When, two months before a general election, the biggest buzz at City Hall is a squabble between Mayor Lee Brown and Continental Airlines over a lead architect for an airport terminal, be assured the municipal times are not just tranquil. They're heavily sedated.
Sure, Metro is moving toward construction of a light-rail line of dubious value down Main Street, and a basketball arena is one of the issues on the upcoming ballot. But what, us worry?
Although 63 candidates grace -- or infest -- the November 2 ballot, well-known names are either absent because of term limits or safely ensconced for another two years. Departing Councilman Joe Roach, once considered a possible mayoral candidate, is reportedly knocking on television station doors looking for a new podium as a broadcaster.
Mayor Brown, meanwhile, will have to settle for the likes of Outlaw Josey Wales IV as an opponent. That's hardly a comparable matchup to his big bucks shootout against Rob Mosbacher two years ago. Before long, Brown may be able to boast, like his predecessor Bob Lanier, that he is idolized by 90 percent of the population.
Even popular Councilwoman Annise Parker, the sole openly gay citywide official, drew only nuisance opponent Sylvia Ayres from her own home turf in the Montrose. Sylvia's claim to fame is that she's the mother of convicted murderer Leslie Douglas Ashley, now the transsexual Leslie Elaine Perez. The rampant political ennui seems to have infected the ranks of bigots and homophobes, as well as the saner population.
Lawyer and downtown insider Kenny Friedman has tried to organize a group of Brown supporters to back acceptable City Council candidates, but he finds the task of igniting enthusiasm daunting even among downtown players. The cats are just too fat and too happy. Even though the Houston Chronicle ominously dubbed the group "The Star Chamber," the supposed inquisitors have been alarmingly lackadaisical.
"It's real hard to get anyone motivated if you don't have a serious mayor's race," reports Friedman, who has been a fund-raising force for former mayors Lanier and Kathy Whitmire. "Hard to generate any enthusiasm or turn out any people." Council races may be exciting to the participants, observes Friedman, but they just don't turn on the big boys.
Friedman's group is not participating in races involving incumbents, even though he feels "there are several who richly deserve to be retired, in my opinion." He adds, "But we felt this was as much as we could bite off and chew at one time. There are five open seats, and if we could elect good, qualified people, that would have a big impact on Council. Heck, maybe in the future we take a bigger role."
The purpose of the group is to keep Brown from dirtying his own hands in the process.
"The mayor has to serve with whoever gets elected," opines Friedman. "It's not appropriate for him to be mucking in these Council races. It's fine for his friends to try to influence races, but it's not good for the mayor to be doing that." Friedman also disputes any suggestion that the group circumvents campaign-finance restrictions. By endorsing candidates, the group is not collecting money, but just recommending that members contribute to certain candidates.
Whether any outside force can decisively influence notoriously idiosyncratic district contests remains to be demonstrated. Most of the smart money is apparently sitting tight until the runoff finalists emerge from crowded fields.
Following is an informal analysis of the more unpredictable races on the ballot, based on sleuthing and the opinions of a stable of consultants who will remain nameless.
A: The Bruce Goose
This grudge match between incumbent Bruce Tatro and Republican activist Toni Lawrence has been a long time in the making. Lawrence is pals with Tatro predecessor Helen Huey, who returned to City Hall as a lobbyist after Tatro's election. She soon clashed with her successor over who was the go-to person on projects in the district. Tatro claimed Lawrence delivered an ultimatum from Huey: Get with my program, or you'll get an opponent.
Lawrence denied that account, but not before she had entered the race for the Spring Branch-area seat.
Tatro, according to a councilmember allied with Mayor Brown, is clearly the one person the mayor would most like to see disappear from City Council. But there isn't much Brown can do to influence a race in a rockribbed Republican district. Our experts give the nod to Tatro based on the considerable powers of incumbency, plus the fact that Tatro has raised three times the money Lawrence collected in the early going.
B: Heir Richard?
Like Texas, District B is truly a whole 'nother country. Outside influences matter little in this insular, heavily black north Houston district, whose politics are dominated by churches and personal political machines. In this district, term limits accomplished what two federal bribery conspiracy trials couldn't: the retirement of Michael Yarbrough. But his former aide, Richard Johnson, is now in the driver's seat.
