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.

Todd also figures councilmembers' newly emboldened stance against the mayor has something to do with the fact that he isn't Bob Lanier. "If you compare the Council meetings to the savanna in Africa," quips Todd, "Lanier was an armor-plated rhinoceros and Brown is a chunk of raw meat."

Perhaps the most remarkable, and most unremarked aspect of the Brown mayorship is its true empowerment of African-Americans at City Hall. Just as Lanier clustered around him middle-aged white associates and River Oaks neighbors like Billy Burge and Holcombe Crosswell, Brown has assembled a coterie of old friends and associates trusted by him. The power circle is as racially groundbreaking as his own election as Houston's first African-American mayor.

Brown may be, as his campaign slogan declared, "The mayor for all Houstonians," but like Lanier, he has stuck with his friends.

"I'm seeing a black mayor surrounded by a lot of black people," says one politico, who says a recent poll put Brown's approval rating at 71 percent. That is proof, the politico said, that the public "either doesn't see it, or they don't mind it."

Brown has a smattering of outside Anglo counsel, including shopping-center developer Ed Wulfe, Mayor Day attorney Kenny Friedman, former chief of staff Walden and, on occasion, Lanier. Still, the perception is that Brown has gravitated to the people he knew and trusted as police chief -- older, successful black men -- and he relies on them as his kitchen cabinet.

Within city government, the African-American power circle starts with a veteran, City Attorney Hall. His appointment was not universally popular.

"Putting Anthony in that little tank down there is like putting a piranha with a bunch of goldfish," one political observer said. "That's fine if you want the piranha running the show, but I don't think Brown wants that piranha running the show."

That observer cited a proposed ordinance, touted by Brown as a tough regulation of City Hall lobbyists. Hall refused to show early drafts or take outside input. As a result, it was introduced and immediately diverted to the Council's Ethics Committee, which is preparing a similar version.

The source said Hall's "attitude is almost 'Fuck you -- you're on Council, this is a function of the administration, you can look at it after the mayor sends it down to you.' "

Hall explains that he advised Brown to take the ordinance directly to Council to preserve an essential prerogative of the mayor. "He shouldn't have to send it to them before he can present it to the people of this community," Hall said.

In naming Councilman Boney as mayor pro tem, Brown turned what had been a largely ceremonial position into a legislative floor whip for the mayor at Council. Boney's influence has been limited by his recovery from a respiratory illness over the past few months.

A mayoral intimate with some vested interests is Danny Lawson, a bus company owner viewed by outsiders as the most likely confidante to get the mayor in trouble.

Suspicions were raised that the Metro board delayed voting on a $68 million bus purchase contract to allow Lawson to become involved in that deal later.

Lawson was a target in a late 1980s federal probe into allegations that his relationship with the Chicago Transit Authority chief led to a sweetheart bus contract with Lawson in that city. No evidence of that surfaced. During the same time period, Houston black political leaders threatened to oppose a Metro rail referendum if Lawson was not included in bus purchase contracts.

A City Hall veteran had Lawson in mind when praising Brown's ethics but questioning some of his associates. "It's like trying to train a dog to eat with a knife and fork. As soon as you walk away from the table, that dog's going to put his nose in the bowl."

Perhaps the most significant personnel decision facing Brown when he entered office was what to do with Jimmie Schindewolf, the powerful Lanier chief who was once described by former city councilman Ben Reyes as "more powerful than the mayor."

Schindewolf wanted to stay in the new administration and retain the preeminence he enjoyed under Lanier as both chief of staff and public works director. Brown brought in a new inner circle of advisers and a determination to carve out his own administration. He did not intend to preside over "Lanier 2," as some downtown interests had earlier, and erroneously, tagged the new order.

Brown told Schindewolf he could keep public works, but not the chief of staff position. Schindewolf resigned and headed for a lucrative consulting relationship with the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.

A member of Brown's advisory group said Brown's decision "was just common sense -- didn't take that much strength. You don't go through what a guy does, getting elected mayor, and turn it over to a guy who didn't do anything. So that was never in the cards."

With Schindewolf out of the way, Brown then named Metro executive Jerry King to the post. King immediately began slowing down the overheated public works machine that had been spewing out design and construction contracts at a breakneck rate during the final six months of the Lanier administration.

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