By Camilo Smith
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By Sean Pendergast
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Lee Brown invited the press to the Rice campus last week to hear him mulch over his nascent mayoral campaign. Of course, that wasn't the pretext for the gathering. Ostensibly, Brown had positioned himself before that soothing Georgia O'Keefe print in Sewall Hall to discuss his impending trip to Atlanta for the 26th Olympics. More to the point, Brown was there to talk about how he has personally taken it upon himself to become the frontman -- well, a frontman -- in Houston's effort to lure the Olympics for 2008, or 2012, or sometime long past the year that Mayor Lee P. Brown would have been term-limited out of office.
It was the public debut of Lee Brown, civic do-gooder with a mission, a mere and certain prelude to Lee Brown, mayoral candidate, and one that was preceded (by all of about six months) by Lee Brown, Radoslav A. Tsanoff professor of public affairs in Rice's sociology department, which in itself will be nothing more than a relatively inconsequential punctuation on the distinguished resume of the ex-drug czar, ex-TSU professor, ex-New York City police commissioner, ex-Houston police chief, ex-Atlanta police chief, ex- ... ah, forget it ....
It's easy to see why so many people are preparing to invest so much to ensure that "mayor of Houston" is the next entry on Brown's resume. The ex-(fill in the blank) is all smooth contours, a figure of such unremitting blandness that it's impossible to imagine his intentionally offending anyone over anything.
But, first, before he goes to City Hall, there's his mission: Brown has thrown in with Jim McIngvale and his Texas 2008 Committee, which footed Brown's expenses to join Mattress Mac in Atlanta this week to schmooze the many contacts the ex-(whatever) has made in his resume odyssey. Their effort has a certain grandiose improbability: McIngvale wants to bring a future Olympics not just to Houston but to the entire state, with events spread out between Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and, who knows, maybe Port Arthur. (We do think big in Houston; unfortunately, too often we think about the wrong things.)
After outlining his mission, Brown brushed aside the wink-and-a-nudge at tempts by the media to get him to break down and admit that his efforts are simply in the service of his future candidacy. Just for the hell of it, I tried the back door by asking whether he figured chasing the Olympics should be a priority for the city, given that we're already being rushed into spending who knows how much in public funding on $625 million worth of new sports venues.
"You notice he didn't answer your question," whispered one of the people in Sewall Hall who had managed to stay reasonably alert while Brown spent a couple of minutes creating a very thick verbal haze. I didn't care; by the time Brown was through, I had forgotten the question. It occurred to me that if the city would dispatch Brown to Kingwood for a few evenings, the residents there would be lulled into annexation before they could rouse themselves.
It's not Brown's lack of dynamism that's bothersome. I think most of us prefer a measurable degree of dullness in our elected officials, and Brown's definitely an adult, something you can't say with certainty about some of the other people who'd like to replace Bob Lanier. It's just that for a guy who aspires to such a highly politicized job, Brown seems to be so categorically apolitical. You get the impression that as mayor, he'd be most comfortable traveling about the globe, drawing on his contacts, hustling up the "Texas Olympics" -- as opposed to, say, figuring out how to balance the city budget while keeping the once-flush transit agency out of debt, or dealing with the likes of Les Alexander and Drayton McLane on a semi-regular basis.
Unfortunately for Brown, though, his exertions on behalf of McIngvale were not universally applauded, and, in fact, moved the City Council to spend what seemed like an inordinate amount of time last week rallying around Councilman John Kelley. The councilman himself was on the way to Atlanta on behalf of the Houston International Sports Committee, and he took the floor to complain that Brown and his new patron were somehow trying to muscle in on a project to which Kelley had already devoted a considerable amount of time. Kelley's committee -- which, by the way, is sponsored by a veritable who's who of big-name city contractors and other businesses with business before the city -- is the official Olympics-luring outfit, mind you, and Kelley suggested that Brown and McIngvale could better serve the commonweal by getting with his program. That was a notion seconded by other councilmembers and Lanier, who summarily offered up a round of praise and endorsements of Kelley's work.
Perhaps there was a small lesson in all this for Lee Brown, budding politician: that even doing something as essentially meaningless as attending receptions in Atlanta can piss somebody off. And so far, it's been instructional for the public as well, for we've learned something new about Lee Brown. We already knew that he's against drugs and crime, and now we know he's for the Olympics.