By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Several months ago, Councilman Chris Belldropped by colleague Orlando Sanchez's office in the City Hall annex late in the day to discuss an agenda item for an upcoming meeting. Bell, who was mulling over a high-risk challenge to incumbent Lee Brown, recalls that during the conversation the 43-year-old Sanchez had a question for him: Was Bell running for mayor?
"Well, are you?" Bell cautiously parried. To have a chance against Brown, Democrat Bell knew he would need money and votes from conservatives, and wanted to make sure he'd have a clear path on the right to run against the mayor. Longtime Republican Sanchez, faced with term limits that would take him off council at the end of the year without a substantial job to fall back on, was a possible roadblock to Bell should he get in the contest.
According to Bell, Sanchez responded with a definite no. The at-large councilman says Sanchez explained there were a number of considerations behind that decision, both personal and political, and that it was not a good time in his life to seek the city's top post.
Sanchez remembers the exchange somewhat differently. He says Bell raised the issue, not him. "But he didn't say, without equivocation, 'Give me your assurance and sign here that you won't run for mayor.' I mean, we can't extract that from anybody."
Good thing, because last week Sanchez seemed on the verge of changing his mind. He initiated discussions about the feasibility of a mayoral campaign with Herb Butrum, the fund-raiser for Rob Mosbacher in his unsuccessful 1999 race against Brown. Sanchez is commissioning a poll to test his political standing and the vulnerabilities of the incumbent.
An Insider reader reports that last weekend a caller conducting a Sanchez poll asked a series of questions concerning Brown's performance. They included, "Knowing that Lee Brown wants to build an expensive light-rail line in downtown Houston, are you more or less inclined to vote for him?" The poll taker then asked several questions that put Sanchez in a favorable light.
"He is seriously considering it," confirms Butrum. "He's talking to a lot of people who have approached him. He very much would like to make the race if it makes sense. I think he'll make his mind up fairly quickly."
Brown political consultant Marc Campos says Sanchez has been more forthcoming, telling some business figures in the Hispanic community he wants their support and money because he's definitely in the race.
If he has made a final decision, the coy, Cuban-born, Corpus Christi-reared Sanchez isn't letting on. While saying it "is a good possibility," the councilman also claims, "I have no plans to announce a candidacy tomorrow, and I have no plans in two weeks."
Sanchez says he'll have to weigh personal considerations. As a single dad, "there are lifestyle changes, who's going to pick up the children from school, help do the homework."
Then there's the question of building a competitive campaign staff, raising enough money to take on Brown's $3 million war chest. And "the biggest one: Do I have the energy to do this?"
As for his previous comment to Bell that he wasn't running, Sanchez now says, "Chris's candidacy has got to stand or fall on its own merits, not on who gets in the race."
Bell's declaration for the mayorship last month did turn up the heat under Sanchez, says a council source.
"He wants to run. He can't stand it sitting on the sidelines watching Chris get out in front of him. But he barely won against a minor candidate the last two times, a minor candidate who spent no money."
Sanchez, then a probation officer, lost the race for council's District C in 1993. Two years later, describing himself as a Republican businessman, he won his current council position by outpolling a large field that included then-political neophyte Bell. He narrowly defeated businessman David Ballard in a runoff. Since then, he has twice defeated Andrew Burks Jr., a little-known educator, by ballot margins of 8 percent and 10 percent.
Sanchez joined council as an outspoken conservative. He toned down the partisan rhetoric after Brown was elected to a second term. In his last campaign he used a "back to basics" theme and lately has peppered the incumbent with complaints, primarily on fire department problems and water and sewer-main breaks.
Sanchez and his former wife, Ashley, divorced several years ago. He has an elementary-school-age daughter, Audrey, whose attendance at the exclusive Awty International School became an issue last year. Sanchez reported on his city financial disclosure form that her $8,000 annual tuition at the school, where he is a board member, was partially paid for by an anonymous donor. Sanchez still insists he has no idea who picked up $2,000 of the school bill. He and his former wife covered the rest. The City Ethics Commission asked Sanchez to explain the gift and then dropped the matter.
Sanchez also figured in the investigation of bid irregularities in the purchase of deluxe leather seats for councilmembers in 1997. He was the first to blow the whistle to the Harris County district attorney and made an issue of it at the council table. One of the four city employees indicted in the matter, Dan Jones, recalls that it was Sanchez himself who pressed for a quick purchase of the luxury chairs because he wanted one for his own office.