Is This Guy Too Smart to Be Mayor?
Bill White looked as if he'd been mugged in a political back alley, and he hadn't even begun to run for mayor of Houston yet. Sitting on a couch in his sunlit Stablewood living room overlooking the tree-shrouded banks of Buffalo Bayou, one of his arms dangled in a sling to cushion the cracked collarbone and bruised ribs he received in a biking mishap in Memorial Park.
It wasn't quite the state White had planned to be in during July 2002, when he launched his trial balloon as a prospective candidate for the city's top office.
Even in perfect health, the 49-year-old plaintiffs' lawyer-turned- federal bureaucrat-turned-corporate Wedge Group CEO is not a physically imposing man, as he has since been reminded ad nauseam in media coverage of the campaign. A Houston Press holiday spoof gifted him with a case of Château Charisma and free passes to a tanning salon. The Houston Chronicle noted his "big ears," a dart he has since turned to his advantage in self-deprecating humor on the campaign trail.
Pale and slight with a fringe of red hair around a balding pate, the candidate's most arresting feature are his penetrating blue eyes, a genetic gift from his parents, San Antonio public school teachers. Those orbs provide a portal into a formidable intelligence and will.
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White's brain is his big stick. He carries it softly, rarely raising his voice, often pausing for a few seconds to digest a question before enunciating a slow stream of words seemingly dictated from an interior computer. Interviewers don't need shorthand to take notes. Longtime White associates describe him as unfailingly precise, deliberate and controlled.
"Think first and then talk," says attorney Steve Susman, White's far more expressive and explosive former boss. "I think that's his process. I think that's what he goes through. Which is, as you know, not the greatest [mannerism] for a politician."
On that summer afternoon last year White competed with an outdoor chorus of cicadas, patiently explaining to a skeptical interviewer how he planned to mount a campaign that could breach the rising barriers of partisanship and ethnicity in Houston municipal politics. In past mayoral contests, that trend had eliminated eminently qualified moderate white Democrats like former city controller George Greanias and Congressman Chris Bell.
In what has since become a campaign mantra, White called the growing partisanship in ostensibly nonparty city elections "a bad thing," adding, "I think most Houstonians agree with me."
Asked how he would escape the trap, White sounded naive at the time.
"I gotta trust in the best instincts of Houstonians," explained the protocandidate. He listed typical themes -- traffic improvements, more parks, efficiency with tax dollars -- then explained, "I think those issues are not matters of ideology or partisanship."
The longtime Democratic activist anticipated correctly. In the final rush toward Tuesday's election, opponent Orlando Sanchez has played the partisan card in debates and through the mail, linking White with assorted demons to the conservative universe. "If you like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Lee Brown and Hillary, you're going to love Bill White," headlines one of the brochures.
What White didn't say back then was that he would put together a campaign that runs like a midsize corporation, humming on a $5 million budget that includes a good chunk of his own fortune. While other candidates are still scrabbling to raise money for high-priced TV spots, his campaign made its purchases during the summer, when rates were lower and choice times open. And if political sign counts or the volume of mailed brochures means anything, this long-planned foray by White into elective politics is going very well indeed.
In recent years the spectacle of rich people throwing millions of their own dollars into vanity political races has become almost routine. The carcasses of their campaigns litter the shoulders of Texas political highways like yesterday's road kill. Recent examples include Laredo banker and gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez and Houston businessman and two-time congressional loser Peter Wareing. But White is a different political animal.
He knows what he's doing and where he's going, and with remarkably few slips has carried his plans to fruition since he was a teenage page in the Texas Senate. In recounting his life since San Antonio's Churchill High School, the executive portrays almost every detail as preparation for a future as a public servant.
That tendency to claim humanitarian motivations for moves that have amassed him a sizable personal fortune provokes eye-rolling from some White critics. But as a former member of the high-priced trial attorney world -- one typically stocked with lavish homes and cars, other personal excesses and trophy wives -- he's a comparative ascetic.
