Don't Mess with Garnet

Can a top-ranked lawmaker control his inner demons?

Police hauled state Representative Garnet Coleman to jail last week on misdemeanor assault charges filed by a Montessori school principal. Just three days before that, a contact called The Insider to complain that the legislator was out of control. Coleman, explained the source, had put himself on the board of the Midtown Reinvestment Zone in July and was using his clout as an elected official to intimidate members.

It's not an isolated complaint. "Anybody who's dealt with Garnet in the last year or so experiences that he has a lot of pent-up anger," says one political source, who has been friendly to the representative in the past and knows him well. "He goes around randomly yelling at people. You walk away going, 'Well, it's his medications.' "

Another target in recent months explains how, in an otherwise cordial social setting, Coleman's ire boiled up out of the blue with a disconcerting intensity.

"He's almost like when you see a pit bull that grabs on to a person's arm and hangs on. You shake and you shake and you shake, and he does n't let go. We were just having polite dinner conversation, and he just launches in."

Says the same source: "It's not so much that his positions are unreasonable. It's the manner in which he does it. And he probably treats his friends worse than his enemies, because he has higher expectations of them."

Coleman's emotional problems first surfaced publicly in 1996, when he briefly disappeared until he surfaced in Galveston, unshaven and suffering from depression. Since then he has gone public with what has been described as a mild bipolar disorder controlled by Zoloft and other prescription drugs.

It may well be hereditary. His father, the late Dr. John Coleman, was famous for temper explosions. That included one memorable rampage where he conducted a gun-toting postmidnight search through the Third Ward looking for his son's then-political nemesis, Councilman Jew Don Boney.

Garnet won praise in the mental health service community for both publicizing his condition and promoting related issues in the media and the legislature. Texas Monthly's annual legislative roundup issue recently cited him as among the best lawmakers in the last session.

TM lauded Coleman for triumphing not only over his Republican opponents "but also with his own demons." An associate says Coleman holds it together during the pressure-cooker legislative session but doesn't seem to handle the later decompression nearly as well.

Coleman claimed the incident last week at the Montessori School of Downtown and the Medical Center was blown out of proportion and that he had simply pushed Principal Harsh Kumar as they argued about the dismissal of two of his children's teachers. The principal claimed Coleman struck him in the face four times. Kumar didn't help his own credibility when afterward he repeatedly described Coleman as crazy and demanded he resign his legislative seat.

Coleman refused to discuss the temper issue, or whether the school outburst was just the most severe incident to date. He referred questions to his attorney, former congressman Craig Washington. According to Coleman, "When this is no longer a legal issue, I'll be happy to discuss this with you."

In a curious news conference at his office the day after his arrest, Coleman at first refused to answer questions. Prodded by reporters, he denied that his mental condition had anything to do with the alleged assault, and claimed he was taking his medications. A journalist who stayed a few minutes after the conference says the legislator could be heard arguing in a raised voice with aides behind a closed door.

Coleman's new presence at Midtown poses the question, Will the board and staff members be dealing with the stellar legislator or the unpredictable pit bull? Or perhaps both.

Midtown is a tax investment zone aimed at stimulating commercial and residential development in the area south of downtown. By statute, its representatives are state legislators or their designees, as well as appointees from the city, county and Houston school district. For Midtown board, the state politicians are District 147's Coleman and District 13 Senator Rodney Ellis.

In practice, legislators almost never sit on such boards, and neither Ellis nor Coleman has done so in the past. Coleman decided to put himself on the Midtown board after his designee, attorney Barron Wallace, resigned as chairman. Wallace left when he moved from the Wickliff & Hall law firm to join Vinson & Elkins, the legal giant that represents Midtown.

Members of the board also sit on the Midtown Redevelopment Authority, a city-appointed board. Coleman is not yet a voting member, because it requires confirmation by Houston's mayor and City Council.

He wants the position. Others wonder why.

Coleman's critics in the real estate and political circles, none of whom would go on the record, believe he wants to influence the awarding of sizable affordable-housing funds. The legislator is already on the board of a nonprofit affordable-housing corporation that operates a $17 million project with 360 residential units in the Palm Center area. But Coleman says he owns no property, has no commercial interests in the Midtown area and isn't looking to profit from his position.

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