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Fresh Starts

Bell hopes to make transportation one of his key issues.
Deron Neblett

In politics, timing may not be everything, but it's a big chunk of the equation for successful campaigns. Just ask Congressman Chris Bell of the 25th District and Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia Garcia. The two veteran Houston Democrats last year hit the right seams at the right times to start 2003 with new chapters in their elective careers.

Time will now work in very different ways for the two. Congress members grow into their roles based on patience and tact, learning the ropes and slowly transforming contacts and knowledge over years of service into influence and power in a body of 435 legislators.

With her victory, Garcia immediately becomes one of the most prominent and powerful elected Hispanics in the country. The rewards of running a sprawling precinct and controlling a budget comparable to that of a midsize city are more immediate, but also carry their own set of risks and unanswered questions.

Bell took the more inventive course in his route to victory over Republican Tom Reiser to represent the district spanning much of the southern and eastern sides of the area. He gave up a final term as an at-large Houston councilman to challenge Mayor Lee Brown in 2001. Bell used the momentum and name recognition of his third-place finish to step into a vacuum created when then-congressman Ken Bentsen moved on to an unsuccessful U.S. Senate race. As a result, Bell recently found himself standing on the street outside his new office in the Cannon Building of the Capitol complex during a break from a Democratic orientation session. It was a scene he's daydreamed about since running for office in high school.

"This is one of the few instances where the reality matches the expectation," chuckled the congressman via cell phone. Of his first flight into Washington after the November election, he recounts an "incredibly beautiful scene, looking down on all the monuments and all of a sudden it hits you that you're not coming here as a tourist, you're coming here to serve in a body you've read about and thought about all of your life. It's a pretty overwhelming feeling. Hits you like a side of bricks."

As one of 51 incoming Democrats, Bell drew lots for his office location and came up 21st, earning one of the more desirable suites.

"It's great," he says, sounding like a kid with a better-than-expected Christmas present. "It's in the building I wanted to be in and plenty of space, with a view of the courtyard. It does have a window and is laid out like [Bentsen's] office. High ceilings, great old building."

In learning the ropes, Bell has several role models to choose from in the Houston delegation. Sheila Jackson Lee of the 18th District started her tenure in 1995 with a firestorm of amendments, resolutions and speeches that made her a joke on Capitol Hill. Gene Green took the opposite approach for the 29th District, centering his freshman activities on a few issues.

"You don't speak on everything to begin with," Green advised The Insider several years back. "I spoke on education and labor issues that had a relationship to my district." During his freshman year Green offered only one amendment on the floor of the House.

"Some tell you there is really no chance to do anything your first year, but some say if you look for openings -- especially on more nonpartisan-type items like transit and flood control projects -- that you can make some headway," says Bell of lessons absorbed during congressional orientation courses at Harvard. "Obviously, that is what I will try to do."

Likewise, Bell hopes to accumulate expertise in a key issue facing the city of Houston while getting a matching committee assignment.

"Certainly, given my experience on City Council and now having the opportunity on the federal level, I think transportation could be one of those areas."

Asked whether he'll offset Congressman Tom DeLay, the majority leader whose anti-rail views are well known, Bell laughs. "I don't know if I would be an effective counterbalance in my first year. But I do think that it's important given the problems we have in the district -- flood control and transportation and air quality -- that I have a seat on the [transportation] committee. The Texas delegation is supporting that appointment."

As with all incoming congress members with families, Bell faces the dilemma of where to put down roots. If his wife, Alison, and two young boys move to Washington, he leaves them behind on weekends filled with duties back in Houston. If they stay in Houston, he sees them only on the weekends.

For now, Bell has settled within walking distance of the Capitol. The apartment on Constitution Avenue is in an 1800s-era building he describes as very simple, with big bay windows, hardwood floors and a fireplace that doesn't work.

"Our feeling," says Bell, "is that it doesn't make a lot of sense to move the family up here right now and ask them to spend weekends in a strange city when I'm back home." He also says they love their Ayrshire neighborhood and Mark Twain Elementary School, where six-year-old Atlee attends. "We'd like to hang on to that as long as we can."

A few days before Christmas, Sylvia Garcia also was crating belongings in anticipation of a more modest move: across downtown Houston from her city controller's office in City Hall to new digs in the Harris County Administration Building. She joins Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina in the top ranks of elected Hispanic women in the United States.

"They're excited about the victory," says Garcia of her Latino peers. "We didn't quite realize, in terms of what I call the historical hoopla that we got locally, that nationally people also watched and noticed."

Garcia and her incoming county staff, which includes city deputy controllers Sharon Adams and Roel Garcia, still have a lot of unanswered questions about the state of the precinct she takes over from Jim Fonteno at the end of his 28-year tenure on Commissioners Court.

In his final years as commissioner, Fonteno was increasingly incapacitated by Parkinson's disease. His wife, Joann, had her own office and played a major role in administering the precinct. According to documents obtained by Garcia staffers, there are more than 122 budgeted but unfilled positions in the precinct, many involving maintenance.

That has raised concerns on Garcia's transition team that they are inheriting a crumbling infrastructure.

"It could be," says Garcia. "One of the questions that has not been answered is how long have these positions been vacant and why? If they are just there but the work is being done by somebody else, that's a different conclusion from assuming the work has not been done."

So far the incoming staffers say they have not gotten access to records of all precinct contracts or a detailed organizational chart. Garcia, who was to be formally sworn in on New Year's Eve, plans to run all precinct business through the new team so the operations can be evaluated.

"Essentially we'll establish control of correspondence and a complaint tracking system, as well as inventory of assets," says Garcia. "You've got to make sure you know what you've inherited, particularly when it comes to money, purchasing and payroll."

Like Bell's interest in transportation, Garcia hopes to focus early on medical care as a signature issue. Many high-risk industrial facilities and traditionally underserved segments of the populace are in Precinct 2, although "neither LBJ nor Ben Taub hospitals are in my district," she says. "And I've only got two clinics. There is a need for emergency, trauma and even basic clinic care."

Diplomacy with colleagues is a major factor in success at the county level as well as in Congress. On the five-member commissioners court, nothing gets done without the support of at least two fellow officials. Garcia says she'll carefully consult with other commissioners about measures like County Judge Robert Eckels's thus-far-unsuccessful attempts to toughen ethics rules. Within her own boundaries, Garcia pledges to separate politics from the awarding of business to contractors.

"You know my history," she notes of her previous tenures as chief municipal judge and controller. "I'm about open government and accountability, and letting the taxpayers know what I think they have a right to know. I will do that in Precinct 2, with or without any changes in [countywide] ethics rules or policies."

Wait and see. Those kinds of sentiments tend to get forgotten rather quickly when political contributors, contractors and lobbyists come calling behind closed doors at the Capitol and the county administration building.


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