The Czar's Return

Lee P. may be headed back to town, with City Hall in his sights

Mayor Lee P. Brown?
It has a nice ring -- at least to Lee P. Brown.
The former Houston police chief and current drug czar in the Clinton administration has been quietly sounding out his prospects for a return to the city and a possible run for mayor in the post-Bob Lanier era. But first, Brown is looking to get himself set up with an academic gig, preferably at Rice or the University of Houston.

That's the word circulating after Brown met a few weeks ago with an informal political brain trust assembled in the office of County Commissioner El Franco Lee.

"He was here to look at the possibility of running for mayor and get advice," confirms one person who's spoken with Brown. "He's trying, with El Franco sort of coordinating things, to get a realistic handle on the lay of the land. He'd re-establish residency this year or early '96, with an eye for running for mayor in '97."

Brown, meanwhile, has had ongoing discussions about local politics and other matters with Lanier. The talks are "exploratory on both sides," a source explains. "Lanier's interested in looking at the field for the next mayor and Brown was interested in feeling out where the mayor's at."

Brown has privately signaled that he may be leaving the Clinton administration as early as June, although he's expressed concern that his effectiveness as drug czar might be diminished if word of his interest in returning to Houston leaked out.

The conventional wisdom holds that the term-limited Lanier will run for a third and final term next November, giving Brown two years to re-establish himself as a presence in the city before the 1997 mayoral contest.

Brown became Houston's first and only black police chief with his appointment by Mayor Kathy Whitmire in 1982. He left seven years later to become New York City's police commissioner but continued to maintain a residence here. After his brief stint in New York, he returned to Houston during the terminal illness of his wife and taught at Texas Southern University, then joined the Clinton administration.

Brown has long been viewed as a sort of local version of Colin Powell -- a black man in a uniform with potential crossover appeal to white and Hispanic voters and no discernible political views or ideological baggage. But the low-key Powell is downright charismatic next to Brown, whose wooden presence and penchant for bureaucrat-ese contributed to his being tagged as "No Rap" Brown when he served as Atlanta's police chief before arriving in Houston.

So it's little wonder that he's seeking advice before wading into the electoral waters. Those who huddled in County Commissioner Lee's office to give it to him included consultant Dan McClung, University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray and lawyer Nene Foxhall. McClung is a specialist in campaign mailings and phone banking; Foxhall, of the Mayor, Day, Caldwell and Keeton firm, managed the Harris County portion of Mike Andrews' unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid; and Lee presides over a well-oiled political machine in black neighborhoods on the city's south side.

Participants in the meeting would not speak on-the-record, and Brown's office in Washington did not respond to requests for an interview with the czar. But McClung did offer his opinion of Brown's political viability, saying that the former chief retains some of the glow of his tenure here.

"I don't think he left town with a single blister. As far as I can tell his work in New York was high quality. He didn't whip all the crime in New York City by any means, but he did a good job as superintendent."

Murray says Brown would automatically be in the "first tier" of potential Lanier successors if he does decide to return here and enter politics. Because Brown's career follows a single track, his identity is well established and positive, Murray says. "He's thought of as a high-level, administrative law enforcement person. And the fact that there were troubles in New York on his tour, well, that's a long way from Houston and there's not much knowledge of that."

Among other troubles, Brown came in for heavy criticism when his New York force failed to move quickly to quell rioting in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn. But that episode didn't pose much of a problem when Brown was politely questioned and then easily confirmed as drug czar by a U.S. Senate committee.

Not everyone, however, is enthused by the prospect that Brown might launch a political career in Houston. One downtown insider who was not invited to the meeting at Lee's office sounded positively dour: "I have a lot of concern with the notion that somebody who spent six, maybe eight years in Houston is coming back to be mayor. I guess I would be a little puzzled that we don't have anyone in Houston whose had longer continuous tenure who might be qualified."

Among others who don't like the sound of "Mayor Brown" are the city's major police employee groups, who warred with Whitmire and Brown over salary and arbitration issues. Brown had a reputation with many officers as "Out of Town Brown" for the inordinate amount of time he spent away from Houston on national and international speaking engagements while HPD issues were being hashed out here.

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