Gunning for a Runoff

Can Bell avoid being the odd man out?

The closer the mayoral campaign gets to Election Day, the more it's starting to resemble the last closely contested fight for the city's top office in 1997.

That year the main candidates were big-bucks Republican oilman Rob Mosbacher, departing city controller George Greanias, and former police chief and Rice University professor Lee P. Brown.

The African-American Brown took the black vote en masse, Mosbacher dominated in westside GOP precincts, and Greanias received support from inner-city moderate Democrats. Although the cerebral Greanias had an illustrious public career, he was still squeezed out by Mosbacher and Brown. In the most partisan race in Houston mayoral history, Democrat Brown scarfed up most of Greanias's support -- and his endorsement -- on the way to victory.

This time, moderate Democrat Chris Bell passed up a guaranteed third council term to try to get a clean shot at the incumbent as his only major opponent. Then term-limited colleague Orlando Sanchez, a conservative Cuban-born Republican, decided to crash the party, and things got complicated.

Republican political consultant Allen Blakemore, a friend and early booster of Bell's, says Sanchez's decision altered the equation.

"When Orlando got in the race, he killed Bell," the consultant says. "Chris was an attractive, acceptable candidate [to conservatives], but then a more attractive, more acceptable candidate came along."

Blakemore detects a late surge by Sanchez as early support for Bell drops off in GOP precincts. "Now as we come into the fall I'm seeing people who were slow to come to Orlando starting to go there."

Blakemore attributes part of the swing to Sanchez's adroitly playing on suburban anti-tax sentiments with his council proposal for a small property tax rollback. The measure failed, but Sanchez got valuable campaign ammunition when Bell and Brown voted against it. He's taken to labeling his opponents "The Three Bs" -- he includes Mayor Pro Tem Jew Don Boney, a liberal pariah in Republican eyes.

Sanchez also refuses to say how he'd vote on dueling rail ballot proposals, and he supports a charter change banning same-sex benefits for the partners of gay city employees. Brown and Bell are for rail and same-sex benefits, sharpening Sanchez's Republican pitch that "there's not a dime of difference between the mayor and Bell."

Sanchez's main campaign issue has been Houston Fire Department understaffing. He already had the endorsement of the firefighters union when a high-rise blaze at Four Leaf Towers killed a firefighter and a resident, making the staffing controversy front-page news. Brown belatedly addressed the problems with his own plan, which Sanchez labeled politically inspired and "despicable."

Brown campaign sources claim their tracking polls indicate that Sanchez appears to be widening his second-place margin over Bell.

"I'm not at all surprised," says Rice dean of social sciences Dr. Bob Stein. He figures Sanchez will have a strong closing finish fueled by both Republican and Hispanic voters, while Bell's conservative support is vulnerable.

"An incredible number of Bell supporters are really much more conservative than Chris," says Stein. He notes that more than 60 percent of them opposed the Bell-supported same-sex benefits.

Brown campaign manager Craig Varoga says the polls validate his claims that Bell has tried to be Democratic Lite to Democrats, and Republican Lite to the GOP. "It's impossible to be all things to all people," says Varoga. "Chris socializes with [religious conservative] Steven Hotze and accepts awards from [GOP chairman] Gary Polland at the same time he touts his so-called credentials in the progressive community."

Bell spokeswoman Nancy Sims dismisses the talk of a big Sanchez lead as propaganda by Brown and Sanchez operatives.

"Clearly they need to spin that because the Brown camp is very concerned they might be in a runoff with Chris Bell, and they've done everything in their power to promote Orlando. They feel they have a better chance to defeat him in a runoff. We're gaining tremendous momentum among voters all over the city."

Already overshadowed by the September 11 terrorist attacks, the contest also has been largely unaffected by mayoral forums and debates.

In the first televised debate at Texas Southern University, Brown and Bell ganged up on Sanchez for accepting an anonymous gift of paid tuition for his daughter at a private school. Bell and Sanchez then beat up on Brown for allowing the aviation department to commission expensive airport directional signs featuring the mayor's mug in lights. Sanchez took potshots at Brown and Bell for accepting gold-plated flatware from a city contractor, although the mayor prudently returned his upon receipt. Lately Brown has taken to belittling his opponents as nonentities "who haven't done anything." With all the petty quotes, none of the candidates enhanced their images.

Brown recently took speaking lessons and has visibly improved his campaign performances. A little cosmetic dental work seems to have closed that noticeable gap in his front teeth and eliminated a slight lisp.

By far the best debater is Bell, though a Brown consultant notes that Greanias won every debate in the 1997 contest and still failed to make a runoff. For Bell, the race to the runoff will be won or lost in the westside precincts, where he has to convince GOP voters he's preferable to conservative Sanchez.

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