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.

According to the former mayor, building some kind of train might placate downtown political pressure focused on Brown through the Houston Chronicle.

"I think the Chronicle has exerted tremendous influence on the idea that some kind of rail ought to be a very high priority for both the mayor and all persons who want to be elected to Council," analyzes Lanier. "I think, beyond that, there are a few political people pushing it, but the dominant political strength there is the Chronicle and how they present it."

Brown is committed to holding an election to get voter approval for any rail project, a seeming invitation to resume the mobility wars of a decade ago. The mayor regards the election as his own way of getting off the political hook.

"If people don't want it, we won't do it," says Brown. "It's just that simple. We still go by majority rule in a democracy."

After the fashion hothouse that was the Lanier cocoon at the old City Hall, before it was closed for renovation, a visit to Brown's inner sanctum on the third floor is a dip into temporary austerity. Six months into office, the walls are stark. Instead of the pricey furnishings arranged by first lady Elyse during the heyday of Lanier's first term, the largely bare room has a leased desk, a computer, a conference table and chairs.

More than the decor marks the difference between the Brown and Lanier administrations. While Elyse was an omnipresence who chaired the Houston Image Group and supervised Mayor Bob's comfort zone, Brown's home and family life are largely submerged in his no-nonsense approach to the office. His schoolteacher/counselor wife, Frances, dislikes the public spotlight and declines the usual stand-by-your-spouse sorts of interviews that soften a politician's image and make him or her seem more human. That is not expected to change until Brown hits the campaign trail next year in his reselection bid.

However, the threadbare look of Brown's office will change. He's ordered that staffers go on a scavenger hunt to reclaim the original furniture that was in the old City Hall when it opened a half-century ago. "Just as we preserve the historical significance outside," intoned Brown about the lengthy renovation of the art deco-style building, "I want to do the same thing on the inside."

Brown also seems to be resisting any makeover of his own management style, despite criticism from opponents and at times puzzlement from his friends. Interviews with Brown are generally unenlightening affairs, since the mayor rarely ventures into unescorted waters, preferring to churn out a series of time-tested slogans and truisms. With the mayor, one does not expect the unexpected. The closest one ever gets to a spontaneous expression from the bureaucrat-to-end-all-bureaucrats is that wistful half-smile, followed by something halfway between a giggle and a laugh.

He was asked what it would take to draw a gut reaction from a mayor whose only flash during the campaign came when opponent Rob Mosbacher attacked his integrity.

Eyes glinting as if enjoying a private joke, Brown replied tersely: "A reason."

The constant jabs from councilmembers, the sorts of darts that regularly had Lanier fuming, aren't reason enough?

"That's what people do," replies the mayor of the bickering at Council. "Why would you get upset about that? That's not a reason. We're doing okay in getting things passed through Council."

As for his silence at the Council table while others carry the defense of the administration, Brown seems to regard that as dirty work outside his job description. In Brown's eyes, his silence reflects strength rather than weakness.

"Jew Don Boney is my floor leader. That's why I picked him. He's good at the Council politics, and I wanted someone who could do that for me. So it's not by default but by choice that he's the one who does that."

The mayor is amused at the suggestion that the media is frustrated by the utter lack of fire he exhibits both in presiding over Council and running the city.

"I'm 60 years old, and I'm not going to change," declares the mayor. "I've done what I've done with my life. I've been what I am. I'll be what I am and do what I do for the rest of my life."

Brown then touched on the best reason for him not to change. By not inflaming passions, by not making enemies for life, by not providing an environment where scandals can easily take root, Lee Brown has wound up on top, and boring or not, will likely be there for a while.

"The style I operate under is my style," concludes Brown. "That's what I've done all my life, and it hasn't failed me yet."

Walden, the pre-eminent political hatchet man at City Hall during the Lanier era, predicts there will be two more terms to study that style. "Absent a huge fuckup, a bad economy, he's in there for the next five years," predicts Dave Walden. "And everybody who doesn't like him better learn to like him. And they better hope he does a good job, cause he ain't going nowhere."

E-mail Tim Fleck at tim_fleck@houstonpress.com.

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