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If He Could Turn Back Time...

Turner hopes a decade of legislative experience will boost his second mayoral bid.
Tim Fleck

Snaking with his entourage through the chanting crowd of 1,500 or so, the candidate seemed more like a heavyweight boxer headed to the ring of some Vegas prize fight. Sylvester Turner, the still-youthful-looking state representative ready for his mayoral rematch, mounted the Hyatt Regency stage in front of an imposing red-and-black graphic of the Houston skyline, while Tina Turner's "Simply the Best" thundered over the PA.

As he began to speak, those who had closely followed his 1991 campaign must have had the sensation they were switching on a TV and catching an early scene from an all-too-familiar movie.

"My dad taught me something in living and dying," Turner declared in his lilting orator's voice. "When you get knocked down, you got to learn how to pull yourself right back up. This evening I offer myself as a candidate for mayor of this great city."

In this remake, the character at the ballroom microphone is the squeaky-clean Horatio Alger Sylvester, the sixth of nine children born to a painter and a Rice Hotel maid, the brilliant student who starred from Klein High School to the University of Houston to Harvard Law School. From there the story shifts to the contract law offices of Barnes & Turner and successful attorney Sylvester, who won his north Houston seat in the Texas House and carved a legislative record to be envied by his peers.

Then the script begins to diverge from the 1991 version. Legislator Sylvester touts his recent elevation by Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick to speaker pro tempore, and his advancing to become one of ten lawmakers on the powerful appropriations committee faced with solving massive budget deficits.

There are other plot improvements. This time around, Sylvester is blessedly free of an embittered wife. She'd made token, sour-faced appearances on the campaign trail clutching their little girl, but had secretly retained a private eye to investigate her husband. And other than a legal misstep last year -- he was fined by the Texas State Bar for inadequately representing a client in a divorce -- the candidate's professional life has not provided grist for negative media stories.

The half-million or so Houston voters who weren't around in 1991 may need a quick synopsis of the original Sylvester flick: An overachieving, innocent homeboy is within a whisker of becoming Houston's first black mayor. Then he's attacked for personal flaws such as failing to pay a college loan, magnified by a media blitz from a hardball opponent.

On the eve of a tight runoff election, Channel 13 investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino drops allegations that our hero may have been in on an insurance fraud scheme. The stories are never confirmed; Turner is never charged with anything; but the news reports are devastating. He narrowly loses to former mayor Bob Lanier and then wages a legal jihad against Channel 13 in a showcase libel suit.

As Court TV beams the trial around the country, Sylvester cries on the stand for his lost good name and Wayne blusters and shouts, displaying an ego the size of a hot air balloon. The jury rules for Turner, but an appeals court rules there was no actual malice, blunting the victory.

Fade to the rolling credits.

Now Sylvester is back, hoping to pick up the plotline and rewrite the ending. It's doubtful his three main opponents, Orlando Sanchez, Michael Berry and Bill White, will openly revisit the issues of 1991. It's equally certain most news media, particularly Channel 13, will stay far away from that radioactive ground.

Among the crowd gathered to savor Turner's comeback announcement was Montrose Clinic director Katy Caldwell.

"He's right on all the issues that I care about: public health, gay rights; and he's been a champion for those causes in the legislature," says Caldwell. "Also, he's pro-rail, and I'm very pro-rail."

As for the idea this Sylvester remake will have a happier ending, Caldwell has her fingers crossed.

"I think he can energize the liberal, white vote, and certainly he can energize the African-American community. I think the dirt's already been dredged up, and hopefully he doesn't have any more."

Unlike some Democrats, Caldwell is not bothered that Turner stayed in Austin when the so-called Killer Ds fled to Oklahoma in late May to stall a vote on the Republican-pushed congressional redistricting plan.

"The agency that I manage had interests in the appropriations process," explains Caldwell, "and he was one of the two Democrats on appropriations. And some of our public health appropriations would have been worse if he hadn't been there."

