By Sean Pendergast
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For the past year, freshman Councilman Bruce Tatro has been telling associates an anecdote to illustrate the ways his predecessor, the outspoken Helen Huey, has allegedly tried to run District A behind his back. In recent months, however, the punch line to the tale has lost much of its humor for the thin, mild-mannered accountant and computer programmer.
Scant weeks after Tatro took office last January and began to organize his staff, Republican activist and Huey pal Toni Lawrence requested a breakfast meeting. When they met at the Jo Jo's at U.S. 290 and 34th Street, Tatro claims, Lawrence delivered a blunt ultimatum from the former councilwoman.
"Not too far into the conversation, Toni says, 'Either get rid of Maureen Mulrooney out of the district office or Helen finds someone to run against you next cycle,'" recalls Tatro, who professed to be stunned at the threat. "I just couldn't believe it. I thought, 'What in the world?' Just because I have Maureen Mulrooney helping me, what kind of vendetta is this?"
Mulrooney is a longtime neighborhood activist in Tatro's Spring Branch-area district and an early admirer and supporter of Huey when she ran against entrenched incumbent Larry McKaskle. Huey lost one race to McKaskle before she beat him, but then she and Mulrooney had a bitter falling-out over the establishment of a garbage transfer station in the area.
"As long as you do what [Huey] tells you to do, you're fine," says Mulrooney, speaking from long experience. "You cross her and all of a sudden you are her archenemy."
Tatro admits he was aware Huey and Mulrooney didn't get along, but he was shocked that Huey would declare war over her presence on his staff. "I knew there was some rub between the two of them. I knew they weren't exactly the best of friends. But I didn't realize it was that personal."
After the breakfast with Lawrence, Tatro says he called Mulrooney and asked her to keep a low profile, just to avoid provoking Huey. "I said, 'Look, Maureen, whatever there is between you [and Helen] I don't want to pour gasoline on the fire. Could you please kind of step down and help out on the side?'" According to Tatro, Mulrooney agreed. "You're right," she told him. "We don't need to pour salt on old wounds."
"That is absolutely false," retorts Lawrence after hearing Tatro's account of their talk. She denies ever mentioning Huey's name during the breakfast dialogue. According to Lawrence, she asked for the meeting because she was concerned that political neophyte Tatro did not understand the unique nature of the district office Huey had created.
"He couldn't get that information from any other Council person, because nobody else has a district office that functions like that," says Lawrence. "Helen paid for all the computers and stuff with her own personal campaign money. It was a great situation, and I wanted to explain to Bruce how that was. The only time I used Maureen's name was to say that maybe she wasn't the right person to go over there."
Regardless of whether Tatro's story about the breakfast threat is true, last month Lawrence announced she will challenge the District A incumbent next fall. Huey was unavailable for comment on this story, though she has previously denied recruiting Lawrence for the race. She has said she would support Lawrence "because we are friends."
The way Tatro sees it, Huey and Lawrence are more like Spring Branch political Bobsey Twins, and Toni wouldn't make the race without Huey's active encouragement.
" I have no question in my mind that the two are one," says the Councilman. "If you know the history behind Toni and Helen, they are super, super close." Tatro figures Lawrence's decision to challenge him is the follow-through on the threat she issued at Jo Jo's nearly a year ago.
"Huey wants Bruce to kowtow to her," says Mulrooney. "Helen, for some reason, thinks she should be mayor; she thinks she should still be running District A. She cannot let go. She cannot cut that umbilical cord."
A City Council aide confirms that Huey tried to undercut Tatro from his first days in office, and that she refused to react to numerous conciliatory overtures by her successor.
"That was something really rampant from early on," says the source. "You almost felt bad for Tatro, because she meddled a lot and it made things hard. Bruce tried to involve her, offering her things like a role in getting the Olympics, offering her an olive branch. But I don't think it was ever well received."
After months of trying to placate his nemesis and getting sand kicked in his face, Mister Mild has decided to take his own swings at Hammerin' Helen.
Helen Eggleston Huey, by all accounts, is not a person you mess with lightly. During her years on Houston City Council she fashioned an image as a scourge of the purveyors of urban blight in Spring Branch, a take-no-prisoners official. She was sued along with the city after she pressed municipal workers to raze apartment complexes in her neighborhood even as owners were trying to rehabilitate them. After Huey was removed as a defendant in one lawsuit, a jury decided against the city and awarded damages to the apartment owner.
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