Is This Guy Too Smart to Be Mayor?

Bill White hopes brains and big bucks will get him elected

Newcomer White's past has provided little attack material for his opponents -- that's not surprising for a man vetted earlier by the FBI for a federal appointment. But because White has been so methodical and successful throughout his life, his rare missteps stand out like glaring beacons begging for examination. They include a failed first marriage and his Frontera Resources, an oil and gas venture in the Caspian Sea region that to date has cost Houston investors, some of them his friends, millions of dollars.

White's campaign literature touts the venture as a success, although he concedes that's not the situation for investors. One of them, a former boss of White's, even calls himself "the biggest sucker."

Regardless, the latest polls show that voters are ready to invest in White's campaign venture. He's expected to make the runoff, where many political observers believe he's a cinch to succeed Brown as mayor.

White snapped up the key endorsement of the 
Houston Police Officers Association.
White snapped up the key endorsement of the Houston Police Officers Association.
White takes a predebate powder: He's learned to joke 
with audiences about his balding pate and big ears.
Daniel Kramer
White takes a predebate powder: He's learned to joke with audiences about his balding pate and big ears.

If he wins, he'll have rewritten the local political playbook and made good on his boast that "when I set out to do something, I have a lifelong track record of success."

River Oaks Breakfast Club members slowly filter into a country club dining room as the sun peeks up over the mansions of Houston's richest enclave. All male, and almost all white, these men are precisely the group that Bill White has to win over in order to offset Sanchez's organized Republican Party support.

The welcome is surprisingly warm. Craig Childers, an energy services executive, leaves no doubt who gets his vote. "I've only voted for one other Democrat in my life," he tells White. "I'm flabbergasted Republicans couldn't get a better candidate than Sanchez."

Attorney Hugh McCulley agrees. "I hope Bob Lanier will stand up for Bill and say this is not a partisan election."

When it's his turn to talk, White is relaxed and confident, a businessman among colleagues who all speak the same language.

He starts with the story of his step-grandfather, a full-blooded Cherokee with a third-grade education who served 40 years as an army master sergeant.

"Let us say his language was colorful," jokes White. "I did not know that in my faith that Jesus had so many middle names."

After running through the standard self-put-down about his big ears and bald head, where he claims that a supporter organized a White fund-raiser and invited only chrome-domed men, White quickly moves into the meat of his appeal to this group.

"I have learned a few things," prefaces the candidate. "I know how to run organizations with discipline and accountability. I know how to serve the customer."

White's voice rises a few decibels when he hits his point that someone with management experience should run the city. "I know that sounds unusual and at first people say, 'That won't sell, it's all about ethnic and partisan politics, and all that type of stuff.' Well, that's what the customers want and I want.

"Whether it be police response time or getting building permits issued in a timely fashion, you know what all these things are? For those of you in business, it's what we call operations. You know what I'm talking about."

White ends with "There's a sense of possibility out there right now. People realize we don't have to put up with going through old elections that are a rehash of old choices."

The breakfast clubbers respond with applause. White is quickly out the door and off on a day of stops -- including a black ministerial gathering at a northeast Houston church, tapings at a Spanish-language TV station, a University of Houston student rally, a meeting of Hispanic precinct judges and finally a business school mayoral forum at Rice. With varying degrees of emphasis on issues near and dear to each group, he stayed remarkably on message, asking listeners to cross race, party and class lines in favor of competence and experience.

"His discipline has been impressive," says close friend and fellow moderate Democrat Paul Hobby, who admits to surprise at White's campaign effectiveness. When White initially told Hobby of his intention to run for mayor, Hobby responded with a lesson learned from his own narrow loss for Texas comptroller in 1998.

"I've been there, Bill, and I tend to speak in paragraphs, and I had to learn to speak in platitudes," Hobby told him. "That's a hard thing to do. And you speak in footnoted paragraphs."

Hobby demonstrated his nonpartisan stripes by actively supporting Peter Wareing in his losing GOP primary bid against John Culberson for Congress. He believes White has done the best job in appealing across party lines.

"Everybody who will cross over, everybody who's just not genetically programmed to do the other thing, has shown up in Bill's camp. I've been surprised not just by the names but by the activity associated with the names -- people who are out there working for him that I would have defaulted to another candidate."

Those Republican supporters include Baker Botts LLP partner Darrell Bristow, who represented President George Bush in the Florida ballot box controversy, as well as Ben Love, former Texas Commerce Bank chair, and energy exec Rich Kinder.

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