Hammerin' Helen and Mister Mild
For the past year, freshman Councilman Bruce Tatro has been telling associates an anecdote to illustrate the ways his predecessor, the outspoken Helen Huey, has allegedly tried to run District A behind his back. In recent months, however, the punch line to the tale has lost much of its humor for the thin, mild-mannered accountant and computer programmer.
Scant weeks after Tatro took office last January and began to organize his staff, Republican activist and Huey pal Toni Lawrence requested a breakfast meeting. When they met at the Jo Jo's at U.S. 290 and 34th Street, Tatro claims, Lawrence delivered a blunt ultimatum from the former councilwoman.
"Not too far into the conversation, Toni says, 'Either get rid of Maureen Mulrooney out of the district office or Helen finds someone to run against you next cycle,'" recalls Tatro, who professed to be stunned at the threat. "I just couldn't believe it. I thought, 'What in the world?' Just because I have Maureen Mulrooney helping me, what kind of vendetta is this?"
Mulrooney is a longtime neighborhood activist in Tatro's Spring Branch-area district and an early admirer and supporter of Huey when she ran against entrenched incumbent Larry McKaskle. Huey lost one race to McKaskle before she beat him, but then she and Mulrooney had a bitter falling-out over the establishment of a garbage transfer station in the area.
"As long as you do what [Huey] tells you to do, you're fine," says Mulrooney, speaking from long experience. "You cross her and all of a sudden you are her archenemy."
Tatro admits he was aware Huey and Mulrooney didn't get along, but he was shocked that Huey would declare war over her presence on his staff. "I knew there was some rub between the two of them. I knew they weren't exactly the best of friends. But I didn't realize it was that personal."
After the breakfast with Lawrence, Tatro says he called Mulrooney and asked her to keep a low profile, just to avoid provoking Huey. "I said, 'Look, Maureen, whatever there is between you [and Helen] I don't want to pour gasoline on the fire. Could you please kind of step down and help out on the side?'" According to Tatro, Mulrooney agreed. "You're right," she told him. "We don't need to pour salt on old wounds."
"That is absolutely false," retorts Lawrence after hearing Tatro's account of their talk. She denies ever mentioning Huey's name during the breakfast dialogue. According to Lawrence, she asked for the meeting because she was concerned that political neophyte Tatro did not understand the unique nature of the district office Huey had created.
"He couldn't get that information from any other Council person, because nobody else has a district office that functions like that," says Lawrence. "Helen paid for all the computers and stuff with her own personal campaign money. It was a great situation, and I wanted to explain to Bruce how that was. The only time I used Maureen's name was to say that maybe she wasn't the right person to go over there."
Regardless of whether Tatro's story about the breakfast threat is true, last month Lawrence announced she will challenge the District A incumbent next fall. Huey was unavailable for comment on this story, though she has previously denied recruiting Lawrence for the race. She has said she would support Lawrence "because we are friends."
The way Tatro sees it, Huey and Lawrence are more like Spring Branch political Bobsey Twins, and Toni wouldn't make the race without Huey's active encouragement.
" I have no question in my mind that the two are one," says the Councilman. "If you know the history behind Toni and Helen, they are super, super close." Tatro figures Lawrence's decision to challenge him is the follow-through on the threat she issued at Jo Jo's nearly a year ago.
"Huey wants Bruce to kowtow to her," says Mulrooney. "Helen, for some reason, thinks she should be mayor; she thinks she should still be running District A. She cannot let go. She cannot cut that umbilical cord."
A City Council aide confirms that Huey tried to undercut Tatro from his first days in office, and that she refused to react to numerous conciliatory overtures by her successor.
"That was something really rampant from early on," says the source. "You almost felt bad for Tatro, because she meddled a lot and it made things hard. Bruce tried to involve her, offering her things like a role in getting the Olympics, offering her an olive branch. But I don't think it was ever well received."
Helen Eggleston Huey, by all accounts, is not a person you mess with lightly. During her years on Houston City Council she fashioned an image as a scourge of the purveyors of urban blight in Spring Branch, a take-no-prisoners official. She was sued along with the city after she pressed municipal workers to raze apartment complexes in her neighborhood even as owners were trying to rehabilitate them. After Huey was removed as a defendant in one lawsuit, a jury decided against the city and awarded damages to the apartment owner.
