Tales of Rail

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

Schechter also has no experience in the working side of politics. That showed in assessing City Council support for his nomination. His secretary called Councilman Bruce Tatro's office and was told the councilman felt no need to meet with her boss, so Schechter assumed that meant he had Tatro's vote. Of course, council's "Dr. No" voted against the nominee, citing his Democratic connections.

Miller and other Metro veterans say the best and worst aspects of the chairmanship both center around urban micropolitics.

"It's a very time-intensive job if you're going to do it right, because you have innumerable meetings. You have to referee numerous minor disputes between Metro and other organizations in the community," explains Miller.

"You'll get the occasional phone call from some guy sitting in traffic on his cell phone saying, 'I'm mad as hell.' You can be the lightning rod, and people who know you don't hesitate to pick up the phone and say, 'What is this?' "

Former Texas governor Ann Richards also gave her old friend some tongue-in-cheek advice. Richards recalled for Schechter how handicapped-rights advocates had once chained their wheelchairs to the furniture in her Austin office demanding more funding for community-based facilities.

"Arthur," joked Richards, "whenever anybody disabled wants something, give it to 'em!"

Richard Schechter recalls that his uncle was popular in the Bahamas partly because he attended every government meeting he could. He once spent four hours in a ceremony where officials honored civil servants -- all the way down to street sweepers -- with longevity watches. "At the end of it, I felt I deserved one, too," quipped the ambassador.

"He will spend whatever time is needed to get what he feels is a mastery of the subject," says Richard Schechter. "He is not a hip shooter. He likes to be prepared and know what he is talking about."

Asked whether he's ready for the tedium, the incoming chairman replied, "I don't know. I don't have the Metro job yet."

Lanier is perhaps the most controversial Metro chair ever. He quit in a dispute with then-mayor Kathy Whitmire over rail in 1989 and took her job two years later. Lanier has only recently offered tepid support for Main Street light rail, once dismissively describing it as the "Twain Twack." Schechter's friendship with him should make the new chair's tasks easier.

"I'm trying to slide out of fighting over it and find a middle ground," says Lanier. "I hope neither side says, 'Hey, no rail works' or 'All rail works,' but really work together to see what's out there that does the best job we can for moving people."

The man who parlayed a stint at the helm of Metro into the mayorship is skeptical that it could happen again.

"My one trip notwithstanding, Metro has more often than not been a burial ground for political ambitions," says Lanier. "If he has political ambitions, it's a very high-risk job."

On the other hand, if Schechter can pull a viable transit deal out of his hat, the sky might be the limit.

"If he comes up with a plan that looks like it's salable to the public," muses Lanier, "something that Tom DeLay signs off on, people who are somewhat skeptical sign off on, and wins an election and has the blessing of the incoming mayor, hell, he might just skip mayor and go to something higher."

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