Turner will have more than enough money to wage a respectable campaign. He expects to report $800,000 in contributions this week. White is leading the pack with $2.3 million, followed by Sanchez at $1.2 million, and Berry at $565,000.  

Consultant Craig Varoga of Varoga, Rice & Shalett managed Lanier's runoff fight against Turner and later ran Mayor Lee Brown's winning effort against Sanchez in 2001. He believes Turner made a political mistake by going to court rather than absorbing a painful lesson and moving on.

"The 1991 campaign would be a distant memory if it had not been recycled in a 1996 lawsuit," notes Varoga. "Even in winning a legal victory, it can have the unintended side effect of reopening political wounds that people otherwise would have forgotten."

Turner replies that no one should be reluctant to use the courts to establish the truth. "At the end of the day, when the judicial system says that story was false and defamatory, you can't get any better than that." Turner says he came through the experience and continued to represent his constituents.

Even Turner's old opponent Varoga is unwilling to write him off in this election.

"The Anglo voters who supported Lanier in 1991 should and might be willing to take a new look at Sylvester Turner," the consultant says. "All campaigns throw the kitchen sinks at opponents and when the campaign is over, many people choose new sides, and that includes not only inner circles but inner voters."

That is an understatement in this race, where former Brown consultants Dave and Sue Walden are allied with old opponent Sanchez, as is former Brown campaign chair Ned Holmes. Meanwhile, Turner has parted ways with consultants Frank McCune and Hector Carreno, and turned to former Lanier and Brown campaigner Marc Campos.

McCune says the Turner campaign has been damaged by the legislator's absence from Houston during the redistricting fight and the special session in Austin.

"Every campaign has the struggles of getting up and running, and this campaign had the struggle of being on hold for five months," says McCune, who also felt that Turner was neglecting the Democratic base essential to his victory. The hiring of Campos, a longtime political opponent of McCune and his patron Councilman Gabe Vasquez, was the final straw.

"They wanted us to hold hands with Marc Campos," laughs McCune. "Well, I just don't have enough disinfectant to do it."

Campos responds in kind: "I don't think much of the dudes, and I never would have gone to work for Turner if they'd been hanging around. I'm 50 years old and I don't need to do that to myself."

The White camp might have brought in Campos but for that candidate's insistence that all his consultants pledge not to lobby at City Hall after the election.

"I told White last week, 'You can't hire me 'cause I do stuff at City Hall,'" says Campos, adding a jab, "though, granted, it's not on the level of Dave" Walden.

Berry and White have made an issue of the influence of lobbyists, but don't expect Turner to pick up the same theme.

"Lobbyists contribute to most of us in the legislative process," says the state rep, acknowledging that many of his campaign dollars come from special interests. "But when it comes down to making that decision and casting that vote, if you can't look past that contribution, then you don't deserve to be there."

Turner's new team was quickly put to the test when the Tejano Democrats met to endorse candidates in the coming municipal elections. McCune had predicted that Campos would be able to pull strings with elected officials in his client stable to snatch the endorsement from White, a charter Tejano member. But Campos was unable to deliver the support of allies such as City Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, who spoke in favor of White.

Turner forces tried to make the best of a bad situation by getting a joint endorsement, but only a few members voted for that, so the endorsement went to White.

Sanchez suffered a similar setback when the Houston Firefighters Union board decided not to endorse mayoral candidates until the inevitable runoff. The group had been a key Sanchez backer in his last race.

With four strong, well-funded candidates in the race, the contest will be volatile. Varoga, who managed the winners in the two closest mayoral runoffs in the last 20 years, makes only one prediction:

"It's going to be the political equivalent of a barroom brawl. Most people assumed that Lee Brown was going to lose in 2001, and many people assumed that Bob Lanier was going to lose in 1991. What that tells you in terms of this election is that weird and unpredictable things are going to happen, and it's impossible to say who they will benefit."  


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