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OUSTON -- It was an anonymous woman in the balcony who started the song, in a small voice, and as the notes drifted over the auditorium, heads turned and a hush fell.
Soon those around her joined in, hesitantly at first, then more boldly, until the triumphant words of the hymn widely known as the Negro National Anthem seemed to be cascading to the floor of the hall.
There, more of the political faithful filling the Wortham Center picked up the tune as they rose from their seats, and now hundreds were singing in a tide of jubilation that swept over the stage, as if to embrace Lee P. Brown, who had stood along with them, visibly moved. He had become Houston's first black mayor that inaugural day in 1998, and to many in the audience he was a symbol of newfound strength.
"Lift every voice and sing," the people sang, "till earth and heaven ring. Ring with the harmonies of liberty!"
For all their joy, though, the day had been more than a celebration of victory for blacks. It had also been a testament to how racial and ethnic groups in Houston had put aside their suspicions and rivalries and come together largely out of self-interest to achieve power.
In the audience were faces from that winning coalition. There was Richard G. Castaeda, 54, a Mexican-American who owned an engineering firm in metropolitan Houston. He had cast his lot with Mr. Brown and become active in his campaign because he had trusted the candidate when he said he would be fair to Latinos. And as a businessman who got 70 percent of his work through a Houston affirmative action program, Mr. Castaeda needed an open door at City Hall.
He had had doubts about supporting a black candidate, he said. There were distant, bruising memories of being harassed by blacks. But he had recognized that in Houston, where blacks, Anglos and Hispanics each made up roughly a third of the population, the 21st century would require interracial alliances in both politics and business if any one group's interests were to be served. Hispanics, he said, might even act as a swing group, allying themselves with Anglos or blacks when it served their interests.
But watching Mr. Brown bask in his moment of triumph, Mr. Castaeda said, he also felt apprehensive. "I wanted to see who he would surround himself with," he remembers thinking. "Who is he going to turn the power over to?"
It was a question that had come up during Mr. Brown's campaign.
One cold morning at Velia's Cafe, about 100 prominent Latinos gathered to meet the candidate over breakfast. There was one thing everybody wanted to know, Mr. Castaeda recalled, and the question was finally asked: "One person got up and said, 'Look, we're concerned you're going to screw us over and give everything to the blacks.' "
Only rows away from Mr. Castaeda at the Wortham Center sat Richard W. Lewis, 51, a white man with a large stake in Mr. Brown's victory. It was Mr. Lewis who had nudged Mr. Castaeda, a business associate, to help the campaign and to bring his Latino friends on board.
Mr. Lewis was no friend of affirmative action. In backing Mr. Brown, who was, he had risked alienating the people he worked with, breaking ranks with his own Houston Contractors Association, of which he was a past president. The group, most of whose members were white, had supported the white Republican front-runner largely because he opposed affirmative action.
But Mr. Lewis, who describes himself as a "Republican from
the womb," had fallen in behind Mr. Brown, a Democrat, on the
basis of a simple calculation: Mr. Brown would win. And as the
owner of a local construction company, Mr. Lewis, too,
depended on a friendly City Hall. Ninety percent of his
business came from municipal contracts. Backing the man he
presumed would be the next mayor seemed only prudent.
Monica Almeida/ The New York Times
Brian G. Smith with his son
Micah at a ceremony for his older son Brian's scout
"I wanted to be in a position of influence," he said, "and you can't influence a loser."
But when he heard the Negro hymn swelling up from the crowd, he said, he suddenly felt unwelcome.
"It turned me off," he recalled. Imagine the Republican had won, he said, "and we had started singing the Confederate song. It would have been equally out of place. It alienated you, and that was the specific purpose of it, I'm sure."
Brian G. Smith, who is black, also had a lot riding on Mr. Brown's victory. Mr. Smith, a 41-year-old architect who runs his own construction inspection company in Houston, had worked, like Mr. Lewis, as a Brown fund-raiser and with both Mr. Lewis and Mr. Castaeda on the new mayor's transition team. He was counting on Mr. Brown's election to provide opportunities for blacks like him who do business with the city.
