Paul Bettencourt, Harris County tax-assessor collector
After the death of 51-year Democratic incumbent Carl Smith, former corporate salesman and GOP Harris County treasurer Paul Bettencourt ran a political gauntlet to win the post. After Commissioner Steve Radack pushed the appointment of former Oilers defensive back Willie Alexander through the court, supporters on the county GOP Executive Committee put Bettencourt on the ballot instead. He trounced his Democratic opposition easily, and Willie had to hit the road. Following that controversial start, Bettencourt has established his credentials as an innovator by upgrading the tax assessor-collector's computer system, hitting the neighborhood-association and community-organization speaking circuit, and reaching out to minority politicians and civic leaders. Bettencourt also has aggressively pursued so-called tax factors, lawyers and accountants who offer to recover tax overpayments for property owners in exchange for a percentage of the money. In most cases, the homeowners themselves could have easily collected the refund, had they only known how. Other pols see more than just good government as his motivation. With County Judge Robert Eckels rumored to be looking for a statewide post to run for in the coming election cycle, Bettencourt is in an excellent position to move up the Harris County food chain as well. If the dominoes fall into place, his public relations efforts could lay the groundwork for a major political promotion.