Herding Cats in District 5
Texas Southern law professor James Douglas, the former TSU president, hosted an evening confab of African-American power brokers last month at his spacious home in the Macgregor Park area. The guests of honor: four avowed candidates vying for the City Council Position 5 seat being vacated by term-limited Carroll Robinson.
The idea was to prevent a damaging political brawl for the at-large office, which historically has been held by a black for more than 30 years, ever since the late Judson Robinson Jr. became the first minority elected to council in modern times.
On hand to encourage a political settlement were community pillars such as former local NAACP head Howard Jefferson, Justice of the Peace Al Green, Baptist Ministers Association president J.J. Roberson and Zinetta Burney, an attorney and City Hall lobbyist. Since another candidate for the seat is conservative Hispanic lawyer Hector Longoria, concern was rife among the group that a divisive battle within their community could cost blacks the seat.
Participants at the meeting may have come with the best of intentions. However, the results of the attempted electoral matchmaking don't quite compare with those of the fabled Suite 8-F at the Lamar Hotel, where super-kingmaker Jesse Jones once dealt the cards of Houston commerce and politics and dictated ballot lineups.
The Douglas get-together unfolded more as a comic cross between productions of Let's Make a Deal and Survivor. The candidate-contestants were TSU governmental affairs director Dwight Boykins, Minister Andrew Burks and lawyers Ronald Green and Jolanda Jones.
It was quite a scene, according to a number of eyewitnesses. While Green, Jones and Burks had been given the impression this was an impartial crowd, several sources claim the hidden agenda was to clear the field for Boykins and persuade the others to move on to different council races. The other three rose and gave pitches for why they wanted to run, but Boykins simply thanked the group for coming.
"This was definitely done between the powers that be and Dwight," says one observer. "If we didn't know before we got there, we damn sure knew it before we left."
"That meeting wasn't called for the benefit of the rest of us," adds Green. "This was a 'Let's see how we can get these other three people out of the race' type of meeting."
Then the candidates adjourned to a private face-off behind closed doors. Each told the others why he or she was entitled to the position. Green claimed he had started his campaign first and was the most qualified. Jones, the second to announce, pronounced herself most qualified and the one with the most support. Burks, who has run more times unsuccessfully for municipal office than the others, declared himself the most experienced candidate. Boykins then explained that his backers would not let him move out of Position 5, so he had to run for that seat.
Jones blasted Boykins, saying that when she sounded him out for support early on, he told her he was not running. It quickly developed that Burks and Green felt they had gotten similar assurances. Green then chimed in with "Dwight, at least you told the same lies to everybody."
When Boykins protested that he had been misunderstood, Green responded, "Dwight, I don't think you respect us."
Boykins denies he misled anybody. "Whoever ran out and told the media all this, they're just creating their own story. I really believe that everybody's happy with what's going on."
That isn't the perception of several other participants. One laughs in recalling the outcome.
"The three of us didn't even know each other when it started, and at the end we're united in being pissed off at Dwight."
After an hour or so the candidates broke their huddle and rejoined the group through separate doors, with Boykins leaving by himself and the other three departing together.
"I walked out of there just thinking that 'Truly this is not happening,' " recalls Green. "It was surreal. We just thought, 'Why the hell should we get out?' "
Jones told the waiting audience of movers and shakers that at least one member of the threesome still planned to run against Boykins.
That got the audience discussion heated up, when Green's law partner Larry Green (no relation to the candidate) zeroed in on Burney. He asked why she was supporting some Republican incumbents that the other candidates would have to run against if they moved out of the race for Position 5. According to participants, Burney replied that she had lobbying contracts at City Hall and had to endorse the Republicans because she's "trying to make four black people millionaires."
Larry Green countered by asking for the names of the four and saying, "Why are they more important than every other black person? They get to be millionaires and feed their families. What about the rest of us?"
Burney chuckled later when asked about the exchange, saying, "I'm not going to respond to that. No quotes from me."
The four candidates met again at Douglas's pad three days later and eventually hit on a formula that leaves Boykins in Position 5 and sends the rest to other races.
Jones is now running against incumbent Shelley Sekula-Gibbs in Position 3, while Burks goes to At-large Position 1 and Green to At-large Position 4. Although those are open seats, they won't be easy races. Green will have to oppose district councilmember Bert Keller, and Burks has to face district councilmember Mark Ellis.
Boykins's reign as the consensus candidate in Position 5 didn't last long, either, as longtime Acres Homes activist Beulah Shepard jumped into that race. She's a former aide to late Harris County commissioner Squatty Lyons and state senator John Whitmire, and has made a career of escorting Democratic office seekers on election-time tours of black community churches.
Bethel Nathan, the political consultant for Councilman Robinson, gave tacit encouragement to Shepard to enter the race. Ironically, it was Nathan who initially helped organize the Douglas meetings but soured on the results after Boykins failed to hire him to run his campaign. A business associate of Nathan's, Vincent Watkins, is managing Shepard. The 82-year-old mother of ten and grandmother of 31 styles herself as "The People's Candidate." She can plausibly claim to have had a personal role in creating many of them.
Shepard also attended the Douglas meeting and, according to one participant, promised to support the consensus candidate. She denies that and says she's running "because it's a free country," adding, "They can't say I said nothing, because I'm not with that group."
Nathan likes Shepard's chances against Boykins. "Beulah's got wisdom, compassion and understanding, and certainly she knows how to pinch a penny. She's going to be tough to beat."
Jones says that when she found out Shepard was running in 5, she "about fell over laughing, just because of what we went through and the gut checks we took."
The former collegiate track standout hopes to use her connections to national sports figures to attract several stars for a fund-raising gala next month. After the experience at the Douglas gathering, she likens the ethics of politics to people in sports using steroids, saying, "People will do whatever it takes to win at any cost. I don't like what I've seen so far, but I understand if it does not kill me, it will make me stronger."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.