Election Ennui

Why the mayor's race hasn't caught fire

It was the sort of nasty little late-campaign spat that usually flares up only when a particular candidate is doing badly and someone needs to blow off steam.

Early last month, Buffalo Bayou Partnership president Anne Olson received a Bill White campaign brochure trumpeting his positions on bayou beautification and flood control issues. Olson routinely forwards all bayou-related material to group members, so she sent out copies of the brochure to the partnership's mailing list, along with a memo plugging an upcoming environmental-issue mayoral forum.

The cover missive pointed out that both of White's major opponents, Orlando Sanchez and Sylvester Turner, also had shown interest in bayou issues. It contained a disclaimer stating that the nonprofit organization was not endorsing municipal candidates.

Unfortunately for Olson, one of her board members was Jack Rains. The blustery developer-attorney and former chair of the Houston-Harris County Sports Authority is also one of the guiding lights in the Sanchez mayoral campaign. Rains has a history of flaming out on the e-mail when things don't go his way, a scenario that aptly describes the ramshackle state of the Sanchez effort.

With this column going to press prior to Tuesday's election, the voting results aren't yet known. But even if Sanchez makes it into the expected runoff, his campaign has shown signs of staff discord and financial difficulty for months. Sanchez has dipped steadily in the polls, and an emergency trip to Washington last month to appeal for Republican National Committee cash netted him nothing in the way of immediate relief, according to GOP sources.

A new campaign manager dispatched from Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson's stable, James LeGrand, did not arrive on the scene until mid-September, very late in a campaign that's been percolating for nearly a year. Rumors of inner-circle feuding between Rains and Sanchez consultant Dave Walden have been circulating since Walden abruptly dropped out of sight.

Thus Rains was hardly in the best of moods when he got Olson's mailout last month. He promptly erupted with a passion that has been lacking in the marathon mayoral campaign thus far. Rains accused Olson of posing as "incredibly naïve or totally ignorant of politics." He added, "Regrettably, I must reluctantly conclude neither is likely."

Rains claimed Olson's actions "politicize an organization that is dependent on the financial support and good will of the community. Perhaps even worse your lame excuses, alibi, and suggestion the board prevent you from similar catastrophes in the future, add insult to injury…Can you not see now how incredibly foolish your actions have been?"

Curiously, considering his reputation as Sanchez's campaign brain-truster, in the e-mail Rains described himself in a rather passive manner as "not supporting Bill White at this time." It sounded as if Rains's bags were already packed for a change in the political scene.

He also declared that "even should Bill White win in a landslide, 40 percent or more of the people who supported other candidates will likely take issue with your action." Few of the most optimistic White supporters expected him to win without a runoff against either Sanchez or Turner, much less take 60 percent in the first round.

When she received Rains's e-mail blast, Olson did her best to placate the raging bull. After repeating her explanation that the mailout was simply an effort to keep members informed about the role bayou issues were playing in the campaign, Olson offered an apology.

"Unfortunately," she wrote, "'perception is reality,' and I now see through Mr. Rains' comments that some individuals may have misconstrued my intentions…I can only pledge to you that I will strive to use the best judgment humanly possible when dealing with future issues."

Contacted at the Buffalo Bayou Partnership office, Olson expressed dismay that the contretemps with Rains had been leaked to the media and declined further comment.

Rains apparently has calmed down since he fired off his e-mail, and now sounds downright tranquil.

"She doesn't owe me an apology," says Rains. "My position was 'You need to do something about this.' Obviously, I was speaking to a broader audience than Anne Olson or even our board."

Asked whether he might support Bill White in the future, Rains says whoever is elected mayor will get his support. According to Rains, he even supported Mayor Lee Brown after he was elected, a claim that has several veteran Brown staffers scratching their heads in puzzlement.

Then the man who is backing Sanchez's last-minute partisan attacks on White's Democratic credentials really warms up.

"This is a bipartisan town, and I view it as family fights," opines Rains. "We have our disagreements and that sort of thing, but we're still family and we're all for each other."

As for that "landslide" remark, he now says, "You got to remember that there's very few mandates where one side runs over the other. We all have to get along and respect each other and respect different views."

Whatever they've been putting in the drinking water at Jack's office building lately, maybe it should be bottled and rushed to Iraq as an urban pacification weapon.

It hasn't been an easy election season for either Rains or his candidate. Councilman Michael Berry's short-lived campaign for mayor hammered Sanchez's skimpy professional résumé, damage that was not repaired by a pro forma endorsement by Berry after he dropped out of the race. "Sanchez had somebody beating from the right on him for six months," says a campaign source. "It's been tough. He had nobody beating on him last time."

Then White sprang a nonstop media blitz spring and has sustained it ever since through a record-setting $6 million campaign. It allowed him to introduce himself to the voters with no competition from either opponent.

According to a GOP source, Sanchez's financial prospects will not improve in a runoff, particularly against White.

"The RNC made no promises to Orlando when he asked for a million, and they also said, 'If it's White [in the runoff], forget it.' The cavalry has not come, and from what I was hearing, the cavalry ain't coming."

Sylvester Turner consultant Marc Campos notes that the much-ballyhooed GOP effort to recruit and support Hispanic candidates seems to be foundering.

"They've been making this big deal about how in order for the party to grow, they've got to reach out to the Hispanic community. Here they've got an attractive candidate in Sanchez, and the Republican money guys have just abandoned him for Bill White."

Consultant Craig Varoga, who managed the winning campaigns of Bob Lanier and Brown, believes Sanchez made the mistake of running the last mayoral race over again rather than adapting to White's multimillion-dollar media barrage. He notes that some of Sanchez's stump speeches are virtually identical to those in the previous campaign, which tried to turn the race against Brown into a Republican-Democrat referendum. That's a questionable strategy in a city that traditionally votes Democratic.

"They're doing the same thing now," says Varoga. "The mistake is compounded by the fact that both [President George] Bush and [Governor Rick] Perry are less popular than they were two years ago." Varoga notes that the targeting of Sanchez's partisan attack brochures also seem to be defective, since a number of traditional Democratic neighborhoods have received the mailers, a misstep guaranteed to motivate the opposition to get to the polls on Election Day.

Sanchez narrowly lost to Brown in 2001, but that performance may have owed more to the incumbent's weaknesses than to Sanchez's strengths as a challenger.

"I think the excitement last time was 'anybody but Brown,' " says one of the veterans of that campaign. "It was like when Sylvia Garcia beat Lloyd Kelley for controller a few years back. It was more by default."

Varoga believes Sanchez and his backers thought the current campaign would simply be an extension of 2001.

"There was the illusion of it being easy because Brown was such a weak candidate," says the consultant. "What you're looking at now is a different gig."

Candidate White certainly got a different sort of campaign assist last week at Congregation Beth Israel, during services for Harry Reed, a longtime Houston Planning Commission member. Toward the end, Rabbi Brenner Glickman told the mourners at the jam-packed gathering that before Reed died of lung cancer, he expressed regrets that he wouldn't be around to find out who won the mayor's race. Glickman then relayed Reed's posthumous request to the crowd: "Please tell everyone to vote for Bill White."

It's been that kind of year for Orlando Sanchez.

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