Thirty or so residents clustered in a cozy living room last week in the friendly forest of Kingwood, tittering as First Court of Appeals Justice Eric Andell performed his Democrat-on-the-gallows routine.
"I'm not even an endangered species," the 54-year-old jurist wailed. He used the same theatrical flair he often displayed during a court-reality TV show he hosted several years ago. "Taxonomically, I'm extinct. I have no one to mate with."
Engineer Roy Hearnsberger and wife Sue, both Republicans, opened their home for a pre-election meet-and-greet buffet. The thin, balding, blue-eyed Andell hoped to cherry-pick a few GOP votes in his campaign.
He jokingly apologized for breaking the heavily Republican bedroom community's political barriers. "They stopped me at Kingwood and 59, and I'm here on a visa," he deadpanned through waves of appreciative laughter. "Normally Democrats have to be outta here by eight-thirty, but they extended it by 30 minutes, so I gotta be outta here by nine."
Andell had ventured up the Eastex Freeway to the home base of his opponent, Harris County Assistant District Attorney Terry Lee Jennings, on the sort of raid he's been conducting into Republican forums and neighborhoods for the past several years. One of the last two surviving Democratic justices in Harris County, Andell has to convince GOP voters to cross party lines and wade deep into the ballot to punch position 75 so he can keep his job. Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore is expected to lose Harris County by an eight- to ten-point margin, so Andell has to find that many crossover voters to reach 50 percent. In the process, he's trying his best to parlay his ubiquitous presence on community boards and projects into nonpartisan appeal.
"I've already voted, and your name was not easy to find," crowed one older Republican in the audience. "I put your sign up in my yard because my deer-hunting buddy told me you were a good guy." Andell is hoping a lot of his old friends broadcast the same message across political lines.
The judge has both clung to his party identity and run from it. He says he refused to switch parties when GOP county chairman Gary Polland made the same overtures that caused First Court colleague Murry Cohen to jump the political fence. Andell was assured that he would be protected in getting through the GOP primary against challenges from the right, he says. (Cohen, whose wife works for Planned Parenthood, sailed through the primary this year after bumping a fringe opponent off the ballot and hiring a Polland associate as his campaign manager.)
After the presentation, host Hearnsberger admitted he's puzzled as to why his longtime friend hasn't changed parties. "I have asked him, but I'm not sure I got too clear an answer," says Hearnsberger, who's chairman of a local hospital board, and met Andell through the judge's involvement in Kingwood-area community projects. "But I guess he has his reasons, and I've never questioned Eric about anything he does outside of being a judge."
Candidate Jennings, on the other hand, is doing his best to seal Andell in a partisan lockbox and throw away the keys. A Jennings campaign flyer banners: "Did you know there is only one liberal Democrat judge sitting on the bench in Harris County left to be defeated? Help defeat the last liberal Democrat on the First Court of Appeals."
Andell touts his high bar poll ratings, his almost nonexistent backlog of cases and two citations as appellate judge of the year. Jennings surveys the same record and sees a do-nothing judge who issues fewer opinions than most of his colleagues. He has put out a directory of Andell opinions claiming the judge's rulings reveal "a strong liberal judicial activist philosophy in favor of criminal defendants and civil plaintiffs."
Jennings says the critique should not be taken as an indication of how he would have ruled in each case. That qualification may be dictated by Texas judicial canons, which prohibit candidates from discussing their positions on individual cases.
The morning after the Kingwood affair, Andell breakfasted on coffee and a bagel at Katz's Deli on lower Westheimer. He addressed the question, Why doesn't he switch parties and make his judicial life a whole lot simpler -- and longer?
"I wouldn't have my integrity," answered Andell slowly. "Maybe I'd have a free pass, but not with integrity."
Andell claims he has remained in the same party because when governors Mark White and Ann Richards appointed him to vacant benches, he pledged to them he would seek re-election only as a Democrat. He was unopposed for the appellate judgeship in 1994, one year after his appointment to that bench.
Asked whether his party affiliation or his judicial position was more important to him, Andell replied, "Being a judge. Because I don't view my judicial post as being a Democrat or Republican. I never have."
Until this election, Andell says, party affiliation was never an issue. With the nearly all-Republican judiciary, he believes judicial impartiality in the county is in jeopardy. As an example, the judge points to the recent attempt by Harris County Republican officials to pressure Justice John Anderson. They wanted Anderson to change his 14th Court of Appeals opinion overturning the state law banning sodomy between consenting adults of the same sex.
"That's something I've never in my life seen," says Andell. "Incredible to me that could go on -- to contact judges and threaten them over opinions, since I believe in the independence of the judiciary."
If judicial candidates pledge to support the detailed platform of a party, contends Andell, how can they approach cases from an unbiased point of view?
"People talk about how you've got to adhere to the platform of the party if you're going to be an elected official," says Andell. "The judicial branch of government can't make those kinds of promises. You can't go into a judicial post with any kind of preconceived notion of the outcome of a case."
Jennings sees the matter in a different light. He claims Andell is typical of liberal Democrats who rewrite the law to suit their opinions.
"The way courts get into trouble is when you have somebody from the left or right trying to impose their political philosophy into law. I honestly do believe that Andell is a liberal judicial activist, and I think those cases [listed in his campaign material] tend to support that belief pretty strongly."
Jennings, a 40-year-old San Antonio native, has a personnel file full of plaudits for his work as a prosecutor. They include commendations from corporate officials at Walt Disney and Nike for successfully prosecuting the first case brought under the Texas copyright infringement and counterfeiting statute.
Jennings also has the rather unusual viewpoint that the local Republican primaries are the nonpartisan mechanisms where an impartial judiciary gets elected.
"You have moderate factions and conservative factions [in the GOP primary], and that's where the races are being fought now," says Jennings.
Jennings rejects the idea that there's anything worthwhile in a two-party judiciary.
"This idea that somehow we ought to have at least one liberal Democrat out of fairness, well, I don't buy that at all, particularly when you look at Andell's work record."
While Jennings harps on the low number of opinions Andell has written, the incumbent points out that he gets the same allotment of cases as other judges, and his backlog is lower than most. Jennings's campaign literature says 220 cases were transferred out of the First Court to other venues in fiscal year 2000, implying that Andell is somehow to blame. Andell responds that higher authorities transfer cases between appellate courts to balance caseloads across the state, and it has nothing to do with individual judges. "It's obvious Jennings doesn't know how appellate courts work," snipes Andell. "These claims are reckless."
Jennings says there is media favoritism for Andell, and the judge schmoozes up.
"Maybe it's paranoia on my part, but it seems to me everybody is out to save this guy, and the question I think people should be asking is, "Is the guy worth saving?' "
Jennings cites the deferential treatment he claims Andell received when they were screened by the Houston Chronicle editorial board, which endorsed Andell.
"It's like he's one out of 18 judges," complains Jennings, "so why is everyone fawning over this guy?"
He accuses Andell of neglecting his judicial duties in favor of community activities.
"I don't think it's any secret that Judge Andell is the most political judge in this area.Just to give you an idea of how far he'll go, I was at a Kingwood-area Republican women's fund-raiser, and he was there. He sat there at a table, and nobody would sit with him. It's weird. Have you ever heard of Republican judges going out and talking to Democratic groups? Not that there are any."
Andell replies that he takes care of his work and makes court dates. He explains that he goes to Republican and Democratic events because he considers himself nonpartisan and values each group equally.
In conducting interviews for this column, Andell was careful to schedule them during off-hours, away from his courtroom. On the other hand, Jennings conducted a lengthy telephone interview from his prosecutorial office, during the afternoon of a workday, using county equipment.
At the end of the talk, The Insider couldn't resist asking whether that made Jennings a hypocrite. After all, he'd attacked Andell for political activities away from court, while Jennings was doing campaign work right in the district attorney's office.
"I talked to you and [the Chronicle's] Mary Flood today, and I'm going to have to take an hour of vacation time," explained Jennings. As for using county phones for the interview, the candidate compared his political and personal chores.
"Look, if my wife calls me on the phone and says, "Can you stop at the restaurant and pick up something on the way home,' or if my wife sends me an e-mail, I think somebody would have to be pretty chickenshit to bitch about it."
The Insider can't decide whether to cluck or bark at that one.
Last month three Poe Elementary school pals were headed home from class when a stranger appeared. The tall, suited woman motioned to them in Dunlavy Park.
"I was walking, and she told me, "I want to take a picture with you,' " recalls 11-year-old Noel Muniz. He and friends Danny and Miguel Cruz obliged the stranger, who had a photog snap the group in front of the Dunlavy bridge over the Southwest Freeway.
The kids thought no more of the matter until State Rep Debra Danburg's campaign brochure hit district mailboxes with details of her record on behalf of children. And there was the photo of Danburg with Danny, Miguel and Noel. The headline: "Debra Danburg. Give our kids a fighting chance."
According to the kids, Danburg did not ask them to get their parents' permission for publication of the photo. A friend of the family called The Insider to complain. "What if this family had a problem with the father, or for some other reason did not want their child's face plastered across the district? This was wrong."
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Noel's mother, Eddie, later lectured him for talking to strangers and told The Insider, through a translator, that she did not give permission for her son to participate.
Danburg did not return an Insider inquiry as to whether she got approval from parents for five Anglo children who appear in another snapshot with her in the same brochure.
Quantum Consultants' Nancy Sims, a veteran at producing campaign materials, says she requires release slips for any posed pictures involving candidates and children. She recalls a TV commercial for City Councilman Gordon Quan where the candidate posed with 20 children. "For every one of them," says Sims, "I had a permission slip signed by the parent."
Danburg has pioneered state legislation to protect women from stalkers. Maybe she should consider doing the same for photogenic schoolkids stalked by publicity-hungry politicians.