Pursuing Jerry

A former prosecutor finds it was easier to investigate ethically challenged officials than to run against one

A red-eyed sun peeks over the pines of the self-proclaimed "Livable Forest" of Kingwood at 6:30 a.m., finding county commissioner candidate Jim Lindeman assiduously working a line of potential voters as they pile into Metro park-and-ride buses for the 35-minute commute to downtown.

Lindeman wears the businessman's armor of well-tailored dark suit and black dress shoes, and looks as if he's about to jump on board to join the caravan of nine-to-fivers south to their daytime duties. After introducing himself by name and the position he's seeking, Lindeman usually adds, "and I've worked in the district attorney's office for 12 years." In an age when voters supposedly hate "politicians," running for office requires the sleight-of-hand talents of a David Copperfield. The not-so-simple trick is to seek a political position without appearing to be political. For this role the tall and boyishly 40 Lindeman is a natural. Not only did he prosecute criminals as an assistant district attorney, he busted politicians, too.

In fact, Lindeman is one of the few people in Harris County who can tell you from personal experience which is easier: running against an ethically challenged public official or investigating and prosecuting one. Lindeman was part of the team in District Attorney Johnny Holmes' office that probed City Councilman Ben Reyes for theft and campaign fund infractions and eventually settled for probated misdemeanors. He's running against Precinct 4 County Commissioner Jerry Eversole, a Republican who's been indicted by a grand jury for campaign spending violations. The arena of combat is a sprawling county commissioner precinct, larger than two Texas congressional districts, that sits like a cap across the top of Harris County, with one southern finger running through Garden Oaks to take in the silk stockings of River Oaks. Candidate Lindeman admits he misses the tools prosecutor Lindeman had for his tasks.

"In prosecuting, you have grand jury subpoenas, search warrants, tools that are really designed to help you ferret out the truth," he muses. "You have a waiting audience -- the grand jury -- and if it agrees and indicts you've got a jury and then press conferences. Expectations are higher, like being on a high wire without a net."

Running against Eversole is a very different assignment. Media coverage is scant. Lindeman can't subpoena his unwilling opponent to show up for a debate. The only jury that counts, the expected 150,000 voters in the precinct, requires big media bucks to reach. His own hyper-clean resume and his opponent's legal problems are the candidate's biggest assets. While Lindeman stresses issues like poor police protection and Eversole's wasteful spending on staff and office facilities, ethics is his ticket to ride.

"I'm not spending my time telling every one that I see that Jerry Eversole spent his campaign funds on golf or what I consider personal expenditures," Lindeman says during a lull in the commuter surges to the bus stop. "I've got so many other things to tell them about county government and other ethical problems that I don't have to refer to it directly.... But the law is there for a purpose. If campaign funds can be used for personal items like cars and jewelry for your wife, then it really turns it into a bribery system."

A former varsity athlete in the national sport of Kingwood -- golf -- Lindeman is seemingly made to order for the precinct constituency. Most of the bus riders willingly pause to shake his hand and accept a pamphlet and mimeographed list of questions skewering Eversole. A sample: "Which politician has increased his administrative staff from eight to 27 during his first six months in office, costing taxpayers over $2.5 million dollars since 1991?" The choices offered are archliberals Ted Kennedy and Tom Foley, and, the correct answer, Jerry Eversole.

The questionnaire, by likening Eversole to liberal Democrats, is a tacit acknowledgment of the candidate's problem. With his good looks and law-and-order background, Jim Lindeman has only one major vulnerability, but it may be insurmountable. He's a Democrat, albeit a moderate one, running in a very conservative area. "If anybody can do it, it's Jim," says his wife Linda, a probate lawyer. But can any Democrat do it in Precinct 4? She laughs. "We'll see, won't we?"

"Sometimes I wake up and think, 'This is a race I can't lose,'" exclaims Lindeman, a Christian Scientist who epitomizes the power of positive thinking. The only reason that statement doesn't qualify him for an immediate political shock therapy session is the nature of his opponent. In his first term as commissioner, Clint Eastwood look-alike Eversole has compiled a record only outgoing and out-of-pocket U.S. Representative Craig Washington might seek to emulate. The former Humble Chamber of Commerce head rocketed to political prominence after longtime Democratic Commissioner E.A. "Squatty" Lyons retired, opening the seat to a fight between Eversole and City Councilwoman Eleanor Tinsley.

Eversole proved to be the right man in the right place in the right party. He became a willing pawn of soon-to-be-Mayor Bob Lanier in his rail wars against Mayor Kathy Whitmire, and by extension, rail supporter Tinsley. Lanier, County Judge Jon Lindsay and Texas Senator Phil Gramm all pitched in to boost Eversole to victory. Once in office, he quickly established himself as the court's resident dim bulb, when he was present and flickering at all. A Lindsay aide once cracked that the judge's main task at the court sessions over the last four years was to keep Eversole awake. After making a campaign promise to amend the county budget to add more law enforcement officers in his precinct, Eversole missed the vote to make a golfing date, a recreational preference that soon earned him the tag "missing linkster."

