire more power? And I think that is not the Houston spirit. That is not the Houston spirit. We are not a community that is intolerant and that is about trying to evoke fear for personal gain, in my view. That is now how I was raised in Houston, my values and principles. And I think generally that is true. But there are those that, for political gain, will exercise that and we will continue to see it and I think that is unfortunate.
JE: How do you campaign against it?
RN: I think you campaign against it by speaking the truth and being yourself and at the end of the day, those Texans that you are able to reason with, you do and those people that are not going to be for you anyway, who never were, who look for a reason to confirm their own biases, then if you cannot change their minds, you just pray a lot that hopefully you will change their hearts because that is all you can do.
JE: Your wife, Melissa, is a now member of the Houston City Council. How active were you in that campaign?
RN: Oh, not as much as I would have liked to have been. We were in the session and so, you know, she had been around the block a few times both having served as a member of the Texas House when I was deployed overseas and also having our first 2 dates, our first 2 dates were at a political function. We went to a warehouse for Victor Trevino’s campaign back when you still silk screened signs and one night, we painted red and the dried overnight and the next night, we came back and we painted blue. And that was our first 2 dates.
JE: You were a big spender, weren’t you? Is she a native Houstonian?
RN: She is not but she got here as fast as she could. She was raised in Austin and then when her father took a job with the Houston Independent School District as one of its directors for the disabled at HISD, then the family moved here in probably 1970 or so.
JE: If you get elected to the United States Senate, is she going to stay here?
RN: I think at the outset, I believe that she would . . . we are going to have to cross that bridge when we get to it, frankly. We have kind of talked around it quite a bit but I suspect we are going to have to cross that bridge when we get to it. But I do know this: I love our house in Eastwood and we are not going anywhere.
JE: I think that is a good line to end it on. Thank you very much.
RN: You bet, Jane.