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At minimum, should early front-runner Gore win his party's nomination and a national election next year, Brown is likely to become an important fixture in a second-millennium Democratic administration. Ambitious Houston politicos take note, because that raises the prospect that City Hall would be without an incumbent a term sooner than expected, which would make 2001 a real mayoral space odyssey.
During a trip to D.C. last month to plump for a federal empowerment zone for Houston, Brown met with Gore for a private discussion. At a Latino leadership forum keynoted by Gore in Denver two weeks ago, Texas attendees reported an audible buzz about a Gore-Brown connection.
Questioned through aides, Brown replies with his usual political boilerplate. Yes, he's concentrating totally on being the best mayor he can be; no, he doesn't harbor thoughts of seeking any other office. But perhaps his choice of a new home subconsciously betrays some long-term visions.
Shortly before departing on a trade mission to Japan last week, Brown packed up his belongings and moved from middle-class Meyerland to Potomac Street in tony Tanglewood. If you recall, that's the neighborhood of the last Houstonian who served as vice president, George Bush, before he relocated to the banks of the Potomac River and eventually followed Ronald Reagan into the White House.
For those questioning Brown's credentials for the national stage, consider that he represents a larger constituency than any other African-American elected official in the United States. There are no black governors, and the defeat last year of Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois eliminated the only black senator. If more lines in the resume are required, Brown has already served in a presidential cabinet as drug czar and was the top law enforcement chief in three of the nation's top ten cities. Brown's credentials, thick on appointive positions and thin on electoral experience, resemble nothing so much as George Bush's job history before he ran for vice president.
Brown won the Houston mayorship by piecing together a coalition of blacks, browns and moderate whites. With it, he defeated Rob Mosbacher, son of the former Bush commerce secretary and an opponent who campaigned as a thinly veiled Republican. The Brown Bag of voters is the same electoral menu that national party strategists hope to recreate to keep the White House in Democratic hands while retaking the House of Representatives and Senate from the Republicans.
Before you scoff at Brown's chances for national office, think about it. We elected him the first black mayor of the nation's fourth largest city, one with a white voting majority. Can anyone really argue that, based on experience, Senator Dan Quayle was better qualified than Brown to be vice president when he was picked by Bush fresh off the riverboat in New Orleans in 1988?
If Gore considers Brown for a presidential ticket, he'll find no shortage of Houston boosters to give the mayor a good recommendation.
"These days Americans want to be satisfied that the vice president can be someone who can step into the job if there were circumstances that would call for it," says Bill White. The former Texas Democratic Party chairman and Wedge Group president and CEO is the point man for the nascent Gore presidential campaign in Texas.
"I think that's why Quayle hurt Bush, and why Gore helped [President] Bill Clinton despite the fact they were from the same geographic area and same general age. People will evaluate vice president candidates based on their performance in debates, whether they like them, whether they think they would do a good job under pressure. Honestly, Lee would test pretty well in those categories."
Harris County Democratic chair Sue Schechter is ready to jump on the Brown-for-Veep bandwagon. "I think he deserves to be on the vice presidential list," enthuses Schechter. "The mayor of the fourth largest city, with his national experience, would be a definite choice. I like it!"
Campaign Strategies's Dan McClung, the consultant for Brown in his 1997 mayoral campaign, agrees that if Gore wins, Brown has a good shot at returning to the national arena.
"He's got a hell of a resume," opines McClung. "It's been appointive until now, and now it's elective. I don't think there's anybody like that walking around the United States." And when the field is narrowed to African-American Democrats, McClung and White concur there's no one else with comparable experience.
Personalities matter in a marriage of political convenience, and Al and Lee get along very well, by all accounts. Gore came to Houston to campaign for Brown during his mayoral race, and the two were already good friends as Clinton cabinet members.
"They talk on the phone periodically," says a Democratic source familiar with them. "They are the same kinds of people. If you think Clinton's a policy wonk, Gore is four times that. And Brown is too."