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After him, the deluge

Here it comes: two years of non-stop positioning and posturing by all the contenders and pretenders to the throne.And in politics, as they say, two years is an eternity.

Positioned for the TV crews in front of a fireplace mantle decked with holly boughs and pine cones, Lee P. Brown resembled nothing so much as a rather bulky Christmas gift to the city he once called home and soon will again.

The various beaming dignitaries who had gathered in Rice's faculty club were certainly treating him that way as Brown announced that he would be resigning as President Clinton's drug czar to become the university's Radoslav Tsanoff professor of sociology and a senior fellow at the James Baker Institute for Public Policy.

The job and venue were new, but the Lee P. Brown who met the press at Rice on December 11 wasn't. Whatever life-shaping experiences he had undergone since leaving Houston to became New York City's police commissioner and, later, a Washington bureaucrat, his public persona certainly hadn't changed perceptibly since his groundbreaking days as this city's first African-American police chief. Unreconstructed blandness would be the charitable description.

Clad in a conservative gray suit and a near-colorless tie, his hands clasped passively in front of his navel, "Back to Town" Brown pursed his lips, twitched his mustache like a quizzical rabbit and began dutifully chewing his way through a prepared statement. Along the meandering way, he claimed partial credit for smashing Colombia's Medellin drug cartel, "one of the most vicious organizations known to man," as well as "delivering a hammer blow" to the other infamous Colombian cocaine cartel based in Cali.

Having boasted of those world-class accomplishments, the abdicating drug czar then turned to methodically smothering questions from the assembled media -- almost all of which dealt with a much more parochial concern than international drug-smuggling rings. One by one, the reporters' earnest queries -- variations on "Have you come back to Houston to run for mayor in 1997?" -- fell away like blunted arrows deflected by the boilerplate that is Brownspeak. Even if they'd been firing journalistic Uzis, the bullets would have harmlessly bounced off the syllabic shield. Lasers couldn't have penetrated the verbal haze.

"No matter how many times you ask the question, I'm going to give you this answer -- I'm coming here to join the faculty of this institution," Brown finally said, coming to life for a brief moment by betraying a rare flicker of exasperation, which is as animated as he ever gets before a camera.

Of course, at one point the non-prodigal son did leave the door cracked just a bit by taking a quick dip into the holy book.

"The Bible tells us," Brown intoned, "there's a time for every season -- for every purpose on earth."

The reporters somehow managed to refrain from singing the "Turn, turn, turn" chorus, but everybody at the Rice faculty club knew what time it was. Brown's imminent ensconcing in the placid grove of academia off of Main Street was actually the unofficial start of the race to succeed Bob Lanier, who will be sworn in for his last term as mayor on January 2.

Brown isn't the only would-be Lanier successor maneuvering himself into position for a campaign. At this early date, it seems, almost any city politician with a shred of ambition who's fancied himself or herself as the lord of City Hall is turning his or her eyes to the prize.

Now comes the deluge: of contenders and pretenders, of two years of non-stop posturing and positioning by the mayoral hopefuls on City Council, of various behind-the-scenes intrigues and promises, of racially charged politics and early monetary commitments.

Of course, it's quite possible that Houston's next mayor isn't even among those who are rating early speculation. After all, as 1989 turned to 1990 and Kathy Whitmire began her fifth term with another huge mandate from voters, who would have predicted that Bob Lanier would be occupying the office two years later?

Although he didn't acknowledge the fact at his news conference, the newly appointed Radoslav Tsanoff professor of sociology had met last summer with a group of political advisers, including Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee, to map out his possible political future in the city.

Brown was told that if he wanted to run for mayor he should resign the drug czar position before 1997, return to town and take an academic posting, ideally at one of the city's two predominantly white universities, Rice or the University of Houston, where he could build a multiracial base for a coming campaign. While there's no guarantee that Brown will follow the script beyond taking the teaching and research posts at Rice, the first stage in the scenario has been achieved.

 

And what gives Brown such credibility as a mayoral prospect is the widespread perception in the Houston political community that 1997 is the logical time to elect an African-American as mayor. With demographic trends pointing toward rising Hispanic dominance in the next century, almost all observers agree a qualified black has the inside track to the mayor's chair now, but it's a limited window of opportunity.

