From PACman to Port Chairman

After a career serving kingmakers, can Jim Edmonds really be his own leader?

With approval by Harris County Commissioners Court last week, the ascension of James Tilden Edmonds from Port of Houston commissioner to powerful chairman is seemingly a done deal. Only a vote by City Council remains, and Edmonds says he has pledges of support from Mayor Lee Brown and a majority of councilmembers.

The 56-year-old moonfaced Edmonds is the handpicked successor of departing chairman Ned Holmes. The wealthy River Oaks investor-developer cited family considerations for retiring after 12 years in the unpaid but plushly expensed and influential position of running the port.

"You travel in style," one Houston political consultant says of the perks that come with the chairmanship. "People around here kiss your ass and treat you like God. You get to hand out jobs, and it's just a great source of power."

Birth of a chairman: Ned Holmes delivers Jim Edmonds.
Craig Howard
Birth of a chairman: Ned Holmes delivers Jim Edmonds.
Senator Rodney Ellis puts Bush on the hot seat.
Deron Neblett
Senator Rodney Ellis puts Bush on the hot seat.

Former port commissioner Chase Untermeyer authored a recent op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle intimating what many political operatives have muttered privately: that Edmonds is more than a few cuts below the previous standard for port chairman. Untermeyer says he submitted the piece nine months ago and that it was not explicitly aimed at Edmonds, since he feels none of the current port commissioners -- or himself, for that matter -- qualify to succeed Holmes.

"It's expected that the chairman is going to be a full-time CEO," opines Untermeyer. He's on medical leave from his job as government affairs director for Compaq Computer Corporation while recovering from surgery.

"People who have companies and major law firms have both the wherewithal and the time to give the job what's required. Somebody who's out hustling for daily bread is not going to be as effective or strong a chairman."

When applied to Edmonds, that's an understatement. Previous port chairmen were high-powered figures like Holmes, Bracewell & Patterson founder Fentress Bracewell, former Texas governor Ross Sterling and the legendary Jesse Jones, a.k.a. Mr. Houston. Edmonds is an affable, low-key operative known best for behind-the-scenes political activity. He's nonconfrontational and carries out orders well. He's also a boon companion on bird-hunting trips with major players like Turner Collie & Braden's political point man Jim Royer, and state senator and former county judge Jon Lindsay, as well as Holmes.

Over the past three decades Edmonds has been the sucker fish hitching rides on the backs of some of Houston's better-known financial whale sharks. They include developer Walter Mischer Sr., public securities wizard Tom Masterson and now Holmes, the landlord for Edmonds's business consulting firm in Ned's high-rise aerie at 55 Waugh.

During the '80s and through the mid-'90s Edmonds served as unpaid director of the Greater Houston Association political action committee, a once potent font of political cash for aspiring municipal officials and compliant incumbents. Toward the end of its life, the PAC and Edmonds dabbled heavily in financing Houston Independent School District candidates. That eventually led to the GOP-tinged leadership now at HISD.

Edmonds was a principal in Masterson and Company in the '80s. Then the federal Securities and Exchange Commission passed regulations in 1992 to break up the sweetheart relationships between municipal politicians and bond dealers across the country, situations that created several financial scandals on the East Coast. The Greater Houston PAC had to move out of Masterson's office, and Edmonds followed the PAC.

It fell apart several years ago, largely because the new wide-open municipal politics outgrew the corporate and law firm power brokers, who regularly met in the Green Room of the River Oaks Country Club to decide which candidates merited their support. Eventually the members decided they weren't getting their money's worth out of Edmonds's operation, so many formed their own PACs.

Edmonds makes his daily bread through business consulting and lobbying at City Hall. His lobbyist registration form lists clients Perry Homes, the Woodlands Corporation and the law firm of Bierne, Maynard and Parsons. His lobbying involved issues such as neighborhood protection and preservation, but opponents of the Bayport Container Terminal project on Galveston Bay should take little comfort. Holmes was committed to the project, ditto Edmonds.

Holmes denies that Edmonds in any way would be a puppet for him or other political interests. According to Holmes, the port commissioners are his grown "children" and are ready to run the port without him. As for telling Edmonds what to do, Holmes says he supports people who would make the same decisions he would without having to be told.

Edmonds insists he has played major roles in the businesses he has been involved in and will be a chairman who won't need to listen to Holmes for advice. "He has told me he intends to be invisible," Edmonds says, "and I take him at his word."

Coming soon to a cinema near you: Ned Holmes, The Invisible Man.

As for his lobbying, Edmonds says he'll continue that line of work, "but none of my clients will do business with the port."

Of course, once you have the heft of a port chairman, who wouldn't pay good money to have you lobby their issues, even on dry land?

Rodney Bleeds Bush with Little Cuts

State senator and previous city councilman Rodney Ellis once paid former mayor Kathy Whitmire a grudging compliment. "She just cuts you up with those little hands," Ellis explained with a laugh, making swift chop-chop motions with his own beefier mittens. And when she was through, Ellis said, the opponent had been reduced to something akin to sushi.

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