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Midway through an early-afternoon press conference last week called by the Michael Berry for Mayor campaign on short notice, one of a handful of people gathered outside the Harris County Administration Building slipped up to The Insider and gently nudged him in the ribs.
"Is this the lamest political event you've ever attended in Houston or what?" whispered the veteran of some pretty shaky campaign operations in the past.
The Insider had no quick and easy answer, though he was sure the name Sheila Jackson Lee would be associated with any possible competitors. But even the loquacious Houston congresswoman has the courage of her convictions and never breaks a date with a microphone. In this case, Berry's campaign consultant Allen Blakemore busily tried to drum up faux outrage against opposing mayoral candidate Orlando Sanchez without the help of his boss, who found better, undisclosed places to be than in front of his own staged event.
"There are more television cameras here than covered the announcement of the Metro transit plan," marveled one reporter. One of the six videocams apparently belonged to the Berry campaign, there to document every excruciatingly non-newsy minute of it.
The thunderbolt with which Blakemore hoped to electrify the band of seen-it-all political journalists hardly caused a stir. A couple hosting an upcoming reception for Sanchez, Nestor and Stella Caldera, had a delinquent property tax bill from last year of $16,000. Now, a candidate with a delinquent tax bill has always been a good news story. But until last week, a political contributor who hadn't paid his or her taxes was just another citizen with a delinquent tax bill.
Although the snickers from the media intensified as he spoke, Blakemore gamely plunged ahead. "It would be irresponsible to take a campaign contribution from someone who owed child support," declared the consultant.
"It would be irresponsible to take a campaign contribution from someone who had made their money through illegal and illicit means. It is irresponsible to take a campaign contribution from someone who has not yet paid their taxes."
Blakemore attempted to hang the flimsy charge on Sanchez's pledge to enforce a higher standard of ethics during his own campaign launch the week before. He also cited a new City Council ordinance prohibiting companies that owe back taxes from receiving city contracts.
Asked why his candidate wasn't present to make the case against Sanchez, Blakemore explained that Councilman Berry was out campaigning and busy raising money. In his only successful municipal campaign effort in 2001 against opponent Claudia Williamson, Berry repeatedly avoided taking stands on controversial issues and relied on blanketing the city with political signs while trying to appeal to both blacks and westside conservatives. The effort earned him the nickname Cardboard Man in this column. His strategy does not appear to have changed much with the latest run for mayor.
Several days after the news conference, the Houston Chronicle raised the issue of hypocrisy by pointing out that a member of Berry's campaign steering committee, attorney Mark Dulworth, owed year-old back taxes. After the issue was raised with the Berry campaign, Dulworth quickly paid the $2,770.
Since Berry has not yet filed his first list of contributors for his mayoral effort, The Insider pulled the councilman's most recent council campaign report at City Hall and began randomly running supporter names through the Harris County Tax Assessor's delinquent taxpayer database. It didn't take long to corral Berry supporters branded with a scarlet T.
Ousley Lacey, a $300 contributor to Berry's campaign last January, owed back property taxes to various local governmental entities from 1999 to 2000 totaling $2,517. D.J. Blanton, a $350 contributor to Berry during the same period, is the subject of two delinquent tax suits with judgments totaling nearly $8,000, according to the county's private tax collection firm. Richard Battle, a $750 contributor, is listed by the tax office with $11,393 in delinquent property taxes dating back to 1992. Presented with the data, the Berry campaign did not contest the accuracy of the material.
Would Berry be willing to return the campaign money he collected so blithely only a year ago from sources he now seems to think are tainted, at least when it comes to a mayoral rival? At first, consultant Blakemore seemed to say yes.
"If somebody gives us money and we later find out the guy owes taxes, we're going to give it back," stated Blakemore. "We don't want to take it from people who ought to be spending it paying their taxes. I'm certainly going to make the case that even though that's money from a year ago, that's fine, we can deal with that, too."
But after a day of considering the matter, another Berry consultant, Chris Begala, called back singing a different tune.
"I don't think this campaign is going to go back into time two, three, ten years ago. I don't think that we're going to be delving into that past history."
What a Berry, Berry convenient position to take.