Bob Stein, the interim dean of Rice's School of Social Sciences, who was instrumental in snaring Brown for the university, says one local businessman actually complained to him that Dallas had elected a black mayor, Ron Kirk, before Houston. The business community, according to Stein, now links racial harmony to economic growth and sees an acceptable black mayor as symbolic of both.

Perhaps just as important, the idea of handing over his keys to an African-American is one that appeals to Lanier.

"That, in and of itself, would probably be a good thing. I don't think that would be a controlling thing," the mayor acknowledged during a pre-Christmas interview in his City Hall Annex office.

Blacks and Hispanics, Lanier added, are "a little tired of hearing how the city is ready to elect one of their own. They are not comfortable with that abstract conclusion. They want to see it happen. I think the town is absolutely ready to elect a minority that they think can handle the job. And I think a minority will have a slight advantage with the electorate."

Brown is only one of a solid dozen top-tier prospects for the '97 mayoral race, but he is the one with a sure-shot plan. That formula calls for reconstructing the coalition of blacks and moderate-to-liberal whites that first elected Fred Hofheinz in 1973 and kept Kathy Whitmire in office for a decade after her 1981 election. It was also the coalition that almost put Sylvester Turner in the office before he sank in a barrage of media-raised questions about his personal and professional life in the days leading up to his 1991 runoff with Lanier. Those questions -- some of them unanswered to this day -- caused moderate whites to desert Turner en masse and helped Lanier win 54 percent of the vote. Lanier faced no real opposition in his two subsequent elections, with most of his would-be successors keeping their gunpowder dry while awaiting his departure.

Now, as he consider a post-Lanier City Hall, the mayor agrees that Brown has a good shot at recreating the coalition that ruled the city before his election in 1991.

"It's not necessarily the Whitmire formula," lectures the mayor, who is notably reluctant to give his predecessor credit for anything except blunders and masterminding monorail. Instead, he says, it's a formula that has worked throughout the South, where a black or white liberal candidate wins by adding 30 to 40 percent of the white vote to a solid black vote. As to the chances of that coalition dictating the results in 1997, Lanier answers, "Pretty good."

As for Brown, Lanier says he's established a "real easy" rapport with the ex-cop, and, believe it or not, finds the publicly stiff Brown a fascinating conversationalist in private.

"We hit it off well and talk easily back and forth," says the mayor. "I do with some people and don't with others, but I do with him. And that was true from the first time we talked four or five years ago."

Lanier has discussed the possibility of Brown's running for mayor with Lee P. himself, and he says he's convinced Brown is capable of being a political chief executive in the Lanier mold. In fact, Lanier describes his own emphasis on rebuilding neighborhoods and infrastructure as a civilian version of Brown's trademark neighborhood-oriented policing policy.

Perhaps most telling, Lanier excuses Brown for his involvement in Whitmire's administration, and allows that the soaring crime rate that helped propel him into office should not be blamed on the former chief.

"I think the failed policy was the failure to provide enough resources to do the job that the particular police chief wanted to do. [Chief Sam] Nuchia's style of policing is somewhat different from Brown's style of policing, but Whitmire didn't give Brown the resources to do his job .... I don't think Whitmire even stood behind the police department."

It might not add up to an endorsement. But Lanier is clearly signaling that while he may not help Brown win, he certainly won't stand in his way.

Still, there's a raft of potential competitors to Brown's expected claim as the African-American heir of the Hofheinz-Whitmire coalition.

The most obvious is Sylvester Turner. But no one consulted by the Press gave the veteran state lawmaker any chance as a mayoral candidate until the festering libel lawsuit he filed against Channel 13 is settled. There's also the rancorous divorce proceedings still under way between Turner and his wife, Cheryl Gillum, which has contributed to the perception that Turner would be damaged goods in a citywide race.

 

"A lot of people are waiting to see the outcome of that [Channel 13] lawsuit," says a university-based political observer. "I don't mean the outcome of the decision, which may be irrelevant, but rather the outcome from the trial and whatever element of vindication Sylvester gets."

