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Impeaching South Houston

With his thinning gray hair, metal-rimmed glasses, boot-cut Levis, red suspenders and striped, short-sleeved Western shirt, Dennis Cordray doesn't look exactly mayoral. Cordray more resembles someone you'd find working in the lumberyard of a hardware store -- which is exactly what he did before being elected mayor of South Houston in 1987. And it's what he may be doing again soon -- assuming, of course, he gets his old job back at Olshan Lumber -- now that his stormy seven-year tenure as chief executive of the fraying bedroom community off the Gulf Freeway has ended in his impeachment.

To outsiders, the squabble that led to Cordray's being booted from the office he was elected to four times might seem petty, or simply part of the routine give-and-take of political discourse that would go mostly unremarked upon in other cities. But Cordray presided over South Houston, a town whose politics are as roughhewn, prideful and feisty as its citizenry. South Houston is the sort of place where the man touted by some as the "richest man in South Houston" -- "Honest Gene" Kitch, mayor from 1971-79 -- owns a mobile- home park and keeps as his castle a double-wide trailer. It's the sort of place that has a long history of political brawling, and where the call for the impeachment of top public officials isn't all that rare. (Lynn Brasher, South Houston's mayor in the early '80s, had to beat back an impeachment attempt.) In short, South Houston is a place where eight-term mayor George Washington Christy -- who owned a circus and used South Houston as its winter headquarters -- could remark, when explaining why he didn't want to make another run for office, that, "I retired from the circus business, and being mayor would put me right back where I started."

Not that Dennis Cordray viewed being mayor of South Houston that way. He thought it was a pretty good job. It paid decently, and didn't involve any heavy lifting. In many ways, Cordray embodies the recent history of his town, formerly a mostly white, working-class enclave of steelworkers and refinery hands who've seen their fortunes and their city decline as union jobs disappeared and longtime residents died off or fled to more distant suburbs. Before his stint at the lumberyard, Cordray spent 24 years working at Armco Steel, at the kind of well-paying job that for years put food on the table and boats in the driveways of many east Harris County residents. "I made good money there," Cordray recalls. "I enjoyed it, had a great time. But all those good jobs are gone." After Armco got "put out by the Japs," as Cordray describes the global economic dislocations that led to the shuttering of the massive steelworks in 1983, he turned to politics.

Born and raised in South Houston, Cordray set his sights on becoming mayor of his hometown after winning election to the city council in 1985. For one thing, the pay was about as good as what he was taking home from the lumberyard. "Felt like I always wanted to be mayor," he explains. "The mayor's job paid $30,000, expense account, city car, 12 superintendents. It's a good job."

But Cordray was keenly aware of the small-town political realities that can twist longtime friends into bitter enemies, and which eventually did him in. "You see, in this little city, you're either in or out," he says. "It's not Republican or Democrat, that's how I explain it. You're either for someone or you're against someone. That's the way it is. There's no middle ground. You can pretty well tell who your allies are and who your allies are not."

Cordray had an issue in his original run for mayor -- the incumbent had brought in an "outsider" as police chief, an unpopular move with residents -- and he found it wasn't all that expensive to buy the fliers, envelopes and stamps he needed to get his message out to the town's small pool of voters.

"In South Houston," Cordray says of the shoestring campaign that led to the first victory, "it costs $2,000 to become mayor."

But as he found out seven years later, it costs about $5,000 to unbecome mayor.

"The problem here is money..."
South Houston is a place that thousands of people almost visit every day. Unfortunately for South Houston, "almost" is the important word here; the community is a drive-by town of the most literal sort. Since the Gulf Freeway just misses South Houston's southwestern tip by a few hundred yards, some 200,000 motorists a day pass by the town, never letting up on the gas as they speed right past the "South Houston Next Exit" sign on I-45.

That's just one of many cruel hands fate has dealt South Houston since 1915, when efforts to incorporate the town were sparked by residents complaining that cattle were wandering in and dying within the confines of their sparsely settled village nine miles from the Harris County Courthouse. That same year, a hurricane crippled the candy, stove and gasoline-engine manufacturing plants that were among the area's economic mainstays, and residents began to turn to industries along the Houston Ship Channel and in Houston for employment. Eventually, and almost without notice by the larger municipalities around it, the three-square-mile city was enveloped by Houston and Pasadena.

