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.
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.
In 1990, the election of Jerry Eversole as Precinct 4 commissioner changed the Court's balance of power. Radack worked hard in the campaign, fighting as much against Democrat Eleanor Tinsley as he did for Eversole. When the politically inexperienced Eversole joined the Court, Radack wooed him assiduously. Before long, the two seemed inseparable.
"Lindsay started losing control of Radack when Eversole took office in 1991," says one Court watcher. "They are well matched, both conservatives with suburban precincts. They've both been fucking the Hospital District for six years now." With a two-vote bloc in hand, Radack was well prepared to step into a commanding role when Lindsay decided not to run in 1991.
At the same time, Radack picked up another ally with the election of Mayor Bob Lanier -- an election in which Radack played a little-noted but immensely valuable role. According to Murray, Radack loathed Lanier's opponent, incumbent Kathy Whitmire. "He probably doesn't hate many people, but it's fair to say Radack hated Whitmire from years of bitterness as a cop. Being insulted by her. No pay raises. So he worked with a passion to defeat her." By luring west-side Republicans to the camp of longtime Democrat Lanier, he helped Lanier clinch the election.
Radack continued to back a string of political winners, working for Robert Eckels's election two years ago, and this year, supporting Mike Fleming for county attorney. On Election Day, Radack quipped, "I don't know if we're going to win the vote, but I do know we won the damn sign war."
Oddly, the person Radack is most often compared to is his foe's father: Bob Eckels, who built a reputation as the feudal overlord of Precinct 3.ooooo "Radack has become Eckels," says one longtime county player. "The heavy-handedness, the sneakiness, all of it. He keeps things close to the vest. He likes controversy among his staff. He either micromanages or he's totally detached."
"He might be E-Radack, but he's not dumb," muses Commissioner El Franco Lee. "It must be the water on that west end, because the personality type is more like Bob Eckels than it is anything else."
Though some remember the elder Eckels's final days in office as an accused felon under the gun from the district attorney, Lee and other veterans remember him as a commissioner who delivered the bacon for constituents while pounding political opponents. "Bob Eckels's management of operations still is a legacy that Radack is riding on," says Lee. "He was the ultimate gadget man and a strong hands-on manager who knew where he was going. Now Radack seems to have a purpose, but you never know what it is."
Certainly, no one would mistake the younger Eckels for his father. The new judge either lacks infighting skills or has no will to use them, and his staff mirrors that weakness. Eckels doesn't employ an enforcer such as Dave Walden, who filled that role for Lindsay at the county before signing on with Lanier. Nor does Eckels have a bureaucratic navigator comparable to Lindsay's Ron Dear: Commissioners' staff members complain that the flow of paperwork has stagnated since Eckels took office.
Instead, Eckels's aides, including chief of staff Dinah Massie and assistant Shea Guinn, are holdovers from his legislative staff in Austin -- hardly the insiders he needs to combat a rival as entrenched and determined as Radack.
Commissioner Lee describes Eckels as a Court newcomer who doesn't quite appreciate the way county business gets done. "I think he has some presumptions of things that were going on here, and he's at an age where everything that is old is bad," says Lee, now the second most senior member of the body. "And everything that's new and has computers attached to it is good."
Eckels is not shy about claiming the mantle of a new order. "I'm here to try to change some things in the way the county operates, and to a large degree have done more than I ever thought I dreamed I would do in the first two years in office."
Eckels attributes his difficulties to refusing to play the game the way his father did, and the way the current commissioners still operate. Traditionally, most of the wheeling and dealing between commissioners has been done in executive sessions and through personal contacts, arenas outside the public purview. When conflicts erupt during Court sessions, it's a sure sign that the power brokers have tried and failed to settle the matter between themselves.
"It's just a very different style than these guys are used to down here," says Eckels of the idea that he can make the public an extra vote on the Court. He distinguishes his willingness to air issues in the media from the old-style personal attacks between county officials. Determined not to turn into his father, Eckels says he wants to stick to issues, rather than enter name-calling matches with his colleagues.