Other potential African-American contenders include Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, state Senator Rodney Ellis and, possibly, Justice of the Peace Al Green, who made a credible run for mayor in 1981. Ellis, however, has told friends he's making too much money from his securities firm to afford to run for mayor. And Lee, who's never met an elected office she didn't want to run for, might have trouble attracting downtown money for any role bigger than getting rid of Craig Washington. It seems her big-money backers haven't exactly done flips over her voting record. Lee, like her predecessor, has turned out to be too liberal a dose for folks like Enron's Ken Lay to stomach.

Nevertheless, one knowledgeable consultant expects at least some downtown types to glom on to Lee as an alternative to Brown.

"It's an off-year election, and she would not have to give up her seat. You cannot swing a dead cat these days and not hit Sheila Jackson Lee," purrs this source. "She's everywhere."

Rounding out the list of frequently mentioned black possibles is former city attorney Benjamin "Boss" Hall III. After leaving the Lanier administration, Hall joined plaintiff's lawyer John O'Quinn's firm and promptly ticked off the city's energy establishment by pushing Texas cities to sue pipeline companies over the unpaid use of municipal rights-of-way for the transmission of oil and gas.

One source claims Hall is already earmarking a hefty sum of his own money for a mayoral race. If so, that's money he'll need, since major downtown contributors aren't likely to be in a giving mood. And appealing to moderate whites might prove difficult, given Hall's association with Farrakhan follower Robert Muhammad and his involvement in those questionable ticket-collection contracts during his City Hall tenure. A Ben Hall mayoral race is shaping up as a cash bonfire, with very little chance of producing more than a column of smoke.

The possibility of the African-American vote splintering among more than one serious black candidate has already led to speculation that there may be an attempt by community leaders to "anoint" a candidate, similar to the way a group of Democratic officeholders gave their nod to Craig Washington to run for Mickey Leland's congressional seat in 1989.

Larry Payne, an expert on education issues who previously worked for both Whitmire and City Controller George Greanias, says he's heard that notion bandied about.

"A lot of people wish that could happen," says Payne, "but on the other hand, it's an open race for an open seat. A lot of people feel they have earned the right and paid their dues to be able to at least see what the waterfront will bear ...."

Whatever else it may have accomplished, Clymer Wright's campaign to limit the terms of City Hall officeholders has transformed the turgid lake of municipal politics into a fast-running stream, even if the water quality is open to question.

Term limitation certainly hasn't resulted in a more combative or creative City Council. Instead, the last two elections have only served to install a docile pack of newcomers whose slavish devotion to Lanier has become something of a stale joke. But they are rubber stamps who tend to run for another office at the drop of a ballot. The prototype, former at-large councilwoman-turned-congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, taught the pack that endless campaigning does have its payoffs and propels practitioners far above their Peter Principles.

No sooner was Joe Roach sitting in that well-worn District E Council seat long occupied by Frank Mancuso than he was off to the races for a citywide office, finally deciding to forgo a campaign for controller and run instead for the term-limited Eleanor Tinsley's at-large Council post.

Likewise, Lloyd Kelley won Jim Greenwood's former at-large seat, and shortly thereafter, he, too, began angling for a higher office, settling on the controller's job that was being forcibly vacated by term-limited George Greanias.

It will be no different two years hence, with at-large Councilmembers Judson Robinson III and Gracie Saenz, as well as District A Councilwoman Helen Huey, running up against their legal three-term limit. So where do all these politicians go to stay off the streets, find a hot meal and keep their political careers alive? Definitely count on some of them to run for mayor, since the coming election figures to be the last without a defending incumbent into the next millennium.

 

Kelley would seem to be a logical candidate, since he holds the second highest elected city post, and he reportedly has told buddies he plans to be president of the United States someday. If so, he's going to need to get a move on soon. But in the view of Lanier, he first might want to work on fashioning a more deliberate public image.

"His biggest strength and biggest weakness is his ability to fire off verbally very quickly," opines the mayor, who admits he had to put out an extra effort to tolerate Kelley's showboating during his one term on Council. "He's a good speaker [and makes a] good appearance on the stump," says Lanier, "but sometimes he might do a little bit better if he waited a day or two to present a more thought-out position. People underestimate Kelley, and if the cards are right, Kelley could be a real player .... If he has a good record as controller, he could be an attractive candidate."

