Cutting Through the Fog

Perhaps City Hall's richest political spectacle in a long time occurred last week, during a debate over a proposed ethics ordinance that would force city employees to resign when they run for municipal offices. Fathoming the political crosscurrents requires a flowchart that goes far beyond the cryptic Houston Chronicle coverage.

Mayoral candidate and At-large Councilmember Chris Bell backed the proposal, while District E Councilman Rob Todd opposed it. The two had heated words in a room behind City Council chambers, and council later tabled the measure. Todd then claimed that during the earlier encounter, Bell made -- as the Chron's Rachel Graves delicately put it -- "a sexual comment" regarding Carol Alvarado, a council hopeful and mayoral aide.

Graves quoted Bell's comeback: "Rob Todd is the last person I would take advice from on whether someone was sexist, given his record." Councilmembers Gabriel Vasquez and John Castillo came to Bell's defense, saying they heard nothing sexual during the Todd-Bell exchanges in the back room.

Meanwhile, Cindy Clifford, the mayoral adviser on women's issues, piled on with a letter demanding that Bell apologize to Alvarado.

To make sense of all this, consider the following:

• The supposed sexual comment: An Alvarado spokesman says Todd told Carol that Bell had snapped at him, "You should make sure you tell [Carol] how well you argued on her side when she is repaying the favor tonight."

Bell denied saying anything of a sexual nature, explaining that he had simply assumed the councilman and Alvarado would be talking that night. Perhaps he thought Carol was treating Rob to drinks at Prague, the downtown bar run by Todd aide George Biggs. Just like Alvarado, Biggs benefited from Todd's opposition to the proposed ordinance -- they both are city employees running for City Council and would have to give up their jobs if the measure passed.

• Bell's crack about Todd hardly being one to cast sexual aspersions: The quickest explanation can be found in the Houston Press archived column "The Ballad of Bert and Rob and Susan" (The Insider, September 28, 2000) -- an account of Rob's fling with a colleague's wife.

• The Bell support from Vasquez and Castillo: They back attorney Al Flores for the same District I council seat as Alvarado. They helped push the ethics ordinance to bounce her out of City Hall, and hardly qualify as disinterested witnesses.

Given that Castillo was a defendant in the Hotel Six bribery and conspiracy trial a few years back, he might claim he thought Bell's comment to Todd referred to a financial -- rather than sexual -- payoff.

• Finally, mayoral adviser Clifford recently organized a "Women for Lee Brown" fund-raiser for Hizzoner's upcoming re-election campaign against Orlando Sanchez and Bell. Seen in that context, her outrage over Bell's alleged sexism smells more of politics than feminism.

Maybe someone should just open the windows at City Hall and let the bad air out.


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