 

Enveloped, but not absorbed: motorists who do venture into South Houston pass through a dreary, desultory commercial moonscape. Taking the Monroe exit off I-45 and turning east onto Highway 3, you cruise by a Lube-n-Go auto repair, Kenlee's Inc. Scuba & Guns, Mejj's Tire Service, the Night Flight bar, a motel and a pawn shop. Turning west on College, your journey takes you by a string of bars, used-car lots and one-door storefront businesses.

The 14,207 people who now call South Houston home certainly would have benefited if I-45 had gone through the city, what with strip-mall stores along the feeder roads that would have provided sales taxes and the other financial spin-offs of increased traffic. A more recent misfortune was the closing of a Builder's Square store, one of the city's top employers and tax-revenue providers.

"We have no industry," Cordray sighs. "The average house value is $33,000. That hurts. Builder's Square leaving hurt.... Our town is what you call bare-budget. We pay our bills and pay our employees, but we don't have much more than that to live with."

"It's depressing," admits Walter Carr, a South Houston attorney for more than 20 years and a longtime observer of the local scene. "The main drags are College and Spencer, and what have you got? Realistically, you don't have any nice boutique shops or nice shoe stores. It's gotten to the point where the town doesn't have a drug store, a pharmacy. Rexall was up there in Pasadena Plaza; that sits there like a bombed-out Beirut. There's no businesses there.

"If you look up and down the road, what have you got? You've got car lots and beer joints. Car lots aren't paying any sales tax to the city, so what have you got?"

What South Houston has is an eroding tax base and a population that's undergoing an ethnic shift even as its mayors remain pretty much what they've always been -- Caucasian, male, working class, not young. Indeed, South Houston's white population is either aging or leaving as the city takes on a decidedly Latino cast. In 1980, South Houston was about a third Hispanic. Today, Hispanics account for 60 percent of the populace, with whites making up just 37 percent.

That change hasn't always been noticed by the people in charge, though longtime residents such as Carr do realize there's not much to keep the town's children around once they're old enough to get out on their own. "Ultimately, there's a slow exodus," says Carr. "What is there to offer the young people? The older people are dying off or retiring to Wimberly or whatever. What is there to offer the young people except an infrastructure that can't provide basic services?

"The problem in this town at the moment is basically money. Money cures a lot of things. They have inadequate funds to fix the roads, they're faced with a $6 million bond issue. There just isn't enough revenue. When you're losing all this sales tax and you're losing [your] biggest sales tax depositor, you've got problems."

In other words, South Houston is the kind of town where a sharp jump in water rates can be a serious burden -- especially for the mayor.

"They don't care about your people..."
Sandra Thomas, a 31-year-old school-bus driver, had never attended a South Houston City Council meeting before. But Thomas was angry. When her water bill more than doubled in one month, going from $33 to $69, she decided that she'd had enough. So in March, she went before the council to protest. She wasn't alone. Several hundred other residents also appeared to vent their ire at the mayor and the five-person council.

"Everybody was mad," Cordray recalls. "There were a couple hundred people there and they were all furious. I don't blame them. My water bill at my house was running $35 or $40, now it's $70 or $80. My wife pays the water bill, and I catch hell from her about the water bill."

Though complaining about high taxes or outrageous utility bills is almost an American pastime, and though those complaints most often result in little more than some colorful language from constituents and some promises (quickly forgotten) by politicians, what Cordray was getting ready to learn was that, in South Houston, one of the oldest political adages is also one of the truest: all politics comes down ultimately to the grass roots. While Cordray's tenure as mayor had been marked by an increasingly contentious relationship with council members, the cause of his political demise was elemental: water bills went up too much, too fast. For several years the Environmental Protection Agency had been dogging South Houston to upgrade its sewer plant, but Cordray had delayed informing the council of the mandates. Later, his critics would accuse him of having ignored the federal agency's directives, eventually making the improvements more difficult and expensive.

 

Cordray claims he and his city were victims of forces beyond their control. "The only way to avoid the water rates going up is for the EPA to leave us alone and not mandate things," he says. "They're not concerned at all. They don't care about your people, your poverty -- they want to know that when your commode flushes, you don't put it in the bayou, you treat it. That's their part of government."

