If Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs is the sort of political infant terrible regularly produced by the endlessly rocking cradle of Houston term limits, colleague Ada Jean Edwards is the exception to that rule. Although term limits brought her to the fore by opening up the District D council seat, she is neither a Shelley in Wonderland nor a newcomer on political steroids like Councilman Michael Berry.
From her first day at City Hall, the former college admissions officer and personnel agency recruiter has quietly schooled herself in the procedures and demeanor of the office without forcing colleagues to sit through the lessons. Since replacing the controversial Reverend Jew Don Boney, who served as Mayor Lee Brown's mayor pro tem, the 59-year-old Edwards has reaped rave reviews, even from some surprising sources.
"Ada has been a breath of fresh air," says District F's Mark Ellis, the acknowledged leader of council's conservative bloc. "I didn't know what to expect when she came in. She evaluates each of the issues. We may disagree on some issues, but I respect the work she puts in each week on the agenda items. Yeah, I think she's one of our best new councilmembers."
Fellow conservative Bert Keller of District G is likewise complimentary to a gush.
"Ada is unbelievable," says Keller. "We haven't seen anything near what Ada's going to do in this city. I'm not talking political ambition. I'm talking about production, results, programs, ideas, achievements. Ada just blows me away."
He admiringly points to Edwards's recent announcement that she was co-sponsoring a $5,000 reward in conjunction with Crime Stoppers for the name of the person who defaced a MacGregor Park community center. But instead of filing charges, Edwards stressed she wanted to counsel the perpetrator.
"I'm telling you," laughs Keller, "somebody ought to do that kid a big favor and have him have one conversation with this woman, and that negative energy will become positive."
A Brown administration executive echoes the praise.
"Ada Edwards looks at everything, and she makes a judgment call on the merits of the deal, whether it's black, white, whatever. If it's a good deal for the city, and it may not favor her in her district, she'll go along with it. If it's not a good deal for the city, even if it's in the black community, she won't go for it. I really respect her."
"I think Ada's the class of the new crop," says Councilmember Annise Parker, who describes her as hardworking and always prepared.
"She's taken over for Jew Don as the mayor's AIDS czar," notes Parker. "She has held more meetings and done more in just these last few months than he did in the last two years."
A native of Memphis, Edwards grew up in San Diego, married and had five children. She split from her husband in a messy divorce and moved to Houston in 1978. Edwards shares Boney's background as an activist on issues such as police brutality and the fight to overthrow the apartheid government in South Africa. In the case of a Houston policeman accused of killing a black woman he stopped on a freeway, Edwards regularly rose in the predawn hours to drive fellow activists to Dallas for the 1990 trial (it was moved from Houston on a change of venue). She thinks globally, and recently joined with Mayor Brown in pushing the unsuccessful resolution to establish a national commission to study the issue of reparations for the descendants of slaves.
After the resolution failed 8-7, Edwards puzzled over the argument of colleague Addie Wiseman that the issue was outside the scope of municipal government. She spoke evenly without a hint of bitterness.
"I think that's a smokescreen. When people don't want to be involved, they conveniently say, 'This is not our jurisdiction.' But that's why it was a resolution and not an ordinance, because it is not our jurisdiction."
Edwards recalls how opponents made the same argument when council passed a resolution condemning apartheid and calling for economic sanctions against the South African government.
"It's amazing to me the numbers of people who go to South Africa and are becoming the brokers of the business cartels that are being built, that when we were trying to get South Africa free didn't want to have anything to do with Africa."
Edwards recruited a multiracial staff of twentysomethings that mirrors the nature of District D, which stretches from the Montrose through the Third Ward to Fort Bend County. Her office slogan is pinned to a wall: "This is a hate free zone."
"Six months ago, none of these young people knew each other, and now they're this team. I tell them, 'You know this ain't about us, it's about the universe converging and putting us together. So we just need to run with it, and make hay while the sun shines.' "
As for colleague Berry's announcement that he'll run for mayor, Edwards calls it "the most arrogant thing I've seen in a long time." "And very self-seeking," she adds. "We pretend we're here for the good of the city, and for most people unfortunately these seats are used as stepping stones for other, bigger and brighter things."
She condemns the six-year restriction on council service. "Term limits is probably the most direct insult to what we call a democratic, republic process, because it's implying that people don't really know what they're doing, so we've got to put in this artificial thing."
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Edwards says she has no aspirations beyond District D. Her goal is to use her office to provide the resources and the teachers to empower community groups and train future civic activists, including possibly her successor.
"If someone runs against us, fine. If the community decides, 'Ada, we don't like what you're doing,' then it's their responsibility to vote me out of here. I'll have no problem with it, because I'll go back and do the same thing I was doing before. I just won't have this great office and this wonderful furniture."
It's not likely either Edwards or Sekula-Gibbs will have serious opposition next year, thanks to term limits. Viable candidates won't look to run against established incumbents when there are just too many other seats opening up.
If the next crop of newbies seeks a role model, they'd be well advised to look to Ada and consider a council golden rule regularly violated by Sekula-Gibbs: Better to be silent and thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt.