All About Elyse

After years of making Mayor Bob presentable, Houston's First Lady is ready to get serious. Seriously.

Her seat is near the high-powered center of the U-shaped table, bookended between banker John Cater and John O'Quinn, the hotshot plaintiff's attorney who is handling her suit against the manufacturer of her third set of breast implants (and who is fresh from a victory over Dow the day before). Cameras click and whir as the board settles down to business; already it's clear that Elyse's presence will boost the profile of this historically lackluster institution. It's just as clear that the institution will boost Elyse's stature, and that she was smart to ask for the post when a Richards administration official sounded her out about what sort of appointment might interest her.

Not everyone greeted Elyse's appointment with joy. Faculty purists groused that she didn't even have a college degree. Chancellor Alex Schilt, who was said to have favored politically connected attorney Jonathan Day for the post, may have had reason to feel discomfited. But the political realists on the restive faculty have high hopes for Elyse Lanier: they see her and the mayor as potential allies in their clash with administrators. They note that Elyse sat in on a key meeting last fall in which Schilt and board chairwoman Beth Morian defended the university's efforts to lobby for funds in Austin -- and from which Lanier came away unimpressed. Those reading the tea leaves should hear Elyse on UH lobbyists' argument that "we got cut but we didn't do so bad."

"Well, my god!" she exclaims later in her office. "I've heard my husband say it's not a victory if you didn't lose everything!" More tea leaves: her announcement that "the city now is looking at UH much more than it did before. I mean, we're watching the [legislative] bills in Austin."

Her use of the word "we" is pivotal. To expect Elyse to serve as a mere rubber stamp for Bob's views is probably too simplistic a view. She does not sound like the giddy geisha of yore as she opens the door to forging her own path on certain issues: her husband, she notes, "respects my judgment and opinion in several areas." Sure, she got the post because she's the mayor's wife. When a reporter suggested as much to her ("I think he thought that was really a slap") she told him "that was the best reason they could appoint me. I mean it is! Think about it! I thought that was really smart!" Indeed, it is precisely because of her connections and newfound fundraising clout that she may prove an asset to the university.

"I get the sense from talking to her that she wants to show people, 'Look, I can do a good job on something other than flowers,'" reports one UH faculty member. Elyse knows perfectly well that her image has often been that of a lightweight. The awareness lies behind her blunt assertion that "I'm not stupid. But I'm more street-smart than book-smart." It is the subtext of her frequent proud references to the fact that both her children are in law school. "I just hope I'll be able to make some contribution," she says, her voice going quiet. "I can't tell you how or what, but I hope so."

Elyse joins the board when it faces hard choices: about the balance of power and the unevenness of quality within the multicampus system and about how to address the grim funding crunch in Austin. Although Elyse's buttonholing of all and sundry at George W. Bush's inaugural was perceived by some to be an awkward maiden attempt at UH lobbying, she may well be able to bring significant gifts from private and corporate donors into the fold. The possibilities click into focus when convenience-store millionaires LeRoy and Lucile Melcher enter the regents' meeting to receive thanks for donating a new $5 million broadcasting center to the university. Elyse follows their movements with laserlike attention; the minute the official presentation ends, she makes a beeline to the elderly couple, kissing both of them and chatting quietly, every Elysian molecule at full alert.

The potential to establish herself as a force in her own right makes UH the most savory of the many dishes on the First Lady's plate. She's got Hermann Park to think about: things began looking up for the long-languishing park, which by rights should be one of the city's finest, after Elyse persuaded her friend Barbara Hurwitz to organize a Friends of Hermann campaign. Too, Elyse has the refurbishment of Miller Outdoor Theatre on her mind lately, and her strong will is already making itself felt there. At a Miller advisory board meeting recently, Elyse took it upon herself to stamp out the dread negativity virus. When a member said they couldn't raise the kind of money to maintain Miller once it was brought up to standard, Elyse asked, "How do you know? It seems to me there's some way we could raise a couple hundred thousand a year." In this standoff, as in so many others, place your bets on Elyse.

Also on the table are the many little snacks the First Lady is fond of: quintessential Elyse stuff like calling NBA commissioner David Stern on behalf of the suspended Vernon Maxwell ("I still have hope for Vernon," says the optimistic Elyse); or inviting House Speaker Newt Gingrich to visit the Houston zoo, an idea that formed when she read a newspaper article that said zoos are Gingrich's thing. Just because she hasn't heard back from Gingrich, or from Stern, doesn't mean she's discouraged. After all, in the world according to Elyse, anything is possible. For proof she need look no further than the Sports Illustrated episode, when she was so irked by the magazine's decision not to publish a "World Champion Rockets" issue that she barraged their corporate headquarters with phone calls. When the chairman of Time-Warner wasn't available, she ended up speaking to the chairman of Time Inc. Days later, a company representative was on the line proposing a special commemorative issue and asking, "Okay, Mrs. Lanier, will you be happy with this?"

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