The Great Non-Communicator

Houston's new mayor is working as hard as, or harder than, his predecessors. Now if only he could find a way to tell people about it.

The first and perhaps biggest test of the mayor's power to date was the acrimonious "food fight" over a lucrative vending contract at Bush International Airport. Brown endorsed a group called CA One over a popular consortium of local restaurateurs. With the help of new councilmembers Annise Parker and Carroll Robinson, Brown prevailed and established his clout.

"I thought he did a pretty good job of carrying the day on the airport contract," says former mayor Lanier, still a firm Brown supporter. "If they had rolled him on that one, I think they would have thought he was easy pickings."

Brown's affirmative action director Lenoria Walker caused the only major gaffe for the administration when she labeled Councilman Roach "a Republican midget" during a talk at a New Orleans conference. Brown first suspended her for three days. When more inflammatory comments surfaced from the speech, Brown was under pressure to fire her, but she resigned.

Councilman Sanchez said Brown could have been decisive and showed leadership, but "he missed the boat on that one."

Even those who vote with Brown frequently complain that he does not involve councilmembers enough in his decisions. An example is Brown's issuance of an executive order banning discrimination against gays in city hiring without involving the only openly gay member, Parker. To her, it was a case of doing the right thing in the wrong way.

Lanier cites the handling of the executive order as a typical misstep by a new mayor who needs better staff support. "He needs someone around him to say, 'Uh, mayor, this is Annise Parker's field. Call her and let her know you're going to do it.' Let her call three or four people who are important to her to tell them. And then you tell people she's got to work with, that you did it in part because of her importance to you. And make that be true."

It's a point that Brown doesn't seem to get. "That was a campaign promise I made, and carried out, because it was the right thing to do," says the mayor. "Annise can't issue executive orders, only the mayor. So I did not go to the Council on that issue, I issued an executive order."

Added Brown: "Annise hasn't raised any questions with you on that, I'm sure."

In fact, the councilwoman does have some questions. "It was kind of refreshing that he did it as a matter of course without laying the political groundwork," she says, and then spells out the frustrating aspects of his action.

"It's not good for an elected official to look like they're out of the loop with a core constituency. We had had conversations, but it was a surprise to me when it was announced. And a lot of the information should have been available for the media. We could have had all that in place. None of that was done."

Repeated situations like this one have led even friendly councilmembers to conclude that Brown seems to be tone deaf to the nuances of dealing with elected officials.

"I don't believe he seeks out councilmembers," says Parker, who notes that Brown does respond to calls and contacts. "He doesn't run things by councilmembers; we're not part of the circle that provides input. Sometimes he forgets that he's got 14 elected officials with egos and constituents."

And if councilmembers perceived as allies feel that way, those who regularly vote against Brown feel it double.

"The administration has adopted a policy. It's us versus them, and I think over time that will really hurt him," says Roach. "Because you've got to form allies on Council on any issue you can get them on."

Brown replies it was Roach and his Republican colleagues who initiated the division. "You have a group of people on the Council that tend to vote no on everything that comes before it," says the mayor. "We tried to bring them in. I think they should be brought in to do what's best for the city, and not deal with just strictly politics."

Roach says he believes Brown may have just been intimidated by earlier meetings of the GOP councilmembers, which he says were much ado about nothing.

But this is a new era in municipal politics, one in which term limits have made city officials temporary sojourners who have to carve out a political stance if they are to have any future running as a Democrat or Republican for other positions outside the municipal realm.

"I guess the biggest surprise would be on City Council," says Brown, when asked what he's learned in his first six months on the job. "It's much more partisan now than it was when I was police chief. When I was police chief, I didn't know the political affiliation of any councilmember. It didn't make any difference."

Perhaps the mayor's most vocal Council opponent, Todd, agrees with Brown that term limits have sharpened the level of debate.

"With term limits, the net effect is, you have less amount of time to achieve your goals, and it creates more of a sense of urgency, says Todd. "Like, for myself, I've got three and a half years left on Council, and there's certain things, on a capital project basis, from a policy standpoint, that I want to accomplish. And, as a result, it makes me more aggressive." But the same motivation applies to the mayor, argues the councilman, who believes that Brown is also playing to gays, environmentalists and labor with an eye toward a future national office after several terms as mayor.

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