Last week's raucous send-off for retiring Harris County elections chief Tony Sirvello featured a politically balanced guest list rarely seen in Houston these days. Even County Judge Robert Eckels and Commissioner Steve Radack suspended their mutual antipathy long enough to ham it up. They read a proclamation and uttered effusive encomiums as the five-foot-four Sirvello perched precariously above the crowd, in front of the bar at La Griglia on West Gray.
Sirvello's boss, County Clerk Beverly Kaufman, made a brief appearance and left. It was all a bit awkward, since Kaufman herself dictated Sirvello's retirement just short of 30 years' service. The 57-year-old Sirvello had wanted to stay through the shakedown cruise of the newly installed computer-terminal voting system.
The gathering, organized by Democratic political consultant Nancy Sims and GOP fund-raiser Sue Walden, was packed with well-wishers from both parties as well as the media. It's hard to imagine anyone else in the county clerk's office drawing a similar nonpartisan mix in the future.
Paranoia runs deep in the electoral process in the wake of the Florida presidential donnybrook, and the Democrats are already questioning and criticizing the new triumvirate Republican Kaufman assembled to replace Sirvello.
In the past, the clerk's election operation "has been very balanced," says Democratic consultant Dan McClung of Campaign Strategies, "and I think Tony had a lot to do with that." He adds that he "would feel a hell of a lot better" if Sirvello had stayed through the general election this fall.
County Democratic chair Sue Schechter attended the bash, later voicing concerns about the partisan makeup of Sirvello's replacement cast.
"You have a guy leaving that we totally trusted and had a longtime relationship with, and new people we don't know that do seem to be more political. We can't do anything but be suspicious."
Apprehension is heightened by the expectation that next November's elections could be the closest in a decade. Turnout by Harris County's African-Americans and Hispanics could determine key statewide races such as that between Republican John Cornyn and Democrat Ron Kirk, which could decide who wins control of the U.S. Senate. There are also competitive local races, including the Precinct 2 commissioner contest between Democrat and Houston City Controller Sylvia Garcia and Republican Johnny Isbell.
"I think with close elections we need to watch everything very carefully," says a Houston political consultant who requested anonymity. "It's going to be critically important that [the county clerk's office] operate with the utmost integrity, and people are concerned because they are not familiar with the people who are now running it."
Kaufman, 57, says she selected her new team "based on their qualifications and their experience in the election process, not because of any partisan issues."
As for Sirvello's influence in separating politics from counting votes, she notes, "Tony has not carried out any policies in this office in the last eight years that were not dictated by me I've always bent over backwards to address the concerns of all the parties, and that is not going to change one scintilla."
If nothing else, the increased cost to taxpayers from Harris County's new election team is likely to draw comment. Sirvello received $83,000 a year to run the elections division. His replacements will draw salaries totaling in excess of $200,000 to do pretty much the same job.
"I told Tony it took two people to replace him," chuckles Kaufman. "At least a person and a half."
The new elections supervisor, with an $80,000 salary, is another longtime county employee, Johnnie German. The 50-year-old Humble resident is largely unknown to the politicos and carries expertise on the technical side. His assistant is 44-year-old Robyn Short, who handled polling places, precinct personnel and early voting in recent elections. Short, who is paid $66,000, is a Bellaire resident and previous primary director for the Harris County Republican Party.
Sirvello was a particular favorite with political reporters because of his accessibility and helpfulness with research. The new public information officer for the elections office arrives with interesting baggage. David Beirne, 27, was an assistant supervisor in Florida's Broward County during its "hanging chad" vote-count controversy in 2000. He left in the general housecleaning after his boss, Jane Carroll, retired under fire for management problems in the office.
During a short tenure as Fort Bend County elections supervisor, Beirne drew criticism from Fort Bend Democratic chair Felicia Farrar. She accused him of allowing poll-watchers to intimidate minority voters during the mayoral runoff contest between Mayor Lee Brown and Orlando Sanchez. Farrar requested that the Justice Department investigate her complaints, but no action was taken. Beirne, who will make $66,000 a year in his new Harris County job, told reporters the accusations were groundless.
Beirne's new boss says he will be more than just a public information officer. "What he carries in is good election experience," says Kaufman. "He's got a master's in public administration and worked in a pretty large jurisdiction for a respected election supervisor who retired. The lady that was elected to replace her brought in her own people."
While media coverage of Sirvello's resignation has depicted it as voluntary, several sources close to the supervisor say Kaufman first marginalized him, then forced him to resign. Sirvello declined to comment on the reports, but hinted that he may have more to say after he officially retires at the end of the month.
"It's not going to do any good to get into that now, because I want to keep things on an even keel," Sirvello says, "and to leave here on as professional a level as I've always conducted myself." He's busy tying up loose ends on election services contracts between the county and the political parties, and packing up.
Asked whether she forced Sirvello out, Kaufman characterizes the departure as "mutually agreed upon." According to her, "It's important that someone with his many years of service and good reputation be able to retire on a very positive note, without innuendo or any kind of negative aspect being brought into the picture."
Kaufman went on to say there were several reasons behind the timing of Sirvello's resignation. She cites the physical stress on the elections supervisor, with his growing communications responsibilities in the third-largest county in the nation.
"He's borne it well, but it's taken its toll on him," says Kaufman. She says Sirvello has a sick mother and acid reflux problems. "He's not gravely ill or anything like that, but he has suffered physically because of it. I've had friends of his express concerns about how they've seen him not looking well."
With Sirvello likely to serve as a media commentator during the fall election, the public probably won't have to wait too long to get his take on the state of affairs inside the county clerk's office.
Driving Miss Sheila: The Sequel
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Much has been made of Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee's habit of using staff to chauffeur her around the nation's capital, even when she lives within walking distance of her office. The Houston Press got the ball rolling with a cover piece titled "What's Driving Miss Sheila" (February 20, 1997). The conservative Weekly Standard did an update in February, and that got extensive play on the similarly oriented Fox News, which salivates at any opportunity to bait archliberal Lee.
Roll Call, the weekly that covers congressional doings, reported the most recent chapter late last month: "An interesting scene played out on the east side of the Capitol. The Capitol Police cleared Rep. John Dingall's (D-Mich) car to go through the security barriers, which only let through one vehicle at a time."
According to Roll Call, a Mercedes with darkened windows suddenly sped up behind Dingall's car and tried to tailgate it through the security checkpoint. Alarmed officers flagged down the vehicle and checked the contents and occupants, and "who should be in the passenger seat but Sheila Jackson Lee."
After checking the Mercedes, cops waved through the congresswoman, who's in a perpetual hurry. Jackson Lee drivers should take note in the future: Running a security blockade risks far more serious consequences than a tongue-lashing from Miss Sheila.