Blessed and Bewildered

Recent debacles demonstrate why District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal needs more than a moustache to match the legacy of Johnny Holmes

"I don't think anything would have been handled differently by Johnny Holmes if he were here," says Cindy Rosenthal. "He wouldn't have recused himself."

She also says the impression that her husband has gone from one fiasco to another is misguided. "We're in the fourth-largest city of the country, for crying out loud. Things happen. All this stuff would have happened under Johnny Holmes, too, but it would not have been under that much of a microscope because it was Johnny Holmes," she says. "We have had politicians [such as HPD chief Bradford] investigated and indicted before…We had [former county judge Bob] Eckels indicted for getting a driveway paved, and [former city councilman] Ben Reyes for stealing a magnolia tree, and a lot of things like that," she says. "It was tiny little stuff and some of it was tried to acquittals, and no one raised an eyebrow about all that. I don't understand it sometimes."

Holmes, for his part, isn't saying much about what he would have done as D.A. or what he thinks of Rosenthal's performance. "As for how [Rosenthal's] doing, I'm not going there," he says. "No one appointed me critic for the performance of successors, nor am I volunteering for the position."

Texas memorabilia, Cigar Aficionado magazine 
and Sun Tzu: Rosenthal in his lair.
Daniel Kramer
Texas memorabilia, Cigar Aficionado magazine and Sun Tzu: Rosenthal in his lair.
Holmes's long shadow lives on.
Daniel Kramer
Holmes's long shadow lives on.

When it comes to critics, Holmes's help isn't needed. Democrats are cackling about Rosenthal's performance. "He has single-handedly engineered a break in the great merger that Johnny Holmes created between the prosecutors' office and the judiciary," says David Jones, a Democrat activist and defense attorney. "With his DNA ass-protection device, he's done it -- to have 22 criminal judges tell you to get out of the way, it's the first crack in the Berlin Wall."

Jones, and others, say they see small signs of newly found independence among the judges, themselves freed from the specter of Holmes looming over them.

"They don't fear Chuck Rosenthal like they did Johnny," Jones says. "Motions to suppress are granted regularly, easily now, compared to the past. The judges are openly dismissive of D.A. policies that they weren't of in the past, like when a prosecutor says he can't make a recommendation of probation in certain types of cases…The prosecutors are not likely to get every break in the world when they're not ready."

Rosenthal says the slew of judges who are former Holmes prosecutors have always been tough on their former colleagues. As for the line prosecutors themselves, one says that there may be some merit to Jones's theory.

The prosecutor, who didn't want his name used, says there's been some eye-rolling over things like the Supreme Court argument, but that Rosenthal has done a better job getting to know the troops than Holmes did.

"He's got more people skills, I'd say," he says.

Cindy Rosenthal says that is a matter of policy, not just personality. "The D.A.'s in the office like Chuck personally more than they did Johnny -- Johnny was not real approachable or sociable," she says. "Chuck's trying to give more warm-and-fuzzies."

He's also opening the purse strings that Holmes famously hoarded -- the discretionary funds that the D.A.'s office receives from cases such as hot-check prosecutions. Rosenthal is using the money to pay for his employees' bar dues, parking, continuing education, even $100,000 for a computerized shooting range in the courthouse basement.

(He's also adding a full-time computer-graphics artist to jazz up courtroom presentations: "Now juries are made up of the MTV generation and people who watch television programs where entire cases are solved in an hour, and they solve everyone's sexual problems too," Rosenthal says. "So they're used to a faster-paced trial.")

So if the troops are happy (even if some still miss the legendary Holmes) and his political right wing is happy (even if he did lose the sodomy case, egregiously), is Rosenthal ready to further the Harris County tradition of D.A.'s staying in office forever?

He'll likely have no trouble raising the $500,000 or so needed to run for re-election in 2004, thanks to the power of incumbency.

"That is the most distasteful part of running for public office…I can't call people and say, 'I'm Chuck Rosenthal, would you give me some money?' " he says.

(His fund-raising has gotten him in trouble -- something that definitely never happened with Holmes, who not only was independently wealthy but never drew serious opposition. Earlier this year, after the Houston Chronicle revealed Rosenthal had accepted $2,500 from the owner of a construction company under indictment, he took two weeks before deciding to return the money.)

"That's the one real question I've had -- the delay was not really proper," says Judge McSpadden, a Rosenthal supporter. "Just give it back."

A GOP primary opponent may crop up. "If they run, they run," Rosenthal says. However, taking on the Hotze-Blakemore-Second Baptist axis would be a daunting task in a low-turnout race.

Democrats, of course, always dream of finding that perfect candidate. Political analyst Sims says a "significant minority candidate" might have a chance. Rosenthal has "definitely pushed the wrong buttons repeatedly in the minority community," she says.

It's difficult to predict what the electoral atmosphere will be in November 2004 in Harris County. As things stand now, the D.A.'s race might be the highest-profile fight among a slate of largely uncontested races. That could change if the GOP push for redistricting forces incumbents to face each other, but if that effort is tied up in the courts, then much of the voters' focus locally will be on Rosenthal's first-term performance.

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