The Insider

If He Had a Hammer
History will record that Houston's 1997 mayoral destruction derby officially got under way shortly after 8 a.m. on Saturday, February 8, when Rob Mosbacher stood to address a collection of still-drowsy east-side business folk at Rio Posada Restaurant.

Among the 30 or so listeners clutching their coffee cups for dear life as Mosbacher launched into his first campaign speech were John Hernandez, a Texas Commerce Bank vice president; Lupe Fraga, the brother of City Councilman Felix Fraga; and Fiestas Patrias organizer Sal Esparza. They had been summoned to the Fulton Street eatery by Justice of the Peace Armando Rodriguez, an old friend of Mosbacher's family.

It seemed awfully early for such an elocutionary exercise, considering both the hour of the gathering and the nine months remaining until Election Day. But Mosbacher, who on the previous day had filed a document at City Hall designating fellow second-generation energy executive James Calaway as his campaign treasurer, earnestly set about explaining to the community leaders what they might have in common with a wealthy independent oilman, former statewide Republican nominee and recent immigrant into the Houston city limits from West University Place.

First, Mosbacher paid obeisance to Mayor Bob Lanier -- an exercise that will probably be an automatic prologue for every candidate who enters the race.

"I think the current mayor has made tremendous progress in a host of areas," said Mosbacher, mowing through a list that included weed cutting, ditch cleaning, road paving, more street signs, neighborhood protection, ad infinitum. As mayor, Mosbacher promised, he would "finish" Lanier's agenda.

"But the next mayor," he added, "must have his own agenda."
And what might that be?
Mosbacher's answer, in a nutshell, was "public education."

Lest one think that Mosbacher was mistakenly running for the HISD or Alief school board, or angling for an appointment as superintendent, he quickly explained that he's well aware that the mayor has no responsibilities for the schools. Nevertheless, he said he intends to use the municipal office "to focus more attention on public education" and somehow "rebuild our schools." (Mosbacher apparently will not do any of the physical reconstruction himself: At one point in his speech, he sheepishly admitted that his volunteer work helping to build low-income homes on the east-side probably resulted in some doors falling off only a year or two after they were hung.)

"A mayor can't wave a magic wand and make things happen," Mosbacher told the group, but "an individual who has the position can facilitate and bring people together to do things they can't do on their own."

Given that spiel, perhaps it was not by coincidence that Mosbacher had lobbied for HISD Superintendent Rod Paige to hire Alabama Republican operative Terry Abbott as the district's $110,000-a-year public relations specialist -- at about the same time Mosbacher began plotting his run for mayor on an education platform.

As The Insider polished off his Rio Posada migas, the thought occurred that Mosbacher, whose three pre-teen children have never known a classroom other than those at the very exclusive St. John's School in River Oaks, might not be the best person to offer himself as a Mr. Fix-It of public education.

On the other hand, if he can move into Houston after a decade of paying property taxes elsewhere and immediately begin running for mayor, perhaps nothing's too big a stretch.

We Are Family
The runoff campaign between the Reverend James Dixon and lawyer Chris Bell for John Peavy Jr.'s at-large seat on City Council may have been free of overt racial appeals, as the Chronicle noted in a front-page story this week, but before that sign of civic maturity prompts Houstonians to suffer nerve damage patting themselves on the back, it's instructive to look at the less savory broadsides going out to selected audiences -- with or without the candidates' knowledge.

For instance, a comparison sheet being circulated by an unidentified person or group parading as "Concerned Citizens of Houston" underscores Bell's endorsement by the Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus and alleges that Bell supports the creation of "a gay-friendly Council district" and "same sex benefits for city employees." (The latter statement is indeed true -- Bell says he supports the extension of benefits to employees' partners of either sex. Dixon would oppose such a change, which is not being considered by Council at the moment. As for the former statement, Bell says he'd consider backing the return of heavily gay Montrose to District C from the predominantly black District D, where it was moved after the last Council redistricting.)

Then consider the glossy color brochure the Bell campaign sent to a southwest side voter of our acquaintance. The cover warns, "Proceed With Caution -- Voting Ahead." Inside, there's a side-by-side comparison of the two candidates, and in case you didn't know that one is white and the other is black, it's topped by pictures of Bell and his African-American opponent. (Elsewhere in the flier, Bell is pictured with his wife and infant son; the text notes Bell's domestic arrangement and points out that Dixon is "unmarried.")

It's a time-honored tactic for a white candidate's mailings to white voters to picture a black opponent. But Quantum Consultants Nancy Sims, who produced the brochure, takes umbrage at the suggestion that Bell was appealing to voters' prejudice by highlighting Dixon's mug.

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