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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."
"They have an excellent working relationship," confirms Bill White, who recalls Gore phoning congratulations to Brown on the night of his victory. Gore frequently chaired cabinet meetings when Clinton was out of the country and got to know Brown through their mutual passion: policy discussions.
The impeachment roller coaster that is apparently ending next month has also created an environment in which Brown's perceived liabilities, such as his limited base and rather bland public persona, might translate into strengths. A Democratic consultant says there's a widespread feeling in the party that the monolithic support of black Democrats has been a key element in Clinton's Houdini-like escape. What better payback to that sector of the party faithful than making history with the first black nomination to a presidential ticket? Other than former Joint Chiefs head Colin Powell, a Republican, Brown is the only African-American positioned to make the race.
"The mayor would be a great choice from that perspective," comments a top member of his city staff. "If Gore wanted to make a move from a historical perspective."
If George W. Bush becomes the GOP presidential candidate, any Democratic hopes of carrying Texas would vanish. But McClung figures the Texas factor doesn't affect Brown's value to the party.
"That is not why they would choose Lee Brown to begin with," says the consultant. "He is not particularly well known in Texas ... and he wouldn't have any big sway over Texas voters even if he were on the ticket. [Former senator and treasury secretary] Lloyd Bentsen was a hell of a lot better at that, and it didn't work for him in 1988 [as vice presidential running mate with Michael Dukakis]. They'd choose Brown because he is a national black political leader."
White questions whether Brown and his resolutely apolitical wife Frances would welcome the scorching national spotlight.
"He certainly has a very compelling personal story to which many Americans can relate," says White. He refers to Brown's upbringing in a poor California migrant-worker family and his saga of working his way through school. "[But] whether Lee and Frances would want to be subject to the scrutiny of being a potential vice president, I don't know."
Whatever his personal ambivalence about that scrutiny, Brown would likely weather it better than just about anybody. His appeal lies not only in what he's done with his past, but also what he hasn't.
"There aren't many people who started out where he did in life who haven't screwed up somewhere along the way," chuckles McClung. "He truly has not, best anybody can tell."
Brown is a political Mr. Clean, having been vetted by the FBI for his Clinton appointment as drug czar. On a national political landscape that has taken on the volatility of the Pacific ring of fire, be assured there are no bimbo eruptions in Lee Brown's political future.
You want safe? Brown is even safer than Gore on the morals front, and that's as safe as it gets. Neither one could attract or catch a carnivorous intern if his life depended upon it. With these two, the adjective stiff applies strictly to their speech delivery and physical posture.
Consider the chemistry of the possible ticket. In his early sixties, Brown makes the 50-year-old Gore seem positively youthful. For anyone who has suffered through Brown's meandering speeches, watching concrete dry is a heart-thumping experience by comparison. Gore's oratorical style, reminiscent of a schoolmarm reading underlined phrases off a blackboard to a special ed class, seems positively Periclean in contrast to the mayor's.
So what if a glacier could run for president faster than these two? They may be just what America requires to forget Monica, Clinton and the morals-mongers of the GOP right. If the country is really yearning for a safe, secure, sane presidency after Clinton's Melrose Place on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Democrats might do well by offering the no-messin'-around, solid, stolid duo of Al and Lee.
Midway through his first term, Brown's performance has not been a liability to his future advancement. Conservative City Councilmembers Joe Roach and Orlando Sanchez, among others, are quick to criticize the mayor's communications problems with Council and largely rhetorical policy initiatives. However, Brown has also avoided anything that might be described as a scandal. Compared to predecessors, his record has to be considered satisfactory.
Mayor Kathy Whitmire had a rocky road in her first year in office, with running battles against City Council and the media. Because of Bob Lanier's mastery of both the media and Council, his public works and parks department follies -- which qualify as real scandals -- went largely unchallenged during his three-term tenure.
Brown keeps a low-key, low-risk approach that maintains his popularity while avoiding serious mistakes. It's a measure of his success that aide May Walker's issuance of a pamphlet rife with misspellings is considered one of the major snafus in his tenure.
Should Brown follow the siren song of national ambition, he would be a two-term mayor, given the widespread expectation in Houston political circles that no major candidate will oppose him for re-election next fall. That would dovetail well with the city's term limits, which would have made Brown a lame duck in his third term anyway.
Students of Brown's history note that he has always had a keen sense of timing for knowing when to move on. He left as Atlanta police chief in the glow of the conviction of a serial child killer, but before serious questions flared about that investigation. He departed as Houston chief before the downfall of his patroness, Whitmire. And Brown left as New York City police commissioner after the controversial Crown Heights riot, but before Rudy Giuliani defeated Brown's friend, Democratic mayor David Dinkins.
In terms of vice-presidential viability, Brown is fortunate that the most damaging episode in his political career, the Crown Heights riot, occurred in a state likely to be a Democratic bastion in the year 2000. Critics in the Hasidic community blamed the riot on then-commissioner Brown. They accused him of delaying response to a racial confrontation triggered by the deaths of a black child and a Jewish student. Brown's mayoral opponent Rob Mosbacher raised the riot as a campaign issue in challenging Brown's leadership abilities, and New York City Mayor Guiliani endorsed Mosbacher. Brown won anyway.
Strategist McClung says Crown Heights is no hurdle in Brown's path. "He had a bobble or two, I guess. Every police chief tends to, especially in a city like that. But having been the former police commissioner in New York is a gem on your resume. It made it just a slam-dunk to go to drug czar."
White, the man closest to Gore in Texas, figures Brown's remaining time in Houston will determine any role for the mayor on the national stage.
"I think how successful Lee will be as mayor will be the single biggest factor for his future," predicts White. "I personally think he is really hitting his stride as mayor. His attention to detail, building consensus, keeping his focus on neighborhoods and kids is going to make him a very popular mayor.
"And if he is a very popular mayor of the fourth largest city in the country," concludes White, "then he deserves to be taken seriously."
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