Mayoral White Knight

A candidate plays a subtle race card

Although term-limited Lee Brown isn't going to be on the ballot in November, mayoral candidate Michael Berry is glomming onto the next best black thang in an attempt to scare Republicans into supporting him over fellow GOPer Orlando Sanchez.

Berry pollster Chris Wilson of the Washington-based Wilson Research Strategies concluded that "Michael Berry is the only candidate who can beat Sylvester Turner. If either Orlando Sanchez or Bill Whitemakes the runoff with Turner, Turner will be the next Mayor." Wilson's executive summary was e-mailed as a press release to Berry supporters and news media, along with a note from the candidate touting the author as "one of the top pollsters in the country."

The implicit message: If Houstonians don't want another black mayor, they'd better jump on the Berry bandwagon.

Councilman Michael Berry (with wife Nandy) once used Turner to win over black voters.
Dumb and Dumber
Daniel Kramer
Councilman Michael Berry (with wife Nandy) once used Turner to win over black voters.

Dumb and Dumber
So far Bill White has kept his pledge to run a positive, nonpartisan campaign.
Daniel Kramer
So far Bill White has kept his pledge to run a positive, nonpartisan campaign.

Just in case conservatives miss the point, Wilson elaborated: "Turner will make the Mayoral runoff election due to his natural base of support from Democrats, voters in his district and African American voters citywide."

Ironically, Berry won his first race for City Council by courting blacks with his contributions to minority ministerial groups and political figures. For his chief of staff, he hired Carl Davis, a black community political operative and former Democratic state executive committee member. Until Berry decided to run for mayor, one of his key black supporters was none other than state Representative Turner. But that was then, and the councilman now desperately needs westside whites, who voted for Sanchez two years ago, to make his campaign viable.

Turner lost a mayoral runoff in 1991 to Bob Lanier after suffering political damage from reports by Channel 13's Wayne Dolcefino about his alleged involvement in an insurance scam. Many political observers believe the lingering questions generated by that campaign make the representative a sitting duck for any opponent in a runoff this year.

Wilson conducted a poll in early February and found that Sanchez had 32 percent of the vote, followed by Turner (21 percent), White (8 percent) and Berry (6 percent). According to the pollster, Sanchez has a "soft name ID" of 95 percent and a "hard name ID" of 77 percent, yet he received only 32 percent of the vote in the survey.

"This is what is known as a still-birth candidacy," Wilson said. "Sanchez has effectively peaked and has nowhere to go but down."

Wilson concluded that those "anemic numbers show that without completely redefining himself (which is all but impossible when a candidate already has universal name ID), Sanchez cannot win this election."

The Wilson poll also used a questionable "informed ballot" technique to claim that Berry is already preferred by 22 percent of voters once they are fed favorable information about the candidate from a telephone interviewer.

"Nobody in any poll looks at that number," counters Dave Walden, a Sanchez campaign consultant. "I could give you an informed ballot poll that had Orlando at 95 percent. You go by the first matchup question, not the last one.

"The Berry campaign is taking lessons from that Saddam Minister of Information," chuckles Walden. "That poll is like the guy saying the U.S. didn't control the goddamn airport."

Bob Stein, Rice University's dean of social science, says Berry's posturing as the only possible alternative to Turner makes good political sense, considering that Berry has already burned his bridges with blacks who supported him in his first council election.

"Many of the black constituents who thought they were voting for someone who would support their issues are not happy with him," explains Stein. "Should Berry be in a runoff against White or Sanchez, there's no chance he can win the black vote. He has clearly done something in the black community that it will not only remember, but remember up until Election Day."

Berry voted against a council resolution last year to study reparations for the descendants of black slaves. That stand infuriated his black supporters and drew a taunt from activist Quanell X that his "ghetto pass is now revoked."

Stein doesn't buy the claim that Sanchez's campaign is finished before it begins. "Orlando is a formidable obstacle," scoffs Stein about the Wilson memo. "That conclusion is unjustified by their very own evidence."

Stein detects a subtle attempt by Berry's poll to tell conservatives that Sanchez is not a real Republican.

"The strategy of Michael Berry is to convince people Orlando cannot win, but the other subtext is 'He's not one of us.' You can take that two ways. He's not really a Republican; he's not true to his issues. Or there's another message, far less flattering, that he's not an Anglo Republican."

By contrast, candidate White released a poll several weeks ago by the California-based firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates touting a jump in name ID and support for the candidate following a half-million-dollar barrage of media advertising.

It found that Sanchez led with 27 percent, followed by White's 22 percent, Turner's 15 and Berry's eight.

The poll release did not mention the ethnic makeup of anybody's support, did not declare anyone's campaign a still-birth, did not try to scare conservatives or attract the bigot vote, and it touted White's positives rather than his opponent's weaknesses.

That approach may not make for the spiciest politics, but as a change it sure is refreshing.

 
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