Just as the sun was setting, about 20 members of the Mill Creek Homeowners Association gathered two weeks ago in Laura Carr's merlot-colored living room, which was aglow from the subtle flickers of three white candles on the dining room table.
Three Dallas city council hopefuls had come to Swiss Avenue this Monday evening seeking support in the upcoming May 3 election. It was a get-to-know-your-local-candidate sort of deal, with voices kept to a polite conversational level.
But beneath the smiles and pleasantries, tension seethed between some supporters of District 2 candidates John Loza and Brenda Reyes, whose contentious race is beginning to look like a trashy episode of COPS.
In the preceding two weeks, Dallas police had twice been called to settle nasty little tiffs between neighbors over the placement of Reyes' yard signs. There were verbal spats, and one of Reyes' paid campaign lieutenants was cited for misdemeanor assault after allegedly pepper-spraying a Loza supporter.
Reyes, as you may recall, is the carpetbagging, establishment-backed candidate who has yet to produce any proof that she actually moved into District 2 in time legally to run for the council seat. But the nagging question of whether her candidacy is legal has not stopped Dallas business leaders from pouring more than $40,000 into Reyes' campaign, much of which is apparently being used to blanket the district with yard signs and billboards.
Loza is the carpetbagging, benign Dallas lawyer who lost a very tight 1995 election to outgoing District 2 councilman Chris Luna, who is stepping down from his seat and has endorsed Reyes. Loza is not favored by the powers-that-be, and so far has raised a piddling $2,888 for his campaign.
Inside Carr's living room, the Mill Creek neighbors mingled quietly, exchanging gardening tips and sipping from plastic cups of chilled wine, which flowed freely from a cardboard box in the kitchen.
Velvetta Lill, the third candidate present, spoke to the crowd first. Since Lill is unopposed in her District 14 race, her pat speech about fighting crime and building infrastructure did not captivate the crowd.
Lill was in the middle of cracking a joke when Reyes tiptoed through the door, sheepish and late. Waiting to collar her was a Loza supporter, a tall man dressed in a turquoise nurse's uniform. Eric White, who owns a home in the nearby 4800 block of Reiger Avenue, had called police earlier that day after getting into a shouting match with a neighbor over the placement of Reyes' campaign signs.
For weeks, White says, he had been watching a game of musical signs as Reyes supporters hammered signs into a vacant lot at the corner of Reiger and Fitzhugh avenues, and Loza supporters tore them out again.
The vacant lot--across the street from White's house--is private property, and White told Reyes he was getting sick of the whole process. Sometime after 2 p.m. the day of the meeting, White says he saw his neighbor, Sylvia Fernandez, putting another Reyes sign in the lot. White marched across the street to advise her that the lot was private property and that she needed permission to put up the sign. Tempers flared.
"She called me a fag. She said that in some way some harm was going to come to my mother, and that she was going to make sure that my house was broken into and things of mine were stolen," says White, who promptly called the police.
When the police arrived, they warned Fernandez that if there was another disturbance they would come looking for her, according to Fernandez, who adds that the police reaction wasn't fair.
"He called me a bitch," Fernandez says, adding that she went out to stop White from yanking up the Reyes sign. "This guy...comes out and says it's his property and you have no right to put a sign there."
The cops decided not to cite Fernandez, which is just as well considering that, according to court records, she is currently on probation after pleading guilty to a felony count of possession of a controlled substance, namely several rocks of crack cocaine. A two-year jail sentence was stayed on March 27, and Fernandez was instead placed on five years' probation.
As part of the deal, Fernandez also pled no contest to a misdemeanor charge of prostitution, which was filed against her in January after she agreed to have sex for money with an undercover police officer. Fernandez met the officer on the 4800 block of Reiger Avenue, right by the vacant lot in question.
Fernandez says she is an avid Reyes backer, though it's unclear if Fernandez is eligible to vote for Reyes because of the felony conviction.
After hearing out White's complaint, Reyes took her turn addressing the neighborhood group. She expressed her commitment to fighting crime in the neighborhood. Especially troubling for Reyes is the amount of time police officers have to spend pushing paper.
Police officers, she said, "spend 20 percent of their time being clerks." As the president of Innovative Computer Group, Inc., Reyes said, she knows that computer technology can cut down time spent on paperwork and increase the amount of time cops spend on the street.
Reyes might be interested in exploring technology to help the police; maybe she's even thinking her computer company could get some of the city's business. After all, Reyes' company is one of two bidders currently hoping to win a $1.2 million contract that would revamp the computers that store building inspection information.
In February, city council members were about to award the contract to Reyes' company. They tabled the vote after Reyes' business competitor, Charles Paige of CompuSite, showed up at the meeting to inform them that Reyes was running for the city council--a situation that, according to city ethics codes, isn't very ethical.
As Reyes addressed the Mill Creek crowd, longtime political activist Rick Leggio sat impatiently in the back corner of the living room--as far away from Reyes as possible. Having to sit there and listen to Reyes talk about crime-fighting was driving Leggio crazy.
On Sunday, the day before the White-Fernandez incident, Leggio had his own ugly run-in with Roberto Arredondo, who is in charge of handling the yard signs for Reyes.
