An Early War Casualty?

Sanchez reflects the uncertainties shared by Bell in the altered race against Brown.
Deron Neblett

It's been an uphill fight from the get-go for Houston City Councilmembers Chris Bell and Orlando Sanchez. In challenging two-term incumbent Mayor Lee P. Brown last spring, they took on an opponent whose lock on Houston's black voters and most of the downtown establishment guaranteed him millions in campaign contributions and at least a runoff spot in his final term-limited campaign for office.

Then came the events of September 11. Suddenly, discussions of potholes, torn-up streets and water leaks took on laughable insignificance. Against a backdrop of collapsed skyscrapers in New York City and thousands dead, who could summon energy, passion and focus for a debate on relatively trivial local inconveniences? In a blink, the challengers found themselves in a campaign for mayor where issues not involving public security had been swept off the table. Who's listening now? Does anybody really care?

Whatever momentum had been built by the challengers for a spirited contest halted as campaign fund-raisers dominoed and appearances were postponed. Bell delayed a planned first launch of TV ads, then fired them off last weekend. Sanchez suspended campaign activities for a week, while Brown put his on ice indefinitely.

The mayor rushed from a campaign steering meeting at the time of the attacks to immediately move into the high-visibility role for which the veteran police chief requires no rehearsal: symbol of public order. His stiff campaign demeanor also relaxed as he stepped back into those well-worn law-and-order shoes. A political opponent noted that his talk at the city's prayer vigil was one of his most effective public speeches ever.

To undermine the incumbent, Sanchez and Bell needed every day from the traditional Labor Day kickoff of the municipal campaign until voters cast their ballots November 6. The national emergency already has absorbed half of that two-month window -- and who knows what else is to follow before Election Day.

Fund-raiser Sue Walden, who works with elected officials as diverse as Brown and U.S. House GOP whip Tom DeLay, says the terrorist attack and subsequent national developments temporarily froze fall fund-raising efforts, and likely will have continuing repercussions.

"Certainly it will slow down activities," explains Walden. "With the markets in such a state, individuals will be hesitant to write as many checks, or for higher amounts, because they are worried about their own financial security, which they should be. I think we'll see less money come in for candidates than if this had not happened."

The national mood also makes it unseemly to carry on everyday political activities, notes Walden. "You know, it's hard to call people and ask for a contribution right now. They want to give to United Way or the Red Cross."

Walden says downtown interests have regarded this mayor's race from the beginning as an unwelcome intrusion on an orderly 2003 transition from Brown into a candidate of their choice.

"I've always heard them say that: that he should finish out his third term as mayor. They've never looked to make a change there, except for a few isolated ones like Joe B."

She refers to Vinson & Elkins attorney and lobbyist Joe B. Allen, the head of the giant law firm's political action committee. He joined the Bell campaign as fund-raising committee chair shortly before the national emergency. Allen maintains his optimism for Bell's chances. He contends that the ballot is chock-full of inducements for voter enthusiasm, including city and county bond elections, a rail referendum and a state constitutional amendment on toll roads that's very important to Houston.

"All of those groups are going to be spending a lot of money to get the people to the polls to vote for or against these things," says Allen, who figures a high turnout can boost Bell into the runoff.

The lobbyist offers this pitch for selling Democrat Bell to Republicans, who might be expected to vote for conservative Sanchez.

"My view is Orlando is not electable," says Allen, a Republican. "If you want Brown re-elected, be for Orlando."

Allen admits he's playing the role of Lone Ranger in a downtown establishment that by and large has sided with Brown or kept hands off the mayor's race.

"I'm hoping I'll have a few other people join me," says the attorney. "It does feel a little lonely at the moment."

With self-imposed campaigning moratoriums behind them, the challengers are trying to reignite enthusiasm in the changed political environment. After the shock period wears off, Bell predicts, the mayor's race will gain new attention, with fresh issues stressed by the challengers.

"I think it will change the dialogue. There will be a much greater focus on terrorism and Houston's preparedness for any type of threat, which is an important issue," Bell says. "My sense is that we're slowly edging back into a sense of semi-normalcy where people do want to go on with their lives and are beginning to focus on issues like the mayor's race."  

Both Sanchez and Bell are sounding similar themes -- the mayor's lack of leadership skills is even more glaring in the aftermath of September 11. Sanchez figures Brown suffers in comparison to his New York City counterpart, the politically reborn Rudy Giuliani.

"The question is 'Do we have the confidence in this leader to be able to lead our city into this new millennium and this new crisis that faces our country?' I think when you look at our public safety systems in the city of Houston, I think the resounding answer is absolutely there's no confidence here."

Brown campaign manager Craig Varoga, like his candidate, is content to use the mayor's visibility in office as a primary campaign tool.

