First Out of the Gate

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

Conservative consultant Allen Blakemore represents westside religious activist Dr. Steven Hotze and has known Bell since they were kids throwing a paper route together in Dallas. He has a different take.

Under the right circumstances in a mayoral race, Bell could be "the natural choice for Republicans and conservatives in the city of Houston," Blakemore believes. "It's very easy to imagine a situation where Chris gets that support."

A big part of Bell's backing will have to be financial support, traditionally difficult for any challenger to attract.

Bell became a council leader and then broke ranks with Brown.
Daniel Perlaky
Bell became a council leader and then broke ranks with Brown.
The Bell family: Connally, Atlee, Chris and Alison.
Deron Neblett
The Bell family: Connally, Atlee, Chris and Alison.

Contributors already doing business with City Hall are tied to the incumbent by their purse strings. Brown already has $2 million bankrolled and will raise more this month in a fund-raiser at the home of River Oaks power broker Ned Holmes, one of those conservative businessmen touted as a future mayor.

Bell's forces were legally restricted from collecting funds before the February 1 start of the political hunting season. They'll need every day until the November election to raise enough cash for advertising to boost his name recognition and run a credible campaign.

Also essential is that Bell remain the only major challenger in the race, because a more conservative candidate might siphon off anti-Brown money and votes. A potential wrench in Bell's strategy is Republican Councilman Orlando Sanchez, who faces a forced retirement from council this year because of term limits. He's been sounding out supporters about a mayoral run, although he gracefully sidestepped the question of a candidacy when asked by the Press.

"Sanchez was in, and now I hear he's out," reports Sims. She notes that City Controller Sylvia Garcia is keeping her options open as well.

At Bell's recent war-games session, his team based its optimism in part on the last city election in 1999. Unfunded unknowns, one with the outlandish ballot moniker "Outlaw Josey Wales," pulled in more than 30 percent of the vote against Brown. Going one-on-one with the mayor, Bell probably starts the campaign with a minimum of 40 percent of the vote. Issues like the recent rash of city water-line ruptures can only boost that standing.

Dan Jones, a former Brown staffer, tells the strategy group that the extent of the water-main problems is leading to "an evolving understanding out there that these folks cannot run the city." With experience as a public works spokesman and mayoral aide dating back four mayors to the '70s-era Jim McConn, Jones possesses a formidable institutional memory about City Hall. He joined the Bell campaign after earning his city pension -- the last year or so on paid leave while he successfully fought misdemeanor charges of violating bid laws in the purchase of deluxe leather chairs for City Council during the Lanier administration.

Lanier's public works officials maintained emergency crews to immediately pinpoint broken mains, Jones says, but now water leaks go unrepaired for weeks. In the session, Bell picks up the thread, exclaiming, "Lake Lee Brown!" He refers to the city contractor who botched a water-main repair, turning a woman's driveway into an impassable pond for six months.

The mayor got the driveway fixed and, in a well-publicized recent consolation visit, brought the woman flowers. But he still contended that the mess was the responsibility of the contractor -- not the city and its staff.

"Since they don't manage them, I guess he's right," chuckles Jones. "It is the contractor's own responsibility."

As usual, Bell provides the comic capper:

"And apparently there's so many of these broken driveways there's not enough money in the budget to buy flowers for all these people."

Jones suggests a campaign slogan of "Stop the Lies." Others in the group protest that the early spin needs to be more positive, stressing Bell's advocacy of customer-oriented city services and responsible management. Still, the only reason to throw out a mayor seeking his final two years is to tell voters what he's not doing right, and the Bell team believes it's got more than enough ammunition.

Jones and Sims say they are working with Bell to use his time at the council table to apply more pressure to Brown, hoping to force him into more gaffes and over-reaction.

"Brown is more and more confrontational with Chris, which is what you like, because it makes him look like he's losing his composure," Sims says. "Chris is rattling him."

Jones cites Brown's recent off-the-cuff comment to reporters about reducing out-of-city trips as evidence that the mayor has turned defensive.

"He apparently got in one of his silly-ass dufus moods when somebody asked him about his travel plans this year," Jones tells the delighted team. "What he said was he was going to cut back on travel this year because he wants to be here next year. Which means that [the Bell] campaign has already benefited the city."

The City Council session began routinely enough in early December 1999. Then came the prearranged signal. One councilman got up and slipped out the door behind the mayor's chair. More followed.

For a few minutes, Mayor Brown and his allies didn't realize what was happening. Then it became obvious: They'd just been the target of a Chris Bell-organized walkout. Council was left without a quorum, depriving Brown of a vote on his controversial ordinance to privatize city airport parking.

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