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Mayoral candidate Bill White did his best to hold the attention of an audience crowded around the bar at Midtown's Seven Lounge, but the competition was stiff. White paced the front of the room with a microphone and pitched his experience and financial savvy. Meanwhile, a soundless color TV on a nearby wall featured a youthful Robert Redford stripping off his shirt as a comely lass lolled on a hotel bed in the steamiest scene from the political movie classic The Candidate. Someone in the club's management obviously has a wicked sense of humor.
For the pale and balding Wedge Group CEO, facing off against former councilman and mayoral candidate Orlando Sanchez and freshman Councilman Michael Berry is a tough enough assignment. Although White's presentations have improved markedly since he declared for mayor, having to compete for hearts and minds with a Hollywood icon and male sex symbol just didn't seem fair.
Fellow candidate Sanchez may have felt the same way by the end of the hour-long forum last week. White and Berry spent the session complimenting and politely applauding each others' bons mots while tossing most of their verbal grenades in Sanchez's direction.
"Very little of the money of two of these candidates comes from people with contracts at City Hall," declared White, making it clear he was referring to himself and new best bud Berry. "Elect someone who is indebted only to you."
When it was Berry's turn, he picked right up on the theme. "Some very powerful lobbyists have some very strong ties to your leadership. So be careful, when you are promised the world you may be the customer -- and Bill is absolutely right on that -- but the question is, who's the bank?"
Missing in action was state Representative Sylvester Turner, who found better places to be, specifically a fund-raiser in Austin, attended by Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick, for Turner's legislative campaign account. That money can and will likely be transferred to his mayoral effort after he officially declares for the office next week. Once the polished stump-speaker joins the fray, the chemistry of the group will change. Judging by the status quo, it's a development Sanchez can only welcome.
The Midtown event was only the second candidate face-off of the young season, but a pattern is already apparent. Both Berry and White are portraying themselves as ethically pure, while trying to tar Sanchez as the front man for City Hall special interests. The double whammy means Sanchez gets popped coming and going time after time. It makes for a long evening for the odd man out.
"On issues like ethics and efficiency in government," notes White campaign manager Michael Moore, "Bill and Michael are in agreement. Contractors and lobbyists have too much influence at City Hall."
The perceived hypocrisy was too much for Sanchez strategist Dave Walden, who took a cigarette break out back during much of the opposition's speaking time. His mood has not been improved by Berry's decision to attack him and wife Sue Walden by name, as typical of Sanchez's reliance on City Hall insiders. Berry's Exhibit A: The Waldens worked for Mayor Lee Brown during his three terms and for mayor Bob Lanier during his reign from 1992 to 1997, while the couple individually lobbied for a number of different companies and interest groups during those years.
Walden initially offered to resign from the Sanchez campaign after he became an issue, but his boss wouldn't hear of it.
"We're trying to start out with a positive campaign," says the consultant, who then throws his own jabs. "I could point out that nobody who raises millions of dollars for Bill Clinton and goes through the Lincoln Bedroom stuff and Oval Office coffees is all that pure. He may be Bill White, but he ain't lily-white."
As for Berry, Walden laughs and indicates there's plenty of ammunition for use between now and November. "My God, I'm overwhelmed with information about him.
"But I'm not really worried about those two working together. If Orlando wasn't the subject of attacks, he wouldn't be the front-runner. The question is, can he take a punch? And the answer is yes."
Sanchez apparently will get a lot of that, because Berry strategist Allen Blakemore predicts the double-barreled attack will continue until November. According to the consultant, White and Berry have similar game plans. Each has a strong base, Berry with westside conservatives and White with left-of-center Democrats. Positioned in the middle is Sanchez, with moderate Republicans, independents and Hispanics. By Blakemore's reckoning, both White and Berry seek to expand their bases into the center at Sanchez's expense, so the joint strategy is to chop on him from both sides in a race to see who can make a runoff against Turner.
"The positions that Sanchez is already taking, or in some cases not taking, make it clear he's not fighting for the votes on the right," analyzes Blakemore. "He's ceding those to Michael. Just like he's abandoned the votes on the left" to White. "Well, I think it's a flawed strategy to start without a base."
While Walden looks forward to African-American Turner's entry into the race, Blakemore reasons it won't really matter because the other candidates have already ceded him the majority of the black vote.
He recalls the three-way race in 1991 between Turner, Lanier and incumbent Kathy Whitmire, where the other candidates handled Turner with kid gloves until the runoff.
"Turner will spend a fraction of what White, Sanchez and Berry will, marshaling all his resources for the runoff," the consultant says. All three opponents would love to meet Turner there, assuming that the damage he took in the punishing loss to Lanier makes him a sitting duck this time around.
UH political scientist Richard Murray testified in a libel trial brought by Turner against Channel 13's Wayne Dolcefino for pre-election news reports that damaged Turner's chances. He figures White has the most delicate task of Turner's opponents in trying to pick off some of the black vote without angering that community.
"White has to fight a more sophisticated, strategic campaign," says Murray, "because he must aggressively try to win over a reasonable share of the black vote, not so much by attacking Turner, but rather making the argument Turner can get in a runoff but he can't win. And that would elect Sanchez, who is probably the least-favored candidate in the black community."
One of the juicier ironies of the White-Berry détente is that each side thinks it's using the other. White's folks are counting on Berry to split the Republican vote and provide a formula for him to make a runoff. Berry's strategists figure White will drive Republicans into his camp as it becomes apparent that Sanchez cannot win.
"I know Bill White's going through this fantasy about getting Republicans to vote for him," Blakemore chuckles. He notes that 25th District Congressman Chris Belltried the same strategy in his mayoral race two years ago.
"He was getting traction until September," recalls Blakemore, "until Orlando put out the word, 'Oh, by the way, did I forget to tell you that nice young man with the lovely wife is a Democrat?' And they all went, 'Oh, my goodness,' and abandoned Bell."
With five months to go to the general election, the Michael and Bill Show should build to a fascinating finale with a million-dollar question: Who gets to be the user, and who ends up being used?