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Michael Berry grew up in a family where "Republican" was a dirty word. He was born in 1970 as the youngest of four sons of Norman Lee Berry, a DuPont chemical plant maintenance supervisor in the industry-heavy East Texas town of Orange. His mother, the former Loretta Sieber, worked as a nursing home attendant.
"My dad frequently says that the only Republican he would ever vote for is me," the candidate says. "He views Republicans as rich people and Democrats as working people, and that's it."
He describes his father as a kind man who has wrestled with conditions such as asbestosis and diabetes since Berry was a child. Without getting more specific, Berry says alcoholism was a problem in the family, and that his somewhat reclusive father became as much an inspiration of what he wanted to escape as what he wanted to become.
"I saw someone who had kids to support, a lot of health problems, so he wasn't hirable anywhere else," Berry says. "So he was in this rut and he couldn't get out of it. I watched that and I'd swear to myself that I didn't care what I ever made -- I'd like to make a lot of money -- but more important than that was that I be happy."
From the beginning Berry remembers being protected by his older brothers and held up as a symbol of achievement. "I always had a lot of support and people told me from an early age, 'You can do anything you want to do,' " he says.
Chris Freeland, a childhood friend, recalls an automatic assumption back then that Berry was headed for a big future, perhaps in politics. "Michael was so people-oriented, outgoing, and could befriend anybody."
Berry excelled at public speaking and debate in school, and was considered a good athlete, particularly in tennis. That sport introduced him to more affluent people, including his role model, a tennis-loving orthodontist named Bennie Mozzola.
Mozzola exposed him to other political viewpoints as his children befriended Berry.
"I would hang out with the boys like I was a member of the family in the living room, and every evening Dr. Mozzola would watch political shows, and talk back to the TV, and there was this raging debate. And that's where I began to sort of refine these ideas -- questioning everything."
He says that for college, he chose the University of Houston in part because it was one of few schools that would refund back to a student in cash the difference between tuition and scholarship funding.
The summer before he enrolled at UH, Berry flew to Costa Rica in a cultural exchange program. He says he gained a working knowledge of Spanish there, partly by approaching strangers all day long, asking them for directions to places he already knew so he could hear their dialect.
At UH, Berry quickly snagged a job as a phone solicitor for the alumni association. He was soon assigned to train a young Indian student. From that chance connection, a marital-political partnership was born that might be the closest current analogy in Houston to Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Nandy Berry bustles about the upstairs kitchen of the couple's combined business-and-residential enclave where they've lived since moving from West University three years ago. The ground floor, once Berry's company office, now houses his mayoral campaign. Out back is a guest house where a nephew of Nandy's is staying. In the front and back patios she's cultivated gardens full of spices and flowers.
"It's a lot like an Indian family compound," her husband says of the gated property. The lower Westheimer location is in the heart of old Montrose. In recent years the area has been toned down considerably, with gay bars and nightclubs forced out by upscale development. But it won't be mistaken for West U anytime soon.
On this day both Berrys rode the Metro bus to their jobs downtown. For Michael, it was an admitted photo op since he usually drives. Nandy is the regular rider to her job as a securities attorney for El Paso.
Aboard the bus, the woman driver whispered, "Are they Republicans?" Asked why she had that impression, she zeroed in on Berry's suit and "the way he's running down Mayor Brown."
Nandy is Berry's not-so-secret weapon, a forceful presence on the campaign trail, where she can usually be found watching her husband's performance, less in the mode of an adulatory spouse and more like a professor keenly appraising a star pupil. One downtown political action committee director says he wishes she were the candidate rather than her husband. Slim, with long black hair and shining eyes, she matches Berry in an ability to focus on conversational partners as if they were the only thing of interest in the room.
She has the optimism of an immigrant who has realized the American dream through hard work almost from the moment she set foot in the United States -- a husband, a career, an unlimited future.
"I think the biggest feather in my cap is that my wife is smarter, more attractive, a better athlete, and the kind of person I aspire and hope to be," says Berry.
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