By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Shortly before Vince Ryan and Robert Eckels were to engage in the first major debate of their race for county judge, Ryan crossed paths with outgoing County Judge Jon Lindsay between tables near the podium at the hotel ballroom.
Ryan shook Lindsay's hand and cracked, "Judge, aren't you glad you're not doing this now?" To which Lindsay replied, according to Ryan, "Vince, I wish I was, so I could get out and rebut some of the crap you're putting out."
Lindsay's lack of civility was understandable. Even though his name's not on the ballot, Lindsay, who stands indicted on a perjury charge (for allegedly lying on finance reports about his use of $200,000 in campaign money to purchase a dive boat for his son) and has been accused of accepting a bribe from a now-dead developer for rerouting a county road back in 1985, is caught in the middle of the battle for the job he's relinquishing after 20 years. His pale presence hovers like a specter over the contest between Eckels and Ryan -- as a prime target of Ryan, who's portraying county government as a corrupt nest of "insiders" presided over by Lindsay, and as a prime supporter of Eckels, who has inherited Lindsay's financial support from the insiders who've generously funded the judge's past campaigns and have generously benefited from county contracts.
Other faces -- some long gone from the scene -- are arrayed in the background as Ryan and Eckels enter the final weeks of their campaign. There's County Attorney Mike Driscoll, Ryan's former boss and longtime ally and Lindsay's longtime nemesis. Although he appears to be nearly physically incapacitated by the Parkinson's disease with which he has been afflicted for several years, Driscoll is still pursuing the lawsuit he filed to remove Lindsay from office because of the bribery allegation -- despite the fact Lindsay will leave office in January.
Then there's former Precinct 5 Constable Tracy Maxon, Robert Eckels' onetime boss, who was sentenced to a federal prison in 1989, after being found guilty of laundering money for an IRS agent posing as a drug trafficker. And there's Eckels' father, former County Commissioner Bob Eckels, who died in 1989, after being convicted of theft and forced to resign from office, and whose name is still synonymous with corruption in the minds of many county residents.
Ryan, a 47-year-old former Houston city councilman, and Robert Eckels, a 37-year-old state representative, are the inheritors of all the bad blood that's flowed through Harris County government for the past decade. That legacy is a burden for Eckels, not just because of the name he shares with his father, but also because he seems strangely unwilling to acknowledge the taint that spread over county operations in the 1980s. For Ryan, it's an opportunity, one that the calculating and ambitious Democrat is vigorously exploiting in an attempt to reverse the continuing tilt of Harris County toward the Republican side of the ballot.
The winner will come into another inheritance -- a county debt load approaching $3 billion -- when he takes Lindsay's place as the head of county government in three months. Once a mostly rural-based gravel-spreading enterprise, that government has evolved in recent decades into a massive operation that does the flood control work and road-building that has paved the way for Houston's suburban sprawl. It has control over the Astrodome, runs the charity hospital system for the mostly inner-city poor and operates the toll-road system used mostly by suburban commuters.
The county judge has one of five votes on Commissioners Court, which also includes four precinct commissioners. Each commissioner is the overlord of his precinct, with a largely self-supervised budget the size of those for small Texas cities. The judge's administrative powers depend on a working majority vote on the court. A majority is built on behind-the-scenes tradeoffs between the players rather than ideological or party alignments. At Commissioners Court, the first and sometimes only dictum of Robert's Rules of Order is, "Don't mess with my budget and I won't mess with yours." The lack of a strict party line is one reason why Commissioner Steve Radack is the most critical voice on the court of fellow Republican Lindsay, and explains how Lindsay could have feuded for years with another Republican who helped elect him to office, the late Commissioner Eckels.
In the behind-the-scenes, ''who knows who" murk of Harris County administration, such feuds can stretch across decades, so it's little wonder that the two candidates of the moment carry historical baggage so distracting that sometimes they seem more like mere bellhops dragging the luggage from debate to debate.
Early in his campaign Ryan referred to Robert Eckels as "Bob Eckels Jr." (The younger Eckels is not a junior. There was a Bob Eckels Jr., an older brother, who died in infancy.) Eckels, meanwhile, alternately embraces his father's memory and sets himself apart from the elder Eckels, especially when it comes to distinguishing the difference in their first names. The last name is definitely a problem for Eckels, as suggested by a radio ad he's airing that quotes Texas Monthly's description of him as "squeaky-clean."