Man Overboard

Sylvester Turner seated himself in the witness box at 11:12 a.m. on September 6, adjusted the microphone, and smiled.

"It's been a long road, hasn't it?" asked his attorney, Ron Franklin.
"Been a while," replied Turner.
And then, just as he often had when he ran for mayor five years earlier, Sylvester Turner began to recount the amazing story of Sylvester Turner, the sixth of nine children from a working-class family in the Garden City section of Acres Homes, son of a commercial painter and a maid at the Rice Hotel. The kid who, after his all-black school in Acres Homes closed, was bused 18 miles to the Klein school district, where he became a championship debater and student body president of his predominantly white high school. The magna cum laude graduate of UH who put himself through school working nights at the Southwestern Bell headquarters downtown, then went off to Harvard, got his law degree and came home to a job at Fulbright & Jaworski. The young lawyer who left the blue-chip firm to start his own was later elected to the Texas Legislature, and eventually came as close as any African-American has come to being mayor of Houston.

It's a powerful, inspiring story, and for a few moments I found myself wanting to believe in Sylvester Turner all over again, wishing that the things I know about Sylvester Turner, and the things that I have good reason to suspect about Sylvester Turner, weren't true.

Listening to Sylvester Turner tell the story of Sylvester Turner was to be reminded why his mayoral campaign resonated so deeply with so many Houstonians, most especially older, church- going African-Americans: it was their generation that had finally kicked down the door, and Turner -- a boy from New Bethel Missionary Baptist, a scholarship boy, a Harvard lawyer by way of Acres Homes -- walked through. He was destiny's child, the pure promise of America.

It was also to be reminded how deeply shocking and wounding it was -- even considering the other not-so-flattering things that had been revealed about Sylvester Turner in the previous few months -- when Wayne Dolcefino, shortly after 5:30 p.m. on the Sunday of December 1, 1991, asked, "What did Sylvester Turner know, and when did he know it?"

What followed that evening was also a powerful story.

Before Turner gave his testimony, it was not unreasonable to wonder whether he might speak of himself in the third person, as he often did during his campaign speeches and appearances in 1991.

At first, that affectation had seemed to be nothing more than the rhetorical quirk of a former high school and college debater. But the more you learned about Turner and the longer you listened to him, the more you suspected that the Sylvester Turner doing the talking and the "Sylvester Turner" being talked about might not be wholly one and the same.

Turner did stick to the first-person singular after taking the stand in the trial of his four-year-old libel lawsuit against Dolcefino and Channel 13; nonetheless, there seemed to be two distinct Sylvester Turners in the courtroom. After Ron Franklin finished his questions, Turner would turn and look directly at the jurors a few feet away, flashing his little smile that always seems somewhere between pained and forced, and gently shaking his head back and forth in a rhythmic accompaniment to his words. But as soon as he ran out of words, Turner would abruptly swivel his head back to face Franklin, the little smile would vanish and his face would settle into a blank mask as he awaited the next question. And after Franklin had led Turner through his autobiography, many of the questions that followed in cross-examination by Channel 13 lawyer Chip Babcock were simply cues for orations, rather than answers, from Turner.

There were telling bits of testimony, though: when Turner recalled how he and two other young black lawyers started their own firm in 1984, it sounded as if he were talking about the way he ran for mayor seven years later: "We'd take 'em out to lunch," Turner said of prospective clients, "and say, 'Look at the resume, look at what we've done.' "

Look at the resume.
That, in sum, was the message of Sylvester Turner's 1991 mayoral campaign. "That seat is mine," he would tell mostly black audiences. There was no larger idea or cause: the seat was his, not theirs.

I got my first look beyond Turner's resume shortly after he began running for mayor. I was the Chronicle's political editor at the time, and the paper had run several stories on the fact that Turner did not live in Houston but had rented a house inside the city to satisfy the legal requirement for residency.

Turner dismissed the issue as a niggling legalism, but I thought, and I believe the residents of Kingwood would agree, that there's an important distinction between living and paying property taxes inside the city and outside of it -- especially if you want to be mayor. Turner's hasty acquisition of a city address also indicated he hadn't given a lot of serious thought to the idea of running for mayor before deciding to do it. A few days after declaring his candidacy, Turner returned the call of a colleague at the Chronicle; I answered the phone and in the course of taking a message from Turner made some feeble stab at humor regarding his residency.

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