The Insider

The Road Not Taken (Again)
State Representative Sylvester Turner's latest mayoral tease ended abruptly this week at his downtown law office, but not before he had managed to squeeze the lemon for one last cup of sweet-and-sour media coverage. In an anticlimax similar to his 1995 campaign tap dance and ultimate fadeout, Turner revealed that he had decided 1997 was not his year to run for mayor.

It's a sound bit of logic, supported by polls commissioned by Turner consultant Peck Young and others that show Turner still glowing with residual negative radiation from his 1991 campaign and his resulting libel suit against Channel 13, which was covered in molecular detail by cable's Court TV.

On the plus side, Turner managed to lure Channel 11 into two Sunday evening news stories, one with sound bites hinting he might not run and one where he seemed to be storming toward a candidacy to avenge his 1991 runoff defeat at the hands of Bob Lanier and Channel 13's Wayne Dolcefino.

In the mixed-bag category was Channel 26's advancer on the morning of the news conference. It featured reporter Lloyd Gite meticulously detailing Turner's problems in that 1991 contest, including the fact his now-ex-wife Cheryl had accused the candidate in an affidavit of "cheating" on her, as Gite put it.

Among those at the no-news conference were HISD trustee Ron Franklin, the lawyer who piloted Turner to a courtroom victory in the libel suit against Channel 13, which is now under appeal by KTRK. When Franklin slipped into the conference room before Turner made his announcement, one reporter jokingly asked Franklin whether he had dropped by because of the possibility his client might be libeled again. Franklin gestured at an ABC mike propped up on the table in front of Turner's chair and quipped, "With that mike right there, you never know."

Also on hand was Marc Campos, the operative who helped Lanier win an overwhelming share of the Hispanic vote in the 1991 runoff, then fell out with the mayor when he was called to testify for Turner during the trial of Turner's suit and gave testimony that wasn't to Lanier's liking.

Turner acknowledged to reporters that while he had won a jury verdict in the libel trial, the verdict "did not and could not turn back the hands of time" to before the 1991 runoff. He did not mention that the verdict also failed to expunge the negative image of him that persists among city voters in 1997.

While Turner vowed to be a force in the upcoming mayoral election, particularly against the expected November initiative to do away with the city's affirmative action programs, his decision provides one more boost for former police chief and declared candidate Lee Brown. Linda Brown, a public relations consultant with ties to both Turner and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, expects the race to turn on how well each of the handful of candidates gets out his or her vote. An affirmative action referendum in November, says Brown, would likely help Lee Brown by provoking a massive black turnout.

Unless Congresswoman Lee gets into the mayoral race, Brown would seem destined to get the 90 percent or better share of the black vote that Turner received in 1991. A poll conducted for Brown's campaign by the Washington-based Lester & Associates shows him with an 87 percent positive rating among black voters and leading Rob Mosbacher 89 to 3 percent among that segment of the electorate. The poll showed Turner with a 38 percent negative rating among the overall electorate, compared to Brown's 11 percent.

Asked whether electing an African-American mayor this year is a priority with him, Turner countered that the mayoral contest is about "ideas, not race."

Brown was his normal obtuse self, refusing to admit that the departure of a major rival for the black vote constituted good news. He smothered a query about whether he intended to seek Turner's endorsement with this non-response: "I want all the support I can get, the support of all Houstonians." Zzzzzzzz....

In another indication that the field for the mayor's race may be set, several sources report that consultant Dan McClung of Campaign Strategies, who ran the phone bank operations for Kathy Whitmire and Lanier, will shortly join the Brown campaign. Since McClung had been committed to work with state Senator John Whitmire in a Whitmire mayoral bid, his enlistment by Brown indicates that Whitmire will not join the fray for mayor. (McClung was in Louisiana on a fishing trip and unavailable for comment by our deadline.)

Turner didn't indicate which of the current field of candidates he favors, but did take a jab that seemed to be aimed at both Brown's and Mosbacher's emphasis on public education issues in their early campaign speeches.

"They are not running to be superintendent of HISD," sniped Turner. "This is not about TAAS tests. It's about being the mayor of Houston."

In the case of Turner's news conference, however, it was all about not being the mayor of Houston.

Parks Fall Guy?
When contacted by The Insider last month, Sara Culbreth, deputy director of administration for the city's Parks and Recreation Department, was quick to blame the mishandling of the Memorial Park Tennis Center food and beverage concession on Roy Witham, the department's director for golf, tennis, and fitness center operations ["Stinking Up the Clubhouse, Parts 1 and 2", May 1 and May 22].

