From PACman to Port Chairman
With approval by Harris County Commissioners Court last week, the ascension of James Tilden Edmonds from Port of Houston commissioner to powerful chairman is seemingly a done deal. Only a vote by City Council remains, and Edmonds says he has pledges of support from Mayor Lee Brown and a majority of councilmembers.
The 56-year-old moonfaced Edmonds is the handpicked successor of departing chairman Ned Holmes. The wealthy River Oaks investor-developer cited family considerations for retiring after 12 years in the unpaid but plushly expensed and influential position of running the port.
"You travel in style," one Houston political consultant says of the perks that come with the chairmanship. "People around here kiss your ass and treat you like God. You get to hand out jobs, and it's just a great source of power."
Former port commissioner Chase Untermeyer authored a recent op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle intimating what many political operatives have muttered privately: that Edmonds is more than a few cuts below the previous standard for port chairman. Untermeyer says he submitted the piece nine months ago and that it was not explicitly aimed at Edmonds, since he feels none of the current port commissioners -- or himself, for that matter -- qualify to succeed Holmes.
"It's expected that the chairman is going to be a full-time CEO," opines Untermeyer. He's on medical leave from his job as government affairs director for Compaq Computer Corporation while recovering from surgery.
"People who have companies and major law firms have both the wherewithal and the time to give the job what's required. Somebody who's out hustling for daily bread is not going to be as effective or strong a chairman."
When applied to Edmonds, that's an understatement. Previous port chairmen were high-powered figures like Holmes, Bracewell & Patterson founder Fentress Bracewell, former Texas governor Ross Sterling and the legendary Jesse Jones, a.k.a. Mr. Houston. Edmonds is an affable, low-key operative known best for behind-the-scenes political activity. He's nonconfrontational and carries out orders well. He's also a boon companion on bird-hunting trips with major players like Turner Collie & Braden's political point man Jim Royer, and state senator and former county judge Jon Lindsay, as well as Holmes.
Over the past three decades Edmonds has been the sucker fish hitching rides on the backs of some of Houston's better-known financial whale sharks. They include developer Walter Mischer Sr., public securities wizard Tom Masterson and now Holmes, the landlord for Edmonds's business consulting firm in Ned's high-rise aerie at 55 Waugh.
During the '80s and through the mid-'90s Edmonds served as unpaid director of the Greater Houston Association political action committee, a once potent font of political cash for aspiring municipal officials and compliant incumbents. Toward the end of its life, the PAC and Edmonds dabbled heavily in financing Houston Independent School District candidates. That eventually led to the GOP-tinged leadership now at HISD.
Edmonds was a principal in Masterson and Company in the '80s. Then the federal Securities and Exchange Commission passed regulations in 1992 to break up the sweetheart relationships between municipal politicians and bond dealers across the country, situations that created several financial scandals on the East Coast. The Greater Houston PAC had to move out of Masterson's office, and Edmonds followed the PAC.
It fell apart several years ago, largely because the new wide-open municipal politics outgrew the corporate and law firm power brokers, who regularly met in the Green Room of the River Oaks Country Club to decide which candidates merited their support. Eventually the members decided they weren't getting their money's worth out of Edmonds's operation, so many formed their own PACs.
Edmonds makes his daily bread through business consulting and lobbying at City Hall. His lobbyist registration form lists clients Perry Homes, the Woodlands Corporation and the law firm of Bierne, Maynard and Parsons. His lobbying involved issues such as neighborhood protection and preservation, but opponents of the Bayport Container Terminal project on Galveston Bay should take little comfort. Holmes was committed to the project, ditto Edmonds.
Holmes denies that Edmonds in any way would be a puppet for him or other political interests. According to Holmes, the port commissioners are his grown "children" and are ready to run the port without him. As for telling Edmonds what to do, Holmes says he supports people who would make the same decisions he would without having to be told.
Edmonds insists he has played major roles in the businesses he has been involved in and will be a chairman who won't need to listen to Holmes for advice. "He has told me he intends to be invisible," Edmonds says, "and I take him at his word."
Coming soon to a cinema near you: Ned Holmes, The Invisible Man.
As for his lobbying, Edmonds says he'll continue that line of work, "but none of my clients will do business with the port."
Of course, once you have the heft of a port chairman, who wouldn't pay good money to have you lobby their issues, even on dry land?
Rodney Bleeds Bush with Little Cuts
State senator and previous city councilman Rodney Ellis once paid former mayor Kathy Whitmire a grudging compliment. "She just cuts you up with those little hands," Ellis explained with a laugh, making swift chop-chop motions with his own beefier mittens. And when she was through, Ellis said, the opponent had been reduced to something akin to sushi.
The wisecrack-addicted senator is pulling something of the same routine on Texas Governor George W. Bush, the GOP presidential standard-bearer. Once more interested in making bucks from his bond business than crafting bills, Ellis in recent years has emerged as a legislative heavyweight in Austin. He has even managed to inflict some messy little political cuts and bruises on the Teflon-coated Bush. But Ellis's technique has been so smooth that Bush's inner circle and the Republican powers in the Texas Senate never seem to blame him for the blood spots.
Last year Ellis managed to put Bush on the defensive twice. Ellis piloted passage of a bill to strip criminal judges of the power to appoint lawyers for indigent criminals. Facing a storm of protest from GOP jurists, Bush was forced to veto the bill and take a black eye from critical news stories. Likewise, Ellis championed hate crimes legislation embraced by the family of Jasper racial murder victim James Byrd. That bill died, and Bush caught flak for failing to support it.
Rodney's most recent clip on "Shrub" came as convicted rapist-murderer Ricky McGinn's execution date approached earlier this month. The trial court in the case recommended DNA testing to determine whether semen found in McGinn's murdered stepdaughter matched that of the convict. On the scheduled execution day, Bush was out of the state campaigning, and Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry was vacationing with his father overseas. So Ellis, as the Senate president pro tem, was slated to be acting governor.
After a weekend spent weighing the merits of the case, Ellis says, he searched for a way to stop the McGinn execution without burning his bridges to the Bush camp. He called Bush aide Clay Johnson and delivered a diplomatic warning.
According to Ellis, he wanted to give Bush a heads up that he would not allow the execution to go forward on his watch. "It's not something I'm going to go out and say to the press," he told Johnson, "but I want to make sure you know if it's a problem, you give the governor ample time to get back into the state. I would hate for you all to tell me at noon or two o'clock on Thursday that your decision is to go forward with the execution, because we would have a dilemma." Bush then decided to allow the reprieve, and Ellis signed it.
It was Bush's first reprieve after 132 executions. That immediately raised suspicions that he was yielding to the political pressures of a presidential campaign and the heightened public debate over the death penalty. That first stay has put Bush on a slippery slope, since he will face increased scrutiny as each new execution date arrives, including the one Thursday, June 22, for convicted Houston robber-murderer Gary Graham.
Although Ellis is not scheduled to be acting governor Thursday, he says he's briefing himself thoroughly on the details of the Graham case. He's avoiding the prayer vigils and rallies planned to protest the impending execution, but a source says Ellis is working behind the scenes to try to influence Bush to commute the sentence.
For the rest of the presidential campaign, Bush does have one option for fading the heat on the capital punishment issue. He and Perry can simply clear out of the state on execution days and let acting governor Ellis make the calls. Unfortunately, with the Texas tide of executions leading the nation, that strategy would mean they'd hardly ever be home.
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