Nature's Call

The short blond woman, who had come dressed in a fetching red-white-and-blue ensemble, seemed on the verge of tears after City Council had taken its final vote to annex Kingwood.

Out in the hallway a few minutes later, she eagerly satisfied the electronic media's need for a handy "angry Kingwood resident," telling the cameras in a tremulous voice that she felt "violated" by the annexation. Somebody -- maybe it was her, maybe it was the dark-haired woman in the T-shirt proclaiming that "Will Rogers Never Met Bob Lanier" -- likened the Council's action to Red China's pending takeover of Hong Kong.

The cameras moved on, but the blond woman remained, and she was lingering a few minutes later when the Great Satan himself came shambling around the corner on his way to conduct more pressing municipal business.

"Excuse me," said Lanier as he gingerly brushed past the woman. "I've got to go to the bathroom."

There was a note of urgency in his voice.
"Good," muttered the blond woman. "I hope you pee all over yourself." The new mayor of Kingwood kept right on going, apparently oblivious to the remark. It's reasonable to assume, however, that he would have enjoyed directing that particular stream elsewhere.

He certainly would have been entitled to do so, and from a majestic height, for what Lanier pulled off in annexing Kingwood was an awesome act of political willpower, something you rarely witness these days. I mean, when was the last time a city that's close to two-thirds black and Hispanic managed to corral an outlying area of 50,000 mostly white people?

That Lanier was able to muster eight other votes was notable, Council's rubber-stamp reputation aside, given that two of the members who sided with him have mayoral ambitions that weren't enhanced by their votes, while the Hispanics who favored the annexation had faced considerable pressure to reject the wholesale addition of more Anglos to the city.

The annexation was not without some limited risk to Lanier, either, since talk of rolling back the city's term limits to allow him to seek another two years in office was alive at the outset of the annexation move, and even now the idea probably isn't as dead as it's said to be.

What's more, Lanier's massive ego was subjected to what was an unprecedented and no doubt unpleasant hazing -- to the point, you may remember, that he was actually booed when he introduced Bob Dole to a crowd of Republicans just before the November election.

So much for that 91 percent approval rating.
Yet it's hard to imagine any of Lanier's would-be successors possessing the tough-mindedness and, yes, the sheer ruthlessness -- even if he did seem to waver briefly -- that Lanier demonstrated in bending Kingwood to his will.

The vituperation emanating from Kingwood was exceptionally nasty, and the arguments and analogies raised there were exceptionally absurd. There's nothing like hearing a bunch of overprivileged suburbanites whining about their lot and comparing themselves variously to Revolutionary War-era patriots or segregation-era African-Americans to realize how degraded public discourse has become.

It's sad -- hand me a hankie, please -- that they'll be paying higher water bills and have to place their garbage in bags and carry them to the curbsides. No doubt these harsh privations will lead some of the more put-upon Kingwood residents, after the legal and legislative remedies to stave off the annexation are exhausted, to react the way oppressed peoples everywhere have reacted throughout history: Look for sit-ins at the Citizens Assistance Office, lootin' and burnin' on Kingwood Drive, perhaps a band of guerrillas taking to the woods with their golf carts and clubs ....

Unfortunately for Lanier, the annexation may be the high point of his putative final year in office. Looming on the horizon is unpleasantness (at least for the public) with animal-rights activist and would-be casino operator Les Alexander, not to men- tion the work product of a federal grand jury that promises to set a Guinness Book record for the number of members of one elected government body under indictment.

Then there's the "Tax Vote '97," the exercise in vigilantism that, as of this writing, had not been placed on the ballot for the January 18 special election but is likely to be there, along with a referendum on raising the minimum wage in Houston to $6.50 an hour and a special election to replace departing Councilman John Peavy Jr.

The anti-tax initiative -- which sprang from nowhere, overnight, like a peculiar and ultimately unidentifiable fungus -- would amend the city charter to require that voters second any tax or fee increase beyond the rate of inflation that's already been approved by City Council.

It's a proposal that causes mild alarm on Wall Street, as well as at the Greater Houston Partnership, the Chronicle editorial board and other pillars of the local sensible center, so perhaps there's some merit to it not discernible at first glance.

But at second and third glance, "Tax Vote '97" is a lousy idea. I don't know about you, but I already feel over-franchised by having to vote every two years on a mayor, controller and six councilmembers. The amendment would mandate votes on tax or fee increases (as well as the creation of special taxing districts, taxpayer-subsidized hotels, casinos, etc.) during regular elections. So voters could wind up deciding whether to raise the greens fees at Memorial while also voting for the mayor and councilmembers we supposedly elect (or not) to raise (one hopes not) taxes and fees.

The proponents -- the initiative is the brainchild of Harris County Treasurer Don Sumner and Taxpayers for Accountability, with underwriting from one of Steven Hotze's brothers -- seem to be at a loss for a sound explanation as to why the change is necessary. They say that the game is fixed and representative government in Houston isn't working, which means that it's not working the particular way they want it to work. But if they truly believe that, they could better expend their energy petitioning for stricter campaign finance and ethics rules, including a badly needed registration and disclosure requirement for City Hall lobbyists.

Placement of the "tax vote" on the ballot, possibly along with some Lanier-sanctioned alternative, will set up an interesting dynamic for Lanier's business allies in the special election: Voters who would be more inclined to favor the minimum-wage initiative will be more likely to oppose the charter amendment. Expect Lanier to be trotted out on the airwaves to beat on the "tax vote" with an ugly stick. Somehow, I don't think Ray Driscoll's threat not to seek re-election if the amendment is approved will be enough to do it in.

Turning to the obituaries, I know I wasn't the only person bereaved to learn that we won't have Steve Stockman to kick around anymore, at least until he launches his comeback bid next week. Without Stockman and Bob Dornan, the 105th Congress promises to be a much less entertaining body than its predecessor.

My favorite recent bout of Stockmania came when he criticized Democrat Nick Lampson for having ex-Eagle Don Henley down for a fundraiser. Having previously owned up to a youthful past of dope and rock and roll, Stockman blithely accused Henley of "glorifying drug abuse" in some of his songs (it would have been another thing entirely if he had just attacked Henley for being a simp).

So leave it to Stockman, on the night of his defeat by Lampson a few weeks later, to sum up his short stint of regular employment by quoting a lyric from the rock and roll band that holds the Guinness Book record for the number of members who've died from drug and alcohol abuse:

"It's been," declared Stockman, "a long, strange trip."
Recognizing a fellow former Deadhead from the band's halcyon American Beauty period, I placed several calls to Stockman to see if he would be interested in some type of employment at the Press, possibly as our distributor in Kingwood.

He still hasn't responded, but I'm hopeful. In the meantime, if you have a job for Steve or know where he can find one (preferably something not too mentally demanding or physically taxing), call 409-838-0061.

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