And despite a counseling session early in his term from the district attorney's office on Election Code rules regarding contributions and gifts, Eversole spent his lavishly endowed campaign account wildly on golf clothes, gifts and even several firearms. He justified the clothing purchases as items to be auctioned off. Asked to explain why the clothes all seemed to be in his own sizes, he allowed that by wearing them he made them more valuable items at the charity events. He regularly submitted monthly credit card tabs to be paid from the campaign account, and included billings for golf greens fees that were paid by others. The spending spree and questionable documentation earned him eight indictments for perjury and false campaign reporting. So far Eversole has fared well in court, with a recent appellate ruling knocking out the perjury indictments. The D.A.'s office is appealing. (Eversole was unavailable to discuss the campaign and did not return a Press phone inquiry.)

Even with his legal problems, the commissioner remains in the catbird seat in north Harris County. Jon Broadbooks, the executive editor of the Kingwood and Humble Observer newspapers, says that Eversole's standing among voters is high. "He's worked with these people for years and he's extremely popular," says Broadbooks. "The Humble-Kingwood area and Atascocita are probably [among] his strongest bases of support. Even when the court case was at its heights, people were still very, very supportive of Jerry Eversole. And remain so."

Another reason for Eversole's likely staying power is the Republican-controlled Commissioner's Court redistricting plan that sheared much of the minority vote from Eversole's turf. Black voting precincts in Acres Home and the Heights went to Precinct 1's El Franco Lee and Hispanic neighborhoods were transplanted into Jim Fonteno's Precinct 2. What remains is a rock-solid Republican bastion likely to stick with the GOP, no matter how damaged the incumbent, no matter how attractive the Democrat challenger.

So that leaves Lindeman on a quest where money is short and he's likely to be outspent by a huge margin. He's in a contest that's being fought with few personal confrontations between the candidates. No debates between the two have been planned since Eversole pulled out of the only scheduled engagement, and a joint appearance at a Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce gathering allotted brief three minute speeches to each candidate.

Eversole has the backing of Harris County political powers such as Port Commissioner Ned Holmes and Jim Edmonds, chief of the Greater Houston Association business coalition. Lindeman, meanwhile, is being bypassed by big Democratic money in favor of other races where the prospects of victory are brighter. He estimates he's raised about $50,000 so far, and is loaning the campaign an equal amount out of the family account. His only paid media is likely to be radio spots, and not nearly in the quantity Eversole is buying. If this is Politics 101, the tuition is steep.

Lindeman has a knack for residing in neighborhoods that don't quite suit his current vocation. A decade ago the newly hired assistant district attorney and his family lived on a scruffy block in Montrose where street people and drug dealers provided a cultural clash with a Pepto Bismol-pink church with a purple neon Bible sign. Eight years ago the Lindemans moved to Kingwood in the familiar suburban search for better schools, safer neighborhoods and cleaner air. Unfortunately for Lindeman's political ambitions, it's also a place where elected Democrats are rare. Understates Observer editor Broadbooks: "This is a very conservative area. Just going back and looking at previous elections, conservatism certainly does tend to rule here."

So why didn't Lindeman position himself to run in a Democratic district and avoid the uphill climb? "I thought about that," he admits. "But my children are very happy in Kingwood. I had people who suggested I move to [Mike] Andrews' congressional district because they figured he wasn't going to run." Some supporters even suggested Lindeman run for Andrews' congressional seat while living in Kingwood, but, as he explains: "County government I understand, and it needs somebody who understands ethics and law enforcement."

A record number of Harris County assistant prosecutors are running for office this year, but all the others are seeking judicial posts. "I didn't go to law school to be neutral," says Lindeman. "When I worked in the D.A.'s office I enjoyed the advocacy role as a lawyer for the people .... I respect all the work the judiciary does, but it's just not a role I want to assume."

Other than his own cash, Lindeman has little to lose if he's defeated. Any showing better than 40 percent of the vote would be viewed as an achievement by most political observers. As a loyal Democrat running in hostile territory, he establishes party points for support in a future countywide race, including the county attorney position likely to open up at the end of Mike Driscoll's current term. While Lindeman won't say whether he's interested in the post, he immediately inquired whether county judge candidate Vince Ryan is likely to run. (Ryan flatly rules out a campaign for county attorney if he loses his race against Robert Eckels.)

While others may count him out, Lindeman isn't willing to give up on getting a conviction at the polls this time around. "I don't think the precinct is redistricted safe for any politician that isn't attending to business," he preaches, almost as much to himself as to the listener. "If the voters feel like you're not doing the job, you can't consider yourself safe, no matter how the district is set. In this district last election, only 19 percent of the voters voted straight Republican. Nine percent voted straight Democratic. So most of the voters do pick and choose down the ballot. And believe me, we're down the ballot."

Shortly after he resigned from the D.A.'s office, Lindeman told a prospective employer, attorney Tom Alexander, that he was likely to run for county commissioner. Alexander, who has the reputation of being the meanest lawyer in Houston, just glared. "He looked at me like I was crazy," laughs Lindeman, and said, "The only place to go from the county commissioner's court is the penitentiary."

But hey, Tom, you gotta get there first.

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