Prayola Time

Candidates get religion as Election Day nears

One of the less savory aspects of Houston's election season is the "donations" that candidates regularly fork over to various church ministerial alliances and political action committees. Although recipients of these legal contributions invariably claim the money pays for push cards and polling-place workers, in reality the politicians are buying access to congregations and endorsements by the ministers.

In Houston, the process historically has been concentrated in African-American communities and generally has been limited to Democratic or nonpartisan candidates, simply because Republican candidates find little acceptance in the overwhelmingly Democratic black precincts. Gaining access to conservative Anglo ministers follows an entirely different route, through political action committees such as Conservative Republicans of Harris County and organizations like Vision America (see The Insider, September 13).

In this year's municipal contest, the overwhelming winner in the "prayola" category is Michael Berry. The Montrose attorney-realtor has utilized black consultants to spread his gospel among the faithful in his quest for City Council's At Large Position 4. Berry is far and away the largest fund-raiser of any council candidate, reporting $332,784 in contributions. He's employing the likes of former state Democratic party vice chair Carl Davis, veteran organizer Beulah Shepard and Ernie McGowen Jr., son of the former councilman, to grease his skids in the black community.

Church coffers are swelling from the largesse of Berry (shown in campaign material with wife Nandita).
Church coffers are swelling from the largesse of Berry (shown in campaign material with wife Nandita).

Berry's last campaign report also offers a trail of green to the area's clergy. Berry listed a $2,000 donation to the Baptist Ministers Association political action committee on September 13 and a $2,500 gift to the Northeast Harris County Ministers Alliance PAC a week later. Along the campaign trail he sprinkled relatively miserly $25 gifts to each of 20 congregations throughout Houston.

Berry's gift to the Baptist Ministers Association was made before the group issued an endorsement, whereas normally a candidate contributes after endorsements. Another candidate for Position 4, Claudia Williamson, interviewed with the group but has made no donations from her campaign. She was told she would be expected to pay $1,500 to the group ifshe received the endorsement.

As of last week, Williamson had been told the ministers had yet to endorse a candidate, although Berry's campaign literature now lists both minister groups as endorsing him. Clearly someone in his camp believes money will talk before Election Day.

Berry's campaign architect is westside Republican consultant Denis Calabrese, whose apparent strategy is to blanket the city with signs while penetrating both the Republican westside and black Democratic church strongholds.

A veteran political consultant expresses puzzlement over the size of the Berry contributions to the religious groups. "I can't think of any council campaign that pays that kind of money," says the source. "They don't cover that much territory, and you can go to individual ministers and get in the churches and say hello without money."

District D candidate Gerald Womack also spread some cash on the religious trail in unusual places and amounts, like $1,000 to the Laos Christian Ministries on Bellfort for "ads." Maybe he's angling for the Southeast Asian vote. For his individual church donations, Womack tended to be a bit more generous than Berry, dropping $1,450 in amounts from $60 to $200 at his religious stops.

Then there's a $700 allocation from Womack to the Lady Tiger Bowling Team at Texas Southern University, again for ads. Either he's really into bowling, or else Womack is hoping the ladies will serve up some strikes for him come Election Day.

It's a Hoot

E-mails continue to fly between offices at the Houston Federal Building about that ill-timed retreat to a Corpus Christi resort. Acting U.S. Attorney Greg Serres led his troops to the hotel the week after the terrorist attacks (see The Insider, October 4). The latest flap concerns an evening incident after a staff softball game at the retreat. Yes, the prosecutors really were playing softball during the emergency.

Players piled into cars to go to dinner. Serres's carload included a female assistant U.S. attorney who asked The Insider not to identify her. Serres announced the group was heading to a local Hooters, a choice that the woman rider found in poor taste, particularly with the rest of the country in shock and mourning over the terrorists' victims. The Hooters chain, besides its suggestive name, is known for buffalo wings, burgers and scantily clad buxom waitresses.

The woman told Serres she wasn't going to Hooters, and he replied, "No, I didn't think you would." She got out of the car, and Serres drove off. The stranded attorney managed to get a ride back to the hotel with another prosecutor. Serres's action, in some colleagues' eyes, was boorish and sexist.

"It reflects such poor judgment," says a source within the Houston U.S. attorney's office. "We're just all embarrassed and chagrined."

Veteran prosecutor Mike Shelby, currently assigned to the Phoenix, Arizona, office of the U.S. attorney, reportedly is awaiting completion of an FBI background check before taking over as acting U.S. attorney. He has been recommended by U.S. Senator Phil Gramm's screening committee, although confirmation has been delayed by the terrorism and anthrax turmoil in Washington. A source well versed in the process predicts Shelby should be replacing Serres in about a month.

According to a judicial source, some female federal judges are particularly angry about the Hooters incident. Serres did not return an Insider call for comment.

Considering that Serres was a narrow winner in a recent judicial vote to extend his stint as acting U.S. attorney, he'll be pushing his luck if he has to go before them again.

 
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