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.

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 Mizelland 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.

"If some decent guy was running against her, that would be one thing. But to have this religious-right friend of John Devine that's never tried a case -- well, that's a little extreme," the source says. "Even the people that don't like Sharolyn don't want to be supporting this guy. They think it's a big deal to be judge."

Consultant Lange responds that while Davis is primarily a mediator, he has tried "a significant number" of court cases.

Link contends the America 2000 event is unrelated to Hotze's other political activities so there was nothing wrong with contributing to it.

"The purpose of that luncheon is to make sure pastors distribute information to get their parishioners to vote," says Link. "Endorsement ballots are not distributed to these pastors, and that's why I would have paid money to get out conservative Republican votes." Link notes that he did not actually give money to America 2000.

In the past, moderate Republicans have charged that Hotze launders political contributions by moving them through a network of political action committees and nonprofit corporations, including America 2000. A Harris County grand jury investigated those allegations last year and declined to issue indictments. According to Link, that should put to rest questions about Hotze's political activities.

"I think Dr. Hotze is an honorable man, and I think Allen Blakemore is an honorable man also. I thought everything was looked into prior to this, and was found to be within the confines of the law. I do not think either of these two gentlemen would conspire to direct any of these funds to anybody's campaign."

Blakemore can understand people misconstruing his work for Hotze and America 2000 as a joint effort, but "nothing could be further from the truth," he says. "In fact, if that linkage were made, it would take the form of an illegal corporate contribution."

Blakemore says he doesn't keep records of how much time he spends on each client's campaign, and argues that most political consultants have a number of candidates with contradictory allegiances.

"Is Mayor Lee Brown fueling the Mike Stafford for district attorney campaign, because Lee Brown pays [fund-raiser] Sue Walden more in terms of a retainer than does Mike Stafford?" Blakemore says. "So Lee Brown's funding the Stafford campaign? I don't think so."

Justified or not, the campaign by Wood and her backers against the prayer lunch eventually had Hotze waving a white flag. After judges began calling to beg him to get Sharolyn off their backs, Blakemore says, all judicial contributions were returned to sender and a host committee for the luncheon dissolved.

"It is fair to say that she made life miserable enough for enough judges down there that they didn't feel like they could come and be a host," says the consultant. "They were like, 'Gosh, I wanna come and participate, but Sharolyn has raised enough of a fuss that I've got a problem.' "

Wood consultant Smith predicts that Hotze's endorsement won't defeat an established judge. "Sharolyn has strong name ID, and she can raise a ton of cash. Sharolyn will win."

Until she does, you can bet a lot of judges will be feeling her pain.

Prayers are nice, but the Insider prefers hot tips. Call him at (713)280-2483, fax him at (713)280-2496, or e-mail him at insider@houstonpress.com.

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