Eckels: The Son Also Rises

The county judge comes into his own on Commissioners Court

Ask Houstonians how they feel about Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, and they might sound like they're talking about two different men. One might laud Eckels's work to ease the area's notorious traffic woes, and the other might express fear about a toll road tearing through the Heights.

Over the past ten years, Eckels can claim he's been at the helm of nearly every major issue affecting residents of the nation's third-biggest county. Homeland security. Children's health insurance. The TranStar transportation and emergency management system. Fighting to keep a Bible monument outside the Harris County Civil Courthouse.

Today, Eckels says, the most critical issue is his "nine-year-old daughter named Kirby, and what kind of city she's going to grow up in."

Eckels says cooperation is one key to his success.
Eckels says cooperation is one key to his success.

Kirby has grown up in an area where political leadership has evolved to include a broader representation of Houston's diverse population, Eckels says. The region has seen a shift in Austin from an inner-city Houston power structure to a broader regional base, also reflected in D.C., with the likes of suburban bigwigs Tom DeLay and Kevin Bailey.

But Eckels isn't talking about anyone usurping power. He says state, county and city officials come together for one interest: to make Houston and Harris County the best place possible. This cooperation has revitalized downtown and built stadiums and courthouses, he says.

Eckels was only 24 when he was elected to the state legislature. What he lacked in years, he made up for by growing up at the knee of one of Harris County's most influential and controversial politicians.

Bob Eckels was elected to the HISD School Board in 1960. In 1972, the elder Eckels became Precinct 3 commissioner. At times during his 17 years on the court, Eckels was accused of mail fraud, stealing county bridge timbers and tapping his precinct's office phones. One charge finally stuck: Eckels pleaded no contest in 1987 to accepting free construction of a road on his Austin County farm by a county contractor.

When Harris County Judge Jon Lindsay chose not to seek re-election after accusations of bribery and perjury, Robert Eckels threw his hat in the ring. Although Lindsay and the elder Eckels often found themselves at odds, Lindsay supported Robert Eckels's campaign. It worked: In 1995, Eckels became the county's first new judge in 20 years.

Signaling his wish not to be judged by his father's actions, Eckels told the Houston Chronicle that "Dad played the game by their rules. The world has moved." He did not respond to Houston Press requests to discuss their relationship.

For all Eckels's talk today about warm fuzzies, his relationship with fellow commissioners was heated almost from the start.

In 1996, Eckels blasted the four commissioners for passing a 4 percent property tax increase without public notice. He compared them to "kids in a candy store" and accused them of pulling one over on the public. Kicking off years of quote-worthy acrimony, Commissioner Steve Radack called Eckels a liar.

The same year, Eckels grew frustrated when the court's deadlock allowed Metro's then-chairman Billy Burge to exceed his state-mandated eight-year term limit. When Eckels proposed limiting county appointees' terms to 12 years, some commissioners all but questioned his sanity.

Commissioner El Franco Lee asked, "Where else do you reward good work with termination?" Welcome to Harris County Commissioners Court, Judge.

Eckels, saying fellow commissioners were awarding sweetheart deals to companies they were connected to, tried to pass a full-disclosure rule. Radack, who had previously undisclosed ties to a developer in his precinct, shot back in the Chronicle, "Robert Eckels likes to play a game and get publicity. He wants to pretend he is holier than thou."

But Eckels has found himself under similar scrutiny. While he was still a legislator, his fiancée and future wife, Jet Winkley, was a lobbyist for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. (Eckels said he avoided sponsoring Metro bills because of that relationship.)

In 2000, the Houston Press reported that Jack Rains, whom Eckels had unsuccessfully tried to keep as sports authority chair, gave Eckels's daughter 400 shares of E-Stamp Inc., then valued at $8,000. Eckels described the gift as an innocent gesture from an old family friend. Then there's the recent heat from many residents over the roughly $40,000 that Eckels and his colleagues felt fit to spend on appealing a federal ruling to remove the Star of Hope's Bible sculpture from in front of the civil courts building. Fighting for justice, or currying votes?

"He is generally a very positive, right-thinking guy trying to do what's right," says James Royer, CEO of the engineering firm Turner, Collie & Braden and former chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership.

"When people associate ulterior motives or something that's less than honorable, that bothers him," Royer continues. "I've always found him to be...very straightforward, says what he thinks, listens to what you have to say, takes that into account."

Royer says Eckels played a key role in the Westpark toll road, the I-10 expansion and the ongoing freight-rail master plan.

"He has a very good understanding of the complexity of government entities," Royer says. "If it's...knowing various representatives on our congressional delegation, from Sheila Jackson Lee to Tom DeLay to Gene Green to Kevin Bailey, he seems to have constructive relationships...So he's very helpful and knowledgeable in how you put together projects out of all these different government players."

Eckels has helped craft the $82 billion Regional Transportation Plan. Endorsed by Houston Mayor Bill White, it calls for a 60 percent increase in highway lane miles and a 349-mile rail network.

But while Eckels may be identified mostly with transportation, he says he'll continue working on other concerns.

He is confident that improvement is possible with continued cooperation. Infighting can plague Harris County just as easily as it sours relationships in other areas, as exemplified by Dallas's bickering over where to place a proposed football stadium. Eckels likes to say that Dallas is trying to build a stadium, while we're trying to build a city.

And in case you missed it the first time, Eckels is convinced that, more than anything in the last 15 years, city and county leaders are setting aside private agendas to create a clean, safe, enjoyable city for everyone.

"The overall theme," he says, "is that we're a city that works together."

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