By Camilo Smith
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By Sean Pendergast
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Bill White looked as if he'd been mugged in a political back alley, and he hadn't even begun to run for mayor of Houston yet. Sitting on a couch in his sunlit Stablewood living room overlooking the tree-shrouded banks of Buffalo Bayou, one of his arms dangled in a sling to cushion the cracked collarbone and bruised ribs he received in a biking mishap in Memorial Park.
It wasn't quite the state White had planned to be in during July 2002, when he launched his trial balloon as a prospective candidate for the city's top office.
Even in perfect health, the 49-year-old plaintiffs' lawyer-turned- federal bureaucrat-turned-corporate Wedge Group CEO is not a physically imposing man, as he has since been reminded ad nauseam in media coverage of the campaign. A Houston Press holiday spoof gifted him with a case of Château Charisma and free passes to a tanning salon. The Houston Chronicle noted his "big ears," a dart he has since turned to his advantage in self-deprecating humor on the campaign trail.
Pale and slight with a fringe of red hair around a balding pate, the candidate's most arresting feature are his penetrating blue eyes, a genetic gift from his parents, San Antonio public school teachers. Those orbs provide a portal into a formidable intelligence and will.
White's brain is his big stick. He carries it softly, rarely raising his voice, often pausing for a few seconds to digest a question before enunciating a slow stream of words seemingly dictated from an interior computer. Interviewers don't need shorthand to take notes. Longtime White associates describe him as unfailingly precise, deliberate and controlled.
"Think first and then talk," says attorney Steve Susman, White's far more expressive and explosive former boss. "I think that's his process. I think that's what he goes through. Which is, as you know, not the greatest [mannerism] for a politician."
On that summer afternoon last year White competed with an outdoor chorus of cicadas, patiently explaining to a skeptical interviewer how he planned to mount a campaign that could breach the rising barriers of partisanship and ethnicity in Houston municipal politics. In past mayoral contests, that trend had eliminated eminently qualified moderate white Democrats like former city controller George Greanias and Congressman Chris Bell.
In what has since become a campaign mantra, White called the growing partisanship in ostensibly nonparty city elections "a bad thing," adding, "I think most Houstonians agree with me."
Asked how he would escape the trap, White sounded naive at the time.
"I gotta trust in the best instincts of Houstonians," explained the protocandidate. He listed typical themes -- traffic improvements, more parks, efficiency with tax dollars -- then explained, "I think those issues are not matters of ideology or partisanship."
The longtime Democratic activist anticipated correctly. In the final rush toward Tuesday's election, opponent Orlando Sanchez has played the partisan card in debates and through the mail, linking White with assorted demons to the conservative universe. "If you like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Lee Brown and Hillary, you're going to love Bill White," headlines one of the brochures.
What White didn't say back then was that he would put together a campaign that runs like a midsize corporation, humming on a $5 million budget that includes a good chunk of his own fortune. While other candidates are still scrabbling to raise money for high-priced TV spots, his campaign made its purchases during the summer, when rates were lower and choice times open. And if political sign counts or the volume of mailed brochures means anything, this long-planned foray by White into elective politics is going very well indeed.
In recent years the spectacle of rich people throwing millions of their own dollars into vanity political races has become almost routine. The carcasses of their campaigns litter the shoulders of Texas political highways like yesterday's road kill. Recent examples include Laredo banker and gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez and Houston businessman and two-time congressional loser Peter Wareing. But White is a different political animal.
He knows what he's doing and where he's going, and with remarkably few slips has carried his plans to fruition since he was a teenage page in the Texas Senate. In recounting his life since San Antonio's Churchill High School, the executive portrays almost every detail as preparation for a future as a public servant.
That tendency to claim humanitarian motivations for moves that have amassed him a sizable personal fortune provokes eye-rolling from some White critics. But as a former member of the high-priced trial attorney world -- one typically stocked with lavish homes and cars, other personal excesses and trophy wives -- he's a comparative ascetic.
In 1991, White even hired his own personal political trainer, Clare Giesen, to help him structure his schedule to devote time to civic activities and lay the groundwork for a political career. He served several years as state Democratic Party chair, while studying the political landscape with an eye for future opportunities. Those efforts are now paying off with endorsements from organizations he has supported for years with his time and money.
He shares the ballot with two local political veterans whose names -- and pasts -- are by now familiar to voters. Former city councilman Sanchez pushed incumbent Lee Brown into a 2001 runoff that became a bitter arm-wrestling contest between Republicans and Democrats. State Representative Sylvester Turner, defeated by Bob Lanier in a 1991 runoff, has been spoiling for a comeback ever since.