He pauses. "That may lead to a different kind of tension, and they may not know how to react to that. [But] I feel better when I go home. I sleep well at night."
The things that irk Steve Radack about Robert Eckels are both large and small, and include Eckels's young daughter. Born midway through his first year as county judge, Kirby has become a regular fixture in the county judge's office -- much to the dismay of some colleagues.
"Radack thought that was one of the most ridiculous thing he's seen, bringing a kid to Commissioners Court," says one associate. Some of the old county hands found it disconcerting, both professionally and aromatically, when Eckels would pause during meetings to change Kirby's diaper. "That kid has pooped in four different meetings I know about," laughs the same source. "When she gets toilet-trained, a huge sigh of relief will go up around the courthouse."
Radack downplays this aspect of his and Eckels's differences, possibly because even he realizes the issue reeks of pettiness. "The point of the matter is there's a time and place for everything, and it's not good to have a kid at the table crying during a meeting. She cries for several minutes. It's not fair to the kid."
Still, Radack admits that the diaper-changing "bugs" him. "Anybody that's been a parent [knows] what happens to functions and what aromas can be like when the child's going through a teething process," he says.
Nonetheless, Eckels will continue to keep his daughter close at hand during work hours. "I think I'm real fortunate to have a job with the flexibility to occasionally bring her up here with me. I really like having her spend time with me and will continue to do so. I had her up here with Drayton [Astros owner McLane, who wants the county to help pay for a new stadium] .... I don't know what he thought of having a kid here. But I'll sacrifice a little professional decorum to have my baby with me. I just love having her around."
Since the tax-increase vote, Robert Eckels would seem to have a lot of crow on his Court's menu.oooooooo "Next time I face the voters, I'll have to live with the things he said," grimaces Jerry Eversole, stretching out behind his desk and putting a pinch of tobacco in his cheek.
The Clint Eastwood look-alike had just announced that he would break the yearlong logjam over Metro chairman Billy Burge. Burge had far outlasted his state-mandated eight years as a county appointee, but Radack, joined by Lee and Eversole, wanted to keep him around, since Burge had proven more than willing to shunt Metro dollars into long-delayed projects in their precincts. To keep him in place, the three commissioners simply blocked action on a replacement for Burge. And thus, to Eckels's annoyance, Burge remained. Providing an additional strain was the fact that Jet Eckels -- Robert's wife -- was working as Metro's legislative director, and thus a subordinate to Billy Burge. Jet left Metro last spring. She says Kirby's birth was the primary reason, but Metro sources say the growing tension between her husband and Burge also played a role.
Now, in the wake of the tax-increase fiasco, Eversole had agreed to provide the crucial swing vote that would replace Burge with Lynda Burke, a resident of an unincorporated part of the county (but not Eckels's original candidate, George Strake). The action also will not become effective until after the last Metro meeting in December, allowing Burge to wrap up loose ends.
Oddly, the public pressure created by Eckels's remarks on the tax increase may have forced Eversole to break the Burge impasse. Constituents, already ired by the tax-increase vote, were now demanding that Burge go. Though he voted to resolve the logjam, it was not a vote of confidence in Eckels.
Likewise, the other commissioners still nurse a grudge. Eckels says he's apologized to commissioners for some of his post-tax increase comments, but Precinct 2 Commissioner Jim Fonteno claims not to have heard it.
And Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee, who had previously defended Eckels as a well-intentioned official making "rookie mistakes," indicates that he's given up on the judge. Before that change of heart, Lee could be counted as a Radack opponent. (For instance, Radack irked Lee by supporting Jim Edmonds for Port Commissioner over 18-year veteran Howard Middleton, one of two African-Americans on the commission and one of the few blacks to hold a major county appointment.)