The term-limited Huey, unable to stay on Council last year, became a mayoral candidate but failed to make the runoff. Tatro claims that Huey, in addition to scheming to run him out of office, continues to swashbuckle around City Hall as if she still runs District A.
According to Tatro, Huey pushes district capital improvement projects with city officials without notifying his office, and she lobbies for business interests without registering as a lobbyist as required by city ordinance.
Tatro said he found out about her meddling when a public works official, Gary Oradat, casually remarked that he'd met with Huey and her business client on December 11 to discuss several road extensions in the district. The projects are an extension of Alamo over Cole Creek with the construction of a bridge, and the lengthening of North Court.
"These are capital improvement projects, road extensions, not small things," explains an exasperated Tatro. "And in the scheme of things that is something the district Councilmember absolutely needs to be aware of."
After learning that Huey was lobbying for the road extensions, Tatro tried the diplomatic approach in a December 28 letter to Huey.
"Having been in business, I appreciate your endeavors in representing your clients' interests in city affairs," wrote Tatro. "As you may very well know, it is imperative that a district council member coordinate with the administration, public works, private development and residents with the timing and delivery of CIPs [capital improvement projects] in their area."
Tatro closed by appealing to Huey to notify his office when she pushed projects in the district on behalf of her business clients. Tatro sent a copy of the letter to Public Works officials, in a not-so-subtle signal that he did not appreciate their discussing city business with his predecessor without contacting him. According to the Councilman, Huey did not respond.
Tatro also says there is no question that Huey has engaged in lobbying at City Hall.
"She has been the business consultant on two tax abatements in my area," says Tatro. "Tax abatements and capital improvements projects and road construction stuff." To protest her continued work without registering as a lobbyist, Tatro fired off another letter to Huey two weeks ago that included a lobby registration form and an instruction brochure.
"The City Secretary has no current record of your lobbying registration form," Tatro informed Huey. "In light of your past lobbying of Public Works personnel ... to discuss possible construction projects for your business clients, and your discussions with personnel in the Finance and Administration regarding Tax Abatement applications, it may be necessary for you to file with the City Secretary."
In a final, thinly veiled jab at Huey, Tatro purred, "I appreciate your attention to this very important issue and you helping to create a more 'transparent government' process."
In a further turn of the screw, Tatro sent copies of that letter to City Attorney Anthony Hall, City Secretary Anna Russell and Public Works Director Jerry King, just to let everybody know what his nemesis was doing.
Huey clearly has an aversion to being tagged a lobbyist. "She seems to really not want to call herself a lobbyist," chuckles one City Hall observer. "That seems to be what's really going on. Maybe she has plans for something else politically and doesn't want to be identified that way."
In a workshop conducted by city lawyers after the lobbying ordinance passed, Huey stood up and asked whether talking to city officials about projects constituted lobbying. A city attorney advised her it would not fall under the ordinance."It's funny," observes a Council source. "Helen has a lot of friends in the legal department, and they seemed to be bending over backwards to give her the opinion she wanted."
Asked whether Huey's work on behalf of clients seeking tax abatements from the city constituted lobbying, one of the ordinance's architects, Councilman Chris Bell, opined that it would.
"You have to track the ordinance," notes Bell, "and if an individual is being paid more than $250 to lobby on a particular piece of legislation, and a tax abatement ends up before City Council, then that would fall within the definition."
Toni Lawrence figures Tatro's attacks on both her and Huey are simply to cover up his own inadequacies as a public official.
"There's just so many things he hasn't done as far as economic development, constituent services, and that's why I'm in this race, and those are the things I'm going to run on." Lawrence claims At-large Councilwoman Annise Parker has had to step in and do district chores after Tatro failed to handle them.
Warming to her new role as a municipal candidate, Lawrence declared that "Helen has nothing to do with the way that I feel.... If he wants to sling mud, I'm sorry, but Helen has nothing to do with this."
Mulrooney has no doubt that the feud between Tatro and Huey will likely get a lot hotter before the next election. Huey, says her former friend, doesn't like to hear the word "no."
"It's not her office anymore," says Mulrooney, "but she wants to run the show. I think it's devastating that she's so fixated on herself that she cannot see the damage that she is doing to Spring Branch by dividing the community."
Whether computer nerd Tatro can hold District A against a verified type A personality like Helen Huey remains to be seen, but it guarantees great political theater at City Hall over the next ten months.
Relay your news tips to the Insider. Call him at (713)280-2483, fax him at (713)280-2496, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.