In 1991, White even hired his own personal political trainer, Clare Giesen, to help him structure his schedule to devote time to civic activities and lay the groundwork for a political career. He served several years as state Democratic Party chair, while studying the political landscape with an eye for future opportunities. Those efforts are now paying off with endorsements from organizations he has supported for years with his time and money.
He shares the ballot with two local political veterans whose names -- and pasts -- are by now familiar to voters. Former city councilman Sanchez pushed incumbent Lee Brown into a 2001 runoff that became a bitter arm-wrestling contest between Republicans and Democrats. State Representative Sylvester Turner, defeated by Bob Lanier in a 1991 runoff, has been spoiling for a comeback ever since.
Newcomer White's past has provided little attack material for his opponents -- that's not surprising for a man vetted earlier by the FBI for a federal appointment. But because White has been so methodical and successful throughout his life, his rare missteps stand out like glaring beacons begging for examination. They include a failed first marriage and his Frontera Resources, an oil and gas venture in the Caspian Sea region that to date has cost Houston investors, some of them his friends, millions of dollars.
White's campaign literature touts the venture as a success, although he concedes that's not the situation for investors. One of them, a former boss of White's, even calls himself "the biggest sucker."
Regardless, the latest polls show that voters are ready to invest in White's campaign venture. He's expected to make the runoff, where many political observers believe he's a cinch to succeed Brown as mayor.
If he wins, he'll have rewritten the local political playbook and made good on his boast that "when I set out to do something, I have a lifelong track record of success."
River Oaks Breakfast Club members slowly filter into a country club dining room as the sun peeks up over the mansions of Houston's richest enclave. All male, and almost all white, these men are precisely the group that Bill White has to win over in order to offset Sanchez's organized Republican Party support.
The welcome is surprisingly warm. Craig Childers, an energy services executive, leaves no doubt who gets his vote. "I've only voted for one other Democrat in my life," he tells White. "I'm flabbergasted Republicans couldn't get a better candidate than Sanchez."
Attorney Hugh McCulley agrees. "I hope Bob Lanier will stand up for Bill and say this is not a partisan election."
When it's his turn to talk, White is relaxed and confident, a businessman among colleagues who all speak the same language.
He starts with the story of his step-grandfather, a full-blooded Cherokee with a third-grade education who served 40 years as an army master sergeant.
"Let us say his language was colorful," jokes White. "I did not know that in my faith that Jesus had so many middle names."
After running through the standard self-put-down about his big ears and bald head, where he claims that a supporter organized a White fund-raiser and invited only chrome-domed men, White quickly moves into the meat of his appeal to this group.
"I have learned a few things," prefaces the candidate. "I know how to run organizations with discipline and accountability. I know how to serve the customer."
White's voice rises a few decibels when he hits his point that someone with management experience should run the city. "I know that sounds unusual and at first people say, 'That won't sell, it's all about ethnic and partisan politics, and all that type of stuff.' Well, that's what the customers want and I want.
"Whether it be police response time or getting building permits issued in a timely fashion, you know what all these things are? For those of you in business, it's what we call operations. You know what I'm talking about."
White ends with "There's a sense of possibility out there right now. People realize we don't have to put up with going through old elections that are a rehash of old choices."
The breakfast clubbers respond with applause. White is quickly out the door and off on a day of stops -- including a black ministerial gathering at a northeast Houston church, tapings at a Spanish-language TV station, a University of Houston student rally, a meeting of Hispanic precinct judges and finally a business school mayoral forum at Rice. With varying degrees of emphasis on issues near and dear to each group, he stayed remarkably on message, asking listeners to cross race, party and class lines in favor of competence and experience.
"His discipline has been impressive," says close friend and fellow moderate Democrat Paul Hobby, who admits to surprise at White's campaign effectiveness. When White initially told Hobby of his intention to run for mayor, Hobby responded with a lesson learned from his own narrow loss for Texas comptroller in 1998.
