Hispanic enough

Mexican-American leadership in Dallas has pretty much resolved the question of whether the city's new city manager, Ted Benavides, is Hispanic. It has been decided that he is.

The debate now has moved more to the question of how Hispanic. Nobody knows.
And some people are even beginning to ask whether the ethnicity of a city manager makes much difference in a town where the mayor runs the show anyway.

Good question.
When Benavides, 47, was named city manager by unanimous vote of the city council on June 29, the first thing people in the Mexican-American community noticed was that nobody knew him, even though he had worked at City Hall for 18 years.

"The guy had an opportunity during those 18 years to come out and be among us, and for whatever reason he chose not to," says Oak Cliff activist Luis Sepulveda.

The next thing they noticed was that he couldn't speak Spanish. In a city where 21 percent of the populace is Hispanic--the vast majority with roots in Mexico--speaking or not speaking Spanish is significant.

But by the time Benavides' appointment was a week old, most Mexican-American leaders were ready to give him a break on the twin issues of Ted who? and language.

During the years Benavides worked for the city of Dallas, before leaving to become Denton city manager in 1996, he met, interacted with, and got to know many key players in the Hispanic community, according to Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Steve Salazar.

"There probably are a lot of people who don't know him," Salazar says, "but in terms of council members and leaders in the different districts around the city, he is well known."

And Salazar says the language thing in the Mexican-American community is an issue on which many people find themselves living in glass houses.

"He actually does speak Spanish," Salazar said. "I had a conversation the other day with him in Spanish. It's broken, but he speaks it, and there are a lot of Hispanics in Dallas who speak only a very broken Spanish."

The more interesting question, many leaders and activists say, is whether the new city manager's ethnicity makes any difference.

City council member John Loza, who is Hispanic, appointed Rick Leggio, who is not, to the Plan Commission. Leggio says it's all irrelevant because the city manager, no matter what his or her ethnicity, is going to dance to the tune of the mayor.

"I don't care who you put in there," Leggio says. "The way it is with Ron Kirk being able to get 12 votes for A or 12 votes for not-A, 60 days from now it's all the same. Who cares? Whoever has the job will do what Ron Kirk wants him to do."

Councilman Loza is more circumspect. He argues that the city manager's position itself is significant and that it will mean something to people of Mexican descent to look at the person in the job and see one of their own.

"Let's make no mistake about it," Loza said, "the city manager is the CEO of city government. The mayor may be able to get the votes on any given day, but it's still the city manager who runs the city on a daily basis.

"There is something to be said for people in the Hispanic community to look up and see someone from their own background who has achieved a very significant position of power."

Longtime Mexican-American activist and community leader Guillermo Galindo says you can only go so far with the argument that the office of city manager itself is a kind of public monument for people to salute.

"The question is whether he is going to be innovative and a strong personality that can stand up to the mayor, or is he going to be a company man, a yes-man?" Galindo says.

On that key question, the matter of Benavides' lack of personal contact with the community during his 18-year tenure in Dallas becomes thornier. Was he little known because he is, in fact, a "company man" bureaucrat who shied away from community contact on purpose?

State Rep. Domingo Garcia points to what he says is a pattern, not just in the Mexican-American community but in the African-American community as well, of community-based leaders who can't get past second base with the white power structure.

"You look at the recent federal judgeship appointment," says Garcia, a lawyer. "The candidates who were put forward who were too closely tied to the black community and to John Wiley Price were unacceptable. So it goes to [former city attorney] Sam Lindsay, who doesn't have those ties.

"If you are too closely connected to your own ethnic group, that makes you suspicious to the Anglo power brokers," Garcia says, "so you wind up with people who are not so much Latino but Latino Lite or African-American Lite.

"That's really what Ron Kirk is."
Even at that--even if Benavides only gets a grade of Latino Lite--Garcia still thinks having him there is better for Mexican-American people than having a French guy or some direct descendant of Davy Crockett.

"You're still going to have a sensitivity there that you wouldn't have with one of those other groups. Is he going to go out and eat menudo on Saturday morning with the people in the barrio? I don't think so.

"But the fact that he grew up in a predominantly Hispanic community and went to a Hispanic community college makes a difference."

Benavides grew up in Corpus Christi, where he attended Del Mar College, a mainly Hispanic school with a good name nationally among Hispanic leaders. Benavides later earned a master's degree in public administration at Southern Methodist University.

He says that what counts on the ethnic front is where you grew up, who your parents were, who your friends were and are.

"I am Hispanic," Benavides says. "I grew up in Corpus Christi in a Hispanic neighborhood. I do speak Spanish. It's not good. But I plan to get better at it."

He doesn't have any trouble with the impression that he was always more or less an inside guy at City Hall when he was here, rather than a community guy. His gradual career progress from budget analyst to assistant city manager in Dallas was an inside trek through the ranks of bureaucracy.

"When I was in Dallas, I was kind of an insider," Benavides says. "I did have some contact with the community, and I do know most of the Hispanic leaders in Dallas. But I wasn't out there that much."

Now he will be. No matter what anyone says, the job of city manager is always intensely political and high-profile.

Asked the question Rick Leggio had posed--If the mayor calls the tune, what difference does Benavides make anyway?--Benavides gave a suitably political answer:

"I think if the city of Dallas is going to be successful, every council member needs to do a good job, and the city manager needs to do a good job. We need to be hitting on all cylinders if we want to be a great city."

It's not at all clear what that means, but, in terms of Benavides' ability to handle the political limelight, that may be a good thing.

Adelfa Callejo, who is the real maven of Mexican-American politics in Dallas, says having a city manager with a Spanish surname is an unmitigated very good thing, and for her it all has to do with the Mexican-American kids who will see him on television or in person.

"These children must be able to dream and imagine that they can achieve the highest positions," she said. "Having Ted as city manager is exactly the kind of role model you need."

For her money, she says Mayor Ron Kirk's decision to push Benavides as city manager is the best thing that has happened for the city in a long time.

"This act by Ron Kirk will do more to repair race relations between blacks and Hispanics in this city than anything else that has been said or done.


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