By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
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By Craig Hlavaty
And so the snide belittling of our fair city will begin. Yes, we have a port that has tons of statistics -- but do we have rail like they have in actual big cities? Sure, we as a city buy more Brooks & Dunn tickets per capita than Los Angeles and San Francisco -- but do we sport shiny trains that make you think you're on "The Tube" in London or "The Goddamn IRT" in Manhattan?
All we've done so far is make a good start toward world-classness, apparently. We cannot take the final step to that hallowed ground unless we get rail. Then we'll finally be there -- until, at least, the next stadium has to be built.
Meet the Opposition: They're Geeks!
The political landscape surrounding the rail referendum is still taking shape. At this point some major players have yet to stake out a position. Former mayor Bob Lanier, whose den is lined with the pelts of countless failed rail referendums, is at the very least sitting this one out (and may even support the plan in ads), but suburban developer Michael Stevens has yet to announce whether he will mount a fully funded opposition campaign.
Metro has one giant item on its wish list: let the opposition be personified by Barry Klein.
Klein, president of the Houston Property Rights Association, is a tireless and worthy advocate against tax increases and what he sees as government boondoggles, but he is a man who was born to be marginalized. He's charismatic, if you go for those slightly obsessive schlumpy types constantly urging you to read 1,456-page treatises on urban mass transit. He's fully able to fund his own ad campaign, if you're talking about cranking out flyers at Kinko's. He's the perfect man to get out the anti-rail message, if you're looking for someone who has cried wolf against every project ever proposed in the city.
Don't get us wrong -- we like Klein. He's sincere and largely sticks to the facts when making his case. It's just that if he becomes the face of the opposition, folks at Metro will be mighty happy.
Klein isn't daunted. "Metro has a very weak case if we can spend any money making arguments against it," he says. "If we get some free media coverage to our arguments and even a small amount of money, it will help a lot."
The other major player in the opposition camp is Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt, who brings all the movie-star wattage that any tax assessor-collector could.
Right now, he's thinking he can battle the glamour of big-city light rail with a somewhat homespun (if not geeky) analogy that involves two of the four candidates running for mayor this fall.
"I really like this Three Bears-porridge thing," he enthuses. "The Sylvester Turner camp says the rail proposal is too small, Michael Berry says it's too big, and we're Mama's porridge -- we say there's not enough money to do either plan."
Has there ever been a world-class city built on the foundation of Mama's porridge? (Well, Quaker Oats is headquartered in Chicago -- but Chicago has rail!)
If no well-funded opposition declares itself, if the opponents are led by Klein, Bettencourt and the right-wing shouters on KSEV-AM, then we're one step closer to what Metro calls world-class.
That's a Fascinating Mayor's Race, Isn't It?
At Metro, they're partying like it's (not) 1999. That's because the last time Houston voted down one of these big-ticket projects (the first basketball arena referendum in 1999), things were very different.
Lee Brown had only token opposition in the mayor's race that year, and so turnout was low and attention was heavily focused on the arena vote. The people who went to the polls were the die-hard anything-new-is-bad crowd who would vote down an orphanage because those kids' parents should be taking care of them, not the gummint.
This time around, a slew of mayoral candidates is soaking up money and attention, and turnout should be high in the rail-supporting minority communities because the slate includes Hispanic Orlando Sanchez and African-American Sylvester Turner.
"This is the kind of election you want to be in if you're Metro," says Stein. "Unlike 1999, there's going to be a lot of money spent on the mayoral race. There won't be any clear airwaves to get [an anti-rail] message out Raising money won't be easy -- it's not a great economy and you've got four mayoral candidates and council races and the controller's race."
(The bad economy should work in the opponents' favor, though -- TV ads are cheaper and more available than they normally would be.)
Of the four major mayoral candidates, Bill White and Turner are rail supporters, although Turner has criticized Metro's plan for being too small. Turner may also be wary of White getting too much credit for his role helping to broker the current compromise plan. Berry opposes rail, and Sanchez is taking his time deciding what position to adopt (or, in his view, he is, in a statesmanlike manner, giving thorough study to the details to see whether it merits his support, and any political calculations be damned).
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