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All I Want for Christmas Is...

Gifts to behold in the local political scene
Monica Fuentes

Just call it the Endless Campaign. A few Houston politicos got their Christmas presents early this year, but for others the last election has barely ended before the next begins.

Among those Energizer bunnies that just kept on going after the municipal balloting concluded are Councilman Chris Bell, the defeated mayoral candidate, Controller Sylvia Garcia and Councilmen Carroll Robinson and John Castillo. They're all mixed up in two very different spring Democratic primary contests that could each affect the other's outcome.

Mayor Lee Brown's narrow runoff victory over Councilman Orlando Sanchez likely put the capstone on the former Clinton administration drug czar's career as an elected official, but his colleagues are still climbing toward higher political peaks.

Bell has signed on with the mayor's political consultant, Campaign Strategies' Dan McClung, for a run in the 25th Congressional District, which covers a large chunk of south and east Houston. He'll be facing off against at-large council colleague Robinson, former state representative Paul Colbert and civil attorney Stephen King.

Robinson feinted running for mayor last fall before endorsing Brown. He shares much with former councilwoman and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee: Jamaican family roots, unbridled political ambition and a volume of gab that can exacerbate global warming. The 25th has a sizable African-American vote that once propelled former councilwoman Beverley Clark into a runoff against eventual winner Ken Bentsen, who's vacating his seat this year to campaign for the U.S. Senate. If Robinson remains the only black candidate in the mix, he can count on getting at least as far as a runoff.

On the GOP side of the equation, national Republican leaders are pressing mayoral runner-up Sanchez to file for the race. He has until the post-New Year filing deadline to make up his mind. The only Republican who has filed so far is insurance executive Tom Reiser, who lost to lawyer Phil Sudan in the last GOP primary for the seat.

The other hot local race taking shape is the Precinct 2 Harris County Commissioner contest on the north and east sides, with the Republican primary already staked out by former Pasadena mayor and ex-Democrat Johnny Isbell. An expected challenge by outgoing District E Councilman Rob Todd evaporated when Todd became one of the few prominent Republicans to endorse Mayor Brown's re-election bid, a sure career killer in GOP circles.

On the Democratic side of the campaigning for the open commissioner's spot, Garcia and Castillo are the only declared candidates. Earlier this fall, Garcia had been touted as a surefire candidate for the post, but for a time she seemed inclined to keep her powder dry in anticipation of the next mayor's race. That quickly changed two weeks ago after she and consultant McClung, who is also working on her county campaign, took a look at the political landscape.

The demise of Bell's mayoral campaign sent the warning that Democrat Garcia would have trouble getting much Republican support for a mayoral bid. Also, state Rep Sylvester Turner is again making noises about running for mayor, a move that would put the African-American vote out of the reach of a Hispanic. Since Garcia can keep her controller position while running for commissioner, she opted to take the free shot for that powerful post, while still keeping her mayoral options open.

Garcia will likely take the lion's share of the Hispanic vote against Castillo. He has been damaged by two inconclusive federal trials on bribery-conspiracy charges arising from the 1996 FBI convention center hotel sting. His office is also under investigation for misuse of corporate funds in get-out-the-vote drives dating back several years. Castillo's influence couldn't get his handpicked successor Al Flores elected in District I, and winner Carol Alvarado is backing Garcia for commissioner. Before this is over, the battered Castillo may feel like a Latino beach ball.

Until last weekend Garcia had expected to face District 128 state Rep Fred Bosse in the Democratic primary, but Bosse decided at the last minute not to file. He cites the reason as obligations to his law firm.

"I assessed the prospects of a one-year campaign and the time it was going to take away from my law practice, where I really don't have any other way to support myself," explains Bosse.

The overlapping nature of the 25th Congressional District and Precinct 2 guarantees increased primary turnout in both races.

"They're going to be ginning out voter turnout as well," political consultant Nancy Sims says of the congressional campaigns. She worked for Bell in the mayor's race but doesn't have a horse in either primary.

"I think you'll start seeing linkages, like will there be a Bell-Garcia voter, or a Bosse-Colbert constituency? I don't think it will be intentional, but you'll start seeing types of voters lining up with various primary candidates in the two contests."

Given the likely web of alliances and intrigue of the coming political game, perhaps they should title this production Survivor 4 -- The East Side.

Lonely at the Top

Lee Brown may have a guaranteed final two years as mayor, but now he faces a lengthy waddle as a lame duck. Judging from the early indications, he may have trouble finding folks who want to hold his hand on the long, slow journey down.

Brown's surrogates have been shopping around the communications director position currently held by veteran Jim Young, but so far applications are not exactly flying in the door. Former KTRH reporter Joe Householder got high marks for taking a leave of absence from employer Vinson & Elkins to serve as Brown's campaign spokesman. But he politely declined an offer to leave the firm and polish the outgoing mayor's remaining legacy.

Then there's the question of who's going to chief-of-staff the Brown ship for the next two years. The current captain is G. J. Tollett, whose business card is simply emblazoned "Jordy" with the logos of the mayor's office and the three other municipal titles he carries: president of the Houston Convention Center Hotel Corporation and the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, as well as director of the Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department. Tollett has made no secret of the fact he'd like to scurry out of the political spotlight and back to his other, more secure fiefdoms as soon as possible, although candidates for chief of staff are as scarce as good communications directors. At last check, Brown was trying to convince Tollett to stay.

Finally, there's that thankless position on City Council called mayor pro tem, currently held by departing District D Councilman Jew Don Boney. Brown is shopping the position, with At-Large Councilmembers Annise Parker and Gordon Quan his two favorites. Until last week Parker was eyeing it as warily as if it were a crudely addressed envelope from Trenton, New Jersey.

Under Boney, the pro tem assignment has been primarily that of water carrier for the mayor's agenda, constantly in danger of getting doused by the administration's financial missteps. That's hardly the image Parker needs to cultivate for her expected run for city controller in 2003. But Brown is assuring candidates they will have the latitude to oppose him on occasion, and Parker now says she'll accept the title if offered.

After all, if Sylvia Garcia wins the county commissioner race next fall, she'll resign as city controller and council will appoint a replacement. Serving as mayor pro tem would give Parker an inside track to the mayor's vote for the appointment.

Turns out some mayoral Christmas gifts just might be worth accepting.


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