Shaping the Council to Come

Time to pull out those election wish lists

While one holiday cycle is gathering momentum, the city's currently officeless politicos are already thinking about the choice electoral presents they might be unwrapping a year hence. With five term-limited Houston City Councilmembers having to vacate their seats in 1999, and two others considered vulnerable among the 14 at-large and district seats, the season has already begun for Council wannabes to make those essential lists of supporters and begin enlisting their help.

District campaigns generally require extensive grassroots networks, and the funding price tag for a citywide race ranges from $110,000 to $150,000. So a successful run for municipal office on either level rarely proceeds from a spur-of-the-moment decision.

"The candidates are starting to make the rounds," says Joe B. Allen, the veteran city hall lobbyist and director of the potent political action committee of downtown law firm Vinson and Elkins. "My view has been until we got the November '98 elections over it was too early to talk about November 1999. But I think what we're starting to see is that rumors are surfacing and people are calling for interviews and people are showing up at events and starting to talk to consultants."

The first to make it inside Joe B.'s door was Gabriel Vasquez, a UH professor and first-term Houston Independent School District trustee. He is eyeing the District H seat that Felix Fraga must surrender. Vasquez is clearly serious about his Council bid, having enlisted the city's premier fundraiser, Sue Walden, to round up those establishment big bucks.

Lining up in the hall for a visit is former Houston Police Patrolmen's Union president Mike Howard, who has designs on the District G seat lightly held by Jean Kelley. She is the spouse of former councilman John and was slipped on the ballot to replace him at the last minute last year. The maneuver earned her only token opposition from flaky Karen K. Kristopher, who spent part of the race in jail on a charge of theft of a rental car. This time around, Kelley doesn't figure to have such a wide-open track, and the usual power of incumbency may not apply to her.

While some observers, including term-limits architect Clymer Wright, have questioned the quality of the new generation of officials the law washed onto City Council, Allen is more upbeat. "There really is a much bigger pool of talent willing to run for City Council than I think most of us anticipated," says the attorney. "In other words, we're not running out of capable, talented people who are willing to run .... It turns out they are willing to run, they just didn't want to run against a long-term incumbent where the likelihood of winning is very small."

Campaign Strategies' head Dan McClung sees the impact of term limits a bit differently. Because district and citywide Councilmembers are treated similarly under the term limits law, McClung believes that district seats no longer have the same attraction for established officeholders that they once had. In the seventies, when district-only elections began for some Council seats, a whole generation of Houston state legislators, including Ben Reyes, Anthony Hall and Lance Lalor, sought and won them. Reyes stayed on for decades until term limits sent him to the sidelines in 1996. Hall used his district seat as a springboard to run for an at-large Council seat and later made an unsuccessful bid for Congress, and Lalor went on to become city controller before self-destructing. With the three two-year term limits now in effect, legislators would have little motivation to abandon their non-term limited positions for a temporary career on Council.

"Now, whatever race is up, you go for," explains McClung. He cites Orlando Sanchez and Chris Bell as examples of rookies who ran and won citywide. The fact that an officeholder is term-limited also encourages potential challengers to try to wait them out, rather than marching against the incumbent in a direct challenge, as Controller Sylvia Garcia did last year against the hapless Lloyd Kelley, in an exception to the rule.

Next year will be no different, judging by the possible candidates whose names have made one or another of the lists compiled by political consultants, lobbyists and erstwhile kingmakers contacted by the Insider. At the top of city ballot, both Mayor Lee Brown and Controller Garcia will apparently benefit from the chilling effect of term limits on challengers. No one we talked to on the Republican or Democratic side of the campaign game saw a big money opponent for either official.

Among the five at-large Councilmembers, only Joe Roach is on his way out because of term limits. Early rumors that Roach's wife Becky might run for his seat appear to have been killed by the Councilman's denial, relayed through an aide. Gordon Quan, a Chinese-American lawyer, has already enlisted the services of Quantum consultant Nancy Sims in his bid for the position. Former Good Morning Houston television co-host Jan Glenn says she's been urged to run by friends, but has made no decision. Dwight Boykins, an attorney who lost an at-large race against Carroll Robinson last year, is expected on the ballot, as are perennial candidates Elizabeth Spates and the Reverend Andrew Burks.

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