But in Eckels, Lee and Radack have found a common enemy. When the judge blasted some Hospital District board members and blocked the district's budget, Radack joined forces with Lee and Hospital director Lois Jean Moore to push the budget through. Around the commissioners' table, the joke was that only Eckels could put Radack, Lee and Moore on the same page. "It's really wild," says one commissioner's aide. "Now you've got Lee and Radack talking and voting together, something I never thought I'd see in my lifetime."
Lee, still visibly angered more than a month after the tax-increase brouhaha, says Eckels's outburst went a long way to undermine the camaraderie he felt for the judge as a fellow former state legislator.
"That was ludicrous," says Lee of Eckels's public venting. "That's what cuts deeper than anything. I mean, 'line your pockets?' Anytime you talk to Joe Willie or Johnny Longneck about 'lining your pockets,' that's stealing. I took that real serious."
Lee figures the tax-increase imbroglio can be traced back to Radack's continual provocations against the county judge. In Lee's reasoning, through repeated jabs, Radack finally provoked Eckels into the broad-brushed comments that drove away his potential allies on Court.
Radack makes that hypothesis seem likely. "I personally think he's managed to make some of them madder at him than I am," says the commissioner with an impish grin. "Some of those people weren't in this perceived rift of the Court. They were trying to minimize the effect of that by trying to work with both of us to try to settle our differences. And all of a sudden, you start swinging at the guys who are trying to help."
He doesn't seem at all unhappy that things worked out that way.
Robert Eckels insists he didn't screw up. He simply embarked on a new strategy.ooooooooooooooooooooo "I feel better today than I have in several months," he says, settling into a chair in his downtown office. Although several commissioners seem in a mood to disown him over the tax-increase verbiage, Eckels seems positively ebullient. He pulls out that draft list of his accomplishments and begins thumbing through them, starting with his efforts to save the county millions by reorganizing departmental purchasing procedures.
His new strategy, he says, is to turn on public pressure when he lacks the support of the old-order commissioners. He's quite willing to go back to the media when necessary -- or to decide issues in referendums.
"If I have to, we will take it directly to the voters," he says. "'Cause that's the only power I have."
That strategy worked for him in the last election, when voters narrowly approved building a downtown baseball stadium -- a cause that Eckels supported and Radack opposed. Now, Radack seems determined to play a role as the vaguely worded proposal is hammered into concrete legislation. So far, Eckels is steering clear of a head-on collision, diplomatically describing Radack's proposal for a joint Commissioners Court/City Council public forum on the stadium as "an excellent idea" -- even though other supporters of the stadium think it could hurt their cause.
Though Eckels says he doesn't intend to back down, he is looking for ways to mend fences at the courthouse. "I played golf with Jerry the other day and shot 121, the worst golf game I've ever played in my life," says Eckels. "Drives him nuts, 'cause he's a pretty good golfer."
Radack, though, is a harder nut to crack. "Steve does not enjoy playing golf. If we're going to spend any time we have to find other things we can do -- maybe just riding around, looking at his precinct. I really enjoy doing that. I'd enjoy getting in a truck at night and driving out."
He downplays the feud with Radack. "I don't consider Steve to be an enemy on Commissioners Court," says Eckels. "And that may frustrate him as well, because when we fight, maybe I fight differently than anybody he's ever fought before."
Radack, on the other hand, seems prepared to let the feud bleed on indefinitely -- and is not at all frustrated by the fight. "I'm not the one that keeps going to the media claiming, 'Steve and I are getting along better,' " laughs Radack, whining a derogatory imitation of Eckels. Radack recounts the time he buttonholed Eckels after one too many constituents had repeated Eckels's comments on the tax increase. "I said, 'Eckels, I'm going to just tell you what I tell them. I tell 'em that Robert Eckels is a liar. That does you no good. It doesn't do me a lot of good. But the fact of the matter is, you're a liar."
He continues, "I think the best thing Robert could do as county judge is get that ol' ring out of the bathtub and put in some fresh water and try to dissolve some of the problems we have .... Understand that when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, he's probably going to lose.
"At least," says Radack, "that's been his history so far.