But Reyes was out of town on city business and couldn't attend the meeting at which the grant was to be considered. So he passed along a request that his colleagues delay their vote on the issue until the following week, when he could have his concerns addressed. Lanier, however, was determined to avoid any questioning by Reyes -- perhaps because among the grant's more influential backers were his wife, Elyse, an ex-officio member of the MFA's board, and the wife of Meredith Long, Lanier's finance committee chairman and an MFA board member as well.

"I'd hate to have this bandied about like this," Lanier groused before summoning MFA director Peter Marzio to the podium. After admitting the museum could eventually raise the money itself, Marzio took as much time as he needed to bandy about his side of the argument.

Meanwhile, a couple of councilmembers dared to wonder why the vote couldn't wait until Reyes returned. Lanier would hear none of it. Anyone who criticized the grant, he declared, was "truly mean-spirited."

Lanier's attitude forewarned other councilmembers against raising the issue of the MFA board's ethnicity, and, in fact, they didn't. And neither did they honor their colleague's request for a delay, voting unanimously that day to award the grant.

Then, as if to hide their shame, they launched into an infuriating, self-congratulatory discussion about how wonderful it was that they were able to undertake the debate on diversity they had so diligently ignored.

"They're just so passive," says one frustrated City Hall observer. "It's like, 'It's the mayor's world and we're just living in it.' They're afraid of him."

How afraid was probably never more apparent than during last year's budget debate, when Lanier proposed a 4-cent property tax increase. Early on, a number of councilmembers were vocal critics of Lanier's budget. Among the loudest was Joe Roach, who, though a first-term councilmember, was the Lanier-appointed head of the high-profile Youth Violence and Gang Committee.

Roach's staff had been crafting a plan that included no tax increase and $25 million in spending cuts. But, according to sources, when Lanier's office caught wind that Roach was trying to enlist the support of several councilmembers, the councilman found himself in a "very tense" meeting with Lanier co-chief of staff Dave Walden and Richard Lewis, head of the city's Department of Finance and Administration. The two tore into Roach's budget cuts, insisting there was no way he was going to get enough Council support.

"Two months later, he comes out with this alternative budget," says a City Hall staff member familiar with last year's budget discussions. "How did he talk to the department heads if he wasn't working with Lanier?"

In exchange for killing his own budget plan, Roach got credit for cutting a half-cent off Lanier's proposed tax increase. That gave the ambitious councilman the headlines, not to mention allowing him to retain some of his conservative credentials while voting for Lanier's tax increase.

Lanier hasn't had to resort to such maneuvering with Council's other devout conservative, Helen Huey. No one carries the water for Lanier so religiously as Huey, who reverently nods her head in agreement every time Lanier opens his mouth. At times, Huey, whose motto is "Working together works miracles," acts less like a councilmember than a member of the mayor's staff -- a loyalty for which she has been handsomely rewarded.

The Lanier-appointed chairman of the Fiscal Affairs, Legislative and Neighborhood Protection committees, three of the most powerful Council panels, Huey is the point person for most of Lanier's agenda. Her work on the Comprehensive Urban Rehabilitation and Building Standards ordinance, or CURB, earned her a reputation as a tireless, if occasionally ruthless, workhorse for the mayor's inner-city revitalization program.

And, in fact, no Council district has seen the physical transformation that's taken place in Huey's District A on the northwest side of the city. Thousands of apartment units have been razed to make way for expensive new homes. Road construction, esplanade projects and other neighborhood improvements abound. Huey's district also is in line for another perk from Lanier: a proposed tax-abatement reinvestment zone for an ice-skating rink near Willowbrook Mall. The project will require two variances before it can qualify for the tax break, and it will bring a grand total of eight new full-time jobs to Houston.

"She's bright and she knows what she's doing, but she has sold her soul to the mayor," says a City Hall staff member. "She is the mayor's office."

Huey's leadership, particularly as a committee chairman, has not always gone over well with her colleagues. Driscoll, for one, has noted an autocratic tendency that mirrors Lanier's, especially when someone is about to offer an opposing viewpoint.

"Many times [at] committees run by Helen Huey, the public doesn't get a chance to speak," Driscoll says. "She cuts them off. In a meeting on budget priorities, George Greanias was there and someone asked him to speak. Helen Huey didn't want to have him speak, and I jumped all over her about that."

But Driscoll's attempt to at least ensure that a dissenting view got a public airing was an anomaly. Perhaps the most telling summation of the Council's attitude toward Lanier's juggling of city finances was offered, unconsciously, by John Kelley. He arose in the middle of the same meeting on the mayor's budget priorities, threw the sheets of budget handouts he had been given into what witnesses say was an empty briefcase, and headed for the door.

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