By Chris Lane
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An eastside crowd of chamber of commerce types gathered recently at the Houston Yacht Club for lunch and were treated to a rare dessert: the spectacle of two closely matched challengers going at it for the Precinct 2 seat being vacated by County Commissioner Jim Fonteno after 24 years.
When it comes to Harris County commissioners, incumbents generally stalk or stumble away from their jobs as a result of indictment, boredom, illness or old age; they aren't retired by election defeats. Change in what has been the most stable -- some view it more as fossilized -- governmental body in the area moves at a glacial pace. The passing of notable political specimens is marked by eras, just like the demise of the dinosaurs.
The current matchup between Houston City Controller Sylvia Garcia and former Pasadena mayor Johnny Isbell will likely mark one of those dividing lines in county geologic time. Most polls and political observers give Garcia a margin of 5 to 10 percentage points going into the pre-election weekend.
If she wins, Garcia would shatter barriers on many fronts. No woman has ever been elected commissioner, although several have been appointed in the past to fill uncompleted terms. No Hispanic has ever cast one of its five votes. In recent history, Harris County voters have refused to elect candidates strongly identified with the City of Houston.
Close races have been rare in the past three decades. Precinct 1 Commissioner Tom Bass graciously moved aside in 1984 to provide a custom-made seat for the first and only black commissioner, El Franco Lee, in 1984. A conviction for stealing county property forced Precinct 3 Commissioner Bob Eckels off the court and paved the way for his replacement by Steve Radack in 1988.
E.A. "Squatty" Lyons, the Precinct 4 commissioner for 48 years, dropped out of contention in 1990 following heart surgery, opening the way for a partisan slugfest between Republican Jerry Eversole and then-Houston councilwoman Eleanor Tinsley, a Democrat. Using opposition to rail and his opponent's City of Houston credentials as issues, Eversole easily defeated Tinsley.
Four years later, a campaign fund scandal led to County Judge Jon Lindsay's decision not to run for re-election. Former commissioner Eckels's son Robert trounced Democrat Vince Ryan to take the judgeship.
Between then and now, commissioners' elections have been as exciting as watching paint dry. Periodic spats between Radack and Eckels are far more entertaining.
That changed when Fonteno announced his retirement last year, and the court voted for a redistricting plan that made Precinct 2 a political free fire zone. It pits burgeoning Hispanic voting power against a dwindling but potent suburban Republican base. Technically, black and brown voters hold a majority in the precinct, but superior GOP turnout is expected to make the race difficult but possible for Isbell, a Democrat who switched parties for the run at the job.
At the recent session at the yacht club on Galveston Bay, both candidates followed the same script they've been pursuing since winning their primaries last March. Isbell played up his own record as Pasadena mayor while trying to link Garcia to two political negatives in some parts of the county: Mayor Lee Brown and Houston.
Garcia ignored her opponent's negative jabs. She concentrated on her credentials as the high-achieving daughter of an impoverished family of agricultural workers in South Texas and her controversy-free tenure in the city's second-highest elective position.
At the start of the race, Commissioner Radack weighed in for Isbell and predicted that his man would win on the strength of voters in the unincorporated areas and small cities "who absolutely hate and despise the City of Houston." Isbell has played on that theme, even though the majority of precinct voters are actually Houston residents.
"Who do you want on commissioners court sitting up there making decisions of how much money this area gets of county money?" asks Isbell. "Your neighbor, or someone who lives closer to Houston Intercontinental Airport with allegiance to Houston City Hall?"
He also blames Garcia for not supporting conservative initiatives on City Council to lower property taxes.
"My opponent has never lowered a tax rate or supported lowering a tax rate in her life," says Isbell. He claims that under "the Brown-Garcia administration" Houston taxpayers are paying 73 percent more in taxes. (Although property values and tax totals have risen in the city of Houston, there have been no tax rate increases under the current administration.)
"Protecting your pocketbook?" scoffs Isbell, mimicking a Garcia slogan. "I think that's more like picking your pocketbook."
"I think people watch the news, and they know that I've had disagreements with the administration," counters Garcia. "I've fought the good fight, but I don't win all the battles. I'm not the mayor. Sometimes when Isbell raises those things up people just get a chuckle It's sort of like, doesn't he read the papers?"
On perhaps the most incendiary issue in the race, the proposed port expansion at Bayport, the candidates take almost identical positions. Isbell and Garcia want it relocated, citing the potential environmental damage to nearby communities.
Isbell has lately found himself coping with opposition from an unusual place: his home turf of Pasadena. John Manlove, the Pasadena mayor, has publicly taken a neutral stance while quietly supporting Garcia's bid behind the scenes. There is no love lost between Manlove and Isbell, particularly after Manlove replaced the term-limited incumbent in 2001 and found that the office had been stripped of all records accumulated during Isbell's tenure.