By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
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By Craig Malisow
With his thinning gray hair, metal-rimmed glasses, boot-cut Levis, red suspenders and striped, short-sleeved Western shirt, Dennis Cordray doesn't look exactly mayoral. Cordray more resembles someone you'd find working in the lumberyard of a hardware store -- which is exactly what he did before being elected mayor of South Houston in 1987. And it's what he may be doing again soon -- assuming, of course, he gets his old job back at Olshan Lumber -- now that his stormy seven-year tenure as chief executive of the fraying bedroom community off the Gulf Freeway has ended in his impeachment.
To outsiders, the squabble that led to Cordray's being booted from the office he was elected to four times might seem petty, or simply part of the routine give-and-take of political discourse that would go mostly unremarked upon in other cities. But Cordray presided over South Houston, a town whose politics are as roughhewn, prideful and feisty as its citizenry. South Houston is the sort of place where the man touted by some as the "richest man in South Houston" -- "Honest Gene" Kitch, mayor from 1971-79 -- owns a mobile- home park and keeps as his castle a double-wide trailer. It's the sort of place that has a long history of political brawling, and where the call for the impeachment of top public officials isn't all that rare. (Lynn Brasher, South Houston's mayor in the early '80s, had to beat back an impeachment attempt.) In short, South Houston is a place where eight-term mayor George Washington Christy -- who owned a circus and used South Houston as its winter headquarters -- could remark, when explaining why he didn't want to make another run for office, that, "I retired from the circus business, and being mayor would put me right back where I started."
Not that Dennis Cordray viewed being mayor of South Houston that way. He thought it was a pretty good job. It paid decently, and didn't involve any heavy lifting. In many ways, Cordray embodies the recent history of his town, formerly a mostly white, working-class enclave of steelworkers and refinery hands who've seen their fortunes and their city decline as union jobs disappeared and longtime residents died off or fled to more distant suburbs. Before his stint at the lumberyard, Cordray spent 24 years working at Armco Steel, at the kind of well-paying job that for years put food on the table and boats in the driveways of many east Harris County residents. "I made good money there," Cordray recalls. "I enjoyed it, had a great time. But all those good jobs are gone." After Armco got "put out by the Japs," as Cordray describes the global economic dislocations that led to the shuttering of the massive steelworks in 1983, he turned to politics.
Born and raised in South Houston, Cordray set his sights on becoming mayor of his hometown after winning election to the city council in 1985. For one thing, the pay was about as good as what he was taking home from the lumberyard. "Felt like I always wanted to be mayor," he explains. "The mayor's job paid $30,000, expense account, city car, 12 superintendents. It's a good job."
But Cordray was keenly aware of the small-town political realities that can twist longtime friends into bitter enemies, and which eventually did him in. "You see, in this little city, you're either in or out," he says. "It's not Republican or Democrat, that's how I explain it. You're either for someone or you're against someone. That's the way it is. There's no middle ground. You can pretty well tell who your allies are and who your allies are not."
Cordray had an issue in his original run for mayor -- the incumbent had brought in an "outsider" as police chief, an unpopular move with residents -- and he found it wasn't all that expensive to buy the fliers, envelopes and stamps he needed to get his message out to the town's small pool of voters.
"In South Houston," Cordray says of the shoestring campaign that led to the first victory, "it costs $2,000 to become mayor."
But as he found out seven years later, it costs about $5,000 to unbecome mayor.
"The problem here is money..."
South Houston is a place that thousands of people almost visit every day. Unfortunately for South Houston, "almost" is the important word here; the community is a drive-by town of the most literal sort. Since the Gulf Freeway just misses South Houston's southwestern tip by a few hundred yards, some 200,000 motorists a day pass by the town, never letting up on the gas as they speed right past the "South Houston Next Exit" sign on I-45.
That's just one of many cruel hands fate has dealt South Houston since 1915, when efforts to incorporate the town were sparked by residents complaining that cattle were wandering in and dying within the confines of their sparsely settled village nine miles from the Harris County Courthouse. That same year, a hurricane crippled the candy, stove and gasoline-engine manufacturing plants that were among the area's economic mainstays, and residents began to turn to industries along the Houston Ship Channel and in Houston for employment. Eventually, and almost without notice by the larger municipalities around it, the three-square-mile city was enveloped by Houston and Pasadena.