"The feeling had been that whites would stay in control of Houston," Mr. Smith said. Now, "it was like, 'Wow! Our day has come.' It felt like, at this time, it was good to be black."
More than anything, Mr. Smith had wanted a mayor friendly to affirmative action. He remembered the affront of being denied work because he was black. Like Mr. Castaeda, he owed most of his business, 95 percent, to the city law that sets aside about 18 percent of city contracts for companies owned by minorities and women. And for Mr. Smith, public projects like water systems, stadiums and rails were where the money was.
So his support for Mr. Brown, like that of the other men, had largely been bound up with his business interests. Which was nothing new for him. From the day Mr. Smith started his company, in 1987, business had driven his political involvement, he said, no matter the candidate's color.
"For selfish reasons," he said. "Trying to get work." This time, with a black mayor, he said, "I hoped for access."
Mr. Smith was away on Inauguration Day and sent his mother to attend the ceremony in his place.
She told him about how glorious it had been when everyone stood in a great wave and sang the hymn. He remembers how he felt on hearing about it.
"Electrified," he said.
Reaffirming Affirmative Action
Access, influence, money: all had been part of the political calculus for Mr. Castaeda, Mr. Smith and Mr. Lewis. In the end, all three had put practical considerations ahead of racial ones. Much as he yearned for a black mayor, Mr. Smith said, he would have opposed Mr. Brown if he had not supported affirmative action.
Mr. Lewis, for his part, swallowed any misgivings because, he said, Mr. Brown was "a sincerely decent man" whom the white community could do business with.
"What you worry about is getting a radical," he said. "I don't want a Klan member as mayor, or a black militant."
Mr. Brown was no radical. He had been Houston's police chief in the 1980's. In 1990, David N. Dinkins, New York's only black mayor, lured Mr. Brown to the city to be its police commissioner, a job in which he took some heat for the roundly criticized police response to racial violence in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. He had also been President Clinton's director of national drug control policy.
When the polls closed in a runoff election in 1997, Mr. Brown had vindicated the men who had gambled on him, defeating the Republican Rob Mosbacher, a businessman and son of a former commerce secretary in the Bush White House, by 6 percentage points. Though Anglos made up slightly more than half the turnout, Mr. Brown had won with 97 percent of the black vote, 66 percent of the Hispanic and 23 percent of the Anglo, according to an exit poll by Robert M. Stein of Rice University.
For Mr. Smith and Mr. Castaeda, the election of Lee Brown, a strong advocate of affirmative action, was reassuring. They could be confident of continued business with the city under the program, especially since it had just dodged a bullet.
A conservative initiative to scrap the city's program had been on the ballot that election year. The measure reflected a national mood against programs intended specifically to benefit minorities. But thanks to a record turnout by minority voters, and despite a 2-to-1 Anglo vote to scuttle the program, the law was preserved. That gave Houston the distinction of being the only major city in the country to retain affirmative action in a challenge at the polls.
To Mr. Lewis, affirmative action was just another form of welfare that in effect robbed him of profits. In his ample business with the city, he had been required to subcontract to minority-owned firms even when it was not to his financial advantage.
It was thus a measure of his pragmatism that he could still back Mr. Brown despite their polar differences on a critical campaign issue.
Mr. Lewis had decided that it was only one issue.
As he analyzed the mayoral race in 1997, he said, he could see that Anglos in Houston were outnumbered in the aggregate by blacks, Latinos and Asians from Vietnam, China and India. Demographic trends were also suggesting that Anglos would dwindle in numbers even more. The days of conservative Republican mayors -- his own choice, he acknowledged, if he had had his druthers -- were pretty much gone.
So his city, the nation's fourth largest, had been transformed. "I feel like I can't do anything about it," he said. Except work with it.
In the two and a half years since Mr. Brown's inauguration, the pragmatism that drew the three men together has begun to bear fruit in the form of new business and political alliances and an opportunity to collaborate on a major city water project.
But to Mr. Castaeda, the new order is less about Mr. Brown than about the larger demographic forces.
