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By Sean Pendergast
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Licking Their Wounds
Republicans still dominate Harris County, but an inside-the-party tiff may be a harbinger of harder times ahead
The great Harris County GOP tax assessor-collector shootout of 1998 is now history, and triage reports on the political damage are still pouring in. Few participants escaped the scattershot without minor wounds, and the roster of walking wounded ranges from the party's self-touted racially inclusive image to the judicial aspirations of commissioner Steve Radack's wife.
With demographic forces inexorably eating away at a decade of GOP dominance in Harris County, the spectacle of Republicans bashing Republicans had the earmarks of a party so blinded by success it may be forfeiting its future in a binge of internal rivalries, and fracturing its base instead of diversifying it. This fight operated on so many levels of animosity, the audience needed a program to follow it.
In round one, commissioner Radack bulldozed through commissioners court the interim appointment of former pro football player and black Republican businessman Willie Alexander as tax assessor to fill out the term of the late Democratic incumbent Carl Smith. In doing so, Radack indulged his pretensions as county political kingmaker while playing Sluggo to his favorite Mr. Bill, County Judge Robert Eckels. Radack brushed aside Eckels's plea that the court wait until the party executive committee named a nominee to run for tax assessor before it filled the seat on an interim basis. The two Democrats on the court joined Radack and GOP commissioner Jerry Eversole in supporting Alexander.
Radack also got in some good licks at another of his least favorite local Republicans, county party chairman Gary Polland, by putting the commissioner's man, Alexander, in the office over Polland protege Paul Bettencourt and then daring the party to snub a qualified African-American. The reply wasn't long in coming.
In round two, the county GOP executive committee, composed of the party precinct chairmen, struck back, naming party vice chair Bettencourt as the party nominee for the tax assessor post on next November's ballot. Alexander didn't even make second. That honor went to county treasurer Don Sumners, who had himself been ousted as the party nominee for treasurer in the spring primary by Radack-supported Jack Cato.
The executive committee vote made neophyte public servant Alexander the lamest of lame ducks. Just about the time he learns where the bathroom and coffee machine are located, he'll be vacating his county office.
Since Democrats settled for a no-name CPA, Ora Harrison, as their tax assessor candidate, nobody expects Bettencourt to have much trouble capturing the office for the GOP in November.
"This race was no more about Willie Alexander and Paul Bettencourt than the man in the moon," says GOP consultant Allen Blakemore. "You could have switched those two people, or substituted different characters. This was entirely about a power play between Radack and Eckels, between commissioners court and the executive committee, between the executive committee and Radack, and between Radack and Gary Polland. It wasn't about the people who were voted on at all."
What it was all about varies, depending on the participant questioned.
According to Radack, in pushing Alexander's candidacy, he was giving his party a chance to reach out to minority voters. "I think it was an opportunity missed," says the commissioner, who then drew a bead on the party chairman. "The person who should be the most embarrassed by it all is Gary Polland," sniped Radack, "because he was the advocate of the open tent. This was his term. This was what he wanted. He was the one boasting and talking about minority outreach programs."
Predictably, Polland doesn't see it in quite those terms. "I think there was the thought that if a minority candidate was put forward by Radack, the party couldn't turn him down." says Polland, who then offers the commissioner some advice. "Go play that game in the Democratic party. That's where they play that game. We don't do that."
Polland cites the victory of black former prosecutor Mike Fields over a white county court incumbent in this spring's GOP primary as proof the party is reaching across ethnic lines.
By setting up Alexander, Radack effectively cast the party precinct and district chair people as racially intolerant heavies, a role that left some of the key members of the group fuming, despite the fact that their man won. Senate 6 district chair Mike Dugas accused Radack of playing "the race card" in an attempt to fill the tax assessor position with a yes man. According to Dugas, Radack previously executed the same maneuver in backing Mike Fleming for county attorney and Jack Cato for county treasurer.
Dugas then skewered Radack with the ultimate Republican insult. "I think Mr. Radack would make a good candidate for president on the Democratic ticket," says Dugas. "He lies, he has Clinton-type arrogance, he would make a wonderful Democrat. In my estimation, he is totally out of touch with the Republican party , especially the grassroots conservatives."
Dugas figures Radack used Alexander as a stand-in for his political grudge match. "Radack played him like a violin, man, and just threw him out there to play the race card. Radack thinks he's a legend in his own mind, that if they don't put Willie in, they're racist, and if they do put him in, well, then he got what he wanted. He thinks it's win-win. Personally, I think it's lose-lose."