An Early War Casualty?

Mayoral challengers find money, attention and time dwindling

It's been an uphill fight from the get-go for Houston City Councilmembers Chris Bell and Orlando Sanchez. In challenging two-term incumbent Mayor Lee P. Brown last spring, they took on an opponent whose lock on Houston's black voters and most of the downtown establishment guaranteed him millions in campaign contributions and at least a runoff spot in his final term-limited campaign for office.

Then came the events of September 11. Suddenly, discussions of potholes, torn-up streets and water leaks took on laughable insignificance. Against a backdrop of collapsed skyscrapers in New York City and thousands dead, who could summon energy, passion and focus for a debate on relatively trivial local inconveniences? In a blink, the challengers found themselves in a campaign for mayor where issues not involving public security had been swept off the table. Who's listening now? Does anybody really care?

Whatever momentum had been built by the challengers for a spirited contest halted as campaign fund-raisers dominoed and appearances were postponed. Bell delayed a planned first launch of TV ads, then fired them off last weekend. Sanchez suspended campaign activities for a week, while Brown put his on ice indefinitely.

Sanchez reflects the uncertainties shared by Bell in the altered race against Brown.
Deron Neblett
Sanchez reflects the uncertainties shared by Bell in the altered race against Brown.

The mayor rushed from a campaign steering meeting at the time of the attacks to immediately move into the high-visibility role for which the veteran police chief requires no rehearsal: symbol of public order. His stiff campaign demeanor also relaxed as he stepped back into those well-worn law-and-order shoes. A political opponent noted that his talk at the city's prayer vigil was one of his most effective public speeches ever.

To undermine the incumbent, Sanchez and Bell needed every day from the traditional Labor Day kickoff of the municipal campaign until voters cast their ballots November 6. The national emergency already has absorbed half of that two-month window -- and who knows what else is to follow before Election Day.

Fund-raiser Sue Walden, who works with elected officials as diverse as Brown and U.S. House GOP whip Tom DeLay, says the terrorist attack and subsequent national developments temporarily froze fall fund-raising efforts, and likely will have continuing repercussions.

"Certainly it will slow down activities," explains Walden. "With the markets in such a state, individuals will be hesitant to write as many checks, or for higher amounts, because they are worried about their own financial security, which they should be. I think we'll see less money come in for candidates than if this had not happened."

The national mood also makes it unseemly to carry on everyday political activities, notes Walden. "You know, it's hard to call people and ask for a contribution right now. They want to give to United Way or the Red Cross."

Walden says downtown interests have regarded this mayor's race from the beginning as an unwelcome intrusion on an orderly 2003 transition from Brown into a candidate of their choice.

"I've always heard them say that: that he should finish out his third term as mayor. They've never looked to make a change there, except for a few isolated ones like Joe B."

She refers to Vinson & Elkins attorney and lobbyist Joe B. Allen, the head of the giant law firm's political action committee. He joined the Bell campaign as fund-raising committee chair shortly before the national emergency. Allen maintains his optimism for Bell's chances. He contends that the ballot is chock-full of inducements for voter enthusiasm, including city and county bond elections, a rail referendum and a state constitutional amendment on toll roads that's very important to Houston.

"All of those groups are going to be spending a lot of money to get the people to the polls to vote for or against these things," says Allen, who figures a high turnout can boost Bell into the runoff.

The lobbyist offers this pitch for selling Democrat Bell to Republicans, who might be expected to vote for conservative Sanchez.

"My view is Orlando is not electable," says Allen, a Republican. "If you want Brown re-elected, be for Orlando."

Allen admits he's playing the role of Lone Ranger in a downtown establishment that by and large has sided with Brown or kept hands off the mayor's race.

"I'm hoping I'll have a few other people join me," says the attorney. "It does feel a little lonely at the moment."

With self-imposed campaigning moratoriums behind them, the challengers are trying to reignite enthusiasm in the changed political environment. After the shock period wears off, Bell predicts, the mayor's race will gain new attention, with fresh issues stressed by the challengers.

"I think it will change the dialogue. There will be a much greater focus on terrorism and Houston's preparedness for any type of threat, which is an important issue," Bell says. "My sense is that we're slowly edging back into a sense of semi-normalcy where people do want to go on with their lives and are beginning to focus on issues like the mayor's race."

Both Sanchez and Bell are sounding similar themes -- the mayor's lack of leadership skills is even more glaring in the aftermath of September 11. Sanchez figures Brown suffers in comparison to his New York City counterpart, the politically reborn Rudy Giuliani.

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