"Regardless of who is mayor now, that mayor has to be accountable to a lot of people," he said. "I don't think there's any way that in the future anybody can screw us over. We've just learned too much about the political system for that to happen."
He and others have also learned what can be gained through a system of "racial coalitions," he said.
"If you measure it in terms of dollars," he said, "we've never made as much money as we're making."
The Middle Plays Both Ends
In the tug of war between blacks and Anglos, Hispanics can
pull on either end of the rope. Richard Castaeda began to
demonstrate this shortly after the election.
Monica Almeida/ The New York Times
Richard G. Castaeda walks
with his wife Christina on the dam at Canyon Lake where
his company owns a vacation home. They are mourning the
death of their 24-year-old son who was killed in an auto
accident six months ago. Castaeda plans to build a
retirement home there in the isolated countryside
outside San Antonio.
He was raising money to pay off the mayor's campaign debt and calling Anglo engineers he knew, many of whom belonged to the trade group that had supported Mr. Brown's opponent. They would be wise, he told them, to deal with the Brown administration outside of the trade group -- and to be associated with the allies of the mayor.
"I told them, 'We can help you,' " he said.
In exchange, the bigger Anglo-owned firms would help smaller Hispanic ones land work, at least as subcontractors. And they would pool money to donate to political candidates, to make them pay attention.
His case was persuasive. An informal Hispanic-Anglo alliance christened the Dirty Dozen was born, and it raised more than $100,000. Hispanic engineers had not only won points with the mayor by helping retire his debt; with City Hall as the lure, they had reeled in Anglos for common gain.
Today, the Dirty Dozen -- there are actually 15, and 10 of them are Anglo -- chase projects together, send work one another's way and meet with city officials as a group.
Mr. Castaeda and his partner at Omega Engineers, Edelmiro Castillo, who is also in the Dirty Dozen, have a second power base: the Houston Hispanic Architects and Engineers, a 50-member association that tries to cultivate good relations both with big companies and with politicians.
Last month, Mr. Castillo, the president of the Hispanic group, got a call from his counterpart with a group of Asian-Americans. Minorities should unite, the Asian architect said. Mr. Castillo agreed. The timing was right. They had a fair-minded black mayor. A bustling economy had turned Houston into a boomtown for the construction industry. There were lawsuits testing affirmative action.
"We're going to say we're the coalition of the minority groups," Mr. Castillo said, "and whenever there are any decisions made, we want to be a part of it."
A glue binding Houston's minority groups was the city's affirmative action program, which set goals, not quotas, for minority participation. The program ensured minority-owned companies that they would have a shot at getting a piece of city contracts. The companies' political connections at City Hall ensured that they would have an edge on the minority competition.
Mr. Castaeda used to think affirmative action was for losers. He called it "white-collar welfare," he said.
But that was before he went into business for himself in the 1980's just as Texas's oil and construction industries were going bust, and he went through half his savings in six months to support his family. Affirmative action saved his business, he said.
Not all opportunity should be predicated on skin color, Mr. Castaeda said; a person's ability and determination are still the primary ingredients for success. But before the affirmative action law passed, in 1984, about 1 percent of city contracts went to firms owned by minority group members and women; now about 18 percent do. He said he wondered if the number would not go back to single digits if the law disappeared.
"My conscience tells me that affirmative action is a good way to give people opportunities without social upheaval," he said.
Teaming with Anglos on one hand and nonwhites on the other, Houston's Hispanics display a kind of cross-racial dexterity that blacks and whites appear to manage less easily. Mr. Castaeda has a theory about why. "There's still big mistrust between the whites and the blacks," he said, "and I think it's still much easier for each group to get together with Hispanics than each other."
Yet Mr. Castaeda suspects there is a limit to how close blacks want to be to Hispanics. When a Mexican-American friend ran for county judge, Mr. Castaeda called four black business friends to solicit money and got no answer. "I don't know if they don't trust me, or they're just cheap, or they don't have any interest," he said, "but I've never been able to break through that barrier."