Witham had already had his duties at the department drastically reduced after raising questions in late 1995 about the proposed privatization of two city golf courses. Last week, parks director Bill Smith administered the coup de grace and fired the veteran employee.

Witham was unavailable for comment on his dismissal, but a parks department memo supplied to The Insider indicates Witham was used by department higher-ups as a scapegoat for the bungling of the concession. The operator, Trensidea System's Burke McConn, nephew of the late mayor Jim, was signed to a six-month extension last December even though he had fallen nearly a year behind in paying the city its percentage of sales at the Tennis Center. Numerous complaints had been made to parks officials about the concession's shoddy operation. Whereas Culbreth told us that Witham had signed the new contract with McConn without her knowledge, the memo from Culbreth to Witham concerning food and beverage concessions (one that the parks department did not include among documents supplied in response to an open records request from the Press) tells a different story.

The memo is dated October 21 of last year, some two weeks before McConn's concession agreement extension was signed by parks director Smith. In it Culbreth instructs Witham to "please continue to negotiate renewals for these contracts/ agreements as they expire and have the renewal documents prepared for the director's approval ..... If (requests for proposals) become necessary, we will notify you."

The copy of the city concession agreement with McConn bears only the signatures of McConn and Smith, with no indication that Witham had anything to do with it, other than following Culbreth's orders to prepare an agreement and send it to Smith for approval.

Culbreth claims that now she's on the case and will sort out problems in the department's concession contracts. Yet her first step at Memorial was to continue the tradition of inking politically connected vendors for city deals without engaging in the troublesome process of competitive bidding. The team now running the Tennis Center food and drink concession includes none other than the Reverend James Dixon, the loser to Chris Bell in the special election earlier this year to replace the retiring at-large Councilman John Peavy. Peavy's seat opened, as you'll recall, after an ethics controversy erupted over his failure to divest himself of a city airport ice-cream shop concession.

According to Culbreth, Dixon's nonprofit Good Gang USA Incorporated and Nick Bibas of One's A Meal received the concession without competitive bidding simply because "they approached us with a proposal." If that's standard operating procedure at parks and rec, vendors desiring concessions will have to consult psychics or rent a crystal ball to guess when city deals are available.

The young members of Dixon's Good Gang are staffing the concession, which as of this week was again cheerfully churning out yogurt smoothies -- with only a slight aftertaste of behind-the-scenes politics.

Barton's Tough Love Boat...
If the idea of mixing sand, sea, and conservative rhetoric is your cup of Caribbean rum, consider this package tour being put together by Congressman Joe Barton, the Republican from Ennis.

"Every year I try to do something special for my congressional council members and my core group of Barton Backers," wrote the congressman to his campaign faithful. One year it was an intimate Dallas dinner with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, explained Barton. Then there was that special excursion to the Capitol to see a charity baseball game. In 1994, Barton hosted a series of seminars during which his boosters could draw inspiration from Texas Senators Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison, among others.

But this year Barton's thinking more along the lines of Speed 3. "I wanted to try something new, exciting and ambitious," the congressman enthused in his missive. "I came up with the idea of getting together some high profile speakers to interact with my Barton Backers in the Caribbean on a cruise! What do you think about that?"

Apparently the reaction was strong enough for Barton to schedule a four-day cruise next January that will take his backers to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the islands of St. Thomas and St. Martin. For those of you who are interested, the congressman's campaign spokesman says there are still openings available.

Mind Pollution
It was probably inevitable that once HISD Superintendent Rod Paige decreed that district administrators down to the principal level should undergo Model-Netics training [The Insider, "Hook-ed on Model-Netics," March 13], the corporate psychobabble would start seeping into the student thought stream as well. Witness last month's district announcement bulletin, which reported on a float designed by Burbank Elementary students to celebrate Asian heritage.

" 'Orient Express on the Move' was the theme of the Burbank float," according to the bulletin, "which reflected both the balanced approach to reading and the 'northbound train' of Model-Netics."

For those not in the know, in the Model-Netics jargon "Northbound Train" means "get with the program or get left behind."

"It takes an unbalanced approach to reading to associate the Orient Express (Vienna to Istanbul) with Asian heritage," observed one acerbic district critic, who terms Model-Netics "corporate bullspeak." Continues our correspondent: "Are they teaching the children this hideous language now?"

We're not sure, but if your young HISD student starts asking about "The Cruel Sea," "The Decision Diamond" or "The Tomato Plant Problem," better seek professional help for the kid immediately.

...Or call The Insider at 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax), or e-mail him at Insider@houston-press.com.

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