The Insider

Bob and Kathy and Lee Makes Three!
Starting with his gift-wrapped presentation to the city as a Rice University professor two years ago, Lee Brown has turned up one political ace after another on his meticulously scripted march toward the mayor's office. Now his campaign is playing its final wild card as Mayor Bob Lanier and predecessor Kathy Whitmire, who cumulatively have occupied the top spot at City Hall for the last 16 years, pull off a performance worthy of a Spencer TracyKatharine Hepburn flick in putting their official stamp of approval on Brown.

Not that there was ever much suspense among friends of the two about which mayoral candidate Lanier and Whitmire preferred all along. In the signature appointment of her decade as mayor, Whitmire brought Brown to Houston from Atlanta in 1982 to remake the brutality-stained image of the Houston Police Department. Whitmire, who now lives and teaches in the Washington, D.C. area, has made it clear to Brown and her Houston pals that she's in his corner.

Few have questioned which candidate had Lanier's undeclared backing, since virtually his entire political team went to work for Brown early on. But for any lingering doubters, last Saturday night's lighting of the big Christmas tree outside City Hall provided the answer in the same way that the order of dignitaries in the stands of May Day parades in Moscow used to tip off Kremlinologists to power shake-ups. Lanier and wife Elyse paraded to their seats front and center, immediately followed by Brown and his wife, Frances, who took their place in the VIP section immediately to the right of the incumbent. The four greeted effusively, leaving the distinct impression of a ceremonial passing of the torch to the incoming administration. Rob and Katherine Mosbacher were conspicuous by their absence from the Christmas pageantry.

So with their private predilections in the mayor's contest long an open secret, the main pizzazz of the Lanier-Whitmire pairing derives from the unique chemistry between their personalities, which was last measured somewhere on the pH scale between sulfuric and hydrochloric acid. With the Brown camp planning to run a happy-face "Bob and Kathy" television commercial through Election Day, you could almost forget the serious bad blood between the two that dates back to a 1990 Christmas party at the River Oaks mansion the Laniers then owned.

The event occurred shortly after Whitmire ousted Lanier as her Metro chief. As guests shivered out back in near-freezing temperatures, Whitmire showed up and attempted to use the Western-themed party as the stage for an unannounced political shoot-out. When Lanier refused to allow Whitmire to conduct a news conference on his property, the then-mayor led a pack of waiting media hounds off to a nearby Mexican restaurant, where she in effect accused Lanier of lying when he said she had fired him.

The seeds of that rancor bore fruit a year later, when Lanier bumped the incumbent out of a runoff he later won over state Representative Sylvester Turner. And there was no kissing and making up after Lanier took office, as his cronies helped sabotage an appointment Whitmire expected as director of the National Mass Transit Association.

So this week's joint endorsement is must-see TV in its own right. It not only papers over one of the city's most vitriolic political feuds in memory, it broadcasts the message that if these two powerful egos can put up with each other long enough to stage an appearance together and cut a commercial, they must really like Lee Brown.

Bringing Whitmire and Lanier together turned out to be easier than one might think. Brown fundraiser Sue Walden simply telephoned the former mayor, who immediately agreed to do whatever was asked of her to help Brown. Initial plans for Lanier and Whitmire to appear at a fundraiser for Brown foundered when their schedules could not be coordinated.

Whitmire flew to Houston the Tuesday before Thanksgiving to spend the holiday with her family, and found time to tape her segment of the Brown ad at a local studio. She did not tell her own inner circle in Houston about the upcoming endorsement, and friends we contacted assured us she had simply come to town on a family visit and nothing more.

As we went to press, the still-unfolding plan called for Whitmire to fly back to Houston Tuesday morning for an afternoon news conference at the Laniers' high-rise condo that would be called under the guise of a Lanier endorsement. Midway through the event, Whitmire, who would be stashed out of sight in a back room, would sashay into view to launch the Brown lovefest in earnest.

Whether or not it comes off exactly as scripted, the Bob and Kathy reunion is just the latest in a series of fortuitous developments that make Brown's election seem written in the stars. Following a battle plan formulated in the spring of 1995 by a group of brain-trusters led by County Commissioner El Franco Lee, the candidate has methodically realized nearly every one of his objectives.

First, he disentangled himself from the Clinton administration back at its nadir following the '94 Democratic congressional wipeout, when association with the president seemed a ticket to political oblivion. He then nailed down a high-profile appointment at predominantly white Rice University, where he could begin crafting his "mayor for all of Houston" theme while speaking to community groups and reestablishing local visibility.

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