At least among Anglos, he said, he can find a few who will give money, and sometimes one who will tell it to him straight. In the case of the judge's race, he called Mr. Lewis to find out why his contractors' group was not returning calls.
"Hey, partner," he remembers Mr. Lewis saying, "let me tell you what the problem is. That boy doesn't know how to talk. He sounds like he just came from Mexico. There's no way he's going to win."
Mr. Castaeda had understood, he said.
He had even advised the candidate to take a diction class, to lose the accent. He refused, saying voters would see beyond that. He lost.
Mr. Lewis agrees that Anglos and Latinos get along better. Latinos are less confrontational than blacks, less "hardheaded," he said.
He prides himself on working with people of different races. His foreman of 10 years, Leroy Robinson, is black. His crews are mostly Latino. He is a mentor to minority business owners. And he defends his trade group, saying it welcomes everybody. It is the minorities who shun it, he said.
"You can't separate yourself and then holler integration," he said.
For Mr. Lewis, affirmative action was all downside. By making him give minority-owned firms almost a fifth of the construction work he gets from the city, he said, the law forces him either to subcontract work that his company could do itself or to pass up Anglo subcontractors who charge less.
"Affirmative action is unconstitutional," he said. "Why don't we just call it Anybody but Whites?"
His main argument against the program is that it is no longer needed.
"When I first got into construction, it was a bunch of cowboys," he said. "They were drinking and chasing women. Now, by and large, they are business people. They take Metamucil at 8 o'clock and go to bed at 9.
"That changes the way everybody looks at each other. When I hire a man, I could care less what color you are. If you're dependable, if you don't steal, we embrace you."
If someone like Mr. Castaeda needs affirmative action after 16 years in business, he said, maybe he should not be in business.
The notion that affirmative action is a crutch, to be
accepted with shame, angers Mr. Smith. "I don't cease being
black, or being discriminated against," he said, an edge in
his voice. "That doesn't change, so I'm not trying to graduate
out of this."
He added: "If there's nothing to force majority firms to contract minority firms, they wouldn't do it. Why split the pie if you can have all of it? It is a race issue, but it has more to do with money."
There was not much pie for blacks when Mr. Smith began looking for a job in 1984 after he received his degree in architecture from Southern University in Baton Rouge, La.
"I would lay out my nice portfolio and people would hardly look at my work," he said. "They'd look at me and say, 'No, we're not hiring.' "
Black firms were hiring, and Mr. Smith found work. But in 1987 he decided to take advantage of the affirmative action law and opened his own firm, Brian Smith Construction Inspection Inc., providing not architecture but construction management.
Today, even with 34 employees and a good track record, Mr. Smith finds his dealings with white-owned companies to be "really something." He is asked absurd questions, he said, like whether he offers employee benefits.
"They think you work out of your house," he said, "or it's just you in a room and you're pulling their leg."
But he does not feel threatened, he said, when he walks into a meeting with white men. "I don't bite my tongue," he said. "I don't view this as a white man's world." He added, "I'm there because I'm fighting for the money that's on the table."
Mr. Smith said a pilgrimage to Africa in 1992 did more than anything to equip him to deal with racial indignities. In Ghana, where he believes his ancestors were from, he toured a castle where slaves had been held for trans-Atlantic passage. In the dungeon, he said, he saw the "door of no return" through which slaves were pulled onto an auction block and then onto ships. Above the auction block, he said, he found a church.
The slave sellers, he said, "would auction off slaves downstairs, and then they would go upstairs in their own chapel and pray to the same God I pray to, and they call themselves Christians."
It only confirmed for him, he said, that if white people were capable of that, they could not be superior to him.
From the outset, Mr. Smith said, he felt more at ease shopping his services among Hispanic firms. With their lighter skin, Latinos may be more acceptable to whites than blacks, he said, but he nonetheless feels a kinship with Latinos as members of a minority group. On an issue like affirmative action, he said, they are on one side and whites like Mr. Lewis are on the other.
"There's no hope for us as minorities if he can't acknowledge that it's wrong that less than 40 percent of the population gets 90 percent of the work," Mr. Smith said.