"The biggest difference between the mayor and his opponents is the mayor continues to have actual responsibilities at this time," sniffs Varoga. "Years before either one of them announced, Chris Bell and Orlando Sanchez predicated their entire political futures on running negative campaigns in 2001.We have never believed their negative campaigns would work -- before September 11 or now."

Varoga admits the current political environment spooks him a little. "I don't know anybody who has been in this type of situation before, or anybody who has polling data. This is without precedent, and not a single person in Houston or anywhere in the country really knows what this means."

Underscoring that uncertainty, mayors in Minneapolis and Cincinnati trailed challengers in low-turnout primaries conducted the day of the attacks. Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, a political casualty of anti-World Trade Organization riots in his city, came in third in balloting last Wednesday.

Whether Houstonians have the stomach for an acrimonious mayoral slug-out in the midst of a prolonged international crisis remains to be seen. In a perfect world, Bell and Sanchez would gracefully fold their campaigns in a show of civic unity, allow Brown to finish his third mayoral leg as a caretaker in a period of national emergency, and all three would donate the $4 million or so in their campaign accounts to victim relief and the war effort.

Of course, it won't happen. Both challengers say no one has suggested that course to them and they have no intention of shelving their campaigns.

Instead, this badly overshadowed exercise in democracy will roll forward, with an obscene blizzard of cash for TV ads that no one really wants to see now, and debates over issues that no one is really thinking about. With the near certainty of a runoff, expect the show to run on and on and on till at least early December. By then we'll be more than ready for the holidays.

Downing Street Duel

A lobbyist accused of threatening the life of City Councilman Carroll Robinson and his family claims the blowup erupted last week because he thought Robinson was trying to barter his vote in exchange for favors.

Dave Walden, who served as chief of staff under former mayor Bob Lanier, says Robinson and several officials in the administration of Mayor Lee P. Brown were informally discussing a taxpayer dividend proposal at the Downing Street cigar bar. The conversation fell apart when the councilman looked at Walden and loudly remarked, "What's in it for me, motherfucker?"

"I took it as a request for a goddamn bribe," says Walden. "It hit me at the wrong time because of an experience I'd had with Carroll a year ago."

According to Walden, Robinson had telephoned him last year from the council table to say he'd be voting with Brown against the tax rollback measure. Walden says Robinson wanted him to hire a Robinson associate to work on referenda for the downtown arena and the Olympics, for a fee of $25,000 to $45,000.

"Everything's cool there, right?" the lobbyist quotes the councilman. "And I said, 'Not a problem, buddy.' "

The alleged arrangement unraveled after Robinson quarreled with Mayor Pro Tem Jew Don Boney and eventually voted with council conservatives for the rollback. Walden never hired Robinson's associate for the campaigns.

Walden admits that during the bar quarrel he told the councilman that in his time as mayoral chief of staff, when " 'somebody said something like that to me, I'd try to kill you.' It wasn't a direct 'I'm going to kill you now.' "

At the table during different portions of the incident were Brown chief of staff Jordy Tollett, agenda director Marty Stein and assistant agenda director Sarah Tropoli.

With Walden in the midst of a divorce, and Tollett occasionally crashing at Walden's apartment at Houston House, the two have become an inseparable -- to some, insufferable -- odd couple on the bar circuit. On September 18 they got together at Downing Street, a popular hangout for city officials, around 7 p.m. Tollett called Robinson on his cell phone to work the councilman for his vote on the tax proposal. Robinson told Tollett he'd drive over to the bar with his political consultant, Bethel Nathan of Louisiana.  

After the first volley of words between Walden and Robinson ended, Walden and Nathan got into a jawing match. Walden says it was punctuated by Nathan repeatedly asking his boss, "You want me to take care of him?" Robinson said nothing.

"Everybody was kind of shocked," recalls Walden, who admits that he was "over the top." "Jordy was looking to crawl under the table. Sarah's mouth was wide open. She'd never seen anything like it in her life. If they'd started to beat me up, I think the only person who would have tried to help me would be Marty."

Eventually the argument cooled, and Robinson and Nathan left.

"I think Carroll was shocked and humiliated that there wasn't anything he could do about it," says Walden. "I wasn't scared of him. He could slug me all day and it wouldn't bother me, because I could sue him."

The next day Robinson stunned colleagues by bringing up the bar argument during a council meeting, claiming Walden threatened to kill him and his family. Walden says he's never mentioned Robinson's family, and that he was even unaware Robinson had a wife and child. Robinson refused requests for comment on Walden's remarks, saying the matter has been turned over to the police.

"I know as a lobbyist it's probably not a good idea to get in cuss fights with elected officials. I didn't care," concludes Walden.

His remarks even mentioned former councilman Ben Reyes, now serving a prison term for bribery. "I'd had enough of Robinson's shakedown tactics to last a lifetime. I've never seen anybody as bold as that in my life, and I've been around politics almost 25 years. Ben Reyes is a piker compared to this guy."

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