Winnie Gaynor, a 69-year-old widow, lives alone in Studewood Heights northwest of downtown. It's a low-income, mostly African-American neighborhood where older homeowners coexist unwillingly with drug dealers and other perpetrators of street crime. Residents do not open their doors willingly to unexpected strangers, particularly those approaching after nightfall.
On a Thursday evening early this month, Gaynor heard a knock at her front door. A young Anglo man asked to come inside and discuss "fraud" involving a Democratic primary petition for Grant U. Hardeway, a candidate for the 182nd District criminal judgeship held by Republican Jeannine Barr.
Gaynor has been a notary public for some 40 years. She notarized approximately 1,500 petition signatures, collected mostly by Hardeway's wife, Pandy Hardeway, and her daughter at neighborhood churches.
The notary wasn't the only Hardeway supporter coming under pressure. The law firm of Schneider & McKinney mailed a form letter to hundreds of petition signers, asking whether their signatures were legitimate and posing more questions designed to invalidate the petitions. The letter bore the name of law partner Troy McKinney but was unsigned. It invited the recipients to call a hot line, where a recorded voice asked the same questions as the letter. Other elderly voters reported home visits from men who flashed badgelike credentials and demanded to talk to them about the petitions. Some of the men falsely claimed to be from the Hardeway campaign.
Donetta Jackson signed Hardeway's petition and received the letter. "I couldn't understand why they would write and ask me questions like that," says the registered Democrat. "They were telling me I wouldn't be eligible to vote in the Republican primary, which I already knew."
Complaints about the tactics have prompted an investigation by a task force that includes officials of the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and the Mexican American Bar Association. A news conference was scheduled in downtown Houston this week to protest the alleged voter harassment. Gaynor's account was one of many under examination by ACLU pro bono attorney David George.
"There's nothing wrong with investigating petitions," explains George. "But if it's done in a way that's racially motivated, or is done to intimidate people, then that's a problem."
Gaynor has no doubt the visitor to her house meant to bully her. As she peered cautiously through a peephole in her locked door, he insisted on talking to her, saying, "we are investigating some fraudulent activities concerning the voting."
When Gaynor replied she did not feel comfortable with the conversation, the stranger said that it was important to talk to him because of "all this fraudulent activity that went on with our president in Florida, we don't want this to happen in Houston." When Gaynor refused to let him in, the man left a card identifying himself as Kevin Templeton of Gradoni and Associates Private Investigators.
"I was really fearful," recounts Gaynor. "There are maybe two men on this street, and all the rest are widows. I'm nobody's fool, and I can read and I can write, and I felt intimidated by him wanting to intrude upon me here in my home while I was alone."
The man returned the next day when Gaynor's son was on hand, and presented petition sheets notarized by her. He asked whether she knew Pandy Hardeway and then questioned some signatures gathered by the candidate's wife. Gaynor told him she was no handwriting expert but that Mrs. Hardeway and her daughter, who has the same name, had collected the signatures and presented them to her to be notarized.
The man then left. Investigator Templeton did not return an Insider phone inquiry about who hired him.
Candidate Hardeway claims the visits and letters are an orchestrated attempt to disrupt his campaign for Barr's bench. He says that shortly after he visited the judge to inform her that he would be running against her, he got a telephone message from Stanley Schneider, a defense attorney and a partner in the firm that later sent the letters to petition signers. Both Hardeway and Schneider frequently defend clients in Barr's court.
The following day Hardeway encountered Schneider at the courthouse, and Schneider told him he'd heard that Hardeway was going to be a candidate against Barr. Hardeway recalls the lawyer saying, "Really wish you wouldn't, really wish you'd think about some other court, because she has done the following things for me " Hardeway says Schneider ticked off some cases where he felt Barr had given him favorable rulings. According to Hardeway, he told the attorney he would still run because "it really isn't anything personal, it's just a difference in philosophies."
Contacted at his firm, Schneider refused to discuss the particulars of the letters to petition signers, but confirmed he had asked the candidate not to oppose Barr.
"I said something to the effect that she was a good judge," recounts Schneider. "I talked to him as a friend would. I like both of them, and she's a good judge."
Schneider referred all questions about the firm's letter to colleague McKinney, who traded calls with The Insider by was ultimately unavailable.
Hardeway suspects there's a bit more than friendship behind the attempt to disqualify him from the race. He notes that two years ago he barely mounted a campaign, but garnered 47 percent of the vote against District Judge Don Stricklin, a Republican.
Hardeway says McKinney urged him to drop out of the race. According to the candidate, McKinney identified Judge Barr as the firm's client. She did not return an Insider call about who is paying for the investigation.
Hardeway says a Republican district judge later stopped him in the courthouse hall to commiserate and said, "I understand they're all over you."
Hardeway says McKinney had gone to Democratic Party headquarters to get copies of the petition shortly before the letters and visits to his supporters began.
"Obviously they think there's something either wrong with my religious persuasion, the pigmentation of my skin, or my quest for a bench that's open to the public," says the candidate.
His wife adds: "Or the fact you may be well qualified and they may need to discount you before you get to the ballot."
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The Insider recently reported on the creation of a new energy trading company in Houston with plenty of political wattage -- it received a fat chunk of a city contract with Reliant under the municipal affirmative action program. Now it appears the administration of Mayor Lee Brown is hitting the off switch on PowerSol, which includes figures associated with both the Orlando Sanchez mayoral campaign and City Councilman Gabe Vasquez.
Affirmative Action and Contract Compliance director John DeLeon reports that he has sent the firm a letter "tentatively denying certification" as a qualified minority or disadvantaged business enterprise. DeLeon refused to give further details, saying such information is confidential under state law. Another administration source says PowerSol is out primarily because it has no business track record, violating affirmative action regulations.
Both PowerSol partner Frank McCune and firm attorney Jay Aiyer deny that the city is slamming the door on the company, and insist they'll get approval eventually.
The Insider is willing to bet it won't happen as long as Brown remains mayor.