Affirmative action, he said, has been "the only thing in the last 200 years that has excluded whites."
"So I can't feel sorry for them."
With Each His Own
About 40 boys and their relatives were gathered in Hermann Park on a Saturday in May for a Cub Scout rite of passage. While his father snapped pictures and his mother looked on proudly, Brian Nelson Stewart Smith, age 7, stepped out of a cluster of boys when his name was called, a shy smile under his big round glasses, and received a yellow neckerchief, a symbol of his rise in rank. Everyone applauded. Everyone was black.
The parents had set up tables of food and drink under the pitched roof of an open-air pavilion. The elder Brian Smith had provided the inspectors while the city was building the pavilion. So in some ways the setting carried symbolic weight of its own. It was a testament to how far Mr. Smith had come, starting from the low-income housing he had lived in until he was 9.
Yet the occasion also attested to how much Mr. Smith wanted Brian and his other son, 23-month-old Micah, to relive parts of his own childhood.
The younger Brian belongs to the same scout pack that his father had. It meets in the same black church, Wheeler Avenue Baptist, that Mr. Smith has belonged to since age 6 and where he is a deacon. As a boy, Mr. Smith, whose parents were college graduates, attended a predominantly black public school. His son goes to a predominantly black private school.
Mr. Smith says he is giving his sons a racial grounding before they are "tainted" by the world. He himself remains anchored in a black world. He is on the board of a black-owned bank. His best friends are black. He takes family vacations to Africa.
Mr. Smith and his wife, Elizabeth, 43, a NASA engineer, live in an upper-middle-class, racially mixed neighborhood.
In September they plan to move into a mostly black area nearby, where they have bought a four-bedroom house with a pool and a tennis court.
"It is a conscious choice," Mr. Smith said of the effort to furnish his sons with a black identity. "Once you know who you are," he said, then "go learn about other cultures."
If Mr. Smith's world is largely segregated, so are those of Mr. Castaeda and Mr. Lewis. The three men may run into one another at a political fund-raiser or at the Department of Public Works and Engineering. Two of them may even get together for the rare social occasion. Once, Mr. Lewis and his wife dropped by the Castaedas' to pick up some decorative grass plants; the couples live in the same suburb, Katy. Once, the Castaedas went to a ballgame at the Astrodome at the invitation of Mr. Smith, who had rented a box.
But generally, so separate are their private and professional lives that both Mr. Castaeda and Mr. Smith were stunned to learn that Mr. Lewis was an ordained minister who sang every Sunday at a little church in Matagorda, a small town on the Gulf of Mexico where the Lewises have a weekend home.
Indeed, the blunt, wisecracking businessman who wears jeans and black leather boots and carries a concealed handgun barely resembled the Mr. Lewis who spoke with teary eyes one Sunday in May. The pastor, C. J. Molmen, was retiring from the Community Baptist Church after nine years, and this was his last service.
The church has 50 members, but on this day the pews held only 17, including two black women and a Hispanic family of four. Mr. Molmen was the one who ordained him in December, Mr. Lewis told the congregation.
The pastor was also the one who had encouraged Mr. Lewis's wife of 15 years, Betty, a 44-year-old former hairdresser, to play the piano. She had never touched a keyboard, she said, but one day, at the pastor's prodding, she sat down and played.
"It was a miracle," she said.
The son of an electrician who was also a Baptist deacon, Mr. Lewis grew up in Port Arthur, a refinery town. In 1970, after college, he took a job with an engineering company that transferred him to Houston. But he grew restless quickly and decided to start a construction firm with two partners.
Eighteen years later, RWL Construction Inc., which specializes in utility projects like water mains, has 50 employees and enough profits to easily pay for a grand new Southern Colonial home for Richard and Betty Lewis. They are planning to move in soon, their three children -- two from his first marriage, one from hers -- having grown.
The new home, in Eagle Lake, a small town west of the city, came with white pillars, a guest house and a black-face porch figure. Mr. Lewis said he was getting rid of the figure, though, just as he was getting rid of the many other artifacts -- "Southern folk art," he calls them -- depicting blacks that decorate his home in Katy.