The EPA mandates forced the council to "front load" the city's budget by requiring residents to pay a monthly "access fee" to get water from the city -- in addition to what they were already being charged for per-gallon usage. These new procedures led to the doubling, and in some cases tripling, of water bills.

The resulting uproar provided Cordray's adversaries with an opening. Relations between the mayor and council members had already deteriorated past the point of repair, with Cordray being accused of employing the kind of high-handed and dictatorial tactics that Houston Mayor Bob Lanier could only envy. One run-in revolved around the council's efforts to remove several of Cordray's cronies as city department heads. Cordray's method of dealing with that insurgency was elegantly simple: he refused to recognize the council members who wanted to make motions to name new appointees. After one extended council meeting during which members complained of not being recognized, and suggested this was not the way meetings were supposed to be run, Cordray responded, to a reporter, "I don't think I've ever seen Robert's Rules of Order."

In another episode, Cordray's opponents had to go to court to force him to place on the council agenda items that they had submitted. After the court had ruled in the council members' favor, Cordray made sure to do exactly what he'd been told to do -- but no more. The mayor followed the letter of that court order by putting submitted items on the council agenda, but he then refused to raise those very items for discussion. District Court Judge Greg Abbott described Cordray's literal interpretation of the law as "reprehensible" and rewrote his initial order to specify that Cordray must consider all agenda items. Threatened with contempt of court, Cordray finally obliged.

To some, Cordray's actions appeared buffoonish, if not petty. But community activist Cipriano Romero says Cordray was actually a skilled politician whose demeanor underwent strange changes when he presided over the council meetings. "He was very bullheaded, very stubborn, very rude and vicious at times, sniping at people," Romero says. "He couldn't work with his colleagues, but he'd go out in the community and explain his side of the story in very different terms."

Former mayor and mobile-home-park owner "Honest Gene" Kitch also takes a charitable view of the ex-mayor's political skills. "Cordray's a hell of a nice guy," Kitch says. "Doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, doesn't mess with his neighbors. Goes to church, all the funerals and weddings. But he got caught off in a power struggle. He didn't keep the council well informed and then they felt put out."

It was against that backdrop that Thomas appeared before the council in March. Two months later, she filed a formal complaint against the mayor, something Cordray says was orchestrated by two of his enemies -- council member Don Gaylor, whose wife helped Thomas write her complaint, and council member Hal Smith, whose wife notarized it for her. Gaylor "told the little lady what to do, had her over for dinner, stuff like that," Cordray says. During testimony at the first hearing in Cordray's impeachment, Thomas didn't deny she was helped. "I went to Sue Gaylor and asked her to type something up for me because I am not a lawyer, I'm not a secretary," she said. "I told her what I wanted and this is what she gave me."

In a big city like Houston, political skirmishes can be played out at arm's length and never turn personal. But that's not how it works in South Houston. "You've got to understand," says Don Gaylor, "that in a small town like South Houston, you know everybody. You know the mayor, you know his family. It's very difficult."

 

Gaylor (who lost the 1993 mayoral race to Cordray by 86 votes) and Smith were elected to the council this May, in the midst of the water-bill uproar. They joined Ralph Clark and Stephanie Hernandez in the anti-Cordray faction on the five-member council. That posed a big problem for Cordray: since South Houston doesn't have a city charter, its operations are guided by state statute. And the state allows a mayor to be removed from office by a two-thirds vote of the city council -- in South Houston's case, four of the five votes.

"Out here, there's just no mode of communication..."
When it comes to news about their city, South Houstonians usually get theirs by word of mouth. The Houston dailies and the Pasadena Citizen mostly ignore the town, as do the area television stations. "Out here there's just no mode of communication," observes lawyer Carr, "not even newsletters." But on the night of May 24, assorted newspaper and TV reporters, many of whom had to refer to their Key Maps to locate the town, jockeyed for position in the one-room South Houston Municipal Court building, where a packed crowd of 100 or more South Houston residents -- most sitting, a few standing -- strained to hear the first night of the impeachment proceedings of Dennis Cordray. Left outside was August Murray Jr., a 38-year-old "financial and housing consultant" who wasn't about to miss this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of democracy at work.

