TMO asks: Shall we gather at the bayou?
TMO wants Houstonians to have a say in decisions that affect their lives.
BY CHARLOTTE MOSER
When the 70 residents of Houston's
northside crowded into Harris County
Commissioners Court on August 8, they
didn't look like political activists.
Like Beatrice Quintero, they were
solid citizens, property owners, mothers
and fathers and good church goers. Every
day folks who cared about their neighborhoods and worked hard to make happy
lives for their families, these people had
other things to worry about besides
But, one hour later, they left the court
chambers with a political victory that
stunned both them and Houston's powers
that be. Protesting plans to build a new
toll freeway that would rupture north
Houston neighborhoods from downtown
to FM-1960, the group, organized by an
entity called The Metropolitan Organization (TMO), faced heavy endorsement of
the Hardy Toll Road by the Houston
Chamber of Commerce and by Harris
County Judge Jon Lindsay.
They came to the courthouse armed
with tons of facts. They argued that the
freeway would contribute to environmental pollution, that it wouldn't solve long-
term transportation problems in north
Houston, that a rail transit system was
more logical and that a railroad right-of-
way already existed.
E. A. "Squatty" Lyons, commissioner of Harris County Precinct 4
where the toll road would be located
Charlotte Moser, editor of north
Houston's The Leader Newspapers, was a
National Endowment for the Humanities
Journalism Fellow at Yale University this
summer. She is former art critic for the
never liked the idea of the freeway. When
he called for a court vote to "go on
record" about the toll road, he received
unanimous support from the commissioners to oppose the plan.
The vote, taken in the absence of
Judge Lindsay, was a blow to the city
fathers. Roger Horn, director of the
Chamber of Commerce's Transportation Division, was quoted in the
Houston Post as saying he was
"astonished" and "appalled" by the
court's action. Another observor told the
Houston Chronicle that the vote was the
"death knell" for the toll road plan.
Beatrice Quintero and her cohorts
were also surprised, but they were jubilant. "I prayed a lot that they would
come out for us," says Quintero, a physical therapist in the Texas Medical Center.
"It took guts for the commissioners to
take a stand."
It took more than prayer to win the
favor of the commissioners court. Since
January, TMO had held 39 briefing sessions about the proposed toll road with
members of northside churches from Lin-
dale to Aldine. Members of the Hardy
Toll Road Task Force had met with
officials from U.S. Rep. Bob Eckhardt
and City Councilman Dale Gorczynski,
who also opposed the toll road, to Texas
Turnpike Authority officials who were
drawing up the initial toll road studies.
Their request to meet with the Chamber
of Commerce was ignored.
By the time the group met with commissioners court, they knew intimately
the pros and cons of the toll road. They
were aware of the political issues it entailed and their rights as property owners.
They also came with the backing of the
TMO organization city-wide# a coalition
of 80 churches representing upward of
5,000 upstanding Houston citizens.
The Hardy Toll Road victory was the
latest in a growing number of successful
challenges TMO has made to the Houston
status quo since the group's formation in
June 1979. It was responsible last spring
for pushing through recommendations
from Harris County Flood Control to
limit development in southeast Houston
to prevent a repeat of the massive
flooding these communities experienced
last year. In April, a TMO group in the
Manchester area near the Houston ship
channel called Stauffer Chemical Co.
on the carpet for emitting dangerous
fumes from a nearby plant, causing the
company to alter its policy.
Houston has never seen a group quite
like TMO. Its goal is not political action,
but "accountability" to the people for
Houston area policy and planning. Its
objective is not to change the system,
but to have a say in decisions that affect
the quality of life for Houston families.
"We're not a lobbying group trying
to develop power," says George Zukero,
a life-long resident of the Airline area
who has been active in the Hardy Toll
Road issue. "We're here for accountability. We address specific problems and
want to keep officials from adopting the
most expedient solution."
Some in Houston, however, view TMO
as an insidious threat. Louie Welch,
former Houston mayor and now head of
the powerful Houston Chamber of
Commerce, has publicly denounced TMO
as a radical group with what he sees as
Communist overtones. Houston's daily
newspapers, the Houston Post and the
Houston Chronicle, have done their
share to sensationalize TMO's motives.
In the last two years, the Chronicle
has run no less than three major news
stories—from the religion page to the
front page-largely casting a negative
light on TMO.
What strikes fear in Welch's heart, apparently, is the spectre of community
protest inspired in cities like Chicago
and San Antonio by groups similar to
TMO. TMO derives much of its philosophy from Saul Alinsky, the Chicago
community organizer of the 1930s
and 40s. Known for his work in
Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood depicted in Upton Sinclair's The
Jungle, Alinsky was a sociologist who
formed an institute for community study
called the Industrial Arts Foundation
(IAF). Though Alinsky died in the late
60s, the IAF still runs an active and
highly regarded training program in
Chicago for community organizers,
administrators and policy makers.
One of lAF's top consultants and a
member of its national board is Ernie
Cortes, a San Antonio native who is now
director of Houston's three-member TMO
staff. Cortes has a degree in economics
sfrom the University of Texas at Austin,
where as an undergraduate in the early
60s, he was active in University YMCA
affairs. His interest in community-based
work led him to IAF in Chicago where
he eventually became a member of its
In 1974, Cortes returned to San Antonio and was instrumental in establishing the highly effective COPS (Community Organized for Public Service)
program. That group, also organized
through a sponsoring committee of
primarily Mexican-American churches,
has now become a vital part of San Antonio's political process. Cortes later
went on to Los Angeles to start up a
similar group there called UNO.
According to Cortes, Alinksy defined
himself as a radical but with a distinct
definition of the term. In IAF terminology, "radical" is defined as one who goes
to the root of a social problem and takes
action consistent with it.
"We're not liberals," says Cortes, a
short and intense bulk of a man. "Liberals talk a good game but they're the
first ones to walk out of a room when
there's confrontation. Radicals in Alin-
sky's definition are people who think you
only get out what you put in. Our
commitment is with people."
Liberals also discourage participation,
says Cortes, whereas IAF advocates
pluralism and a diversity of special
"The idea that we're all the same in
one big happy family is a fantasy," he
says. "It's oppressive. It's liberating
when the structure allows the conflict
of different interests."
The beginning of TMO in Houston
came in 1975 when the judicatory forum
of Houston Metropolitan Ministries, composed of area ministers, invited a member of the IAF consulting staff to meet
with them about forming a local group
similar to San Antonio's COPS. The
ministers were told that the first step
was to establish a committee of churches
to sponsor community action in Houston.
As a result, Houston Interfaith Sponsoring Committee, generally known as Interfaith, was begun.
The formation of Interfaith was
almost short-circuited when the visit of
the IAF consultant was "leaked" to the
Houston Post. For three days, the Metropolitan Ministries action was emblazoned
across the front page with Louie Welch
making his first statements about the
Alinsky "radicals." After a number of
years of retreat, Interfaith emerged again,
hired Cortes in 1978 and spun off The
Metropolitan Organization in 1979. Some
observers feel that Welch's current wrath
against TMO is vengeance because he
thought he'd killed the group in 1975.