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.

That $30,000 may be the largest single political contribution in county history, but even so, Garcia says she finds it hard to reach voters spread across Harris County. Because Harris is the third most populous county in the nation, she points out, "I'm running for an office as large as attorney general of 26 states."

Even more difficult may be crossing the gulf between city and county government. The late commissioner Squatty Lyons often remarked on "how difficult it is to cross the bayou," to traverse the distance between City Hall and the County Administration building. Former city councilmembers Jim Greenwood and Vince Ryan tried and lost their county judge races against Jon Lindsay and Robert Eckels. Councilmember Eleanor Tinsley tried, too, and lost to Jerry Eversole.

Garcia believes most voters have little idea of what the office does. In her public appearances she touts the watchdog role Driscoll carved out for the office -- though she admits that Commissioners Court and the county judge cut the deals, and the county attorney can do little more than review them. A case in point: the county's negotiations with the Astros for a downtown ballpark. "I asked Marsha Floyd [Driscoll's first assistant] if the county attorney was involved at all at the early stages," says Garcia, "and she said no, our work is just going to be to transact the paperwork."

Fleming contends that he is far better qualified than Garcia to represent the county in federal court. She counters with the argument that her management experience presiding over the city courts better prepares her for the job. Vince Ryan, a former city councilman who served as Driscoll's first assistant in the '80s, supports Garcia, and seconds her analysis of the job. Ryan says that the job of county attorney is less than 50 percent trial work, and notes that Driscoll's record as a trial lawyer when he won election in 1980 was scarcely more imposing than Garcia's. Driscoll appeared in court occasionally on behalf of the county but did not argue cases. "You can always hire a trial attorney," says Ryan.

Garcia is also preparing for attacks Fleming's backers might make just before the election. Because she's single and received the Houston Gay and Lesbian Caucus' endorsement for county attorney, she expects the anti-gay faction backing Fleming to make her sexual orientation an issue. "Hotze's done it before," says Garcia, "and I expect them to do it again." Fleming replies: "I have not heard there would be an attack like that. I certainly wouldn't do it, and I don't think that's an issue in the campaign."

Sitting warily in the Liddell Sapp conference room, high in the recesses of Texas Commerce Tower, Mike Fleming looks the epitome of the well-connected corporate lawyer -- though in point of fact, he's a part-time attorney the firm hired for at least the duration of his campaign. Unlike many political aspirants, Fleming does not fill the air with verbiage. He waits for each question, and his answers are succinct and defensive. He is still learning the ropes as a public speaker, and has heeded the advice of media coach Barry Kaplan to speak slower in deeper tones. (On the phone, his voice is noticeably more nasal; he hardly sounds like the same person.)

Fleming complains that Garcia hasn't resigned from the courts. "I left my tax-paid position to campaign," says Fleming. "Garcia is still over there. Why is she running for office after office after office while working on the government payroll?"

In point of fact, Garcia is taking an unpaid leave, and Fleming's own work situation during the campaign raises questions. He enjoys the relative luxury of a 20-hour work week with Liddell Sapp. His job is not an out-and-out contribution, but the part-time employment allows Fleming to run for office while bringing in a paycheck to support his four young children.

(A relative newcomer, Fleming seems to have forged instant high-level connections at the prestigious firm. A recent, highly successful fundraiser at a Liddell Sapp associate's home drew many of the firm's ranking lawyers to contribute to the candidate.)

Fleming's Liddell Sapp job is not the only questionable aspect of his campaign support. His wife, Natalie Jackson Fleming, was once a Harris County prosecutor; she now occasionally subs as a visiting judge in several GOP district judge courts. Those gigs could be construed as a partisan stipend for a struggling candidate's family.

About all the 33-year-old Fleming and Sylvia Garcia seem to share is their Roman Catholic faith and the fact both passed the Texas Bar. Fleming, the Florida-born son of a Canadian plastic surgeon, spent part of his youth north of the border. In the early '70s, the Flemings moved to Houston, settled in the tony Southampton neighborhood and became part of a social group of extremely conservative Catholic families that included the family of GOP judicial candidate John Donovan, Steven Hotze and Leo Linbeck. The parents shared political views while the kids ran in the same circles at area Catholic academies. Fleming, according to Steve Hotze's brother Jim, was and continues to be a family friend. These associations have led some to believe that Mike Fleming is a conservative stealth candidate wrapped in moderate guise.

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