Opposing Counsel

County attorney candidate Mike Fleming brands his opponent a traffic-court jockey. Sylvia Garcia labels him a special-interest pawn. You be the judge.

Sylvia Garcia and Mike Fleming, the two picture-perfect candidates for Harris County attorney, settled into their chairs opposite the anchors for KTRH-AM's Hotline. Democrat Garcia, vying to become the first Hispanic elected to a countywide post, faced off against Republican Fleming, a jut-jawed former assistant county attorney. Even off the air, they radiated dislike for one another. They didn't exchange introductory pleasantries, hardly looked at each other except out of the corners of narrowed eyes, and traded nary a comment during the commercial breaks.

On the air, each talked trash about the other. Garcia painted Fleming as a stooge of GOP county commissioners and religious rightists; Fleming characterized Garcia, currently the chief municipal courts judge, as a quasi-competent traffic-court jockey.

"It's no secret that Michael Fleming was recruited and handpicked to run in this office," Garcia told the audience. "I just don't know why Michael Fleming wants to keep it such a deep, dark secret."

"Unlike my opponent, I haven't run for another political office," replied Fleming. "I'm not used to these political attacks .... You don't need to make up all these allegations and false claims. Just talk about qualifications."

Even by the standards of talk radio during campaign season, the pair's rancor seemed extraordinary. Midway through the show, anchor Lana Hughes -- a morning-show veteran who has seen more than a decade of dysfunctional personalities parade through the studio -- popped into the control room looking as if she'd bitten a lemon. "What's with them?" she whispered.

The answer, in part, is obvious: Garcia and Fleming come from different ends of the political spectrum. Garcia is pro-choice, and a strong women's-rights advocate. Fleming is a pro-life conservative with ties to the religious right. Because the county attorney deals with both the Harris County Hospital District's policies and law-enforcement protection for clinics, abortion -- always a hot topic -- is relevant to the race.

To some degree, dissonance is also part and parcel of the office. The job involves many important but routine duties, such as drawing up contracts for commissioners, staffing mental competency proceedings, providing attorneys for Children's Protective Services and enforcing county environmental regulations. But the job's most important function is an unofficial one: The county attorney is perhaps the only agent in county government who can question the actions of Commissioners Court and back that up with legal action.

In his 16 years in office, incumbent Mike Driscoll transformed the county attorney's operation from a sleepy little legal paper mill into a 65-attorney "law firm," and attempted to seize a measure of power from the Commissioners Court. As defined by Driscoll, the county attorney acts as a watchdog over the court, reviewing its contracts and deploying moral suasion. In that role, Driscoll not only fought for the county attorney's right to independently review deals approved by the commissioners, but even dared to sue to remove County Judge Jon Lindsay from office.

Driscoll has staunchly defended his office's duties, including one now in question: delinquent tax collection, which the court's Republican majority -- Judge Robert Eckels and commissioners Steve Radack and Jerry Eversole -- removed from the County Attorney's Office and turned over to a private firm. Driscoll filed suit, only to lose the first round in court. His successor must decide whether to continue an appeal, and the Republican officials want a county attorney who'll stop fighting.

After failing to find a candidate of their own choosing, Radack and Eversole settled on Fleming as their horse in the Republican primary. (His opponent, moderate Republican Mickey Lawrence, had previously earned Eversole's ire by exploring running against the commissioner.)

But the rancor between Fleming and Garcia also derives from their uncertain bases. Each has won support from what seems the opponent's natural turf. Fleming of course received the endorsement of Christian-right types such as Stephen Hotze; but surprisingly, he has also picked up the party-crossing allegiance of many of the mostly Democrat senior attorneys at the County Attorney's Office, his former place of employment. Garcia obviously attracts inner-city minorities and liberal whites; but she's also backed by Republican women activists, both because she's pro-choice and because they were alienated by Fleming's rough campaign against Lawrence. (Fleming supporters repeatedly misrepresented Lawrence's stance on abortion, incorrectly telling conservatives that she's pro-choice.)

Even the support of outgoing County Attorney Driscoll, currently traveling in China, is in doubt; both candidates claim his mantle. As part of the Democratic ticket, Garcia shares a blanket endorsement from Driscoll, and she says he promised her a personal endorsement letter but never got around to writing it. But Fleming is quick to note that Driscoll called him "eminently qualified to be county attorney," and there are plenty of indications that the incumbent may privately be rooting for Fleming. Driscoll's two business partners, his brother Vic, and acting county attorney and first assistant Marsha Floyd have all contributed to Fleming's campaign. Driscoll, of course, is not around to clear up the question.

Some view the complicated race as the litmus test of this election, the contest that will predict which party holds sway in Harris County into the 21st century. Given the near-total Republican dominance in countywide elected positions, a Garcia victory would indicate that the balance is swinging back toward the Democrats.

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