Springtime for Bob

Lanier worship reaches an apogee at the mayor's million-dollar bash

It doesn't stretch the imagination to envision a sleepless Bob Lanier, perhaps cradling a nightcap of warm milk, looking out over the darkened city from his condo at the Huntingdon and pondering life in a more media-friendly world.

Given the mayor's recent carping about negative coverage of his administration, such a world would celebrate rather than examine Houston and extol the virtues of the man who claims with a straight face to have stopped the decay in Houston that continues to plague other big cities.

Last week, Lanier took matters into his own hands at a massive $500-a-plate fundraiser in his honor at the Westin Galleria. The evening's post-meal program seemed intended as an interpretation of a Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland musical, complete with rosy scenarios, ditzy blonds and singing cops without side arms. And best of all, there was to be no real media to cast aspersions on the fantasy for the thousand or so movers and shakers who responded to Lanier's call of, "Hey, let's put on a show of our own."

Instead of Andy Hardy, what the customers got was an extravaganza that evoked the Mel Brooks classic movie The Producers, a farcical tale of a con artist and his accountant who purposely try to stage a Broadway flop, only to have it become a roaring success. The musical interlude, "Springtime for Hitler," featured buxom fräuleins and prancing storm troopers singing the praises of Der Fuehrer.

A considerably more benevolent theme imbued the BobFest, which broadcast sunny musical images of "gleaming sidewalks, neighborhoods so fine and 1,000 more policeman patrolling the streets."

And in case it suddenly occurred to all in attendance that they had each shelled out $500 to help a candidate who has no serious opponent and most likely won't have one come November, the opening number pointed out in three-four time that "Mayor Bob has made the city great for every one of us, and that's the reason we're all here tonight."

Well, almost everyone. The brochure promoting the show virtually screamed "must see." But on the day of the bash, Lanier flack Sara Turner told the media, "No way." Still, sensing an increased responsibility in this one-daily newspaper town, the Press dutifully dispatched a two-reporter team to monitor the shindig. Mayoral factotums Page Cullison and Robert Frelow Jr. greeted us cheerfully -- and often, turning up with a smile and a kind word whenever we ventured within spitting distance of anyone who appeared ready to say something.

But cognizant of the image-making power of the evening (the fundraiser, of course, gave fair warning of Lanier's deep campaign pockets to any potential challengers), the mayoral functionaries paid scant attention to the television cameramen, who, unencumbered by their nosy reporter sidekicks, were permitted token forays into the packed reception in the anteroom outside the main ballroom. There, a smattering of ambitious councilmembers, including future mayoral contender Helen Huey, probable at-large Position 2 hopeful Joe Roach and, in an interesting turn, Lanier irritant and all-but-declared candidate for controller Lloyd Kelley mixed with the predictable herd of contractors, downtown power lawyers and assorted politicos.

Despite the presence of Congressman Ken Bentsen, county Democratic Chairman David Mincberg and his wife, Cathy, a Houston school trustee, it was strictly B-list, however. The real powers behind Lanier, such as Metro board chairman Billy Burge and lawyer Joe B. Allen, chatted at a more select pre-dinner reception elsewhere in the hotel.

For the main event inside the ballroom, the assembled settled around 124 ten-seat tables packed wall-to-wall before a stage sporting a panorama of the downtown skyline and bracketed by red "3 Peat" banners. The message was obvious, though Mayor Bob played coy all evening about declaring his intent to stand for a third term. Some of Lanier's boosters even seemed a bit impatient to drop the posturing. Event chairman Meredith Long offered the incumbent this bit of advice from the podium: "There's no such thing as being a little bit pregnant."

Meanwhile, as the multitudes dug into a spinach and fruit salad topped with walnuts, Cullison and Frelow were going hungry, haplessly trailing the two Press reporters through the crowd. Shortly after term limits guru Clymer Wright happened by and expressed shock that the mayor's folks planned to eject the media from the party, the two media keepers finally appealed to Dave Walden, Lanier's pugnacious co-chief of staff, for help.

Widely known as the administration's enforcer, Walden provided an abrupt change of style from the firm but polite pleadings of Cullison and Frelow.

"I want your ass out of here, and I will cause a scene," threatened Walden. "And you are a true jerk," he added, addressing just one member of the Press' tag team. "What makes you so much more special that the other media, other than charm and good looks?"

Keeping our hands in full view, we answered that the media has the right to cover an event in which an elected official is sucking nearly a million dollars into his campaign account from special interests making those contributions largely because of the power of his office. We added that we believed it was worth making a scene over.

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