By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
When, two months before a general election, the biggest buzz at City Hall is a squabble between Mayor Lee Brown and Continental Airlines over a lead architect for an airport terminal, be assured the municipal times are not just tranquil. They're heavily sedated.
Sure, Metro is moving toward construction of a light-rail line of dubious value down Main Street, and a basketball arena is one of the issues on the upcoming ballot. But what, us worry?
Although 63 candidates grace -- or infest -- the November 2 ballot, well-known names are either absent because of term limits or safely ensconced for another two years. Departing Councilman Joe Roach, once considered a possible mayoral candidate, is reportedly knocking on television station doors looking for a new podium as a broadcaster.
Mayor Brown, meanwhile, will have to settle for the likes of Outlaw Josey Wales IV as an opponent. That's hardly a comparable matchup to his big bucks shootout against Rob Mosbacher two years ago. Before long, Brown may be able to boast, like his predecessor Bob Lanier, that he is idolized by 90 percent of the population.
Even popular Councilwoman Annise Parker, the sole openly gay citywide official, drew only nuisance opponent Sylvia Ayres from her own home turf in the Montrose. Sylvia's claim to fame is that she's the mother of convicted murderer Leslie Douglas Ashley, now the transsexual Leslie Elaine Perez. The rampant political ennui seems to have infected the ranks of bigots and homophobes, as well as the saner population.
Lawyer and downtown insider Kenny Friedman has tried to organize a group of Brown supporters to back acceptable City Council candidates, but he finds the task of igniting enthusiasm daunting even among downtown players. The cats are just too fat and too happy. Even though the Houston Chronicle ominously dubbed the group "The Star Chamber," the supposed inquisitors have been alarmingly lackadaisical.
"It's real hard to get anyone motivated if you don't have a serious mayor's race," reports Friedman, who has been a fund-raising force for former mayors Lanier and Kathy Whitmire. "Hard to generate any enthusiasm or turn out any people." Council races may be exciting to the participants, observes Friedman, but they just don't turn on the big boys.
Friedman's group is not participating in races involving incumbents, even though he feels "there are several who richly deserve to be retired, in my opinion." He adds, "But we felt this was as much as we could bite off and chew at one time. There are five open seats, and if we could elect good, qualified people, that would have a big impact on Council. Heck, maybe in the future we take a bigger role."
The purpose of the group is to keep Brown from dirtying his own hands in the process.
"The mayor has to serve with whoever gets elected," opines Friedman. "It's not appropriate for him to be mucking in these Council races. It's fine for his friends to try to influence races, but it's not good for the mayor to be doing that." Friedman also disputes any suggestion that the group circumvents campaign-finance restrictions. By endorsing candidates, the group is not collecting money, but just recommending that members contribute to certain candidates.
Whether any outside force can decisively influence notoriously idiosyncratic district contests remains to be demonstrated. Most of the smart money is apparently sitting tight until the runoff finalists emerge from crowded fields.
Following is an informal analysis of the more unpredictable races on the ballot, based on sleuthing and the opinions of a stable of consultants who will remain nameless.
A: The Bruce Goose
This grudge match between incumbent Bruce Tatro and Republican activist Toni Lawrence has been a long time in the making. Lawrence is pals with Tatro predecessor Helen Huey, who returned to City Hall as a lobbyist after Tatro's election. She soon clashed with her successor over who was the go-to person on projects in the district. Tatro claimed Lawrence delivered an ultimatum from Huey: Get with my program, or you'll get an opponent.
Lawrence denied that account, but not before she had entered the race for the Spring Branch-area seat.
Tatro, according to a councilmember allied with Mayor Brown, is clearly the one person the mayor would most like to see disappear from City Council. But there isn't much Brown can do to influence a race in a rockribbed Republican district. Our experts give the nod to Tatro based on the considerable powers of incumbency, plus the fact that Tatro has raised three times the money Lawrence collected in the early going.
B: Heir Richard?
Like Texas, District B is truly a whole 'nother country. Outside influences matter little in this insular, heavily black north Houston district, whose politics are dominated by churches and personal political machines. In this district, term limits accomplished what two federal bribery conspiracy trials couldn't: the retirement of Michael Yarbrough. But his former aide, Richard Johnson, is now in the driver's seat.
A former worker in the Yarbrough campaign delivers the good and bad news: "Richard is twice as smart as Michael, but he's twice as mean."