The Insider

Transition Go-Go
With New Year's and the symbolic touches of his inauguration behind him, Mayor Lee Brown now begins the task of wringing out the old and bringing in the new at City Hall. Some holdovers from the Lanier administration are expected to get the hint and go willingly; others will eventually have to be given the boot.

Getting a jump on the exodus was Bob Lanier's chief of staff and head hatchet man Dave Walden, who packed up and moved out of his office even before Lanier and his wife had flown off to a Palm Springs spa following the January 2 swearing-in of Brown and the new City Council. Walden, who'll put his particular talents to work as a consultant and lobbyist, says that vacating the City Hall pressure cooker was like having a tumor removed. Undoubtedly, those who have felt the steel of Walden's blade on behalf of Lanier would use similar imagery to describe his exit.

It may take an even blunter surgical procedure by Brown to excise some of Walden's Lanier administration colleagues. "Not everybody can stay up there," observes Walden, indicating that some of the old hands are going to try. "There just isn't enough room."

The string of inauguration-related events over the New Year's holiday provided numerous venues in which both the hangers-on and aspiring bureaucrats could trade gossip and schmooze with their possible future municipal employer. In addition to marking the end of the Lanier era, the festivities also provided ample evidence that Lanier predecessor Kathy Whitmire and her old associates regard Brown's victory as a triumph of one of their own, rather than the ascension of a Lanier factotum. After all, it was Whitmire who brought Brown to Houston in 1982 as the first police chief of her administration.

The former mayor, who had not attended a Houston inauguration since her own in 1990, made most of the events in the company of new Controller Sylvia Garcia, another of her proteges who finally won elected office, after several previous unsuccessful tries, by ousting the man most unlikely to be missed at City Hall, Lloyd Kelley. For most of the week, Whitmire wore what seemed to be a permanent smile, making it clear that after six years of Lanier, Houston is once again her city, too. Members of the Whitmire administration even staged a reunion on New Year's Day at former press secretary Paul Mabry's north Houston home.

The Second Coming of the Whitmites started with the New Year's Eve ceremonies officially opening Bayou Place, developer David Cordish's redo of the Albert Thomas Convention Center -- a project that was on the drawing board when Whitmire was mayor. Judging by the crowd at the VIP dedication, the year dawning could have been 1988 instead of 1998. Watching as Brown, Bob and Elyse, and Whitmire made their stage entrances were a who's who from Whitmire's decade-long reign: former city attorney Clarence West and his wife, former regulatory affairs director Jane Cater; Whitmire's dollar-a-year executive, Alan Rudy, and his wife, former personnel director Stephanie Burke; city planner Jerry Wood, who stayed on through the Lanier administration; and a much-mellowed Joanne Adams, Whitmire's former chief of staff, who looked years younger than when she made her bitter departure from City Hall at the end of 1991.

Adams, who made plenty of enemies as Whitmire's version of Dave Walden, was on a break from her current assignment, working with the new governments of Romania and Albania on perfecting their nascent democratic institutions. Adams mixed easily with the Lanier officials and even mugged with Walden for photos. She marveled at just how little the ranks of the major political players in Houston had changed in her absence. Of course, compared to the former Communist-bloc countries where she now plies her trade, the cast of characters does tend to turn over a bit more slowly here.

Beyond the unlikely political pairings, the Bayou Place dedication had a decidedly surreal flavor, accented by the choice of bands. As the dignitaries milled about, state Representative Ron Wilson, the lead guitarist for Miss Frances and the Rhythm Fish, launched into Jimi Hendrix's version of the "Star Spangled Banner," accompanied by some desultory rattling on percussion by Channel 13's Wayne Dolcefino. Elyse Lanier set the fashion low light with a sequined outfit topped by a fur coat, leading one Whitmite to whisper, "If this was Colorado, they'd throw blood on her."

The inauguration two days later at the Wortham Center offered portents that the Brown administration may be a bit shaky in the advance-planning department. Somehow, the event coordinators forgot to invite the city's federal and state legislative delegations to the event, leaving folks like Congressman Ken Bentsen and state Senator Rodney Ellis scrambling for invites at the last minute. When former mayor Louie Welch and his wife came on-stage at the ceremony, they found there were no chairs allotted for them.

Luckily, serendipity provided the most moving part of the ceremony -- the impromptu singing of the black national anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," sparked by 68-year-old Jean Dember. A retired Urban League career counselor from Long Island who now splits her year between Houston and New York, Dember does not salute the U.S. flag nor recite the pledge of allegiance because she believes they do not represent African-Americans. She says she launched her a cappella rendition of "Lift Every Voice" after realizing it was not scheduled to be sung during the program. The song, she said, "has brought us through so much travail [and] still sustains our community with the high hopes of full participation." Many blacks and the few whites in the crowd familiar with the James Weldon Johnson composition joined Dember and sang through the first verse. Even Brown, a man not given to public spontaneity, appeared to be singing along.

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