"I don't want to offend anybody needlessly," he said wearily. "It means nothing to us. Now everybody has gotten so darned sensitive."
While Mr. Smith and Mr. Lewis each retreat to one world, Mr. Castaeda has his feet in two. He reared his son and daughter in the mostly Anglo environment of Katy, where he and his wife, Christina, 53, an accounting assistant with ExxonMobil Chemical, moved 25 years ago.
Yet he has always regarded San Antonio as home. That is where his mother's homemade tortillas await. That is where Spanish is spoken. It is also where the Castaedas go on many holidays and weekends.
Richard and Christina Castaeda grew up poor in San Antonio but in the comfort of their own kind, they said. "The best enchiladas are made with welfare cheese," Mr. Castaeda said. He remembers his childhood world as giving him little sense that he was part of a minority.
Where he grew up in San Antonio, in the 1950's and 60's, everybody around him was like him, he said.
The barber and the butcher were Mexican-American. So were the sales clerks downtown. There were Mexican-American elected officials all over the place, even a congressman, Henry B. Gonzalez. Mr. Castaeda says he even thought as a child that because there were so many Mexican-Americans, they must be above both blacks and Anglos at least a notch.
That view had to change with time, but he remembers thinking that if Anglos really were the dominant group in the city, Mexican-Americans definitely came in second. A pool in a public park had been open to whites and Mexicans, but not to blacks. The fanciest movie theater in town, the Majestic, had a back entrance for the "colored." That meant blacks, not Mexicans.
Still, there was the occasional incident to remind him of Anglo attitudes toward Mexicans. Once, in 10th grade, when he and the only black student in his class were talking, the teacher snapped, "I don't want to hear any comments from the colored gallery."
Mr. Castaeda remembers wondering, "What are you talking about?"
It wasn't until he had left home, though, that he felt the full force of prejudice, he said. When he was in the Navy for two years, in the late 1960's, blacks had been as bad as whites in making his life miserable, he said. They called him spic, half-breed, pancho. They harassed him when he spoke Spanish. He had expected to be a radio man. Instead, he said, "I washed dishes for eight months" on a ship carrying 500 men.
"They had a perception of me like the lazy Mexican," he said.
Such treatment only fed his resolve that his children would never endure the same. Unlike Mr. Smith, Mr. Castaeda was determined that his son and daughter would live in the Anglo mainstream. They could have a sense of their Mexican heritage, he said, but first they were American. He did not want them to be harassed for speaking Spanish. "I thought the opportunities were better if my kids were raised completely American," he said.
Mr. Castaeda said he resented being asked whether he considered himself Mexican or American. "People keep trying to put me in a situation where I have to choose between one culture and the other," he said.
And it grates on him when people assume he is from Mexico -- when he is asked about soccer and even flamenco. He said he had ancestors who were born in Texas when much of it belonged to Mexico, in the early 19th century. Yet people will ask him, "When did your family come to this country?"
"And then you start talking to them and you find out their grandfather came here in 1910. But they consider themselves real Americans because they're white."
Mr. Castaeda finds little in common with Mexican immigrants or foreign-born Hispanics. He recalls his father saying, "Trust only your own kind." But a City Council election five years ago underscored for him the fallacy of wearing ethnic blinders. Most Latino Democratic voters supported the Cuban-American candidate, Orlando Sanchez, against a white Democrat, even though Mr. Sanchez was a conservative Republican.
Mr. Sanchez turned out to oppose affirmative action.
Born in Cuba and raised in Houston, Mr. Sanchez, 42, said Latinos should not be expected to behave as one.
"I see Hispanics getting together on global issues -- if the police are singling us out, if banking institutions are denying us home loans," he said. "But we won't be a cohesive force like African-Americans."
Sometimes the priorities of the American- and foreign-born Hispanics are starkly different. Once, Mr. Castaeda said, a Nicaraguan acquaintance asked him to make a donation to buy a bulletproof car for the new president of Nicaragua. He chose not to.
"Let them shoot him," Mr. Castaeda said, "I don't care."