A former worker in the Yarbrough campaign delivers the good and bad news: "Richard is twice as smart as Michael, but he's twice as mean."
Friedman's group has endorsed HISD trustee and teacher unionist Carol Galloway, but this is a battle to be fought on the turf of District B, not in the downtown halls of influence.
Bob Lee, the brother of County Commissioner El Franco and the one who titles himself "Da Mayor of Fifth Ward," initially supported Anthony Hillary, a former Council aide and city employee. But Hillary got cold feet and withdrew from the race.
Give the edge to Johnson.
C: Three's a Crowd
This is term limits in full flower, with a field of seven candidates who've never run for office before. Once upon a time, District C was the breeding ground for a wave of progressives at City Hall, including Lance Lalor, George Greanias and Vince Ryan. Then the Montrose was exiled to District D, and C became a redoubt for civic clubbies.
Among the candidates, most savvy in the ways of City Hall is Maryann Young, a former KTRH reporter and aide to Greanias when he was controller. Strongest in grassroots experience in the civic club trenches is Thea Fabio, who bears a striking resemblance to Hammerin' Helen Huey, the patron saint of apartment demolitions. Perhaps not coincidentally, Fabio cites Huey as a Council role model.
Strongest in business backing is Greg Travis, who not so subtly told the C-Club Forum he hoped to be "a conduit for the business establishment" at City Hall.
Look for the runoff finalists to come from this trio.
F: Dionne and the Wonderers
With Ray Driscoll retiring, the field in this southwest apartment district is running to join lawyer Dionne Roberts in a runoff. Roberts shocked Driscoll by forcing him into a runoff last time. She may be the best public speaker running for Council, and she has charmed a handful of forums with her poise and district knowledge. Surprisingly, she also listed $50,000 in contributions, though much was in in-kind supplies from supporters.
Roberts, who votes Republican, also got $2,500 from a Washington D.C.-based conservative political action committee.
Since F has been represented for years by the older, curmudgeonly white males John Goodner and Driscoll, bookbinding firm owner Brandon Berger Rasch could step into that same role without a blink. The Friends of Lee Brown are backing former assistant city attorney Mike Laster, while Mark Anthony Ellis has his base in the Sharpstown area and the support of Driscoll.
"This one's a toss-up," says one consultant.
G: On a String
Ever since she slipped through the backdoor by filing at the last minute for hubbie John Kelley's seat, Jean Kelley has been viewed as a political sitting duck. Her performance as a councilmember hasn't helped, with repeated waffling on issues. First she supported a tax rollback, then she voted against one, even though her Web page continued to tout her advocacy for lower property tax rates. Kelley is considered the most likely incumbent to bite the dust.
Real estate firm president Bert Keller is the best-financed district candidate in the early going, having raised nearly $200,000. In Rob Mosbacher style, his treasurer is former GOP National Committeewoman Penny Butler, and Keller employs consultants covering the political spectrum, from Republican Herb Butrum to Quantum Consultants, headed by Democrat Nancy Sims.
Former Houston police unionist Mike Howard is also in the race, but he will have a hard time matching Keller's cash and GOP and business connections.
City Webmaster Bob Nowak has a few unique credentials which could appeal to the female vote. He survived without a regular job in 1992 by performing at birthday parties and other special events for Eastern Onion -- in a G-string. He's also running on a string, with barely $2,000 in reported contributions.
2: Carrie Off?
The only citywide battle is for Joe Roach's At-Large Position 2. Dwight Boykins, who lost out in the last election to Carroll Robinson, is the mayor's man. He has picked up support from the Friends of Lee Brown as well as City Attorney Anthony Hall and NFL franchise chaser Robert McNair.
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But Asian-American lawyer Gordon Quan has been running hard since January, raising a highly respectable $131,000. Look for Quan to launch a barrage of TV ads soon.
A wild card is Carrie Schindewolf, the wife of former Lanier Public Works director Jimmie, who is now a highly paid consultant for the Houston Sports Authority. Given Jimmie's reputation for big spending, Carrie's pitch for cost-conscious city government is rather a gag. "I don't think she's a serious candidate," allows one downtown operative, "but Jimmie does."
Bet on a Quan versus Boykins runoff.
E-mail Tim Fleck at email@example.com.