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Geraldine "Jeri" Lara Kuhleman wore a perplexed look as she stood in front of a South Post Oak shopping center on a sparkling Saturday morning in late September. For the first shot in her surprise campaign for City Council District C, she had scheduled a news conference to showcase a trashed office space with junked city computers -- what the incumbent had pledged to be a neighborhood service center for residents.
By sunrise on this Saturday, however, the office had been cleaned and equipment removed from sight. Kuhleman's planned photo op had vanished up a vacuum cleaner. To add insult, the boyfriend of the incumbent's chief of staff was there, holding out an open cell phone during Kuhleman's short speech to let someone on the other end listen in.
But this candidate shouldn't have been surprised. After all, she probably knows Councilman Mark Goldberg better than anyone else, having been his wife for nearly three years until they divorced in 1998.
"Mark's a nice guy and a good time," says Kuhleman, "but he's still a kid." She says she left him after discovering he hadn't filed his income tax returns for several years. Having raised four daughters in a first marriage with a deadbeat husband, Kuhleman wasn't about to put up indefinitely with a second.
Kuhleman initially announced as a candidate for an at-large council seat but said supporters urged her to zero in on Goldberg instead. Knowing Mark as she did, it didn't take much to convince Kuhleman she could do a better job. She is a longtime neighborhood activist with extensive civic club connections.
Constituents, Kuhleman believes, have seen the Goldberg she experienced as his wife. "He's unpredictable. He may say one thing, but he means something else. He'll give the impression he agrees with you, but he's just parroting back what you want to hear."
She's also getting tired of the media focus on the "angry ex." "This is not about personalities," insists the candidate. "It's about doing the right thing. District C deserves better representation."
Kuhleman's parents, Margarito and Josephine Lara, are second-generation Houstonians with roots in central Mexico. They discouraged their children from speaking Spanish, and Kuhleman says she was not even aware of being Hispanic until a third-grade teacher asked those students to stand up in class. "When I told my mother what happened, she was very upset," Kuhleman remembers. She says she never felt discrimination but was later conscious of prejudice against her father, a teamster with Borden's Creamery.
Goldberg was her classmate at James Madison High School, although she married the son of a laundry company owner. She divorced in the late '80s, then started a medical services business. Kuhleman encountered Goldberg in 1991, following the death of his paraplegic wife, lawyer Vicki Bailey. They had a four-year courtship, married and went through the divorce in 1998. Relations remained amicable enough for Kuhleman to work in Goldberg's first campaign, which he won in a razor-thin runoff with Maryann Young.
Kuhleman remembers an early 1999 evening when Goldberg dropped by to seek advice on his looming council candidacy.
"I was shocked and surprised," remembers Kuhleman. "He was asking me, 'How should I run? What should my priorities be?' It was infuriating because I was thinking, 'If you don't even know, why are you doing it? How are you going to get people to vote for you?' "
Kuhleman says she warned Goldberg then that his personal finances might not stand up to public scrutiny.
Goldberg picked up some influential support, including help from a political action committee made up of Mayor Lee Brown backers. After his election, some of them were shocked when Goldberg cozied up to council conservatives, voting with them against the mayor to roll back property taxes.
"Basically he has alienated his initial supporters," says Kuhleman, who promises to be responsive. She firmly supports both same-sex benefits for gay city employees and the nondiscrimination ordinance.
Goldberg was absent during that ordinance vote but says he supports same-sex benefits. A third candidate, 76-year-old retired marine major Hugh W. Hardy, advocates banning those benefits.
Asked about the former satellite office, Goldberg says he closed it after constituents never called there. It is now used as his campaign headquarters.
Kuhleman's campaign released documents showing more than $34,000 in IRS tax liens against the councilman from 1990 to 1998. Goldberg resides in the district in a house owned by his parents, who live in Israel. The only residence he owns is an eyesore on Ram Street in District F.
Asked about his taxes, Goldberg initially attributed the liens to the 1980s, when his first wife was ill. Told that the tax years in question occurred much later, he said he would have to check into the matter. He also claimed he had sold his Ram Street house and new owners were renovating it.
The councilman then called back to clarify that the house had in fact not been sold, that the purchase was still under negotiation.
Two days later, Goldberg rang back again to announce yet another last-minute cleanup. He proudly declared he'd just written an $18,721 check to the IRS to cover back taxes. If nothing else, Kuhleman's campaign has given the federal treasury a boost.