"I've been there, Bill, and I tend to speak in paragraphs, and I had to learn to speak in platitudes," Hobby told him. "That's a hard thing to do. And you speak in footnoted paragraphs."
Hobby demonstrated his nonpartisan stripes by actively supporting Peter Wareing in his losing GOP primary bid against John Culberson for Congress. He believes White has done the best job in appealing across party lines.
"Everybody who will cross over, everybody who's just not genetically programmed to do the other thing, has shown up in Bill's camp. I've been surprised not just by the names but by the activity associated with the names -- people who are out there working for him that I would have defaulted to another candidate."
Those Republican supporters include Baker Botts LLP partner Darrell Bristow, who represented President George Bush in the Florida ballot box controversy, as well as Ben Love, former Texas Commerce Bank chair, and energy exec Rich Kinder.
Herb Butrum, who moves in Republican circles, was the fund-raiser and adviser to Rob Mosbacher in his losing mayoral run against Lee Brown in 1997. Butrum says that in contrast to that campaign, there is only tepid GOP support for Sanchez. He attributes the malaise to the candidate's scant business background and predicts many conservatives will cast quiet votes for White.
Former mayor Bob Lanier endorsed White, calling him "fiscally conservative and compassionate on human rights," and adding, "I think people can make their own comparisons as to his fiscal ability compared to his opponents'."
According to Lanier, only White has hands-on experience with budget-based enterprises. "Where this city is now," Lanier says, "I think it's absolutely essential."
If White does succeed in bridging the partisan and racial divide, it will be the next step in a career path that began before he got to junior high in San Antonio.
Bill White was born into a lower-middle-class household of books and workaholics. His father, William Byrd White, taught history and held several side jobs to provide extras. His mother, Gloria Howard White, also was a San Antonio-area public school teacher. She recalls that her older son was a little different from the beginning.
She remembers noticing the boy mumbling to himself and walking up and down a drainage ditch near the family property.
"He came in the house and his dad said, 'What are you thinking about, son?' He said, 'Well, I just read we have excess poultry and starving people.' He wanted to solve this problem at nine years old! He was thinking about serving and solving problems. He couldn't understand why his dad had to have an extra job to pay for pharmaceutical and doctor bills. He was very aware of people's needs and where they stood."
His father often took Bill on runs to thrift stores to pick up day-old milk or bread to trim expenses. According to his mother, their son devoured encyclopedias and had read the Bible through twice before graduating from high school.
Bill and his brother, Robert, 15 months his junior, studied piano in their preteens, though it was clear from the beginning which one was the gifted player.
"Bill could play very well, but his brother at five was already mimicking and playing his pieces before he had a teacher," recalls his mother. "Bill was a precise player and played with exactness. His brother played with more emotion and creativity."
White turned to debate and politics, and in 1967 snagged a sponsorship as a Texas Senate page to Senator Joe Bernal, who knew his father. So for his first year in junior high, White commuted with the senator to Austin and stayed the week with a family friend. The 13-year-old did his schoolwork on weekends and maintained an A average. It was around that time that the term "prodigy" began to be routinely applied to Bill White.
"He's always been somebody who had a good focus and a sense of where he wanted to go and where he wanted to be," says his brother. Robert is a concert pianist and composer who changed his legal surname to Avalon and runs the Foundation for Modern Music out of a cubbyhole office in the Montrose. If the mayoral candidate grew a short beard and donned a Mexican guayabera shirt, the pair could pass for fraternal twins.
"He was always very self-motivated," Avalon says of his brother. "My parents were not standing behind him with a whip saying, 'Study, study.' It was by example. My parents were constantly reading, and there were books everywhere."
Avalon says White, since childhood, has had a knack for bringing groups together and mediating disputes. He recalls how his brother once delivered a speech in high school about "how labels prevent us from knowing who each other really are. That we're not that different from one another. Bill had a way of looking at those labels and barriers as artificial."