And he laments that the image of Mexican-Americans has become tied to that of the penniless immigrant crossing the border illegally. "That's what keeps the image of the Mexican-American down," Mr. Castaeda said. He said he finds more in common with black and Anglo native Texans than the "wetbacks," a term that sometimes slips into his conversation.
Still, he has begun to have second thoughts about his decision to Americanize his children so completely that neither ever learned to speak Spanish. Now that the country has become increasingly multicultural, he said, "it's an advantage" to be bilingual.
"I've actually done them a disservice," he said.
His children came to recognize a need to embrace their heritage. As adults they both migrated to San Antonio, back to where their cousins and grandparents live and where they spent summers as children. Last year, Mr. Castaeda's daughter, Denise Ramirez, 27, married a Mexican-American, Gerardo Ramirez -- and not only for love, she said, but for their shared Hispanic values.
"I feel I have a pretty good grasp on my culture," said Ms. Ramirez, a public school social worker. "I'm really proud of it. So was my brother."
Her brother, Ricardo Cristian, known as Cris, was killed in December at the age of 24. He had been driving home after a hockey game when his new red pickup truck went off the road and into an embankment.
The previous May he had earned a bachelor's degree in technology from his father's alma mater, the University of Houston, and had taken a construction management job with a San Antonio firm.
While packing up his belongings after the death, his family found a Spanish-language instructional tape in the stereo. In his wallet, his mother said, they found a list of things he was looking for in a wife.
"Hispanic," he had written at the top.
A Calculated Move Pays Off
After Lee Brown was elected, Richard Lewis attended a meeting of the Houston Contractors Association, the mostly white group he had led some years back. He was confident that he had done the right thing by supporting Mr. Brown, he remembers, but he was also feeling betrayed.
Through his support for Lee Brown, Mr. Lewis had wanted his contractors' group to benefit, he said. He had wanted them at least to hedge their bets by staying neutral and giving money to both candidates. But when the association's political action committee decided to endorse Mr. Mosbacher and Mr. Lewis stood his ground, the committee stripped him of the chairmanship.
"He couldn't eat or sleep for days," Betty Lewis said.
Mr. Lewis did not resign from the association; he was still dead set against affirmative action, and the group carried that banner. It had even filed a lawsuit against it. He also knew, he said, that his ties with the Brown administration would be fleeting. Mr. Brown is now in his second two-year term and by law can serve only one more.
But for the moment Mr. Lewis was in and his fellow contractors were out, and he did not want them to forget it.
At the association's meeting that day, Mr. Lewis waited for someone to acknowledge the results of the vote. Finally, he recalls, someone said: " 'Well, Richard, I guess you were right. I know that you won't have a grudge and that if we need your help, you'll be there for us.' "
Without a word, Mr. Lewis stood up and unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a T-shirt. It showed a cartoon character with a lipstick mark on its buttocks.
"That," he said, "was my answer."
More than two years later, Mr. Lewis is no less confident that he did the right thing. Indeed, Mr. Lewis, Mr. Castaeda and Mr. Smith all say they have no complaints about how the mayor has treated them.
In part because of their connections to the Brown administration, ties that were forged during the 1997 campaign, the three were selected to join a team of industry professionals competing for a $100 million contract to build the Northeast Water Purification Project. The team is led by a group of private companies that also chose the men because they brought racial diversity to the table. Though the project is not subject to affirmative action regulations because it is being built with private money, it will still need to obtain approval from the city, the plant's client, and the City Council is made up of blacks, whites, Latinos and one Asian-American. In this case, Mr. Castaeda says, political realities have dictated the need for diversity, with or without the law.
"In Utopia, this is how it should work," Mr. Castaeda said.
But whatever promise of equal opportunity is embodied in that team, it is not a reason to scrap affirmative action, he said. Even with a mixed population and a multihued council to represent it, he said, there would be no guarantee that minority companies would be given a fair shake in an industry still dominated by Anglo-owned companies. And in politics, he said, even a minority leader could be bought or could enter into an alliance out of self-interest.
