Radack-al Treatment

What happens when the county's premier good ol' boy tangles with a sensitive '90s-style guy? It ain't pretty.

Radack decided on a law enforcement career before graduation, and took the GED in order to join the Houston Police Department. (He later received his diploma.) Once in the department, Radack says, he found the prevailing racial attitudes under Chief Hermann Short difficult to countenance. "I did not like the attitudes toward minorities from the old guard, so to speak. The department wasn't near racially sensitive enough at that time." During his 11 years on the force, Radack says the situation eased. Still, he is no fan of Lee Brown, the city's first black police chief, or of former mayor Kathy Whitmire, who brought Brown to Houston.

Radack moved up the ranks rapidly, becoming the youngest officer at that time to qualify for lieutenant. But at the same time, he was already moving toward a future as a small businessman. First he dabbled with a Famous Amos cookie franchise in the Galleria; then he began running ceiling-fan franchises.

He left the department in 1980. By the height of the fan boom in the early '80s, Radack was nearly a millionaire. "It was the heyday of the fan business, with skyrocketing energy costs, and we were the largest Casablanca fan dealer in the United States," he remembers. "One of the happiest times of my life -- young children, loved to do it, it was fun."

He had married Sherry in 1971, and they now have four teenage sons. A devoted family man, Radack took a larger role in raising the kids six years later, after a car crash left Sherry with head injuries that required extensive therapy. Unfazed, she not only recovered but entered law school at the University of Houston. Sherry also has a mild case of multiple sclerosis. Several family friends say that a good part of Steve Radack's combativeness is the reflected determination of his wife -- that she's every bit as tough as he is.

Radack says he was inspired to run for office after a deputy constable paid a visit to his business to ask for a payoff. The deputy informed Radack that if he didn't pony up, the business might fall victim to a rash of burglaries in the area -- break-ins that many area residents believed were actually being committed by some of the precinct's lawmen. Radack escorted the deputy out of the building, and began thinking seriously about a run at the deputy's boss, then-constable Tracy Maxon.

Radack and his wife consulted with UH political scientist Dr. Richard Murray, who says that at that time the Radacks were uncertain whether Steve should run as a Republican or a Democrat. The distinct GOP-ward drift of the west side seemed to dictate Republican, and Radack handily whipped Maxon. By doing so, he earned the ire of Commissioner Bob Eckels -- Robert's powerful father and a Maxon ally.

Eckels Senior was already on his way out of power. District Attorney Johnny Holmes eventually secured theft of county property indictments against him for taking bridge timbers, and he stepped down rather than face trial. In 1988, Radack ran for Eckels's old job, and was a heavy favorite to win it. (Though not with Eckels's blessing: In the primary, the former commissioner actively supported two of Radack's opponents, former sheriff Jack Heard and GOP activist Russ Mather.) After the first round of voting, Radack came within a whisker of winning without a runoff, and looked to be cruising toward an easy primary victory against Mather.

That was before Channel 13 reporter Wayne Dolcefino blasted Radack with a series of reports. Over two weeks, Dolcefino accused the constable of using on-duty deputies to guard ATM money transfers for a security service in which he had a financial interest. The effect was devastating. "Wayne only hit Sylvester Turner with two days of reports," says one observer. "He beat on Radack for 13 days."

By the end, Radack barely beat Mather, 52 to 48 percent. "Radack was a different person after that," says the same observer. "He was a lot less sensitive, and the experience made him a lot more vicious in what he does to people."

Predictably, Radack sees the experience differently. "Naw," he replies to the suggestion that the tangle with Dolcefino made him meaner. "It was the biggest education I ever received in my life. But I have not held grudges about that in any shape or form. Hadn't really talked about it in nine years. You live on."

"It's interesting to observe up close when people are under maximum pressure," says Murray. "If you crack, you're finished in politics. If you tough it out, you may be finished anyway: The stories may have such impact and resonance you can't overcome them. But if you crack, lose your cool, blow it, then you're forever out of it. Radack didn't crack."

The commissioner took his seat in 1989 as Precinct 3 commissioner, and almost immediately began jostling with then-judge Lindsay, a two-decade veteran who dominated the county bond-financing mechanism with the tacit support of the other commissioners. Their first arena of combat was the Harris County Hospital District, an entity in which Lindsay had invested considerable political capital by pushing to build new charity hospitals. The district made an inviting target for Radack, whose affluent suburban precinct had little interest in the care of low-income patients.

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