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.

"People will look at this race when they're making their decisions to run for offices in 1998," says GOP consultant Allen Blakemore. "This is a very good down-ballot race, where you have two good candidates running two good campaigns. It's very even. This is the one that the real students of politics in Harris County are going to be watching."

Block-walking just isn't what it used to be, laments Sylvia Garcia as she trods door to door in the condo-and-art-gallery enclave just west of Shepherd at Westheimer. On this crisp October Saturday, the exercise could double as a tour of the latest security fences and automated doors. Garcia winds up making as many pitches through speaker phones to unseen residents as she does face to face with real live voters.

One young man who does open his door peers intently at Garcia. He asks, "Haven't I seen you before?"

Maybe he has. Garcia, 47, has never held elective office but has been in the public eye for more than a decade. One of ten children who grew up in a poor South Texas family, she worked her way up through a law degree from Texas Southern University to become a legal aid attorney. In the early '70s, she joined the newly formed Houston Women's Political Caucus, where she met mayor-to-be Kathy Whitmire. The caucus helped boost Whitmire into the political arena, and provided her with a core group of supporters who never wavered during her decade as mayor. Whitmire provided Garcia an entree into municipal politics, appointing the young lawyer to the tax-appraisal review board and later to the Houston Foundation, which awards grants to worthy projects. Whitmire considered Garcia for a city municipal courts associate judgeship in the mid-'80s, but the appointment was nixed by then-councilman Anthony Hall, who felt Garcia was too close to his Council opponent. Nonetheless, Garcia was eventually appointed to a municipal judgeship, and in 1987, was named chief municipal judge.

Whitmire and Garcia remain in frequent contact. A Press inquiry to Whitmire's Washington, D.C., home drew a return call from Costa Rica, where she is traveling. Whitmire praised Garcia's public service and high ethical standards, and pronounced her perfect for the county attorney position.

The women show marked similarities in their speaking and political styles. "There's not much warm fuzzies with either of them," says a former Whitmite. "They can be tough, particularly on subordinates." Like Whitmire, Garcia has no problem expressing a direct opinion. During joint appearances with Fleming, she is quick to interject comments like, "He's lying."

As chief municipal judge, Garcia has managed the 17-court system with few public complaints and received favorable notices for the creation of Teen and Environmental Courts to deal with misdemeanor offenses. The few flaps on her watch have been minor, as when a part-time municipal judge, Saundria Chase Gray, produced a television news segment initially advertised as "how to beat a ticket." "I got them to change that," remembers Garcia.

More recently, an administrative assistant to Garcia, Norma Gutierrez, filed a grievance with the city civil service commission, accusing the chief judge of giving her poor job ratings and work assignments because she refused to work after hours for Garcia's campaign. Garcia says she cannot comment on a pending grievance but denies that she has pressured any employee of her office to do campaign work.

Fleming describes Garcia as a professional politician, but she's only run once before for elected office, and that time, she lost. In 1992, she ran for Congress, hoping to snare District 29 -- the newly created "Hispanic" district -- but outgunned financially and in name recognition, she failed to make even the runoff.

After Whitmire was squeezed out of the 1991 mayoral runoff and Bob Lanier beat Sylvester Turner, Garcia showed remarkable survival skills: She is the only Whitmire department head to keep her post into Lanier's third term. She was reappointed twice by Lanier, after the mayor extracted a promise that she would not run for the Congressional seat again while remaining chief municipal judge. That stricture expired this year, when Police Chief Sam Nuchia decided to run for a judicial position while remaining at the police department. What was good for the chief couldn't very well be denied to the chief municipal judge.

This time around, in her second run for elective office, Garcia is a far stronger contender. She's much better known than opponent Fleming, and is almost his equal in fundraising, despite Fleming's lead in contributions from big downtown law firms. Garcia's lead is chiefly due to a single, massive contribution: $30,000 from Houston heiress Maconda O'Connor, daughter of the late George Brown.

Garcia met O'Connor at a conference for Emily's List, a national organization that promotes women Democrats. O'Connor inquired about Garcia's campaign, and was informed that Garcia couldn't afford billboards, one of the most effective tools for boosting public recognition in a countywide race. "You should have billboards," O'Connor told Garcia, with the authority of someone who could provide them with a signature. Later, Garcia campaign officials received a call from O'Connor's banker, asking where to send the check.

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