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"In the short term," says one Brown adviser, "the judgment of the voters in the city is going to be harsh. The next mayor is either going to distance himself from the six years of Lee Brown or have to completely dismantle it.
"Ten years from now, when downtown is truly vibrant and rail is operating, some of those historical judgments [on Brown] will probably be tempered," the adviser says, before recalling the dramatic inaugural moment of voices in unison. "But the crowd in that room on January 2, 1998, experienced something that is completely beyond politics. That's how it started, but that's not going to be how it ends."
Anyone who had studied the career of 65-year-old Lee Brown would have known that one thing the mayor will not do is change. A decent, honest man whose professional code begins and ends with a reverence for law and its enforcement, this son of California migrant workers had spent a lifetime being the first African-American executive in a succession of government bureaucracies, with all the built-in hazards that pioneering role brings.
He steadily moved up the career police ladder, from Portland to Atlanta to Houston to New York City. He jumped to president Bill Clinton's cabinet as drug czar, then returned to Houston, teaching at Rice University while positioning himself for a run for mayor.
Along his career path, Brown perfected a deliberate, highly conservative bureaucratic method that glorifies and empowers subordinates with résumés and birth dates as weighty as his own.
"You have to understand how the mayor operates," explains a former staffer. "He is a big believer in institutionalizing process or programs or ideas. He really believes that policy is better administered at the department level.
"Combine that with the fact that he is a huge believer in experience. More than anything else, what drives the mayor is a faith that people who have accomplished a great deal or have great résumés should be deferred to in their expertise."
Staff members and others at City Hall provided candid insight on the condition that their names not be used. One veteran contrasts Brown's modus operandi with that of his predecessor. "Bob Lanier never went into a meeting without knowing more about the subject at hand than anyone else there." Brown goes in prepared to learn the facts from a department head and then act on them.
The mayor's inner circle has comprised successful African-American males of his own generation: retired corporate executive Grover Jackson; political veteran Anthony Hall; Don Hollingsworth, a former Washington, D.C., cop and law enforcement senior staffer; and transit industry consultant Danny Lawson. Each mirrors an element in Brown's own mental makeup.
"There's a side of Brown that really wants to help African-American businesses a lot, and that's Danny," explains a former staffer. "Then there's the innately conservative person, and that's Grover. Part of Brown is real aggressive about big law enforcement initiatives, and that's Hollingsworth. And finally there's a much more calculating guy, and that's Anthony.
"The weird thing is that when the four of them would get together with the mayor, sometimes they didn't get along at all."
District F Councilman Mark Ellis, the leader of the conservative bloc on council, says Brown came to the mayor's office with the mentality of a department director.
"I'm not really big about bureaucrats making decisions and them holding all the responsibility," says Ellis. "But Brown says bureaucrats are great, and that's where we differ. I think they're hardworking people, but the final decision stops with the mayor."
Ellis credits Brown's total inability to play municipal politics with giving conservatives a level playing field at City Hall.
"As far as being a politician, he doesn't get there," comments Ellis wryly. "He's a nice guy that I genuinely like. He's elevated my political status. I've been able to get things done against him because he's a weak politician. Otherwise, if Bob Lanier was in office, nobody would know who I was."
Where Lanier would work with councilmembers to reach compromises and cut deals, explains Ellis, "Brown doesn't do that, so you've got to shove things down his throat. It doesn't seem to bother him that much, though."
Lanier, perhaps the one person most responsible for Brown's election, agrees that his successor "delegates responsibility to some person and then the performance largely depends on the quality of that person." Unfortunately, says Lanier, the quality of Brown's aides in his first two terms "was not as strong in many instances as the staff I was fortunate enough to have."
Brown's governing style proved defensive in the extreme, like a soldier picking his way through a minefield. Some politicians like to drop bombs. Brown's main concern is to avoid stepping on them. His method inadvertently encourages staffers to compete against one another for influence rather than to work in tandem.
"The mayor is a big believer in creating an unnatural level of tension between senior staff," says one aide frequently caught in the middle. "He's not a big believer in chemistry between staff. Rather, he wants strong-willed people who will have what he calls 'a challenge of ideas.' "
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