Another downtown player puts it even more bluntly: "Probably more than anybody else, Kelley holds his own destiny in his hands because of the controller's office. He could soar like an eagle or drop like a rock, or both at the same time. If he takes a Greanias stance, Lanier will hunt him with dogs."

There's the dilemma for Kelley. Play lapdog and he'll keep his hide intact. Unfortunately, that's not the most effective posture for carving out a reputation as a leader capable of running the city. One insider claims Kelley has put out the word he's planning for two terms as controller.

If Kelley should run for mayor, the current conventional wisdom is that Judson Robinson III, the son of the first black to hold a citywide office in Houston, would try to succeed Kelley as controller. If Kelley stays put, however, Robinson, who hasn't gone out of his way to alienate many people while on Council, might wind up in the hunt for the mayor's job.

Then there's Roach, the former prosecutor with a singular minority status as the one of the few dwarves holding elected office in the country. It's something that Roach has used to his advantage: a mailing for his at-large Council bid featured a full-length picture of himself on the cover. Roach also is regarded as an attractive, effective campaigner. While some observers rate him as a shallow, mediagenic type who jumps from issue to issue with little record of accomplishment, Lanier puts him in his top tier of prospective mayoral contenders.

"Joe Roach might be a stronger candidate than people think," muses Lanier. "His challenge might be to find some identification in the minority community, who are challenged for different reasons [than him]."

However, Roach's fledgling reputation as an opportunist with more flash than substance would only be heightened by another one-term Council gig. Look for him to stay put.

Huey is probably the most likely mayoral candidate to emerge from Council, since she's all dressed up with a neighborhood revitalization issue and has nowhere to go after 1997. No less an authority than Vinson & Elkins' Joe B. Allen, who heads the law firm's political action committee, is on record plumping Huey for the top job, and Lanier lauds her as the councilmember with the surest grasp of the mechanics of city government. But, like Kelley and Roach, Huey has built little following among blacks or Hispanics, and to them, her wrecker-ball approach to Spring Branch apartment complexes might appear to be a ploy to squeeze out low-income residents from her district.

At least one political consultant who closely observes Council politics claims Huey's chances would be slim. "I don't think she could raise the money, and she wouldn't get the minority vote," says this consultant. "I just don't see it."

That leaves Saenz, who was originally elected with downtown support to replace Beverley Clark but has not shown the players any heavyweight potential. Besides, says one consultant, Saenz has her mind set on becoming the first Hispanic county commissioner when Jim Fonteno's seat opens up, and she's unlikely to expend much capital on a mayoral race most see as outside her grasp.

Finally, there's Greanias, the cerebral former Rice professor who, some argue, has too much gray matter for his own political good and who's made noises about running for mayor in almost every election since 1985. Lanier, hardly an impartial source, offers this scrap of evidence of the costs of such indecisiveness. It dates to 1991, when then-private citizen Lanier was looking for a viable challenger to take on Whitmire, and Greanias was again contemplating running against her.

 

"He was out at my house and we were talking about it," recalls Lanier. "And I wrote him a check for $2,500, I think. He took it and he said, 'You know, I don't know whether to list you as for me or against me.' So I went and got the check back, and said, 'Why don't I just hold it till you figure it out.'" By the time Greanias figured it out, Lanier was running for mayor himself.

In the past quarter-century, two Houston mayors have come from Council to win election (Louie Welch and Jim McConn), two were businessmen (Fred Hofheinz and Lanier) and one came from the controller's office (Kathy Whitmire). At this nascent stage of the 1997 contest, the patrician face of businessman and Port Commission Chairman Ned Holmes keeps popping up in crystal balls as the prospective candidate who might parallel Lanier's rise (or descent) from the private sector to politics.

Holmes is a building owner and developer with extensive experience as a campaign finance chief for the likes of Kathy Whitmire, and he is well regarded by downtown business interests. "Nice guy" is a description that frequently follows his name. "Ned is definitely a possibility," says another noted fundraiser. "There are a lot of people that want him to run. I think he'd like to do it, but he has financial considerations. He's got to work for a living." Holmes' adoptive father Harry, who died recently, was District Attorney Johnny Holmes' uncle. Ned Holmes was raised in River Oaks, and, unlike Baytown homeboy Lanier, he looks it. "More patrician than I," observes Lanier, who nonetheless puts Holmes "in the top tier of serious, serious candidates."