The subject was especially significant to Robert, who realized he was gay in high school and came out to his family in his early twenties. He and his longtime partner are close to the rest of the extended White clan.
"Bill's a pretty sharp guy, so he probably knew when I was in my teens," says Avalon of that conversation long ago. "He is fair, and throughout my life I've never experienced any form of discrimination from him. He's my brother. He talks about it. He's comfortable with the issue and he's aware of the discrimination we've been facing."
At the endorsement meeting of the Houston Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus several months ago, Avalon stood beside his brother and appealed for support. Despite Sylvester Turner's excellent record on gay rights issues, the group endorsed White.
In his senior year of high school, White won the American Legion's national oratory competition and received a scholarship. He attended Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude. During 1976 summer classes at the University of Texas law school, he met Carol LaVergne, a law student from Houston.
"He was an amazingly personable, delightful, brilliant man," she remembers. "Tremendous sense of humor, very mature and very serious person." They married a year later, about the time that Bill faced a career crossroads.
White had interned for then-congressman Bob Krueger, and in his final year in law school he worked on Krueger's losing senatorial bid against eventual winner John Tower. As the law review editor and top student in his class, White could have followed a typical career path for elite graduates: applying to federal judges for a clerkship. However, White made only one application, to Washington, D.C., appellate judge Malcolm Wilkie, a moderate Republican from Houston appointed by President Richard Nixon.
At the end of the job interview, however, White shocked Wilkie when he told the judge he wanted to eventually practice at Mandell and Wright, a forerunner of sorts to the later Susman Godfrey firm.
"He looked at me and said that was the most liberal bunch of lawyers he ever ran into in his entire life," laughs White. It also didn't help when the judge learned White had campaigned for the opponent of John Tower, a close friend of the judge.
White didn't get the clerkship. He returned to Texas to join forces with the man who would eventually introduce him to two men who would play key roles in his future advancement: President Bill Clinton and Lebanese billionaire Issam Fares.
At that time in the mid-'70s, Steve Susman had left Fulbright & Jaworski to teach at UT law school. While in Austin, he began sketching out the framework for what would become a plaintiffs' public issue law firm with a revolutionary concept: contingency fee basis. To make any money, the lawyers would have to win their cases. Susman began recruiting aggressive young attorneys willing to gamble their skills in exchange for rapid advancement. White was the sixth lawyer recruited and quickly rose to star status.
White characterizes his decision to come to Houston as an exercise in idealism and serving the victimized, a position that draws a chuckle from Susman.
"Please, give me a break. Bill loves a challenge. He's very competitive, obviously, and being on the plaintiffs' side of the docket in these cases you have to be competitive and entrepreneurial, 'cause if you don't win, you don't get paid.
"It's very risky and he's a risk taker."
White admits the prospect of rapid advancement was alluring.
"I did it because Steve Susman made a commitment to me that what I could do in the courtroom, what I could do in handling cases and financially, would be dependent entirely on just how successful I was."
One of the first great successes was a massive antitrust case against a group of corrugated-box manufacturers who had conspired to fix prices. Susman was lead attorney, but White played a key role in prepping and cross-examining expert witnesses.
Another standout case involved allegations by oil and gas producers that a company had provided low-quality cement for their West Texas wells, resulting in wellhead blowouts. When the defense got the original lawyers for the producers recused, Susman Godfrey came aboard for the plaintiffs. Paul Hobby was a young associate working for Fulbright, one of the defense firms, while White joined the complex litigation barely a month before trial.
"He walked in there and cleaned our client's clock and won like a $12 million to $13 million verdict, big money by Midland standards," remembers Hobby. "That was really my first awareness of Bill White. He was a so much better lawyer than the guys we got recused. That was the joke -- if we had let the other guys continue to stumble along, they would have messed up one way or another."
