The Rodney and Lenoria Show
Affirmative action director Lenoria Walker's sarcastic comments about midgets, women and Hispanics during a recent meeting of the National Conference of Black Mayors in New Orleans provoked a City Council tempest last week. The $76,000-a-year department head's verbal indiscretions earned her a hand slap from her boss, Mayor Lee Brown, including a three-day suspension without pay, mandatory sensitivity training and a required apology to Councilman Joe Roach, who is technically a dwarf. On Sunday, the widening repercussions caused Walker to resign from her directorship, though she will retain a lower salaried position with the city.
While the hubbub mostly focused on Walker's loose tongue, her partner in blab state Senator Rodney Ellis's equally pungent stabs at black humor during the same New Orleans meeting received less attention. The senator ridiculed a key Houston black opponent of affirmative action as "an ole big fat handkerchief head."
Ellis then went on to admit he had gotten state legislation passed to exempt his own minority business certification data and that of a potential challenger from disclosure under the state open-records law.
Ellis is no stranger to embarrassing tape recordings, having provoked a hullabaloo when he surreptitiously wore a microphone on the floor of the state senate for a public-TV documentary crew and recorded private conversations with his legislative colleagues two years ago. Ellis then rubbed in the insult by boasting in the documentary that he was smarter than most of his fellow lawmakers. The taping angered colleagues and put Ellis in a legislative doghouse from which he has only recently emerged.
This time around, the recording was done by staffers for the black mayors' conference, who taped the seminar and then sold a copy to Forward Times reporter Ed Wendt. The reporter is an old nemesis of Ellis's who has published a series of articles on alleged profiteering in the city's affirmative action program by insiders, including the senator. Wendt then circulated the tape and transcripts of Walker's remarks to Councilman Roach and others, triggering the controversy at City Hall. Both Walker and Ellis have attacked Wendt's reports as inaccurate and biased, but then he does have those tapes and transcripts.
The scene of the foot-in-mouth banquet was a seminar two weeks ago analyzing the defeat of the anti-affirmative action referendum last November in Houston. Titled "The Houston Experience: A Blueprint for Success," the panel was moderated by mayor pro tem Jew Don Boney.
Boney was a firebrand spokesman for the Black United Front before he won a Council seat, but at the seminar he was the model of decorum, while Ellis and Walker seemed to be rehearsing for spots on Saturday Night Live. The relaxed atmosphere of an all-black audience apparently encouraged the pair to step way over the bounds of political correctness.
After Walker made her much-replayed gaffe describing Councilman Roach as a Republican midget, Rodney took the floor to unleash his own invective against some of the backers of Prop A. He opined that the opponents of affirmative action had made a tactical mistake during the campaign when they failed to showcase inflammatory statements by Nation of Islam minister Robert Muhammad threatening street protests and boycotts if affirmative action lost at the polls.
"The other side was stupid," declared the senator, who then mimicked the minister's basso profundo voice: "What we gonna doooo, we gonna protest." Instead, laughed Ellis, the Prop A ad featured black insurance executive Bill Calhoun.
"They got that big ole fat handkerchief head wearing Bill Calhoun," chuckled Ellis. "He's on there looking like Abraham Lincoln, [saying] 'I grew up poor.' "
Ellis could hardly contain himself as he described how the ad featured pictures of Calhoun "when he was thin, hair all over his head, picturing him with a baby." Ellis comically raised his voice to a high-pitched shriek. "When it first came on, it brought tears to my eyes. I didn't know the Negro had it so bad!"
The senator was equally unimpressed with conservative gadfly Dave Wilson, a sign-company owner who has run for mayor and City Council. "We had this fool running for mayor, Dave Wilson, who was trying to collect petitions to put it on the ballot," a laughing Ellis continued. "This white guy, he needed some affirmative action because he couldn't get his way out of a paper bag."
According to Ellis, Wilson provided an early warning that someone competent might mount a serious challenge to affirmative action. "We thought it was going to be on the ballot two years earlier," explained the senator, "but that fool couldn't get the petitions. But that let us know [that if] somebody in their right mind went out to collect the petitions, they're going to put it on the ballot."
Ellis explained that then-mayor Bob Lanier, Councilman Boney and others concerned about a future attack on affirmative action came to him last year and asked him to quietly pass a legislative amendment that would force any affirmative action referendum to be held on a regular election date. "Normally, the forces against affirmative action want to have the referendum in August," said Ellis. "Why? Cause we out somewhere, whatever, too hot in Houston, hell, I don't blame 'em, I try to get out. I'm trying to get to your town in August."
As the campaign heated up last fall, Ellis says he became a symbol of greedy black politicians exploiting the program.
"Bob Lanier ended up being the poster child for affirmative action," the senator told the forum, and "the folks on the other side wanted to make me and other so-called insiders the poster children for why y'all ought not to have affirmative action. I think I'm a pretty good-looking guy, I don't know why nobody would want to have a program just because I'm getting a contract."
Ellis also put his legislative skills to work in his own service, when the Forward Times's Wendt began bombarding Walker's office with freedom of information requests for the financial documentation on firms certified under the city's MWDBE program. Those records included income-tax filings, and among the certified companies was Ellis's own Apex Securities.
Ellis claimed a group of minority businesspeople came to him and complained about the fact that their affirmative action records were being publicized. At first the senator says he was unimpressed with their arguments, but then reconsidered. "One of them was going to run against me," confided Rodney, "and that helped me to think about it and get a little more sensitive as well."
Ellis crafted a legislative amendment that exempted the sensitive business data from the requirements of public-disclosure statutes. As a result, declared Ellis, "Lenoria Walker knows what's on my income-tax returns, in order for me to get certified. She knows all the intimate details of my company. If she releases it, she's going to jail."
Ellis also told the audience he admired former mayor Lanier's ability to turn a phrase, specifically when Lanier defended affirmative action as a business program, not a welfare program.
Unfortunately, Ellis decided to elaborate on the mayor's slogan with none of his political dexterity.
"You don't go out and create a minority women's business enterprise program to give somebody a contract with a pickup truck and a stick," Ellis cracked, and then spun a little further out of control. "We don't give contracts to white people who don't have nothing, don't know nothing and don't want to learn nothing."
Judging by Ellis's remarks, we do elect people to office who refuse to learn when they should keep their mouths shut.
Want to talk, complain, fill us in on something? Call The Insider at (713) 624-1483, fax him at (713) 624-1496 or e-mail him at Insider@houstonpress.com.
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