A few minutes earlier, the proceedings had been suspended when the fire marshal ruled the building had 52 more people than the city fire code allowed. After a brief huddle between the chief of police and council members, Don Gaylor, a hulk of a man who resembles a cross between TV newsman Jack Cato and movie character actor Neville Brand, announced that everyone could stay, but on one condition: if anyone left, they would not be let back in the building. "So if you got a seat, keep it," Gaylor advised. That seemed to settle things, although it was unclear how the pronouncement remedied the fire hazard.

Regardless, all August Murray Jr. knew was that he was outside and couldn't get in. So he told the policeman guarding the entrance that he had to go to the bathroom. He was allowed to enter, but he skipped the lavatory, instead making a beeline for the front row, where he was surprised to find an empty seat. Noticing what had happened, a young South Houston ambulance worker ambled up to Murray and asked him to leave. Murray refused. Then a policeman approached Murray, also unsuccessfully. Finally, Chief of Police Dwight Puckett himself made the trip to the front of the room, which by this time was in a bit of a stir. Puckett was more insistent. Murray was unmoved. "I'm a taxpayer of South Houston. I'm not leaving," he said, loud enough to turn heads several rows away. "You can arrest me if you want." As Murray spoke, he kept his eyes aimed at the front of the room, where the impeachment hearing was just getting under way.

There, Dennis Cordray was about to discover what a short trip it is from the presiding chair to the defendant's stand. He had put down his gavel and walked to the table in front of the council to sit with Frank Hale, his rotund, gray-bearded lawyer, who had arrived at the hearing in a white limousine and who, for some unexplained reason, was sporting a Bugs Bunny tie. Cordray had already ignored Hale's legal counsel to resign instead of enduring the ignominy of impeachment and removal from office.

The high drama for which August Murray had flouted authority wasn't long in coming. Kenneth Kaye, the lawyer for Sandra Thomas, opened his presentation with some high-flown rhetoric evoking grand historical parallels. "Members of the city council, it is the position of Ms. Thomas, the complainant in this case, that Mr. Cordray has done the very things George III was accused of doing back in 1776," Kaye began, uttering the only sentence during the three nights of impeachment hearings that included both a king of England and a mayor of South Houston.

Kaye went on to outline the bill of particulars against Cordray and compare the bus driver's complaint against the mayor to the protest the signers of the Declaration of Independence made against King George's refusal to pass laws "for the public good."

While the council was lined up at least four to one against Cordray, out in the audience the divide wasn't quite so clear. The mayor had his supporters among the townsfolk. One was James Yarborough, a short, tanned, gray-haired gentleman who was drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette during one of the meeting's frequent recesses.

 

"He helped me to buy a house here in South Houston," Yarborough said of Cordray. "I used to be a train engineer, driving trains, then I had a cerebral aneurysm. He helped me buy a house by the railroad tracks. I can watch trains go by. He is my friend. All these [people] here, even that bunch that had that sign a while ago, you know, [the one that said] 'Impeach the Mayor,' I talked to them and told them 'Y'all ought to be ashamed. He's a friend of mine.'"

Yarborough made it to the second impeachment hearing on June 1, drinking coffee out of the same cup. But for the third and final hearing on June 8 he was nowhere to be found, though anyone driving by his house on Pecan Street could see the plaque out front, a testament to Cordray's good works: "Yarborough's Little Shack by the Railroad Tracks."

Yarborough wasn't the only South Houstonian to finally lose interest in the proceedings. The drama promised at the start of the impeachment hearings quickly dissipated, and attendance dwindled from meeting to meeting as the deliberations grew more tedious and the unexplained recesses more frequent. The second meeting lasted nearly until midnight, even though for most of the time the council wasn't in session. Don Gaylor, who presided, repeatedly convened the hearing for a few minutes and then broke inexplicably for a recess. Though it wasn't explained to the South Houston citizens in attendance, what was happening was that a deal was being discussed that would have led to Cordray resigning. The second night of the impeachment ended with Gaylor telling the few stragglers who lasted all the way through that at the third hearing "a compromise" likely would be announced.

Cordray says he was under the impression that a deal had been reached whereby he would resign, promise not to run for mayor in the next election and, in return, be paid his salary for the rest of his term. Instead, after the council members were advised against paying a sitting official what would amount to severance pay, they convened their third meeting and voted to send Cordray packing without any extra money, and to replace him with one of his adversaries, Ralph Clark.

