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By Jeff Balke
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By Sean Pendergast
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Trouble, for a change, had come looking for Jon Lindsay. Usually, it's the other way around. It was a Monday afternoon in late February, and the former county judge and his oldest son, Steve, were driving across northwest Harris County, intermittently stopping to plant another "Lindsay for Senate" yard sign on the roadside or medians.
"We got over close to 290 and the Belt, and I said, 'Steve, that pillar of smoke over there, that's in the direction of our house,' " Lindsay recalled a few days later. But 36-year-old Steve, a dead ringer for his father if you added a red beard and thatch of hair to Jon Lindsay's campaign portrait, didn't think so.
"Nah," he told his father. "It's not there."
The pair continued to methodically work their way along the Beltway to State Highway 249. The smoke column, meanwhile, continued to billow, along with Lindsay's uneasiness.
"Steve, that's in the direction of our house," repeated Lindsay.
"Nah, not that way, Dad," Steve Lindsay said again.
The Lindsays forged ahead on their sign-staking expedition, heading east until they got to Bammel-North Houston Road. Looking north from that vantage point, Lindsay figured it was time to consult a map. Sure enough, Bammel ran straight to the Lindsay spread, and that pillar of smoke was right in line with the thoroughfare.
"So we quit putting up signs," explains Lindsay, "and started running red lights."
By the time they reached the Lindsay homestead off Kuykendahl Road north of FM 1960, fire trucks were swarming along the road and a thick fog of smoke had settled across the woodlands.
For a while, it appeared as if Lindsay's six-bedroom home and acres of pines would end up as kindling. But the winds died down later that day, stopping the fire line in its black tracks a quarter-mile from the edge of the Lindsay domicile.
It was just another close call for Jon Lindsay, who's seen his political fortunes repeatedly threatened over the past decade, although those blazes were usually of his own making. As with the real flames of late February, the figurative fires always seem to pull up just short of engulfing Lindsay. Which is not to say he hasn't been burned.
From behind the rambling two-story house, which sits secluded at the end of a winding, unpaved driveway, the chewing growl of a power saw echoed through the brush-choked pinewoods.
It was late morning, but the expected seasonal chill was nowhere to be felt. The wind's breath was already hot under a cloudless sky, and it carried the faint, acrid smell of charred wood, the calling card of the massive brush fire that five days earlier had seemed determined to consume these parched woodlands.
The saw went silent and a sweating Lindsay, clad in a work shirt and jeans, appeared from behind a hillock of raked pine needles to greet his visitor. He had spent the morning clearing out parched brush and deadwood that might have fueled the incineration of his home, had the fire gotten much closer. The house and surrounding 54-acre spread are the heart of Lindsay's Harris County world, one the former engineer has fashioned over the past 30 years from concrete, politics and a steely determination to succeed.
It's also likely to be the financial cornerstone of the family fortune for decades to come. Not so coincidentally, a subdivision abutting Lindsay's domain includes roads that run directly to his property line, all ready for extension when Lindsay decides to market his acreage for residential development.
At present, however, Lindsay is still reaping the benefits of a timber-growing exemption on the land that's required him to pay taxes on only a fraction of its market-value assessment over the past decade. The two segments eligible for the exemption total 48 acres and have an assessed value for taxes of $287,000. Due to the exemption, however, Lindsay pays taxes on just $10,620 of that total.
The land is thickly wooded, so the exemption is plausible, though Lindsay concedes the only timber sales he's ever made have been on pine saplings, rather than mature trees. The nonchalance with which he acknowledges taking advantage of a break that some might find just a little questionable is characteristic of Lindsay. It's the same disregard for appearances that Lindsay exhibited years ago, when he told the Houston Post that of course he saw to it that his friends and money-contributors got county contracts -- who else would he give them to?
A wiry 60-year-old whose most memorable feature is a pair of hooded, knowing eyes, Lindsay has a knack for appearing totally at ease and non-judgmental, a quality that makes him a good downtime companion. Former Post reporter Pete Brewton, a lanky West Texan who first blew the whistle on the county judge's alleged ethical indiscretions in the late '80s, says he initially was drawn to Lindsay by those personality traits.
"He's very smooth and even-keeled, and doesn't get bent out of shape one way or another," muses Brewton. "He's always had that cool, calm, collected quality."
Yet Lindsay seemed more than a little ruffled less than two years ago, following a series of published allegations that he had misused his office for personal gain, including the acceptance of a bribe in the mid-'80s to reroute a county road. He was eventually indicted for perjury on an unrelated allegation, and County Attorney Mike Driscoll, pursuing the bribery allegation, filed a lawsuit to remove Lindsay from the office he had held for almost 20 years. Before that could happen, though, Lindsay decided not to seek re-election in 1994, saying he might return to engineering, his trade prior to becoming a professional politician.