Sylvia Garcia's future unclear as court term ends
Perhaps the biggest challenge Sylvia Garcia faced during her final Commissioners Court session last week was holding back her tears during the invocation by emeritus Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza.
"The underserved but greatly deserving know what she has done for them," he said during his long and laudatory remarks. Fortunately for her, Garcia said afterward, he had prayed the same prayer at Mass the evening before, so she wasn't totally caught off guard.
Otherwise, it was pretty much routine business for Garcia, the first Hispanic woman elected as Harris County commissioner and the first commissioner to lose a re-election bid in nearly 40 years.
Sitting in her black-leather chair beneath the sober gaze of Sam Houston — her accustomed spot for nearly 200 court sessions during her two terms — Garcia joined her colleagues in congratulating the conference-champion Texas Southern Tigers football team. She also listened without responding to critics of the Dynamo soccer stadium deal.
"It's been a great eight years, and I want to thank everybody for their support," she said matter of factly as the session wound down.
Afterward, the 60-year-old Democratic Precinct 2 commissioner professed not to know what's next. A public official since 1985, when she was appointed chief judge of Houston's municipal courts, she knows only that she'll be officially unemployed come Saturday.
"I'll have a significant, significant drop in income, so that means I'll be even more of a watchdog on my own pocketbook," she said during an interview in her ninth-floor office, the walls shorn of art and photographs. "All those years of watching the taxpayers' pocketbook, now it's time to watch my own."
Might run for Congress
A former Houston city controller and an attorney who hasn't practiced for more than 25 years, she's still interested in seeking public office, perhaps trying to win back her courthouse job in 2014 or running for what is expected to be a newly drawn, Hispanic-majority congressional seat. (She ran for Congress unsuccessfully in 1992.)
She leaves office with close to $1 million in her campaign account, although most of that money can't be spent on a race for Congress.
"I'm not ruling anything in, and I'm not ruling anything out," she said. "In politics it's all about window of opportunity. Sometimes some unusual or unforeseen turn of events changes things just overnight, so I'm just going to have to look at every opportunity that comes available and look at it closely and see if it's a good fit."
Would she consider running for mayor?
"I wouldn't rule it out, but it has to be the right opportunity," she said. "I support Mayor Parker and certainly wouldn't even consider running against her, so that would require waiting five years, because I feel confident she's going to get reelected two more terms. So again, I've made no decision; this was such an unexpected turn of events that I've not had time, quite frankly, to even focus on where I'm going to be even in the next 60 days."
No one, including Garcia herself, expected her to lose to Jack Morman, a 32-year-old unknown Republican challenger who spent about $20,000 in his first bid for public office. Not until the week before Election Day did she send out a plaintive e-mail to her supporters with the subject line: "URGENT Message from Commissioner Sylvia Garcia - I need your help."
GOP tidal wave
That help wasn't forthcoming. Although some longtime political observers say she lost touch with portions of her diverse district and others say she grew complacent, Garcia insists she was swept out of office in a GOP tidal wave too powerful to withstand.
"I have no regrets," she said. "We worked the campaign; we did it all. I almost can laugh now about whether we needed to spend all that money, because in the end we just got swept up."
She ticked off a number of noteworthy accomplishments during her eight years in office, including convincing Hermann Hospital to locate a LifeFlight helicopter base of operations at Baytown Airport, a health-care initiative that resulted in seven new clinics for her precinct and a transit initiative that includes park-and-ride facilities and bus-circulator routes for Baytown and Pasadena.
She also touted enhancements to the Independence Parkway Corridor leading to the San Jacinto Battlefield Historic Site. "We're putting some focus into our rich, rich historical heritage, using that strength as an economic development tool for historic tourism," she said.
Successor 'an unknown'
She met with Morman a week after the election and gave him a list of the various Precinct 2 road projects in the works, but she professes not to know what to expect from the newcomer, who campaigned part-time while working as an attorney in the office of former County Attorney Michael Fleming.
"He's just an unknown," she said.
She's concerned he may not share her interest in what she calls "the human needs" of Precinct 2 residents.
"We have a senior program, we have a youth program, we have a veterans program, we have a hunger program," she said. "All those are designed to work on human needs. The traditional road-and-bridge commissioner has been about capital needs — infrastructure, roads and bridges. We brought a new dimension to what I've come to call an urban commissioner, one that has to deal with more than just the traditional needs but also the human needs."
Attempts to reach Morman for this article were unsuccessful.
During the campaign Morman expressed his opposition to Project Stars, a beautification and economic development project that was one of Garcia's signature issues. She'll wait to see whether he goes after her other nontraditional initiatives:
"I'll regret even more that I lost if any of that is lost."