By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
When it was over, the August meeting of the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce's board of directors appeared to have come and gone as if it were just another blasé gathering and there was no trouble whatsoever brewing in the nonprofit organization's waters.
Shortly after 6 p.m., chairman Jim Richardson Gonzales assumed his position behind the lectern, causing a hush to fall over the board members casually gathered around a conference table inside the Chamber's Oak Lawn offices. Seated at one end of the table was board member Adelfa Callejo, a Dallas attorney and Hispanic political stalwart who has been active in the Chamber for four decades. Next to her was a new face--Brenda Reyes, a small-business owner who in July, with Callejo's backing, was hired as the Chamber's new president--a full-time job that carries with it considerable clout within Hispanic business and political circles.
Reyes' presence at the head of the table reflects her recent and, in some political circles, roundly applauded return to the city's political landscape, from which she abruptly disappeared in 1997 after losing a bitterly contested race against John Loza for the District 2 seat on the Dallas City Council. On this Wednesday evening, Reyes and her new colleagues were all smiles as they turned their attention to the speaker.
Gonzales, a businessman who has served on the board for three years, started things off with an unusual request: He asked that the group meet behind closed doors in executive session. The audience--a reporter and Chamber employee Peter Borling--were escorted into a neighboring room, and the boardroom door was shut.
When the door was opened 20 minutes later, Gonzales was gone and a new man had assumed Gonzales' position behind the lectern. For the next hour, this man stiffly moved through the agenda, introducing various action items, which the board members hastily adopted with little or no debate. Curiously, they kept referring to the man as "chairman." Inside an hour, all their business was complete, and the board members once again retreated behind closed doors.
Out in the hallway, Borling, who handles the Chamber's finances and recently served as its interim president, shrugs his shoulders when asked what happened to Gonzales.
"He probably had to go somewhere," Borling says.
Gonzales did go somewhere. Specifically, he went away from the Chamber. For good.
That night, Gonzales submitted a two-page letter of resignation, making him the fifth board member to quit the 19-member body in recent weeks. In his letter, Gonzales complained that a small minority of the board "hastily" and "erroneously" subverted the Chamber's bylaws in a power grab. This, Gonzales wrote, was done at the exclusion of the full board and to the future determent of the Chamber itself, if not the Hispanic business community.
He didn't name names, but Gonzales also noted that he could no longer stomach the gossip mongering on the part of some "unscrupulous" board members whose words were "bordering on character assassination." Gonzales' resignation caught his colleagues by surprise and, in the process, signified that the controversy brewing inside the Chamber for weeks had finally boiled over.
At the heart of the dispute is Reyes, who resurfaced on the city's political waters in December when Loza surprised his city council colleagues by successfully nominating her to represent Hispanic interests on the DART board of directors. Despite that high-profile position, some Chamber board members say they resigned, in part, because of Reyes' background: Her literally rough-and-tumble past includes allegations that she lied about her residency during the 1997 council race and an arrest for fighting. Worse, they say, are Reyes' business credentials, which include a string of debts, a recent bankruptcy petition and a lawsuit she filed against the city of Dallas after it terminated a contract she had won to install and maintain a computer system that employees complained never worked.
To some, the latter subject is particularly unnerving because the Chamber, along with the city's other ethnic chambers, functions as a conduit through which hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts targeted for minorities flow every year. As president, Reyes now has considerable influence in directing the flow of those dollars to Hispanic businesses and, in the process, new ability to cultivate loyal supporters. Once those contracts are awarded, however, the Chamber also functions as a resource to help entrepreneurs learn how to successfully carry out those contracts. Today, Reyes' critics wonder how she can do that, in light of her own rocky financial and political history.
More troubling than Reyes' background, her critics say, is the way in which a tiny fraction of the board "forced" her into the job--allegedly behind the backs of the other board members. To them, the move symbolizes the unwillingness on the part of old powers on the board, represented chiefly by Callejo, to relinquish their control over the Chamber to newly active Hispanics, who are anxious to play a bigger role in helping young Hispanic entrepreneurs realize their economic potential.
On its surface, the controversy looks like petty, insider politics at its ugly worst, brought on by a curious new alliance between the Callejo-backed Reyes and their one-time rival, Loza. But the trouble may be a sign of bigger battles to come as Dallas Hispanics, the city's largest ethnic group, begin to realize the economic and political clout they wield. A big question that remains is, how nasty will the battles be? In his resignation letter, Gonzales offered a subtle suggestion that the Chamber representatives must now decide whether they want to draw road maps to the future or battle lines over the present.