By Camilo Smith
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By Sean Pendergast
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Political unknown Steve Mansfield won a seat on the highest court of Texas criminal jurisprudence last week the same way he fished for dates in personal ads he placed in the Greensheet: with a self-confident pitch, a shoestring budget and a lot of double talk.
The Houston lawyer now says he never had any expectation of winning and launched his statewide campaign simply to garner name recognition that would help him attract future legal clients. But in the wake of the statewide Republican tide that swept Democratic judges off their benches en masse, he's now preparing to move to Austin to don the black robe of a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for a six-year term and an annual $95,000 salary.
Mansfield has almost no experience in the practice of criminal law. But he does have some unusual life experiences -- especially for a Republican -- including a youthful bust for dope possession, a fine that he paid for practicing law in Florida without a license and, more recently, a severe beating he suffered at the hands of an irate ex-girlfriend he had met through the personals.
Mansfield admits that such information "probably would have been a death blow to the campaign" had it surfaced in advance of the November 8 election. Most of it didn't, so instead Mansfield's been taking greeting calls from his future colleagues on the appellate court and looking forward to his grand new career.
"Yes, I am," says Mansfield. "It's an extremely important responsibility. I intend to be the hardest working, most aboveboard member of the court. And because all I've gone through, I realize I'm going into the court with a fairly heavy burden of proof and I intend to live up with it, by being, I guess you could say, purer than Caesar's wife."
Portia might object to the comparison. In a pre-election issue, Texas Lawyer labeled Mansfield a "stealth" candidate for claiming extensive criminal court experience when almost all his legal work has been as in-house counsel for insurance companies. He didn't even pass the Texas bar exam until less than two years ago. Mansfield also claimed to be a native-born Texan, when he was actually born in Brookline, Massachusetts, Democrat Michael Dukakis' stomping grounds. But what's another fib, anyway?
When the dark-haired, crinkly eyed rugby enthusiast gets caught in a lie, he slides into an almost endearing aw-shucks, Huckleberry Finn-posture. "I regret that some mistakes were made, and I did apologize and took the heat," Mansfield says
of his misstatements to the media. "I'm a big boy."
Standing in his front doorway of his southwest Houston home -- clad in an Oilers T-shirt, red jogging shorts and sneakers -- that's exactly what the 42-year-old judge-elect looks like. He'd like to invite a reporter in, Mansfield says apologetically, but an enraged Pomeranian chewing the mangled blinds over the living room windows doesn't seem to care for visitors. There's a spiffy blue Mercedes in the garage, but otherwise the one-story brick house and yard look derelict, no doubt the result of the owner's inattention in the months he spent campaigning across the state. "I've learned, much to my chagrin," he continues, "that when you run for public office, anything you've ever done, no matter how trivial, is going to come out."
For example: four years ago Mansfield wrote a woman who had answered his Greensheet ad, telling her he was "in excellent condition, have brown/black hair and deep blue eyes; I believe you'll like what you see. To answer a question that is on your mind, I have dated seriously a black lady before, namely the person who died."
"That woman's not dead," laughs the woman who answered the ad and, for a while, became Mansfield's girlfriend. She adds a snort of contempt for emphasis, then recalls that Mansfield also claimed to be a former pro football player -- an experience his slight physique belies at first glance.
"You guys are going to find he lies," she says. "Lies a lot. Anything he says, you can pretty much bank is not the truth." The woman, who asked that her name not be revealed, says she is a psychology student now engaged to be married to a man she met after her relationship with Mansfield broke up in 1992. By her account, she answered the personals letter from Mansfield "on a dare from my cousin" and later moved into his house.
Mansfield once again turns sheepish when asked about what seems to be just one more in a series of untruths. "Oh, that was puffery," he says of the talk about a dead woman. "It never happened." So why write it? "Oh, I don't know. That was four years ago. I don't know why I said it. I think it's kind of weird that personal letters like this are actually coming out like this. I think it's bush-league. But I'm not going to defend anything about it. It's not relevant."
Yet five minutes later he's confiding that "sometime we should sit down and talk about this. It makes the Texas Lawyer stuff seem like a walk in the park."