By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
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"Carl's never made this much money in his life. He couldn't quit now if he wanted to."
Casual in jeans and boots, the candidate mingles easily in the group, chatting with the young men minding the coals and turning husked ears of corn over a grill. Plastic bags of brightly colored water -- a home remedy to repel flies, but not politicians -- hang from the edges of the carport sheltering the party from passing thundershowers. Two beaming seven-year-old twins, Jordan and Joshua Sherrard, amble about, enthusiastically collecting dollar bills from attendees to pin to their T-shirts in celebration of their birthdays.
Clearly, political issues aren't on the front burner here. This is strictly meet and greet and eat the flesh. Never mind that at this barbecue, every voter in the last election probably went with Brown, Houston's first black mayor and the target of a good deal of Berry's rhetoric on the council and in the campaign.
"That doesn't matter," says Berry backer Pat Lee. "Nobody respects a yes-man."
Berry insists that he isn't being disloyal to his black supporters by opposing Brown when he believes the mayor is wrong. He is openly disdainful of the black Democratic political establishment and the suggestion that his campaign to cut taxes actually means fewer city services for their constituents.
"What a brilliant move that black lobbyists and black politicians, particularly the liberal Democratic black politicians, have convinced you that blacks don't care as much about their taxes as they do [about] social services," Berry says. "What a paternalistic, insulting way to portray an entire community.
"That scares people who rely on that monolithic vote," Berry says, decrying "machine politicians that have gotten everywhere by dividing our community."
Berry assiduously cultivated the black vote during his council run. After being elected, he enraged some of those supporters by voting against a largely symbolic council resolution to endorse the establishment of a federal commission to study reparations for the descendants of slaves.
He had his home picketed, and according to the councilman, even his elderly parents in Orange received threatening phone calls. New Black Panther Party chairman Quanell X created the sound bite of the controversy by declaring to the news cameras that he was publicly revoking Berry's "ghetto pass."
Berry adroitly used the attacks to polish his credentials as a man willing to take on extreme opponents, not unlike the way former president Bill Clinton attacked black rap performer Sister Souljah for racist lyrics and demonstrated his independence from Democratic special interest groups in the process.
Discussions of slavery reparations actually hurt blacks because they encourage people to see each other in terms of race rather than individual achievement, Berry argues.
At the barbecue, nobody asks Berry to flash a ghetto pass. Hostess Lee dismisses the reparations issue and Berry's vote as a meaningless controversy. "It really doesn't matter to me," she sniffs.
After working the crowd, Davis and the Berrys distribute their campaign paraphernalia, and soon everyone's wearing his T-shirts. Before leaving, they pose with the crowd for a campaign picture. For that afternoon, at least, the Berry juggernaut has a high profile on Clinton Park Drive.
Berry is proud of his relationships with several African-American success stories, but the black vote will not be the key to a Berry victory.
"My impression is that the inner-city ministers probably have had all they want of Michael Berry," says Democratic consultant Dan McClung of Campaign Strategies, who adds that the councilman's black support from his initial council race has soured. "His voting record on their issues has been probably demonstrative to them that there are better candidates in that field." McClung predicts that Berry will not get even 1 percent of the black vote.
That won't matter, since the Berry team is counting on a runoff matchup with state Representative Turner, the African-American in the contest. But to get to a runoff, Berry will have to convince Republicans that he's a better standard-bearer than former councilman Sanchez, who had their near-unanimous support in his race two years ago against incumbent Brown. He must also win a battle with White for independent votes.
Given that strategy, his vote against the reparations resolution and his criticism of unnamed affirmative action profiteers may ruffle black and brown politicians, but it appeals to Republicans and independents.
Berry's campaign material is crafted along the same lines. A clever brochure features Brown and Sanchez on opposite flaps of the front cover with the headline "More of the Same, The Status Quo." It then opens to a panoramic view of the pale-faced solution, Michael Berry. While the pitch can be interpreted as meaning Brown and Sanchez are controlled by the same City Hall lobbyists and special interests, others see an emphasis on race, a tactic that could be switched in the runoff to include the face of Turner rather than Sanchez.
His election to council showed that Berry can be an astute strategist with effective ads against his opponents, although some critics say this hard campaigner has yet to reveal his true self to the electorate.