After him, the deluge

Thank the Lord, Jesus Christ above, this is Bob Lanier's last term as mayor of Houston. Now that he's bankrupt every city service, he's leaving the whole mess to somebody else. But who?

Here it comes: two years of non-stop positioning and posturing by all the contenders and pretenders to the throne.And in politics, as they say, two years is an eternity.

Positioned for the TV crews in front of a fireplace mantle decked with holly boughs and pine cones, Lee P. Brown resembled nothing so much as a rather bulky Christmas gift to the city he once called home and soon will again.

The various beaming dignitaries who had gathered in Rice's faculty club were certainly treating him that way as Brown announced that he would be resigning as President Clinton's drug czar to become the university's Radoslav Tsanoff professor of sociology and a senior fellow at the James Baker Institute for Public Policy.

The job and venue were new, but the Lee P. Brown who met the press at Rice on December 11 wasn't. Whatever life-shaping experiences he had undergone since leaving Houston to became New York City's police commissioner and, later, a Washington bureaucrat, his public persona certainly hadn't changed perceptibly since his groundbreaking days as this city's first African-American police chief. Unreconstructed blandness would be the charitable description.

Clad in a conservative gray suit and a near-colorless tie, his hands clasped passively in front of his navel, "Back to Town" Brown pursed his lips, twitched his mustache like a quizzical rabbit and began dutifully chewing his way through a prepared statement. Along the meandering way, he claimed partial credit for smashing Colombia's Medellin drug cartel, "one of the most vicious organizations known to man," as well as "delivering a hammer blow" to the other infamous Colombian cocaine cartel based in Cali.

Having boasted of those world-class accomplishments, the abdicating drug czar then turned to methodically smothering questions from the assembled media -- almost all of which dealt with a much more parochial concern than international drug-smuggling rings. One by one, the reporters' earnest queries -- variations on "Have you come back to Houston to run for mayor in 1997?" -- fell away like blunted arrows deflected by the boilerplate that is Brownspeak. Even if they'd been firing journalistic Uzis, the bullets would have harmlessly bounced off the syllabic shield. Lasers couldn't have penetrated the verbal haze.

"No matter how many times you ask the question, I'm going to give you this answer -- I'm coming here to join the faculty of this institution," Brown finally said, coming to life for a brief moment by betraying a rare flicker of exasperation, which is as animated as he ever gets before a camera.

Of course, at one point the non-prodigal son did leave the door cracked just a bit by taking a quick dip into the holy book.

"The Bible tells us," Brown intoned, "there's a time for every season -- for every purpose on earth."

The reporters somehow managed to refrain from singing the "Turn, turn, turn" chorus, but everybody at the Rice faculty club knew what time it was. Brown's imminent ensconcing in the placid grove of academia off of Main Street was actually the unofficial start of the race to succeed Bob Lanier, who will be sworn in for his last term as mayor on January 2.

Brown isn't the only would-be Lanier successor maneuvering himself into position for a campaign. At this early date, it seems, almost any city politician with a shred of ambition who's fancied himself or herself as the lord of City Hall is turning his or her eyes to the prize.

Now comes the deluge: of contenders and pretenders, of two years of non-stop posturing and positioning by the mayoral hopefuls on City Council, of various behind-the-scenes intrigues and promises, of racially charged politics and early monetary commitments.

Of course, it's quite possible that Houston's next mayor isn't even among those who are rating early speculation. After all, as 1989 turned to 1990 and Kathy Whitmire began her fifth term with another huge mandate from voters, who would have predicted that Bob Lanier would be occupying the office two years later?

Although he didn't acknowledge the fact at his news conference, the newly appointed Radoslav Tsanoff professor of sociology had met last summer with a group of political advisers, including Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee, to map out his possible political future in the city.

Brown was told that if he wanted to run for mayor he should resign the drug czar position before 1997, return to town and take an academic posting, ideally at one of the city's two predominantly white universities, Rice or the University of Houston, where he could build a multiracial base for a coming campaign. While there's no guarantee that Brown will follow the script beyond taking the teaching and research posts at Rice, the first stage in the scenario has been achieved.

And what gives Brown such credibility as a mayoral prospect is the widespread perception in the Houston political community that 1997 is the logical time to elect an African-American as mayor. With demographic trends pointing toward rising Hispanic dominance in the next century, almost all observers agree a qualified black has the inside track to the mayor's chair now, but it's a limited window of opportunity.

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