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By Craig Malisow
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By Sean Pendergast
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Caution: He's Got a Volcano in His Belly
In the 18 months since then-federal drug czar Lee Patrick Brown huddled with a coterie of advisers in downtown Houston to plot out his race for mayor, things have gone pretty much as planned. The former Houston police chief dutifully followed the strategy worked out with County Commissioner El Franco Lee and others, returning to town to build a political base while keeping himself in the public eye through a prestigious professorship at Rice. It was all about as predictable as Brown's wooden Indian persona, which spawned jokes about who might get to roll him on and off the stage at campaign events.
But the surprise Brown unveiled in his first day of open campaigning for the job is that he's going to be a better candidate -- and much tougher to beat -- than even his avid supporters thought possible. The new Lee P., his sleeves rolled in the wilting afternoon sun, displayed heretofore unseen flashes of -- gasp -- emotion, humor and determination.
"I love Houston," Brown kept repeating in his Sunday announcement address at Sam Houston Park. You could almost see banner headlines forming above him: Lee can love! Lee can feel! Lee can even bend down and touch his toes!
For the first time, Brown acted as if he really wanted to be elected mayor for more compelling reasons than simply to fill in the next line on a lengthy resume of public service. During a back yard barbecue at the Memorial home of engineer and Brown campaign chairman Jack Linville, the ex-chief jokingly referenced his more than passing resemblance to Colin Powell, who flirted with and finally backed off a campaign for president last year.
"People said he didn't have a fire in the belly," Brown declared to the racially balanced audience that had temporarily integrated the mostly white neighborhood. "Well, I don't have a fire in the belly, either. I have a volcano in the belly."
Brown is in the process of disconnecting from his Rice professorship and has not yet assembled a paid staff or set up a campaign headquarters. Still, the volunteers pushing his early efforts had to be immeasurably cheered by his performance. "Isn't it great?" enthused transportation company owner Danny Lawson, a member of Brown's inner circle. "He's like Nelson Mandela and Tiger Woods rolled into one."
Perhaps Lawson could be forgiven for the gross exaggeration. Lazarus's mother probably voiced the same sentiment when junior unexpectedly tiptoed out of the tomb.
On the evidence of the turnouts at a string of campaign stops that touched black, brown and white neighborhoods to symbolize his "mayor for all of Houston" slogan, Brown is also going to run stronger citywide than some detractors had predicted. His crowds were more evenly mixed racially than any seen in town since mayor Kathy Whitmire's early years in office. The only tokens on hand were the kind that will get you a ride on Metro.
With a little luck, Brown may also be able to avoid a bruising political fight within the black community. State Representative Sylvester Turner, the most viable African-American candidate for mayor before Brown, is reportedly mulling over the reality bites from a self-commissioned poll that contained discouraging indicators for his prospects. The perception is also growing that Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee will stay out of the fray as well. "She needs a third term to nail down her congressional retirement benefits," confided one Brown operative. The fact that several Jackson Lee types, such as Democratic activist Carl Davis, seemed to be part of the Brown entourage lent credence to that prediction.
Without another big-name black candidate in the race, Brown's November ticket into the inevitable runoff would seem secure. As the summer wears on, the perception that he offers the best chance for African-Americans to finally elect one of their own could preempt any late challenges from the black side.
Since returning to Houston, Brown has worked the circuit of breakfast and lunch clubs to deliver every speech possible while appearing as a talking head in the local media on drug-related issues. At the same time, he cemented his relationship with Bob Lanier -- to the extent that some Brown backers are concerned that Lanier's behind-the-scenes support of Brown might become too obvious and damage Brown's chances among blacks who remain resentful of Lanier's defeat of Turner in 1991. That's one reason Lanier did not attend the Linville barbecue, according to a Brown operative.
Brown's newly formed coalition is an unlikely assortment of Whitmire administration fixtures, such as former municipal courts head Don Hollingsworth and ex-fire chief Robert Clayton; big-money backers that include shopping center magnate Jerry Moore and Gallery Furniture's Jim McIngvale; and Lanier regulars like former Metro chairman Billy Burge and fundraiser Sue Walden. Walden's husband Dave, Lanier's political projects man, is expected to join the Brown campaign later in the summer, while Democratic operative Craig Varoga, who masterminded the hardballing media campaign that destroyed Turner in his 1991 runoff with Lanier, is also expected to be on board.
Commissioner Lee, long a kingmaker in black political circles, introduced Brown at Sam Houston Park with an open admission of his background role in launching the campaign.