By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
County Commissioner Steve Radack had been feuding with County Judge Robert Eckels for nearly two years, almost since the day Eckels assumed the top spot at Commissioners Court. The two seemed destined to clash: Radack, 47, is a former cop, an old hand as Precinct 3 commissioner and an accomplished infighter; Eckels, 39, is a newcomer to the Court, the kind of sensitive father who brings his baby daughter to work and pauses during meetings to change her diapers.
But Radack and Eckels's rancor wasn't apparent as the October 22 meeting of Commissioners Court wore on. A dull civility reigned over business as usual. Eckels made rote motions on page after page of agenda items, and the other four members of the Court voted their approval.
Then the judge moved to approve tax rates for the coming year. With that motion, the meeting -- and his shaky authority over the Court -- blew up in his face.
The commissioners rejected Eckels's proposal to keep the rate at its current level. Radack then diffidently moved to increase the county's levy by 4 percent. The other three commissioners voted in Radack's support.
The increase was hardly a mega-rise, but it would have put a big hickey on Eckels's list of campaign pledges. In a draft copy of a "Promises Made, Promises Kept" statement Eckels planned to release to mark his half-term in office, "Hold the Line on Taxes" was promise number one. Eckels intended to keep it.
He responded by doing something few other county judges have dared: After the meeting, he publicly attacked all four commissioners, calling them "kids in a candy shop" intent on "lining their pockets" with a tax increase "snuck" past voters.
Those harsh words earned front-page coverage from the Chronicle, which labeled the commissioners' vote "shameful" in a follow-up editorial. Constituents tied up the commissioners' phone lines with complaints.
Eckels had transformed his grinding mano a mano feud with Radack into a grudge match against all four commissioners -- a potentially disastrous situation for an executive with few real powers. Unlike the mayor of Houston, the county judge has no control over the massive county bureaucracy other than the power of his own single vote. To get his proposals or appointees approved, he -- like every other member of the Commissioners Court -- must cobble together a three-vote majority.
Despite the firestorm, Radack and the other commissioners refused to reconsider the tax hike. And while the public criticism stung Radack's large ego, the voters' outrage marked only a short-term setback. While Eckels had gained a measure of public support by trying to hold the line on taxes, his intemperate remarks had alienated the commissioners -- the potential allies he needs to counter Radack.
The self-proclaimed reformer had won the public-relations battle. But the wily good ol' boy triumphed on two fronts: He had his way on the tax increase and further undermined Eckels's position on the Court.
As Commissioners Court conflicts go, the Radack-Eckels collision may not measure up in sound and fury to the time back in the '60s when Commissioner Jamie Bray punched his Court opponents' aide, or to the yelling matches between County Judge Bill E. Elliott and Commissioner Wild Bill F. Elliott. As Robert Eckels points out, the scheming at the commissioners' table today doesn't approach the feud between his late father, Commissioner Bob Eckels, and County Judge Jon Lindsay during the early '80s. But the current discord has downtown insiders worried about the Court's ability to maneuver key projects such as the downtown stadium proposal from referendum to reality.
A few weeks after the tax vote, Radack paused from his efficient dissection of a barbecued half carcass of Goode Company's chicken to consider his power struggle with Eckels. A beefy guy with sandy hair and boundless energy, Radack wrinkled his pug nose in delight as he bore down on the subject. As he verbally pounded at the county judge, he didn't seem vicious so much as simply enjoying himself.
Radack revealed the basic Commissioners Court survival skill: counting to three. That magic number marks a majority on the five-member Court, and that number of votes can ram through projects and appointees. It's a skill that Radack has mastered, and he's never been afraid to organize a majority to oppose Eckels. Never mind that both Radack and Eckels are Republicans, or that Radack freely admits tearing down the campaign signs of Eckels's opponent, Vince Ryan, in the 1994 election. That was street politics; Court politics is a different matter. And in the Court, neither party affiliation nor previous political alliances count for much.
Radack's journey to power began in Louisiana, a breeding ground for hard-knuckled politicians. When he was five, his family moved to Houston from Shreveport. Although his size made him a natural tackle on the Bellaire High football team, his high school sweetheart, the former Sherry Jarrell, remembers that the coach berated Radack for being too gentle. He apparently obliged the coach by changing: The following year, his teammates voted him "most improved." Still, Sherry Radack, now a lawyer, says that the quality she most associates with her husband is "tenderness" -- hardly an attribute he shows to opponents.