Parting Shots

Foes of Mayor Lee Brown can't wait to see him gone. And a lot of his friends feel that way, too.

Reflecting a solid cross-section of Houston, the crowd of about 2,000 arrived at the Wortham Theater Center to watch Lee P. Brown become the first black mayor of Houston. The swearing-in itself, however, was upstaged minutes earlier, in the hush that followed "The Star-Spangled Banner."

A strong, solitary woman's voice suddenly rose up from the audience rather than the stage. The anonymous woman -- heads turned in efforts to locate her -- began a stately, lilting rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the black national anthem. Before long, many in the crowd had joined in the moving a cappella celebration that was nowhere to be found on the official program:

Let our rejoicing rise,

Brown backers celebrate the 2001 runoff victory (from 
left, Jordy Tollett, Dave Walden, Sue Walden and 
Nene Foxhall).
Tim Fleck
Brown backers celebrate the 2001 runoff victory (from left, Jordy Tollett, Dave Walden, Sue Walden and Nene Foxhall).
Lanier calls Brown "the opposite of Teflon."
Photograph by Jennifer Binder
Lanier calls Brown "the opposite of Teflon."

High as the listening skies.

That rarity -- spontaneous happenings had long been excised from the well-scripted agendas of any remotely political event -- seemed to sweep Brown into office with the most bountiful of promise.

Almost four years after that January 1998 event, another unusual scene was unfolding in the ever-uncertain era of Mayor Brown.

This time, the setting was a party in a private suite on an upper floor of the Four Seasons Hotel. Celebrants buzzed with the nonalcoholic intoxication that comes from somehow dodging a bullet fired at point-blank range.

Most of these participants had been on hand for Brown's inspirational inauguration. On this runoff election day of December 6, 2001, they were being reduced to hope tinged by sheer desperation.

Soon after the polls closed, then-councilman Orlando Sanchez soared to a substantial lead over Brown. So confident was the Sanchez encampment at the Hotel Derek that the crowd -- which included Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt and former sports authority chair Jack Rains -- revved up to celebrate the seemingly inevitable capture of City Hall.

This was a rarity virtually unheard of in local politics: the spectacle of a two-term incumbent mayor on the brink of defeat. That Houston's first black mayor faced a serious challenge at all for his third and final, term-limited run testified to four years of nonstop administrative bungling. Had Brown deliberately set out to inflame voters, he could not have chosen better buttons to push than those labeled chronic water leaks, traffic congestion, botched street repairs and soaring property valuations, coupled with no tax relief.

Sue and Dave Walden, the fund-raising-consultant team dispatched by former mayor Bob Lanier to help Brown get into office in 1997, hosted the Brown party. They and campaign manager Craig Varoga knew it would take an unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort to drag the politically moribund Brown back into office, and they were far from confident that they could pull it off.

Then the ballots started flowing in from the heavily African-American precincts in the far southwest reaches of Houston. The Sanchez margin narrowed, then vanished at the end as Brown edged him out by a paltry 10,000 votes.

"It started raining at 7:30 that evening," Varoga recalls with a chuckle. "If it had started raining at 2:30 in the afternoon, we might not have won."

Mayor Lee Patrick Brown's inner circle reveled in the realization that they had triumphed over not just an opponent with a hefty Republican bankroll but also their own candidate's best efforts at self-destruction on many fronts.

Exhibit A was just outside their hotel suite. Downtown Houston streets remained a maddening maze of uncoordinated construction steeplechases whose configuration changed faster than motorists could figure out routes around them.

In the absence of legalized gambling, Brown's finance department revenue forecasts still provided the most entertaining annual crap shoot in town, shot full of rosy scenarios whose only predictability lay in their errors. At first the overestimates were administrative nuisances. As the economic climate chilled, however, cobbling together the city budget became a yearly political crisis resounding with recriminations between councilmembers and the mayor's staff.

In Brown's first two terms, the city's public works department had become the bureaucratic mirror of an aging, leak-prone water and sewer system. How could anyone take seriously a mayor who couldn't even get a ruptured pipe fixed in a timely fashion?

Still, Brown had won. Some of his backers felt renewed optimism that the mayor had finally learned the lessons of his first four years, that his last term would somehow showcase his administration.

Many on his staff believed he would get rid of what they saw as the weakest link, chief administrative officer Al Haines -- like Brown, an alumnus of Kathy Whitmire's '80s-era administration.

And they hoped he would make a new effort to work with City Council and cease his dependence on the yea-or-nay of his Machiavellian, self-promoting city attorney, Anthony Hall, a former state legislator and councilman.

If the leaden-tongued Brown couldn't communicate a vision of where the city should be going, it was time to find a mouthpiece who could.

Unfortunately, those expectations would prove about as realistic as the city's financial projections.

Now, as the final months elapse on Brown's tenure, City Hall insiders look to the coming regime change with a mixture of relief and regret at what could have been.

Interviews with several administration staff officials, past and present, piece together a picture of a man who undermined the early promise of his administration through an inability to make his own decisions and an over-reliance on subordinates. Staffers sketch out a plotline that Brown abdicated his central role in a strong mayoral system by distributing power to a few people who turned out to be as interested in their own agendas as his.

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