White also represented a pillar of the Houston Jewish community, Billy Goldberg, in an antitrust case challenging the city's cable TV contracts. It was his first exposure to the crony network linking elected officials and City Hall contractors and lobbyists.
"It was clear there were insider deals on these lucrative cable franchises where these local groups got the franchises and flipped them for a lot of money to out-of-town firms," says White. "And then we got the worst cable franchise of any big city in the country in terms of rates, availability, channels, etc."
Attorney Jim Drexler recalls driving White back from a preliminary hearing in a Beaumont case that involved an organized crime family, the Fredemans, who had cheated barge operators by shorting fuel deliveries. On the ride back, White pulled out a tape recorder and began dictating an extensive brief -- without consulting any notes.
"Bill starts dictating this statement of the case that ended up being about 65 pages long," recalls Drexler. When they reached their destination, Drexler's secretary transcribed the tapes. "He had dictated a short story in final form," Drexler says. "It was one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen anybody do."
However, as White progressed rapidly up the ladder of Susman Godfrey, his personal life was unraveling.
He and Carol were obviously headed in different directions. She had worked at Vinson & Elkins and then in the legal department of an oil and gas company. When Bill began unfolding plans for a life in politics, she concluded that it was time to part ways.
"After I came to have a sense of what a joint life with Bill was going to be in the future, it just became more and more clear to me that I wanted a quieter and more private life," says his ex.
"It was in some ways a very hard decision because I cared very much for Bill, and I'm a tremendous fan of his. But I didn't want a public life, and that was not something I really knew when I was in law school, when I was falling in love with him."
Establishing a family also became an issue.
"Bill was happy with the idea of having children," says Carol, "as long as I recognized and understood that they would be my responsibility and that he was going to continue working at the same pace that he was. I think that was naive of him. I think that he has probably been a lot more involved in child-rearing than he thought he would be himself."
White, now the father of teenagers Will, Elena and Stephen, remembers it somewhat differently.
"Fatherhood has been one of the great things of my life, but I think Carol probably thought the way that I worked and threw myself and energy into every project and getting out there trying to help people get things done, that I wasn't a family-centered type of person who ever wanted kids That was a misreading."
Carol later married and then divorced Chuck Neelley, who had been at UT law school with her and Bill. She's an attorney now in Taos, New Mexico.
White and his ex remain good friends, and she recently visited Houston with her daughter for a weekend of block-walking with his campaign workers.
By the time Bill and Carol divorced, White had met a young lawyer named Andrea Ferguson, a Memorial High School grad who attended UT years after he graduated. He encountered his future wife during the corrugated-box litigation, when Andrea was on the other side of the table at depositions. She was the second woman to make partner in what is now Locke Liddell & Sapp. "We'd been friends and I tried to set her up on dates with friends," recalls White. "She went with Carol and I on camping trips and we got to know each other."
"I loved the firm, loved the people, loved the bankers I mainly represented. But it was not a passion for me, so when I left I didn't miss the substance of it."
As for the possible role of Houston's first lady, which Elyse Lanier largely invented and Lee Brown's wife, Frances, despised, Andrea is a good soldier. "I love my husband, I want to support him, I'll do whatever."
The second Mrs. White is also an author. She has an unpublished novel about "a Martha Stewart type who is always counting the number of dishes going in the dishwasher. Her husband commits a gray-area wrong and she falls from social grace and finds a surprising strength."
Mrs. White says the book lacks passion. She shelved it in favor of writing a novel aimed at teenagers, which she hopes to see published in the coming year. By then, she may have a whole new realm to mine for literary inspiration.
Steve Susman sits in his dining room on the 23rd floor of the Huntingdon, recounting his shared history with Bill White while occasionally slipping scrambled egg morsels under the table to his insistent King Charles spaniel, Otis.
