Why Don't They Want This Man to Be Mayor?

George Greanias is smart. He's honest. He's independent. But Bob Lanier and his friends are pulling out the stops to see that Greanias doesn't return to City Hall.

One evening in early September, George Greanias dropped in on a meeting of the Harris County Democratic Women's Club in north Houston.

Only a dozen or so people, including a few men, had waded out into a thundering monsoon to hear author Ann Crawford recount the history of women in Texas politics. Crisp and dry in a navy-blue suit, white shirt and checkered tie, Greanias entered through a rear door and quietly took a seat in the back row.

As he did, Crawford's history lesson meandered past the political activism of the 1960s to the post-Watergate era, which she described thusly: "Texas -- where men are men and women are mayors."

The last time that was true in Houston, George Greanias made a decision that changed the trajectory of his political career. The year was 1991, the mayor was Kathy Whitmire, violent crime had caused near-panic among the citizenry and the city's general fund was some $50 million in the hole. Greanias, the second-term city controller and former District C councilman, was among those considering a run that November against Whitmire, who had held the office for almost a decade.

In what now seems like the implausible twist of a third-rate novel, Greanias was promised the support and financial backing of one Bob Lanier, a real-estate developer who was determined to ruin Whitmire politically after she forced his resignation as chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Lanier and Greanias took a series of meetings together and agreed that

the next mayor of Houston would need to re-examine the city's spending habits.

The rest, as they say, is history: In a change of heart that confirmed his image as indecisive and perpetually conflicted, Greanias opted not to challenge Whitmire. After some prodding from his wealthy friends, Lanier entered the race and, flush with $3 million in contributions from the movers, shakers and good ol' boys forsaken by Whitmire, went on to beat state Representative Sylvester Turner in a runoff.

Now, six years later, after unleashing an orgy of tax dollars on neighborhoods, parks and law enforcement, Bob Lanier is probably the most popular mayor the city of Houston has ever seen.

As for George Greanias, his final two terms as controller, he admits, "were hell." Over the course of those four years, his brief alliance with Lanier devolved into a running confrontation over the mayor's short-term financial schemes, such as the annual transfer of roughly $55 million from Metro to the general fund and the restructuring of the city's bond debt.

Depending on who you consult, Greanias's willingness to take on Lanier was either highly principled or utterly foolish. The mayor took every critique personally. He ridiculed and bullied Greanias until the term-limited controller trundled off to private life in January 1996, saddled with the unfortunate persona of a stuffy, pinched-face bearer of bad tidings who, at the end of the day, lacked the political will to carry on.

All this should be just so much old news, and certainly of no great import one month before the November 4 election to pick Lanier's successor.

But as of June 11, when Greanias announced he was joining the race, it marked a significant moment in the first mayoral campaign in 24 years in which an incumbent is not among the candidates. Since that day, Lanier -- who has all but publicly declared that he supports former police chief Lee P. Brown's bid to become the city's first African-American mayor -- has assumed the unusual responsibility of telling everyone within earshot why George Greanias must be stopped. To elect George Greanias would be to reject Bob Lanier, at least according to Bob Lanier.

Lanier insists that he is not endorsing any candidate in the race to replace him. But his reasons for coming out against Greanias's bid seem clear enough. As controller, Greanias was vocal in his opposition to most of Lanier's fiscal maneuvers, particularly the decimation of Metro's $600 million reserve. If elected mayor, Greanias promises to "stop the bleeding" and allow the transit agency to once again start socking away cash for a commuter rail project.

With the approach of a new administration, rail is once again an acceptable topic of discussion, though Lanier still won't abide the notion that some day it may not be feasible to run even more freeway lanes through Houston. Over time, each of the candidates -- while careful not to make any commitments -- has at least paid lip service to the notion of exploring rail as a transportation alternative.

But Greanias, for better or worse, has been unequivocal.
"For 20 years we've been fooling around on this issue, and we've gotten no closer to a solution," he says. "I'm not going to consider it, I'm not going to study it, I'm not going to explore it. I'm going to go about the business of getting it done."

Admittedly, this is a position on which Greanias could not possibly equivocate and maintain credibility. The question that follows, of course, is how he'd pay for his two proposed pilot projects: a commuter rail line along the Katy Freeway and a light rail system between downtown and the Medical Center -- and still maintain the current level of city services.

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