The Insider

Prayer Lunch Indigestion. A conservative kingmaker meets his match in "Mama Bear"

What could be more innocuous than a prayer luncheon in downtown Houston? One billed as a nonpartisan gathering of ministers and politicos with Texas Senator Phil Gramm as keynoter? When the organizer is Dr. Steven Hotze, the westside religious conservative who recently targeted two incumbent GOP female jurists for defeat, controversy gets a reserved seat at the head table.

As the director of the Conservative Republicans of Harris County political action committee, health and wellness physician Hotze issues a potent sample ballot before each GOP primary. It contains prescriptions that can have a life-or-death impact on the electoral hopes of candidates. As a result, most of them pay a pre-campaign courtesy call to kiss the kingmaker's ring and ask for his favor.

This time around, Hotze shocked 18-year District Judge Sharolyn Wood, a charter member of the original GOP courthouse mafia that now includes all but one judge. She left a meeting with Hotze thinking she had the endorsement. Instead, he gave the nod to Wood's little-known opponent, mediator K. Allan Davis, whose religious credentials as a devout Baptist far outweigh his courtroom experience.

Link on the way to the luncheon: "I'm not caught in the middle...."
Deron Neblett
Link on the way to the luncheon: "I'm not caught in the middle...."

Hotze also took on Governor George W. Bush's loyalists by tilting against Dubya's recent appointee to the 164th District Court, Martha Hill Jamison, a former Democrat. Hotze is backing Frank Gerold, who just happens to be the client of the good doctor's in-house political consultant, Allen Blakemore.

The physician then rubbed salt into Wood's wounds by contacting Harris County judges and requesting contributions to fund the prayer luncheon. The Petroleum Club event last Thursday was sponsored by Hotze's nonprofit corporate creation, America 2000. Many judges had already sent in $1,000 and $2,000 checks before learning that two of their brethren faced Hotze-backed opposition.

Hotze quickly discovered that the courthouse hath no fury like a Sharolyn Wood scorned. Legendary for her short-fuse temper tantrums with colleagues, Wood has been tagged with the courthouse nickname "Mama Bear," and those who tangle with her can count on getting an earful. Sharolyn, her husband, Mike Wood, a probate judge with the moniker "Baby Bear," and other loyalists launched a phone campaign to pressure other judges to withdraw their support from the luncheon. Because America 2000, Conservative Republicans of Harris County and Hotze all employ Blakemore as a consultant, the Wood faction argued that contributors to the prayer luncheon were in effect supporting an attack on incumbent Republican judges.

Judge Wood did not return an Insider request for comment, but her political consultant, Mary Jane Smith, says the prayer event is linked to the endorsements. "It makes it very hard when Steve goes to knock off these judges, and then asks the other judges to finance that knocking off. He is the principal in both those entities [America 2000 and Conservative Republicans of Harris County], so there is a connection."

Wood's offensive set off a panic among jurists who've been torched by her tongue before. "It just blew up," says one participant. "Half the judges were like, 'Oh, my God, what am I going to do?' "

Two judges, Harvey Brown and Tad Halbach, actually called Blakemore to ask that their contributions be returned. Others, including Pat Mizell and John Donovan, did send money. Mizell found an excuse not to attend the luncheon, but Donovan was among approximately 20 incumbent jurists who showed up. Many were no doubt praying they do not get trapped anytime soon in a courthouse elevator with Sharolyn.

Caught between Wood and a hard place is District Judge Scott Link, whose betrothed is none other than Heidi Lange, the political consultant who is managing Davis's campaign against Wood. Lange did not bother with niceties, and describes Wood as an incompetent jurist. She says Hotze's endorsement is "not targeting women, it's a matter of targeting bad Republican judges and trying to get that message out to the voters." Davis's campaign materials cite Wood "as part of the problem, as she has one of the worst dockets in Harris County with almost 1,500 pending cases backlogged."

Link, who did go to the luncheon, denies he had anything to do with recruiting an opponent for his colleague. He says he was initially shocked to learn Lange was running Davis's campaign, but insists it has nothing to do with him.

"It's not something we discuss," says Link. "I'm not caught in the middle, or being pulled and pushed by either side. In the eyes of others, it looks like I'm in the middle, but I can't stop the rumors in the courthouse or curb those who start and proliferate those rumors." (Rumor or not, party planners would be well advised for public-safety purposes not to include both the Woods and Link and Lange on the same guest list.)

A veteran GOP judicial source says Link's situation is much more complicated than he cares to admit. "It is pretty damn odd to have a guy engaged to some lady that is actively trying to defeat one of his colleagues." This source says the situation is even more glaring because Wood's opponent is an unknown whose main claim to fame is being a member of the same Cypress congregation as ultraconservative Judge John Devine.

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