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As a summer of broken water mains, seemingly endless street repairs and budget miscues provokes simmering discontent, there are the first stirrings of a serious electoral challenge to two-term incumbent Lee P. Brown.
While the former HPD chief and federal drug czar plans to spend part of early fall campaigning around the country for Vice President Al Gore, Councilmember Robert "Chris" Bell is busy sounding out political players about a run for mayor next year.
"I have some interest, and I'm talking to a number of people about it and trying to weigh the prospects," says Bell, a Democrat who was elected an at-large councilmember in 1997. The factors that will decide whether the attorney makes the race include the availability of at least $1 million from contributors and the level of public dissatisfaction with Brown's stewardship.
Brown did not face serious opposition in his re-election last year. Still, the opposing duo of unknowns Jack Terence and Outlaw Josey Wales IV received 33 percent of the vote, indicating there's a sizable "anybody but Lee" bloc out there for a challenger.
Since Brown has another two-year cycle to go before reaching his three-term limit, most politicos with mayoral ambitions are setting their sights on 2003. If the 40-year-old Bell runs, the idea would be to exploit the dissatisfaction with Brown's management of the city and avoid the candidate traffic jam that always occurs with an open mayoral race.
"There is a perception among everybody that services are weaker than they have been previously in what's supposed to be a boom economy," says Bell consultant Nancy Sims. She worked for Republican Rob Mosbacher in his close 1997 run against Brown.
"Public works has just been plagued under this administration with problems, and that's the core department that the average citizen really interacts with at some level," explains Sims. "It's also the department that contractors and people involved in government interact with. It's the little things that get the public ired up to deal with City Hall, and there seems to be an abundance of that at the moment."
"One has to question where all of it is going," says Sims of Brown's administration, "'cause it doesn't appear to be going to fix things that are broken."
Bell would try to position himself as a moderate Democrat acceptable to Republicans as well as inner-city liberals, who once made up a key constituency for former mayor Kathy Whitmire.
Bell is a former Amarillo TV anchor who lost a race for the state legislature. He moved to Houston and worked as a KTRH radio reporter while attending law school. He was beaten by Orlando Sanchez for City Council in 1995 and then defeated Richard Johnson in a special election after incumbent John Peavy resigned.
In the past year he has moved away from what was seen as the mayor's team and buddied up with conservative councilmembers Mark Ellis, Bert Keller and Rob Todd. That shift caused Brown to jerk Bell's better committee assignments.
A Bell colleague says, "Not only does he not have a lot to lose in terms of committee stroke but he seems to be in a job he finds frustrating and confining."
Several sources also commented on the personal pressure Bell is getting from his family to either make it big in politics or make big bucks as a lawyer.
The past defeat of Republican Mosbacher may work in Bell's favor. It convinced many big-business contributors that it will be next to impossible for a Republican to become mayor in the increasingly Democratic city. Their more realistic goal is to elect a Democrat like Bell who can offer them a seat at the City Hall table where deals are cut.
"They seem open to the idea," says a Bell supporter. "Nobody's just going to jump out and commit, but a lot of people seem open to talking about it."
Rice University political scientist Bob Stein cites Bell's assets. "He has a liberal Democratic set of credentials, he has run against a black candidate, Richard Johnson, and he's run with the mayor in 1997, and has served on the council budget committee. If he could get a clean shot at the mayor, he could be a fusion candidate, with all the constituents that Rob Mosbacher had and then some."
The real question, says Stein, is whether there is enough dissatisfaction with Brown. "If people start backing Chris, they do so in part because some like Chris, but some just want to get rid of the mayor."
A corporate lobbyist who asked for anonymity believes there is enough antipathy toward Brown for a challenger to match the mayor's anticipated $3 million war chest.
"I think the money would be there," says this source, recalling the millions that were lavished on Mosbacher by downtown business interests "because they just hated Brown." That heavily Republican group has coexisted uneasily with Brown, according to the lobbyist.
Backers of Mayor Brown see the picture differently. Dave Walden, a former chief of staff for previous mayor Bob Lanier who also advises Brown, scoffs at the idea that any candidate could raise enough money to pose a credible threat to the incumbent.