The first round of municipal elections may have been totally overshadowed by the events of September 11 and after, but the races have been as zany as any in recent memory. For the first time in Houston history, former spouses faced off while the mayor and two city councilmembers fought for the city's top office -- both on the campaign trail and at council meetings.
For those who've had their eyes and ears directed elsewhere, here are some of the favorite highlights and lowlights of the preliminaries. Keep in mind the fireworks and fun will only intensify as the December runoffs near:
During an election forum before a black audience at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church last week, Position 4 candidate Michael Berry lambasted media reports that he had been buying the endorsements of African-American ministers with campaign contributions. Berry, a West U resident until he moved into his lower Westheimer realty office a year ago, claimed the prayola charges were "insulting" to his audience.
After Berry sat down, opponent Michael "Griff" Griffin invited the audience to check out Berry's campaign reports, particularly two payments totaling $4,500 to two ministerial organizations that subsequently endorsed him. Griff then sarcastically suggested that his listeners check with their own ministers to make sure they had collected their fair share of Berry largesse.
One witness shook with laughter in recalling the scene. "Berry never should have gone there. He was asking for it and he got it."
I Can Explain -- Really!
District D candidate Darryl Carter had a felony charge for forgery (see The Insider, September 6) that was eventually expunged through an adjudicated sentence. He explained it this way:
"Back in 1984, me and a gentleman found some checks and we had 'em for a few days. And he said, 'Why don't we try to cash them?'...Common sense hit us about two seconds after we got there."
Dishonorable mention: District D candidate Gerald Womack on assuming the fake identity of "Wayne Womack," while a brother impersonated "Gerald" during the FHA sale of the home where Womack now lives:
"It was a mistake that was probably made on my behalf, and I had to learn from it..."
Guess the mistake was made by Wayne rather than Gerald.Thinnest Skin
Five-time council campaigner W.R. Morris didn't take kindly to his treatment in the Press article on the District I three-way race. His e-mailed response:
"I will not apologize for not living up to your standard of a good candidate or for that matter of a leader simply because I don't allow myself or community to be walked on.
"Thank you for your first and last interview."
Based on our longtime observa- tions of media-hungry Morris, if he sticks to his word it will be the first interview he's ever walked away from in his life.
District C Councilman Mark Goldberg gets our Golden Glove award for his response to the charges by his ex-wife and opponent Jeri Kuhleman that he broke a campaign pledge to establish a district office and is a long-standing income tax scofflaw. Goldberg defused Kuhleman's news conference at the district office site by cleaning it up before her arrival. Then he tried to play Mr. Clean on the taxes by writing the government a check for $18,721. No word on whether Kuhleman can claim one of those Internal Revenue Service bounties for blowing the whistle on Mark.
Most Timely Issue
Councilman Orlando Sanchez built his entire campaign around an attack on Mayor Lee Brown for allowing understaffing at the Houston Fire Department. Then he saw the issue literally catch fire in the campaign's closing weeks as a blaze at the posh Four Leaf Towers killed a firefighter and a resident. When the widow of the firefighter appeared to attack Brown during a funeral eulogy, Sanchez benefited without having to say a word.
Mayor Brown, hardly the swiftest wordsmith to begin with, was at a Galleria debate in September when he hammered his opponents with this warning: "Don't mess with Houston." He repeated the phrase two more times before leaving the affair early to "represent the city." From now on just call him Lee P. Houston.
As Brown paraded out of the Galleria debate, Councilmember Chris Bell quipped into his mike: "Weakest link!" Come to think of it, Bell's sarcastic humor does bear some resemblance to the verbal razor cuts of sadistic game-show host Anne Robinson.
Best TV Ad
Mayoral candidate Chris Bell took a humorous approach to a political issue that is as old as our settlement on the Gulf Coast floodplain: potholes.
His spot, crafted by his brother Peter, featured images of vehicles taking spine-jarring jolts along cratered streets, scenes contrasting with Mayor Brown pontificating on how he'd "fixed the potholes." It brings to mind a similarly comic offering in 1989 by mayoral challenger Fred Hofheinz, who lampooned incumbent Kathy Whitmire by showing a model in a polka-dot dress and a Tootsie fright wig rooting through a trash can for lost federal dollars.
Unfortunately for Bell, what should have been a video grabber came off as a relatively trivial complaint after the horrors of September 11. The ad proved a classic example of a well-executed, clever idea falling victim to unpredictable times.
Sign company owner Dave Wilson cried foul when an incendiary, racist letter purporting to be from his Prop 2 campaign -- the effort to ban same-sex insurance benefits for municipal employees -- got circulated at City Hall and eventually became the subject of media stories. Wilson immediately accused Councilwoman Annise Parker and her campaign manager, Grant Martin, of being responsible for fabricating and distributing the letter. The only problem was he had not a shred of evidence of their involvement, other than the fact both are openly gay. A fair campaign practices committee heard and quickly dismissed Wilson's complaint against Martin. Maybe they should have been looking into better-documented complaints that a Prop 2 supporter went into gay bars and collected signatures for Wilson's petition under the rubric that signers were endorsing gay rights.
Worst Sign and Slogan
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Gerald Womack's slogan was "Tracks through District D," printed on a blue background with a pair of naked red footprints. It reminded The Insider of one of those old Arthur Murray dance lesson patterns, but when he laid the sign on the floor and tried to do the Womack, he didn't get anywhere.
Most Overdone Tactic
Michael Berry's sign blitz, which has seemingly blanketed every vacant spot in the city with the candidate's name and that enigmatic slogan: "a listener, a leader." While he may be a championship listener, Berry also has been agile in avoiding getting pinned down on positions. The Insider has written a campaign song for Berry, titled "Cardboard Man," to be sung to the tune of the Beatles' "Nowhere Man." Here's a sample lyric:
"Doesn't have a point of view / Knows not where he's going to / Cardboard Man, can we see you / At all?"