Tales of Rail

Metro's incoming chairman loves to tell stories. Can Houstonians cotton to his next one?

Arthur Louis Schechter, known as Butch to his friends, flew to Washington in 1993 to witness a special event. His mode of transport was better than first class: a seat on Air Force One with then-president Bill Clinton as a traveling companion. The trip itinerary featured the signing of the Oslo Accords intended to cement lasting peace in the Middle East.

Clinton would later nominate longtime supporter and big-bucks contributor Schechter as U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas. On this trip, the president regaled his entourage with the difficulties of getting so many old enemies to attend the impending peacefest on the White House lawn. One of the toughest to persuade had been Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

In the 62-year-old Schechter's telling and retelling, Clinton finally prevailed on Rabin to come to the treaty signing, although the Israeli had one caveat. He would reluctantly give a chilly handshake to PLO chief Yasir Arafat, but he was having none of that effusive cheek-kissing that is a trademark of the Palestinian leader.

At that point Schechter spoke up. "Mr. President, just tell Rabin you are only making a peace agreement, not a shidduch," he said, using the Yiddish term for an arranged marriage.

With Schechter slated to step into the cockpit of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board later this month, he may find himself frequently offering the same advice in a slightly different context. Middle East peace negotiations might be more inviting than trying to bring Houston's warring transit factions to an agreement after decades of conflict.

Republican lawyer Robert Miller, departing after four years as Metro's chair, notes that the divisions mean "that any segment can block something. To be successful and pass a plan, which is the challenge, it's really going to take a high degree of consensus."

Schechter, appointed by Mayor Lee Brown and confirmed by City Council, awaits a Metro board vote to become chair. The multimillionaire retired attorney likely will have only a year and a half to direct the crafting of a regional transit plan that can win the endorsement of old rail opponents like former mayor Bob Lanier and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. Then Schechter would rally Metro supporters for passage of a November 2003 referendum on the plan -- just in time to cash in on the federal funding cycle for rail projects.

There had been discussions with friends about the possibility of Schechter running for mayor when Brown leaves office, but he shelved that ambition when he took on the Metro post. A new mayor will replace the term-limited Brown in 2004, and new mayors traditionally want to handpick their own Metro chairs. So the moment that Schechter steps into the unpaid assignment, the clock starts ticking.

"It's a very short window to do what I want to do, and there's a lot of work," says Schechter, who is reluctant to discuss his plans until he's officially sworn in as chairman. After yet another of those seemingly endless multimillion-dollar transit studies is completed next summer, Schechter says, the board will put together a 20- to 25-year regional plan that will mix a variety of transit technologies.

"I think rail will be part of it, and there will be areas of town we go with high vehicle lanes and increased bus service," says Schechter. "I don't think you've got to sit out on the Katy or Southwest Freeway for too long without wondering if there aren't better ways to transport our people."

Friends describe Schechter as a character who loves to tell funny stories, many with himself as the butt of the joke, sometimes literally. He's a big guy at six feet and more than a little overweight.

Schechter is the youngest of three sons of a mother from a fourth-generation Houston family and a father who immigrated from pre-Israel Palestine. Schechter grew up in Rosenberg, where his family operated a dry goods store. He graduated from the University of Texas law school and built up a sizable fortune as a plaintiff's attorney. His wife is the former Joyce Proler, whose family had turned a scrap metal business into Proler Steel.

He went from civic involvement in the local and national Jewish communities, and then into politics. Schechter's fund-raising efforts took him into the top levels of the Democratic Party. Former Texas Democratic Party chair Bill White introduced him to a largely unknown Arkansas governor named Clinton, and they became fast friends and political allies.

"He flew up to Arkansas with some other folks and became convinced this was the guy who could do the job," says his nephew, attorney Richard Schechter, the husband of Harris County Democratic chair Sue Smith Schechter.

Clinton's connection brought Schechter the ambassadorship to the Bahamas, which was not quite the tropical idyll that some assume. In his time at the post, he oversaw a large Caribbean drug interdiction operation, and even an extensive disaster relief effort after a hurricane devastated the islands.

With that background, some question whether he's really prepared for the tedium and drudge work that comes with the job of chairing Metro.

"When you're going to spend hours in a hearing over where to put a sidewalk bus stop, well, that's a little different from going and christening a new ship in the navy," says one source close to Schechter.

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