Morning haze drapes the skyline of the city, looming beyond a wall-length window. Susman is the visual opposite of his former partner -- a dark, brooding, magnetic man whose face bears the sculpted features of a tougher-than-nails trial lawyer.
Bill Clinton hired Susman Godfrey when he was Arkansas attorney general to represent the state in antitrust litigation. Susman had met the future president, but White had not.
That changed in early 1991 when White was part of a small group of influential Democratic activists who attended a Clinton precampaign speech. He became point man for Susman Godfrey in raising money for Clinton's campaign.
Susman laughs. "My first wife, Karen, always said, 'Goddamn it, you should never have let Bill deliver that money for the firm [to Clinton]. You should have done it yourself, and then you would've gotten a big position.' " At the time, Susman replied that he liked his life and had no desire to go to Washington.
After Clinton won, many supporters began angling for government appointments. Because he was one of the earliest big fund-raisers, White was in the running for deputy energy secretary, along with Gary Mauro, then Texas land commissioner and a Clinton pal. Accusations of political use of his office took Mauro out of the running, and White got the post under Hazel O'Leary.
At DOE, White primarily focused on oil and gas matters, traveling extensively in the Caucasus region of the newly liberated former Soviet republics. He negotiated for pipeline rights-of-way and the closing of the damaged Chernobyl nuclear plant.
After three years, White resigned from his post and returned to Houston in 1996. He would renew an old acquaintance with Issam Fares, who is now the deputy prime minister of Lebanon.
Years earlier, Susman had represented Fares and Wedge Group in a lawsuit. "I just happened to get Bill White as the associate to work on the case with me," says Susman. "Through working on the case, he got to meet Mr. Fares. Mr. Fares was very impressed with Bill and liked him. That's Bill's connection to Wedge and Issam Fares." After White returned to Houston from Washington, the Wedge Group CEO position opened up and Fares asked him to take the job.
White had also founded an international oil and gas venture, Frontera Resources, and began contacting former associates to solicit investments. Frontera then negotiated energy concessions with some of the same leaders White had dealt with at the energy department.
He denies that he exploited his government service in setting up Frontera.
"I thought it was critically important that the United States and the whole West try to teach good models of free enterprise over there," says the candidate. "I have not made one penny, one dime, from activities in the Caspian Sea " Of course, a company that loses money for investors is not quite a free-enterprise role model.
"Half the partners wanted to know how they could get into the deal, and the other half were worried that Bill might call them and ask them to get into the deal," says one Susman Godfrey source.
"Some people always wanted to get on Bill's bandwagons, and other people were always convinced that as smart as Bill was, his schemes were too grandiose."
One who did bite was Susman, to the tune of more than $1 million. He says his late wife made the decision.
"She just loved Bill, thought he was fantastic. She said, 'I don't know whether this will be a success, but if Bill White gets rich off this and we aren't participants, I will be sick.' That's a pretty stupid reason, but that's why [we did it]."
As with the motivation for his legal career, White now claims personal wealth was never the reason for the launch of Frontera.
"If that was the case," retorts Susman of White's idealistic explanation, "I have been victimized by securities fraud.
"I can't get into Bill's mind and know how he thinks, but I know what most of the investors thought: that this was a real venture capital play Everyone who invested in Frontera knew it was a risk. I don't blame Bill for it."
"I did not say or imply that the purpose was not to have economic success," responds the candidate. "And still to this day I do feel very good about the time I invested in it and the impact on the communities it served."
Frontera is still afloat, and Susman holds out faint hope that some of his money may yet be recovered. There's talk a Chinese energy firm may buy into the venture, returning some money to investors.
Yet even the man who sank big bucks in a Bill White investment scheme is backing his latest political venture.
"I think he will be a great mayor because he is smart," says Susman. "There's no comparison in brains or analytical ability or thoughtfulness with the other two candidates. God, Bill has excelled in everything he's done, and I'm sure as mayor he will be that way."
Now, if only he could get that million dollars back.
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