Elena Guajardo reigns in District 7
Pulling into the empty parking lot in front of Noel Suniga's campaign offices, located in a small strip mall on Bandera, one would never know there was a party happening. At 7:30 p.m., the day's last poll workers are straggling in, each one greeted at the door with hugs and kisses from Suniga's sister.
Inside the long, narrow offices streamers hang from the walls in red, white, and blue loops. There is a keg of beer in the corner and a table of queso, crispy tacos, beans, and chips, and folks line the walls with their plates of food, eating and comparing notes from the day in low tones. Everyone has on the Suniga campaign T-shirt and looks as though they've earned it; they've been at it all day.
"We did our work," says Suniga. "The troops were out at six this morning, block walking, working the polls and phones, leaving no stone unturned."
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A boy who looks to be about 10 or 11 years old sits behind the front desk, next to a tiny TV. When I ask where the polls are, Suniga's sister answers, "50 percent to 49 percent, Elena is ahead by a small margin." But the boy pipes up authoritatively, "51-49!"
Either way, it's going to be a close race. "I feel confident and calm," says Suniga. "We made up votes - right now the gap is only 300 votes which is a smaller margin `than the 500 vote lead Guajardo had in the first election` to overcome. The bottom line is: Whatever happens happens. I think my campaign resonates with the voters, now we are just waiting to see the results. And that's about it."
He's in good company. His mother and father have returned to the campaign offices, and she is ebullient, cracking jokes and bringing the quiet anticipation of the party up to a noisy din of laughter. "One man said to me, 'You're burning, you're burning!' I said, 'Well, I'm just a hot mama! I'm Noel's mama!"
Meanwhile, just five minutes away, a house party is underway for his opponent, Elena Guajardo. Cars have pulled up onto the grass and line the block. Flaming tiki lanterns mark the party's entrance and tall columns of multi-colored balloons are visible, waving cheerily, over the fence.
Inside, a hundred or so people sit at card tables and around the lawn. The invite was BYOLC - bring your own lawn chair - and appears that people have obliged the hostess, Paula Beavers, a community activist, not only with seats but 12 coolers and, under a tent, several tables of food.
When Guajardo arrives at 8:20 p.m., the crowd claps and whistles, cheering her name. Several people hug and kiss her. She is beaming as she makes her way over to the reporters, excusing herself to greet people before she sits down for interviews.
"Thank you," she says, "This way I can collect some love; that's what tonight is about."
A TV is set up in the yard, with a few anxious supporters sitting around it. Whenever the news comes on, the crowd lunges, politely apologizing and laughing as they jostle around to get a view of the screen: "52-48," someone shouts over their heads.
"We are ahead," Guajardo's campaign manager tells her.
"Well, for now," she answers.
Although Guajardo's mother worked the polls from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., she looks relaxed and happy now. She has helped her daughter with mailers and blockwalking throughout the campaign, but her biggest support has been to keep the dogs during the day while Guajardo works.
"I keep them at the house, so I can walk and bathe them," she says. "Sometimes Elena comes over at the end of the day just to say hello and give them a kiss."
Guajardo is quick to give credit, not just to her mother, but the community at-large, for the huge effort it has taken to get the campaign out.
"People who have never been political got involved," she says. "They were block walking, stamping mailers, and phone banking. If we win tonight it's because we listened to what people told us were the issues and we had an effective, grass roots campaign - we were able to stay issues driven and on message. The process wins at the end of the day; if we did it right, we can celebrate."
She says she feels happy, that it's hard not to with all her supporters outside cheering, and that she's heartened by the voter turnout. "Today was about the democratic process. It's harder to get people out for a run-off election and it's harder to get people to vote on a Tuesday, but people are voting today. That's a victory."
It's 8:47 p.m. and the polls are coming back 52.3 percent to 47.7 percent in Guajardo's favor. Like her opponent, Guajardo acknowledges that the candidates need only win by one and that the paper ballots will take a while to count. It may be a long night. "If need be, we'll make a pot of coffee. But we'll be here 'til the very end."
On Wednesday morning, Guajardo has emerged the winner, with a lead of 54.8 percent over Suniga's 45.2 percent.
At press time, Noel Suniga had not responded to calls from the Current, but he has been quoted by the Express-News as saying that he will continue to find ways to serve the community.
On June 17, Guajardo will take Julián Castro's seat on City Council. Although she acknowledges that she is tired from the previous "amazing evening and day," she also feels excited. "What makes me excited is the make up of the new Council. We have such a potential to serve, and for me to be part of that team is amazing for me.
"What happened was that we connected and the people believed. And now I will have the opportunity to put my ideas and my energies into action." •
By Susan Pagani