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With just three months remaining until voters pick a replacement for lame-duck Harris County Judge Jon Lindsay, Democratic contender Vince Ryan has hit a rough patch in his race against state Rep. Robert Eckels. A fire last week that authorities believe was set by an arsonist scorched the southwest Houston building that houses his campaign office, and a disagreement over tactics and finances between Ryan and campaign manager Jennie Taraborelli sent her packing.
Ryan figures to be heavily outspent by his opponent in the derby to succeed Lindsay in GOP-leaning Harris County. Lindsay decided not to run last year after accusations surfaced that he had taken bribes and favors from a now-deceased developer. His big-money backers then boarded the Eckels' bandwagon en masse, and the last thing Ryan's campaign needs in the stretch run is internal problems.
While the fire caused only minor damage and temporarily knocked out Ryan's campaign phone system, Taraborelli's departure poses a more long-lasting problem, says Democratic consultant Nancy Sims. "Systems and decisions have already been made so any new person that comes in is going to be in a really tough role to try to straighten that out. Vince's campaign is facing two to three weeks without consistent leadership at the top, and that is not good."
In an example of the discontinuity that arises from changing managers in midstream, Ryan says Taraborelli's successor will have to duplicate some of the work that's already been done negotiating for TV debates with Eckels. "Jennie was doing a lot of that handling, so we're going back and working these things again," he allows.
According to sources, Ryan fired Taraborelli after she allocated $10,000 to pay campaign bills from a $100,000 "media kitty" created by a personal loan from Ryan to his election effort. Her sin: Ryan was out of town and she didn't get his permission for the payment. Taraborelli says she knew replacement funds were coming in from a Ryan fund-raiser and she didn't see a problem in dipping into the loan money, and she was under the impression she had the authority to act without Ryan's okay and to sign checks on everything but his personal checking account.
The expenditure touched a nerve in the candidate, who has told a number of people that he's determined that, win or lose, he won't come out of the county judge's race encumbered with heavy debt, as was the case after he upset Cathy Mincberg in the first of three successful campaigns for the District C seat on City Council.
While the official line from the Ryan camp is that he and Taraborelli reached a mutual decision to split, she says she urged Ryan to let her finish a job she had taken pride in doing.
"The quick explanation is Vince and I had a disagreement over the management of campaign resources and what the role of a campaign manager should or shouldn't be, and he decided it was time to make a change," says Taraborelli. "If he sticks to the strategy I laid down, I wish him well and I think he can win."
That strategy, says Taraborelli, aims at maximizing the candidate's strengths while minimizing that financial disparity with Eckels. "Running in Harris County is a lot like running statewide," she says. "You cannot run in every spot of Harris County, you have to pick your spots, pick the places that you know you're more likely to return votes than anywhere else, go concentrate on those areas and not get pulled away."
Taraborelli's replacement is her former second-in-command, Cynthia Miller, a Harvard and UH law school grad with New York campaign and Capitol Hill experience. She raised funds for Ann Richards' 1990 campaign and worked for state Rep. Scott Hochberg in his recent Democratic primary campaign.
The squabble over expenses between Ryan and Taraborelli may just have been the breaking point in a relationship in which negative vibes built up over the last few months. The candidate prefers to cite philosophical differences for the split.
"If we're going to do things more the way I want them done," says Ryan, "there's a candidate and a campaign manager, and if they differ on serious issues, then there's a parting of the ways."
Ryan says the differences centered on how his campaign resources, funds and people should be deployed. "All you gotta do is watch the next three months and see where they're going to go. The fund-raising, I thought, needed to focus more on the smaller givers rather than trying to get major givers to come forward."
Taraborelli, suggesting that Ryan may be too much of a control freak for his own good, offers this parting observation: "Vince has a great shot at this, but he just needs to let go a little bit."
Ryan vows that neither Taraborelli's departure nor Eckels' financial clout will affect the outcome of the contest. "His [method] is money down and mine is people up. My goal is to raise $250,000 by election day. If I raise it, I don't care what he spends, I'm going to win this race."
Ryan's prospects are brighter on the personal front. The 47-year-old bachelor recently told friends he's engaged to 28-year-old Pamela Rodriguez, a dental assistant whose family hails from San Antonio.