First Out of the Gate

Now that he's got Mayor Lee Brown's attention, can Chris Bell win your support?

It's lunchtime on a Monday afternoon in a second-floor office off Woodway just outside the Loop. Inside the office, there's the faint aroma of poor boys being consumed. Elsewhere in the city -- wherever Lee P. Brown may be on this day in late January -- there may be the stronger odor of a mayor's ears burning.

Councilman Chris Bell will formally open his campaign against Brown with an announcement this Sunday at Buffalo Bayou's Eleanor Tinsley Park. But his brain trust already has been busy for weeks, war-gaming his unusual run against a three-year incumbent.

Seated around the table and munching on sandwiches are Bell and wife Alison, as well as the core of his emerging campaign staff. There's City Hall veteran Dan Jones and longtime political consultant Nancy Sims. With them are computer specialist Scott Brogan and campaign finance chairman Gardner Parker, an investment executive with ties to celebrity ex-athletes like Earl Campbell. Rounding out the battle group is Jeff Steen, a lawyer and longtime Bell confidant who first suggested that Bell enter city politics six years ago.

The team has been chewing over issues that can be used to mobilize Houstonians against Brown.

"Brown is not either one of two things people think a mayor should be," says Steen. "He's not a manager. He doesn't manage city government very well, and it doesn't work very well."

"And if you can't be that person, you ought to be somebody high-profile that makes the city feel good and has great public stature across the country," Steen continues. "And while he looks like he has that, that's not really true either. Most of 'em see him as kind of a bumbler, and so we don't get the benefit of either one."

Steen contrasts the mayor with another Texas politician, former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk. The polished Kirk is being talked up in Democratic Party circles as a possible candidate for statewide office next year.

"Here they both have good credentials and are educated, and two of the top African-American leaders in the country," Steen tells the group. "Yet one looks like a bumbling idiot next to the other."

No one in the room has to ask which is the bumbling idiot.

Bell, a journalist-turned-lawyer, set his sights on the mayor's chair after a bitter falling-out with Brown. He hopes to use his four-year track record on City Council as a budgetary conservative and architect of ethics legislation to woo Republicans, while appealing to inner-city progressives with his socially liberal positions. Those include strong support for gay rights and city insurance coverage for same-sex partners.

"I think a lot of Republicans have realized they are not going to elect a mayor anytime soon in Houston," says Bell. He refers to Rob Mosbacher's lavishly funded losing effort against Brown in 1997. "The numbers simply don't work out. The best they can hope for is a place at the table, and it's a place at the table they've been denied during the Brown administration. So I think there will be a lot of support there."

The 64-year-old Brown's campaign persona often makes a wooden Indian seem hyperactive by comparison. Meanwhile, the lanky six foot three Bell possesses youthful good looks at age 40. He's got a picture-perfect family, with a Republican wife and two young towheaded sons. While Brown was busy recently taking public speaking lessons at taxpayer expense, Bell comes equipped with a booming media-genic voice and delivery finely honed from his days as a TV news anchor and radio reporter.

Personality-wise, Bell's most striking trait is an omnipresent irreverent sense of humor. He relies on it to deflate tense situations, entertain pals and occasionally skewer opponents at the council table.

"He has an amazing wit," says attorney Mike Hinton, a former employer of Bell's who remains a close friend. "He will have me laughing when we hang up from a conversation, no matter what my previous disposition was."

Houston Press writer Steve McVicker worked with Bell when both were reporters at KTRH radio in the late '80s. He remembers Bell's ability to defuse newsroom quarrels with a few well-chosen off-the-wall cracks.

Brown operatives, such as former and likely future campaign manager Craig Varoga, find little to laugh about in Bell's challenge. Varoga dismisses Bell's talk of building a moderate-conservative coalition as "castles in the clouds" that will dissipate long before Election Day. With a strong economy and low crime rate, the strategist argues, there's no incentive for voters to change mayors.

"And I say that as somebody who knows what it takes to take out an incumbent mayor," says Varoga. He managed Bob Lanier's successful campaign that knocked Kathy Whitmire out of office in 1991.

To try to abort Bell's takeoff, the mayor's team is already circulating a blunt message to conservatives: Hold your nose and vote for Brown. After all, the city's term-limit law dictates that this is the last time he can run for re-election.

"Republicans are not going to support Chris and elect a liberal Democrat to be mayor for the next six years, when they can get rid of this one in two and start all over," contends Dave Walden, former chief of staff for Lanier and one of Brown's inner circle of advisers. "They want to get a conservative Republican business type in that office."

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