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Other Eckels proposals have also raised the hackles of his listeners. Eckels jabbed the city for an annexation policy that gobbles up rich, developed suburbs while avoiding poor areas that need city services. He attacked the hospital district and criticized the way basic services are provided in unincorporated areas.
"I don't know when I have ever puzzled over a speech as much as I have that one, and it wasn't just the campaign reform, although that's what everyone wants to talk about," says lawyer Joe B. Allen, Vinson & Elkins's political action committee director. "And it wasn't just the shot at City Council about cash in envelopes. He attacked the city on multiple fronts, about their annexation policy, service policies."
Perhaps the most wide-ranging and unrealistic proposal, says Allen, was Eckels's pitch for state legislation to allow counties to provide a broad spectrum of municipal services, including water and sewer service to unincorporated areas. Allen called the proposal the "most remarkable departure in Texas government." He added, "If the speech had said nothing but that, that would be a revolutionary thought."
Allen specializes in municipal utility district law. "It would be a sea change in Texas government to suggest that the county in effect have the same functions as the city. I spend a lot of time out in suburbia, and I hear people saying, 'We don't want to be annexed by the city,' but I haven't heard them clamoring for the county to in effect become the city."
Allen opposes contribution limits because he believes it violates the rights of members of large firms to participate in the political process. He cites his own firm, Vinson & Elkins. It does some business with the county but has 550 lawyers, most of whom do not.
"If somebody wants to have self-imposed limits because they believe they might be wrongfully influenced by taking political contributions, hey, impose all you want on yourself," says Allen. "If Robert wants to say, 'I'm going to limit myself to $250,' that's okay with me. I just don't want him to decide what my political rights are."
Lee, whose precinct is almost entirely within the city, was angry with Eckels's criticisms of Houston. In fact, he says he issued his own apology on behalf of commissioners court to city officials.
"Hell, yes, I wrote the city an apology," says Lee. "Regardless of whether he was absolutely right -- and he was absolutely wrong -- the forum was wrong. If he was genuine about these issues, he would have addressed them the way the system was designed to do, not in a speech where you invite everybody to your house and then you shit in the middle of the floor."
Lee has tried to stay neutral in the four-year war between Republicans Radack and Eckels that began after the judge took office. He says he assumed the young judge would take the necessary time to learn the system. "My patience is wearing real short now," warns Lee. "[He's made] too many repetitive statements that I consider to be irresponsible, and they are reoccurring in the same way, which leads you to believe he thinks he is right. And there's no apologies, no remarks for who he is hurting and no regard for his colleagues or for other people in politics. His regard is for some other, higher order I haven't identified yet."
Largely because of his fund-raising efforts, even though Eckels will not have a challenger for four years, many political players credit his sudden penchant for preaching reform to a well-hidden game plan for running for higher office.
But no one can figure what that office might be.
One of his hosts for the fund-raising breakfast believes the judge is tired of the ceaseless feuding with Radack, weary of his job and ready to move on.
"You work places where it becomes clear somebody just doesn't like their job, and so it doesn't matter what's going on, they're just not happy about it ."
Radack figures any fool can see what's in the wind. Radack says Eckels tried to turn the county speech into his political platform. "It's a campaign. He's begun a campaign for another office. Anybody can see that."
Lee's suspicions tend in the same direction. "There have been others that you and I have witnessed real close who try to use one office as a launching pad for another," says the commissioner.
Whether Eckels had self-purification or self-promotion in mind, the style and substance of his speech raised a warning flag for some of his previously die-hard supporters.
"I think that anytime you turn and attack all the people who are your key supporters, and you do it in a very public way, it hurts you," says a fundraiser sponsor. "People don't like unpredictability. My experience is that people can deal with officeholders they may hold deep philosophical differences with better than they can deal with unpredictability."
Eckels is unruffled. He insists his goal remains to be the best possible county judge. Still, he does note that he never planned to be in his current job for the long term. He only ran for it after Lindsay's problems caused him not to seek re-election.
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