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By Sean Pendergast
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By Richard Connelly
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By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
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The candidates fidgeted at the head table at the University of Houston campus Hilton ballroom and awaited another question from the luncheon crowd of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Former city councilman Orlando Sanchez and state Representative Sylvester Turner shared one mike, while businessman Bill White and Councilman Michael Christian Berry huddled around another. It was the next stop on the endless series of forums that make up the campaign.
But for the youngest of the four major candidates, this venue brought back fond memories. Berry had arrived here ten years earlier to celebrate his marriage to fellow student Nandita "Nandy" Venkateswaran, the daughter of an Indian air force commodore.
And Berry, now a youngish-looking 32, had scored his first political triumph on this campus: a runoff victory for the school's Student Association presidency in 1991.
Back then, the blond, bespectacled teetotaler from Orange, Texas, was the leader of a student party with the catchy acronym CIA, short for Coalition for Immediate Action. His platform was simple: lower fees and tuition, better law enforcement on campus, and improved student transit services.
His mayoral campaign issues are almost exactly the same on a citywide scale: a steady drumbeat for lower property taxes, more police and firefighters, and improved roads and public transit, even though he's no supporter of rail.
And just like with that earlier campaign, where his allies included a left-wing vice presidential running mate and bloc support from minority and commuter students, Berry is trying to cement a coalition of political opposites in his quest for the mayorship: west end white conservatives, young hip Midtown and Montrose Anglo professionals, and inner-city black moderates, among others.
Armed with formidable networking abilities and the dynamism of his attorney wife, Berry is pursuing a politics of personality that tries to cement that grab-bag support base by blurring ideological labels and focusing on consensus issues.
That he's taken seriously as a mayoral contender is a measure of how far and how fast he's come. When he first declared for mayor in an eccentric predawn e-mail to supporters, Berry's candidacy was widely viewed as a joke. Then he hired conservative hardballer Allen Blakemore as a consultant, raised a half-million dollars and drew in endorsements from the likes of Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune, Republican state Senator Kyle Janek and Blakemore's patron, religious-right kingmaker Steven Hotze. Berry is still viewed as a long shot to win, but fellow Republican Orlando Sanchez is feeling his heat.
When he ran for City Council, Berry tried his best to avoid partisan labeling, a wise move for a conservative Republican in a Texas city that voted for Al Gore over George Bush in the 2000 presidential election.
That reluctance to own up to his admitted partisan leaning earned him the reputation in Democratic circles as a conservative stealth candidate. While Berry supporters rave about his integrity and willingness to tell it like it is, opponents claim he's a shape-shifting opportunist who trims and tailors the truth to fit his political needs of the moment.
After his election in 2002, Berry showed his hidden partisan stripes by quickly gravitating to the conservative bloc on council and becoming an outspoken critic of incumbent Lee Brown. He authored one property tax rate rollback after another, which went nowhere but won him a cult following with anti-tax activists.
At this Hispanic Chamber of Commerce forum at UH, Berry made a point of demonstrating his independence when the touchy question of affirmative action came up.
"Tell the truth, let's get the answers out there, let's stop talking in platitudes," Berry declared. "Truth of the matter is, because I've seen it in play, you have Hispanic affirmative action-qualified companies who'll do everything they can to keep any more companies from being qualified."
The clatter of silverware and low-level conversation at the tables suddenly went silent. Clearly, some in the audience felt Berry was targeting them. You could almost hear the thought in the air: "Are you talking to me?"
"You have a handful of people who are getting filthy rich at being Hispanic or African-American or women-owned businesses in the city of Houston that don't want to graduate [from the program] and don't want anyone else to have those opportunities." It wasn't a pitch likely to draw support from a group heavily supportive of affirmative action, but that wasn't the purpose.
An operative for one of his opponents noted that the organization's conservative wing supports Sanchez, while former state Democratic Party chairman Bill White has Hispanic liberals in his corner.
"Berry knew he wasn't going to get the Hispanic Chamber support," the operative said, while admitting that he found Berry's presentation "refreshing."
It's afternoon on the Fourth of July, and Berry's campaign has arrived at a barbecue in the mostly black community of Pleasantville in northeast Houston. The entourage includes Michael and wife Nandy, as well as Carl Davis, a former Texas Democratic vice chairman who previously worked the campaigns of Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and state rep Sylvester Turner, another mayoral contender.
Davis is a council aide on the city payroll of Berry, but his real value to the councilman is his connections to Democratic leaders and knowledge of the African-American landscape. He helped Berry secure endorsements of black ministers in his council race. Davis says he's working for Berry because he's the best candidate in the race, but an old liberal cohort laughs.
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