GOP Inc.

How "Scary" Gary Polland turned his party apparatus into a political slot machine

Republican delegates packed the George R. Brown Convention Center for their annual June meeting, and now the final premier moment shifted to the host, Gary Michael Polland.

As chairman of the GOP in Harris County, Polland took to the podium to deliver a farewell talk to this impressive statewide assemblage of his peers. Many of them couldn't help but notice the 49-year-old party official earlier. The county's booth outside the convention hall featured an oversize portrait of Chairman Gary. And booth vendors hawked his rather presumptuous updating of a vintage Ronald Reagan speech (priced at a bargain-basement $4.50). County chairs traditionally are the insiders, specialists in organizing for their respective parties, but in his four-year tenure Polland has taken the low-profile position to peak public visibility. Along the way, the county party has unified and thrived on the chairman's spitfire political abilities. Even his friends jokingly refer to "Scary Gary" in tribute to his obsession with the political game.

That hard work paid off for the dominant Republican Party -- and for Polland personally. On the municipal stage, Polland is increasingly seen as the key to make or break bond issues and sports stadium referenda. No less than Enron's Ken Lay recently had to take the personal assignment of trying to neutralize the GOP chairman after Polland-led forces soundly defeated the last basketball arena vote.

Nowhere is Polland's influence felt more than in the courthouse, where he has emerged as a kingmaker of sorts. In the past three years as chairman, Polland the attorney has pulled in a staggering $446,690 in civil and criminal court appointments from the all-GOP judiciary. He now frequently pops up on legal teams in cases far removed from his original criminal law niche. There's the growing perception -- factual or not -- that retaining him on a case ensures a favorable ear from judges.

"I do kind of think he's full of shit," says a Republican judge, one among many who will not challenge the party leader on the record. "I soured on the guy when I saw the kiosk where the picture of him was bigger than any of the rest of the party stuff. He's never struck me as a guy who was doing it for philosophical reasons. It was always to get a leg up on his legal deal."

To be certain, his ham-handed and self-promoting tactics occasionally blow up in his face. That happened in the botched attempt earlier this month to pressure two Republican appeals court judges to reverse their ruling that overturned the state sodomy law. "The dumbest thing I've seen cooked up by a bunch of adults in a long time," a GOP activist chortled about Polland's pressure.

Despite the occasional controversies, Polland proudly stepped to center stage of the state GOP convention on this waning Saturday afternoon in June. He cleared his throat and began to address the masses.

Only the masses were sounding the retreat. Protracted wrangling by the nominating committee had prolonged the session for three hours. Die-hard conservatives hungered for no more than dinner at this point. Polland tried halfheartedly to sound the attack anew. He tried rousing the audience with sarcastic questions targeting Democratic standard-bearer Al Gore.

Delegates continued their exodus. After only three and a half minutes at the podium, Polland said his good-bye and the convention officially concluded.

No matter. This was a Jewish activist in a county party swayed by Christian conservatives; a criminal defense attorney in a GOP that despises leniency for lawbreakers and their defenders.

There's no question Polland commands power -- whether he gets respect remains a subject of some debate.

"The people that are responsible for putting him there don't really care for him," opines Larry Doherty, an attorney who worked with Polland many years ago. "I get the impression that behind his back they're laughing at the use they're getting out of him. He makes an example of diversity within the Republican Party. I think it's a joke."

Paul Bettencourt, a Polland political soul mate whom the GOP chair helped elect to the tax assessor-collector position, replies that Doherty's analysis is very dated.

"Maybe at first people laughed at his grassroots efforts," Bettencourt says, "but no one's laughing at Gary Polland anymore."

Whatever his inner motivations, Chicago native Polland has been on the conservative bandwagon since his teenage years. Wife Esther often tells the story of her then-student husband playing Reagan tapes in the early '70s when he was earning a degree in business administration and then law at the University of Texas. Polland remembers that he first decided he was a conservative at age 14, when he heard Reagan deliver his "A Time for Choosing" address in 1964. That was long before Reagan emerged as the consensus conservative hero who defeated George Bush in the 1980 GOP presidential primary and ousted Jimmy Carter from the presidency.

Polland's relationship with the Houston Jewish community has been problematic over the years. He first made media waves in Houston in 1994 when he resigned under pressure as regional chairman of the Anti-Defamation League. He charged that the ADL, the Jewish equivalent of the NAACP, unfairly attacked Christian conservatives. Polland had joined 75 other Jewish conservatives in criticizing the ADL for publishing a book, The Religious Right: Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America.

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