Situational Ethics

As Jew Don Boney has moved upward in public life, have his values changed to meet his needs rather than those of his constituents?

In a recent interview at City Hall, Boney refused to discuss the FBI sting or the trial, saying only that he is "prayerful and hopeful" for the defendants. When asked to respond to the allegations that he took money from Ben Reyes, Boney paused for a long moment before offering this cryptic assessment:

"Basically," he replied in a flat tone, "there is nothing to respond to, because I was told I was not a target."

A similar ambiguity has beset Boney's political life since his election in December 1995. Just as the questions raised by the FBI affidavit remain unanswered, so does the question of his once-unimpeachable dedication to justice and equality for the city's poor minorities.

Today, Jew Don Boney is perhaps the most powerful figure in the administration of Mayor Lee P. Brown, who appointed Boney his mayor pro tem in early January. But that doesn't begin to explain Boney's apparent conversion from an advocate for black political self-reliance to an apologist for Houston's elite establishment, which, despite the election of Brown as the city's first black mayor, remains dominated by whites.

Indeed, Boney's praise for former mayors Kathy Whitmire and Bob Lanier couldn't sound more genuine if it were uttered by a card-carrying sycophant like, say, Billy Burge, a former METRO chairman who was an omnipresent figure during Lanier's tenure.

"I think Whitmire, Lanier and Brown have exemplified what we have wanted and appreciated [as leaders]," Boney says. "Brown as police chief, Whitmire as a strong female mayor and [Lanier], a business developer rebuilding the infrastructure and bringing some clear business principles to government."

This, from the radical-left street activist who protested the brutality of the Houston Police Department, whose chief in the mid-1980s was Whitmire-appointee Lee Brown. This, from the rhetorical bomb-thrower who was arrested while marching on Houston companies that did business with the racist government of South Africa.

There are other signs of capitulation. Three years ago, Boney joined other black leaders at a press conference to accuse former city controller George Greanias of "plantation politics" for investigating one of the city's minority subcontractors. Today, Boney defends the "economic realities" that have all but assured the destruction of Freedmen's Town, the city's most sacred black neighborhood.

While running for City Council in 1995, Boney promised he would bring "accountability" to his poor, disenfranchised constituents. But, shortly after winning a second term last fall, Boney helped convince a skeptical City Council to award a 15-year contract to upgrade and manage the inner-city golf course at Hermann Park, despite the fact that the contractor, BSL Corporation, planned a 70-percent increase in greens fees.

A couple of months later, Boney was feted at a fundraiser hosted by several BSL supporters and the Friends of Hermann Park, whose board includes Lanier's wife, Elyse, and Barbara Hurwitz, wife of "Chainsaw" Charlie Hurwitz, accused savings-and-loan bandit and industrialist scourge of California's precious Headwaters reserve. (BSL had won the Friends' support with a proposal that included a $250,000 payment to the park's board that could be used for "general purposes.")

Boney denies the fundraiser was linked to his success as BSL's water boy, just as he denies that he acted in anything but the best interests of the poor and the elderly who will soon be evicted from their homes in the Fourth Ward. Anyone disappointed in the positions he's taken does not really know him, Boney says, or they simply do not understand that he's matured into a new role.

But, while no one can argue with personal growth, it is not as if Boney had to learn how government -- the "system" -- works in Houston. He is someone who spent time battling back from the lunatic fringe, where, historically, the voices of dissent in this city, along with its weakest citizens, have been banished.

So, when Jew Don Boney talks about the difficult art of compromise that politics demands--when he stresses the importance of negotiation and consensus building --it sounds less like someone who's merely learning the rules of the game; if you listen closely, it's the voice of someone determined to do what's necessary to remain a player.

"I've been very careful to make sure that I can justify my position on each and every issue," he says. "One of the things that I learned in kinda being mentored by Bob Lanier's methodology: You can always negotiate and work things down, so [whatever] is put on the table, what comes off the table may be almost night-and-day different."

In 1980, Jew Don Boney was as deep into what he still calls "the struggle" as a black man could be. That year he spoke at the National Black Political Assembly convention in New Orleans, an event attended by the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, at the time the relatively unknown successor to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.

The NBPA's primary objective was to establish a nationwide African-American political agenda, cultivate a large block of black voters and use it to leverage power with national candidates. Interestingly, at the time, the NBPA was somewhat torn over the issue of creating an independent political party: The assembly's northern chapters wanted to do it; those in the South were hesitant.

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