Since December, Reyes has paid Arredondo $975 for "contract labor" and "photography," according to campaign expenditure reports. Arredondo confirms that he's been spending most of his time driving around District 2 in a 1989 Chevy pickup loaded down with Reyes signs, which he is putting in yards and lots across the district.
On that Sunday afternoon, Leggio says, he was walking his dogs when he spotted a man pounding a Reyes sign into a vacant lot on Carroll Avenue. Leggio says he owns the lot, which is located across the street from his house.
Leggio, whom Luna twice appointed to the Community Development Advisory Committee, is working for the Loza campaign. Not surprisingly, he did not want Reyes campaign signs on his property.
When Leggio saw Arredondo placing a sign on the lot, Leggio went across the street and asked Arredondo to remove it. Words were exchanged, and, Leggio claims, Arredondo twice sprayed him in the leg with a can of Mace.
"I'm really pissed off about it," says Leggio.
At the time of the incident, Leggio didn't know the identity of the man who allegedly Maced him, but Leggio recorded the license plate number of the red 1989 Chevy truck that was parked on the lot and stuffed with Reyes signs.
Days later, Arredondo confirmed that he is the one who got into the confrontation with Leggio. But Arredondo denied Macing Leggio.
"I don't carry Mace. I carry pepper spray. It's in my car," Arredondo said, motioning to the red pickup parked at a nearby meter. "I did have the pepper spray in my hand. It defuses situations."
Arredondo claims that Leggio went "gonzo" on him. It was scary, Arredondo says, because Leggio is a big muscular guy who was walking two rottweilers.
"Rottweilers? Oh yeah, my rottweilers--Satan and Lucifer--and, yes, I feed them fresh flesh every day--after my Satanic meetings," Leggio responded sarcastically. "I have two black labs named Pete and Dixie."
Last week, the Dallas police department sent Arredondo a citation for misdemeanor assault in response to the incident. The citation, which is akin to a parking ticket, carries a $240 fine. Arredondo can either pay the fine or contest it and ask for a jury trial.
"After the election, this will all be over," says Arredondo, who doesn't appear to be very upset by the citation. "There are a lot worse things that have happened in campaigns that didn't come out, but we'd have to be drinking to talk about that."
One thing Reyes and her supporters have tried to bring out about Loza in recent weeks is their accusation that Loza snuck into District 2 just in time to file for the election. It is a very curious issue for Reyes to raise, given her own mysterious residency habits.
Election law requires candidates to live in a district for six months before running for office. Loza has willingly disclosed a copy of his lease, which shows that he moved into a $650-a-month loft at 3600 Commerce street on November 2, 1996, a day before the November 3 deadline. The building's owner, George Reeves, confirmed that Loza paid his deposit in October and duly moved in on the second.
That makes Loza's residency much clearer than Reyes'.
Reyes initially claimed that she moved into an apartment in the Jefferson at Gaston Yard complex in Deep Ellum in October. But, as the Dallas Observer reported in February, that was not possible, since the building was still under construction and had not been granted an occupancy permit.
Reyes then began to claim that she moved in with "friends" in the district in November, while waiting for her new apartment to be finished. But Reyes has declined to provide the names of the friends with whom she supposedly lived.
Loza backer Joe May has filed a formal complaint challenging Reyes' residency with City Secretary Bob Sloan, who forwarded the letter to city attorney Sam Lindsay. Lindsay did not return the Observer's phone calls, but it appears unlikely that he will take any action on May's complaint until after the election, if he takes any action at all.
It's more likely that the question of when Reyes lived where will never be officially answered, although the Observer has obtained additional information about the house Reyes once lived in at 554 Parkhurst Drive--an address she claimed as her own as recently as last August.
In September 1990, Rick Herron sued Reyes after she stopped payment on a rent check, according to Dallas County court records. At the time, Herron owned the house and leased it to Reyes and her sometimes-estranged husband, Phillips Brooks Gould.
The case file shows that Reyes' living habits were as hard to pin down then as they are now. After Reyes moved out of the house and stopped payment on her rent check, Deputy Constable Bob Herriage had one helluva time trying to serve her with a notice of Herron's lawsuit.
"The defendant's husband, Brooks Gould, has informed me that the defendant is now evading personal service by going to Houston," Herriage wrote the court. "Mr. Gould further advised they are now officially separated, and reconciliation is unknown at present."
Herriage told the court that he tried to serve Reyes several times, without success, and he even gave an example of the problems he encountered: "Tried to reach party by phone and was informed he [sic] was out of town for a month. Rang doorbell and heard voices but no one ever came to the door," he wrote.
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A judge later ordered Reyes to pay Herron $340, but Herron says he felt sorry for Reyes and, at her request, forgave the debt. "It was just one month's rent. She was an excellent tenant other than that," Herron says.
Reyes would not return phone calls from the Observer, and was no more interested in talking after the Mill Creek Homeowner's Association meeting.
Approached as she headed out the front door, Reyes declined to discuss Herron's lawsuit, the yard-sign battles, Arredondo, residency--or anything, for that matter.
"I will not speak to the Observer until you learn how to write a fair story," Reyes pouted, while making a beeline to her red BMW. "I've given you information on John Loza that you have not followed up on. It's not fair.