By Aaron Reiss
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By Dianna Wray
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A former associate paints the couple in a less flattering light. "She's very sweet and smart, but she doesn't question him," says the source, who wishes he had a spouse who would earn the paycheck, pay the bills and cook the meals. "He's got a hell of a deal."
Recently Nandy filled in for Michael and read a mayoral proclamation at the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey circus. According to another councilmember in the crowd, she introduced herself as "the wife of mayoral candidate Michael Berry" and ended the presentation by telling the crowd, "Let's have a round of applause for Michael Berry, the next mayor of Houston." Even the candidate would have had trouble making that kind of bald-faced pitch at a nonpolitical function.
She comes from a lineage of high achievers. Her paternal grandparents were protégés of the revolutionary Mahatma Gandhi. Nandy was raised by the family of now-retired air force Commodore Anand Venkateswaran after her pediatrician mother died of viral pneumonia when she was ten years old. After she graduated from Bangalore University, her father advised her to go where they had no family network in order to develop her independence. So she struck out for Houston, with little funding and less support.
By the end of her first day as a solicitor for the UH alumni association, co-worker Berry asked her out. That shocked the culturally conservative young woman. "In India, you don't date. I said, 'I don't know. I'm not sure yet.' So he walked me out and we started talking about classes and we became best friends." Four years later, they became husband and wife.
Berry credits Nandy with opening his tastes to a wider range of literature, culture and art. "She grew up in those old English clubs on military bases, and the best part of the clubs was the libraries. That's where she grew up, not with a TV but with books."
When Berry was a UH sophomore, Andrew Monzon, the leader of a small liberal-left campus group called the Progressive Student Network, put together a slate of candidates for the Student Association election, more as a lark than anything else. Their main point was protesting U.S. involvement in the first Gulf War, hardly an issue the Student Association could do much about.
Berry, a candidate for president, offered him a deal: Monzon should run for senator, and then Berry would make him speaker of the association. Monzon says he knew that wouldn't happen because Monzon was relatively unknown. So he insisted that if Berry wanted his support, then Monzon would have to be on the ticket as vice president. After some hesitation, Berry agreed.
Monzon remembers that even then, Berry had an aversion to political labels. The very title of their slate, Coalition for Immediate Action, defies specificity. Monzon recalls that Berry's most significant action in office was a proposal to cut the Student Association budget, a painless move because the cuts wouldn't go into effect until the following year. During the year Berry also successfully pushed for the creation of a student regent position.
"Michael stood out as a person who always went to class and tried to chum up to the professors, sat in the front row, that kind of person," says Monzon. "He's intelligent -- I'll never slight him for that -- but he's always been slick, and you just take everything he says with a grain of salt."
Monzon says the only problem he had with Berry came when several people started questioning overtime payments to Nandy, who by then had a job in the Student Association office. After Monzon raised the issue, he was targeted with a student senate proposal to eliminate his position as vice president. It didn't pass, but he doesn't think the timing was coincidental.
He also jokes that at the time he had a reliable way to determine when Berry was telling the truth.
"He had a horrible facial tic and you could easily tell when he was lying," chuckles Monzon. "It was a blinking and twitching of the right eye. I don't know if he ever noticed or anyone pointed it out to him, but it became a bit of a joke with us. Like, 'Uh-oh, look at Michael's face.' "
Monzon also recalls Berry's fascination with Lyndon Johnson, right down to amateurish attempts at imitating the classic political maneuvers of the old master, including humiliating staffers by forcing them to continue business in awkward places.
"He couldn't do the Johnson treatment because he was never intimidating," explains Monzon. "But there was one time where he was talking to me at UH, and he expected to continue the conversation in the restroom. I was like, 'Nah, I'm not going in there.' "
Monzon, now an HISD magnet school coordinator, recalls encountering his old running mate at a Heights cafe, when Berry was campaigning for City Council. According to Monzon, Berry greeted him effusively and offered his phone number, but Monzon told him, "You know you're never going to answer my calls." The two shared a good-natured laugh and Berry offered a bumper sticker. Monzon took two.