"...which is a lie..."
Relaxing at home on a recent afternoon, the 57-year-old Cordray relates his version of his downfall matter-of-factly, only raising his voice when speaking of his nemesis and successor as mayor, Ralph Clark. He repeatedly refers to Clark as a liar, and his references to many of Clark's statements are either prefaced with or quickly followed by Cordray adding, "...which is a lie."

Clark, however, declines to speak ill of Cordray, referring to him as a friend and pointing out that both are members of the local Lions Club. A retired traffic-signal worker for the city of Houston, the 79-year-old Clark seems ill at ease in his new job, describing himself as an "outside man" -- meaning that he prefers to work outdoors instead of behind a desk.

Cordray says his dispute with Clark came to a boil last year over a vote to approve city department heads. The men disagree on the purpose of the vote, which Cordray claims was to approve a whole slate of appointees and Clark says was to simply decide on procedure -- whether all the candidates would be accepted or rejected as a slate.

Regardless of who was correct, the result was that Cordray got his way, got approval of the slate of candidates he wanted, and Clark felt he'd been bamboozled. "[Clark] said he thought it was wrong, the way I did it. That he had voted on the motion on procedure, which is a lie, by the way. Which is a lie," Cordray repeats for emphasis, raising his voice. "It's my fourth time as mayor, I done it the same way every time; he's a liar. He's a liar."

Clark submitted his letter of resignation the day after his conflict with Cordray, but a day after that decided he didn't want to resign after all. According to Cordray, "The next day he came back and said, 'I don't like what happened. I didn't really mean to vote that way. But I'm going to give you hell from now on. I hope this city goes under. I'm going to do anything in my power to get you out of here. Every day I'm going to make your life miserable.' He did. And I resent it."

Clark, for his part, views the whole episode as a sign that South Houston needs professional help.

 

"It seems like this town has more problems than anything else," Clark admits. "What we need is a city manager, somebody who knows how to run a town."

"We're stuck in a little ice age..."
It's July 19, the South Houston City Council is meeting, and all is not well. Cordray is history, but the town's problems aren't. The budget is a mess, there are plenty of questions about what to do about the sewer plant and council members are arguing.

Councilman Smith, who's an accountant, pronounces himself "flabbergasted" by the rest of the council's plans for the budget. Behind the scenes, there's speculation the city could be bankrupt by fall. Gaylor and Clark are noticeably irritated by Smith's criticism, saying all they are doing is shifting funds to pay salaries. They have no choice, they say. "We move the money where we find it to place it where we need it," Gaylor explains.

After the meeting, Smith draws on a Marlboro outside the Municipal Court building and wonders what will happen to South Houston once it expands its bonded indebtedness by $6 million to fund the sewer plant expansion. If that requires the city's property tax rate to rise by a quarter of a cent, which Smith thinks it will, he foresees hundreds of citizens showing up at council meetings to protest, much like what happened during the water bill fiasco.

One not-so-new idea getting revived currency would be to scrap South Houston completely, or at least its incorporation as a separate city.

"There's always been talk around that one of the things that might help is a referendum to allow Pasadena or Houston to incorporate us, having South Houston disincorporate," lawyer Walter Carr explains. "But you'd have to get the acceptance of Pasadena or Houston and I don't think [either] of those would want it."

Meanwhile, bus driver/activist Thomas has become a council regular, advising the new mayor on procedure from her seat in the gallery and listening to the budget debate as she pages intently through an agenda. "You got to stay down here all the time and watch them because you never know what they're going to slide in on you," she says. "I'd like to see them stop fighting. Our city needs to go forward. We're stuck in a little ice age and we need to break out of it."

Cordray, not surprisingly, hasn't returned to the council meetings since his ouster, and he says he has no intention of seeking reinstatement through the courts. He's already spent $5,000 in legal fees defending himself against impeachment -- money he drew from a savings account earmarked for a new car for his wife, Frankie. She won't be getting the car. He considered an appeal, but realized that depositions to get a lawsuit rolling could cost up to $3,000. An appeal could take years, but his legal bills to lawyer Hale would begin arriving immediately.

"He bills every Friday," Cordray explains. "He needs his money.


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