"I think he'd be well regarded by the business community," says Lanier. "I just don't know what his ties are to the minority community."

Holmes has presided over a Port Commission that has its share of controversies, including a well-publicized junket to the Bahamas and a $1,200 pig-out at taxpayers' expense in a Paris restaurant. But one admirer counters, "If the worst thing he's done is host a big dinner in Paris, he's one of the cleaner politicians in America." Holmes himself has never faced much public scrutiny, so wait and see.

The other oft-mentioned potential entry from the private sector is Jim McIngvale, a hardy perennial when it comes to speculation about political ambition. Mattress Mac now has something he didn't before previous city elections -- an address inside the city (River Oaks, to be exact) -- but recent public comments by the hyperactive furniture salesman suggest he'll steer clear of the political arena. More's the pity, if you like a little spectacle with your mayoral elections.

While probable mayoral candidates aren't hard to pinpoint at least a year before any of them would actually formally declare their candidacies, the issues that might propel them into office are more difficult to get a fix on. How, asks one interested party, could anyone have predicted the widely publicized spate of homicides and other violent crimes in the summer of 1989 that turned Whitmire's re-election theme of "Houston's Champ" into a bad joke?

Lanier initially based his campaign to unseat Whitmire on his opposition to the monorail system she supported, but through a deft bit of transference positioned himself squarely in front of the prevailing winds by pushing his more-cops-with-Metro-money platform. Now, with rail a distant memory and crime supposedly on the decrease, Lanier sees nothing on a similar scale to energize the next election -- except, of course, who will continue his own policies.

"It could be a race where it's not an issue race. It could be a leadership-quality race, and that's not entirely bad," says Lanier.

Greanias might have other ideas. As controller, he devoted considerable effort to warning the public about the debt Lanier's administration has run up and its reliance on siphoning Metro funding, but fiscal issues are often difficult to exploit in a campaign -- unless they're immediately visceral ones, such as a tax increase or a garbage collection fee. And if the fiscal legacy Lanier will leave the city is actually as dire as Greanias says it will be, the outgoing controller might have serious second thoughts about wanting to succeed Lanier.

Perhaps the only thing certain is that City Council, and the municipal political dialogue in general, will become more fractious as the potential candidates go out of their way to distinguish themselves from one another and step out from under the dominating shadow of the incumbent. And if there is indeed a lack of burning issues, that will likely make the dialogue more personal, and trivial.

 

For those who may be tempted to regard Lanier as a lame duck with a dwindling political bite as his third and final term progresses, the mayor has a warning, of sorts.

"I'll be around when I'm not mayor," says Lanier. "I won't drop into the same political oblivion that some might if they're just an elected official, only tied to politics. I had a long life in a smoke-filled room before I got here."

"I can raise money," he adds. "I have a lot of political contacts. In general, I was a person who was sought out and people wanted on their side. I'll probably be that way again, and my past patterns would indicate that, properly provoked, I can be very energetic."

Lanier is uncertain whether he'd publicly support one of the candidates trying to succeed him, but he indicates that he'd be inclined to be "very energetic" if Greanias, who's demonstrated a notable talent for getting under the mayor's skin, were to enter the fray. Lanier, not surprisingly, doesn't view Greanias as his preferred legatee.

"I think the big place where Greanias and I would be substantially different is his record suggests he wants to pull back in services. I think that's disastrous for the city,"Lanier claims. "I would hate to see anybody pull backward supporting police, pull back from supporting neighborhoods and parks, youth programs."

Okay, then, how about another term yourself, Bob? Recently, Houstonians both serious and sarcastic have suggested that Lanier could step around term limits by having wife Elyse run to succeed him -- a sort of modern-day version of Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, who was elected Texas' first female governor in 1924 after her governor husband had been impeached, convicted and barred from holding office again.

"A lot of people have suggested that," Lanier says of the "Ma"Lanier scenario. "She could probably do a good job. But, no, I don't see a likelihood of that."

Well, that's a relief. At least we can be sure that whoever will be sworn in as mayor two years from now won't be wearing Chanel sunglasses.


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