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.

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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