"I don't think you can leave it up to people's judgment," he said.
Mr. Lewis, Mr. Smith and Mr. Castaeda all agree that one of Mayor Brown's legacies will be the way he has led minorities, not just blacks, into government. But a looming question is how well the minority alliances that got him elected will survive the big demographic changes that are expected. Mr. Brown came to power in a city in which the Anglo, black and Hispanic populations had reached a rough parity. But Texas demographers say that he happened to catch the moment when these three groups, moving at different speeds or in different directions, were passing one another on the population charts.
As recently as 1960, whites made up 70 percent of the city's population, blacks 23 percent and Hispanics 7 percent. By 1997, whites were 35 percent, blacks 28 and Hispanics 31. By 2030, it is projected, Latinos will account for more than 50 percent of the population of Harris County, which includes Houston. Whites, meanwhile, will dip to 21 percent and blacks to 11 percent.
Whether the growing Hispanic numbers will translate into power at the polls is uncertain. In the 1997 election, only 13 percent of the turnout was Latino, compared with 32 percent black and 52 percent Anglo.
But whatever movement there is toward greater Hispanic power, Mr. Lewis is not troubled by it. He said he did not know many whites who fretted about their shrinking numbers.
"They're not concerned about it as long as green controls," he said. "They're the establishment. That's the establishment you have to blend with, and if you're not going to blend, you're not going to be accepted."
If one prospect is a kind of assimilation, as Mr. Lewis envisions, and another is continued ethnic divisions, as others predict, yet another is long-term coalitions, which Mr. Castaeda said he hoped for.
"If the blacks and Hispanics made a coalition, they could do a lot," he said.
To Mr. Smith, blacks may have achieved power at City Hall just in time to hand it over to Latinos.
"At some point, we are not going to be able to get a black mayor," he said. "I hope we'll have a Hispanic mayor that we can trust to be inclusive."
A more immediate issue is the fate of affirmative action. Some city officials see it as a stabilizing force, but with lawsuits pending, opponents like Mr. Lewis expect a court to strike down the city law any day. Already, the Brown administration has endorsed two new race- and gender-neutral contracting programs.
Mr. Smith said he was more afraid of an economic downturn than the demise of affirmative action. With the numbers of people in minority groups increasing, he said, demands for parity are likely to increase, and "we'll be more and more protected."
Still, he said, he is exploring investing in a restaurant chain. And he said he was in talks with African entrepreneurs in Chad for what would be his first international construction management contract.
Mr. Lewis and Mr. Castaeda see a different picture, one without affirmative action. But while Mr. Lewis is pleased by that prospect, Mr. Castaeda is resigned to it. He said it would force him to reassess his options.
"Doing business without it would be too uncertain," he said. "I still don't see the private work out there."
He said he would probably close his doors without the government work and do something else: go back to school, maybe study environmental law, or move his business to San Antonio.
When the time comes for the men to cash in or retire, they plan to retreat to their separate worlds. The Castaedas think of moving permanently to a lakeside home near San Antonio and their son's grave. Mr. Lewis plans to live at least part of the time in Matagorda. Only Mr. Smith feels rooted in Houston.
The three have made a living in the same arena, sometimes helping each other get jobs, sometimes coming together out of mutual interest. But outside that arena, they said, they were not sure whether they would have any reason to see one another again.
Most relationships outside the family are superficial anyway, Mr. Castaeda said.
And though Houston has made him feel "95 percent comfortable" around other ethnic groups, he said, there is that remaining 5 percent, which he calls distrust.
"I know they're watching what they say," Mr. Castaeda said of Mr. Lewis and Mr. Smith, "because under normal circumstances, they could be saying something insensitive towards me."
Mr. Smith, who views opposition to affirmative action as racist, said he had nothing in common with Mr. Lewis except their support for a mayoral candidate. He said he felt closer to Mr. Castaeda.
But Mr. Lewis says friendship is not the point; tolerance is -- "where we don't have this open hostility toward one another."
"You work together well; we treat each other civilly," he said. "We send each other work.
"How close are we supposed to be?"