With springtime just around the corner, the only things that will soon be sprouting green faster than area gardens are the campaign fields under cultivation for the upcoming mayoral race. With millions of dollars in consultant and advertising fees up for grabs, all the usual suspects are scrambling for positions in what could be the costliest fight in history for the city's top elective post.
Even more interesting is that some of the usual suspects are glomming on to unpredictable hosts.
The wide-open race may establish new political ground rules for municipal battles in the city before it concludes next fall. The last two strongly contested mayoral campaigns became party referenda, with Lee Brown winning both for the Democrats in runoffs against GOPers Rob Mosbacher in 1997 and Orlando Sanchez in 2001.
Perhaps Republicans are absorbing the lessons of those defeats, because the early stirrings this year indicate a trend away from predictable partisan alignments, and have already ruptured several longtime political alliances and created strange campaign bedfellows.
For instance, businessman and former state Democratic chairman Bill White has hired fund-raiser Herb Butrum, a veteran Republican consultant with ties to the Bush family who raised money for both Mosbacher and Sanchez.
Butrum predicts he'll have no trouble tapping GOP sources to support his candidate.
"People understand the mess the city is in," says Butrum. "More than anything, people want to see the city fixed, and that will trump most partisan feelings.
"For the city to come out of that, it's going to take real business experience. That resonates with Republicans regardless of party labels. Bill has always been viewed as a real uniter and a very smart guy."
Asked whether he can deliver GOP movers and shakers to White, Butrum says a number of people already on the team are "very, very close to the Bushes and the Perrys of this world." He expects that the White campaign will unveil a high-powered battery of GOP supporters in coming months.
The campaign has already pried apart an alliance that helped shape city political history over the last decade. Former mayor Bob Lanier and consultants Dave and Sue Walden have parted ways, with Lanier gravitating toward White, and the Waldens embracing Sanchez in his second campaign for mayor. The Waldens' on-again-off-again divorce is on hold while the separated couple try to boost a third straight candidate into the mayor's office. They previously labored for Lanier and Brown in six consecutive campaigns since 1991.
Meanwhile, consultants Hector Carreño and Frank McCune of CMGV Worldwide left the Sanchez camp and signed up with Democratic state Representative Sylvester Turner for a role in his undeclared campaign. McCune has close ties to District H Councilman Gabe Vasquez as his former chief of staff and consultant.
Carreño and McCune have been active at City Hall over the last year, having launched the Powersol company as a minority subsidiary with Reliant Energy on a city contract. McCune also became a figure in the recent Food Fight 2 when Dave Walden angrily claimed that Vasquez tried to insert his friend into one of the airport vending contracts.
Walden is ramrodding the Sanchez effort, and says McCune and Carreño will not be missed. Walden figures Sanchez is his own best representative in the Hispanic community.
According to McCune and Carreño, Sanchez backers Jack Rains and Ned Holmes implored them to stay but they went with Turner because they believe he's the best candidate in the current field.
The conservative Republican team of Allen and Elizabeth Blakemore is handling hyperambitious Councilman Michael Berry's mayoral campaign, although a lot of smart money is betting that Berry eventually runs for controller instead. Berry could draw away attention and support from Sanchez in the early going while roughing him up with hardball attacks behind the scenes in the conservative community.
Allen Blakemore certainly has the connections to do that, since he is joined at the hip to right-wing activist Steven Hotze and his church-based political network. In any case, the rivalry between Sanchez and Berry for Republican votes also creates a mini-soap opera pitting the Blakemores and the Waldens against each other. (Social note: These two tandems have never been particularly fond of each other and should not be included on the same dinner party list.)
On the sidelines, but unlikely to remain there for long, are Dan McClung and his Campaign Strategies, and Marc Campos of Campos Consulting, both Democratic consultants who worked for Lanier and Brown in previous races. McClung has been waiting for the final campaign lineup.
State Senator Rodney Ellis also had been projected as a possible late- developing candidate but is playing it coy.
"I am honored that my friends would think so highly of me as to throw my name around for such an important position," Ellis said through a spokesman. He went on to say that the state budget shortfall threatened Houston interests and he planned to devote his full attention to preventing "draconian cuts." Nitpickers and word parsers may notice that Ellis did not specifically rule out running for mayor after the legislative session.
Peace Vs. Partisanship
If partisanship is on its way out at City Hall, somebody forgot to tell the councilmembers considering a resolution opposing unilateral preemptive U.S. military action against Iraq. Councilmember Gordon Quan drafted the text, which states that a unilateral American attack risks international destabilization and will cost billions of dollars at a time when states and cities are in financial crisis. The resolution calls on the United States to allow United Nations inspectors to finish their work.
"I just feel like at some point you've got to take a stand," says Quan, "and that's a pretty mild stand just to say, 'Listen to the UN and let's follow world opinion on this.' "
Council so far has been split mostly along party lines, with five Dems favoring the resolution and all seven Republicans opposed. Late last week Mayor Lee Brown decided not to add the resolution to the agenda. City lobbyists in Austin warned that passage of the resolution might anger conservative lawmakers and endanger city-backed legislation. They point out that Austin City Council's approval of such a resolution drew criticism from Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst.
According to Quan, Democrat and District H Councilman Gabe Vasquez indicated he would not vote against the war because a relative is in the U.S. military. At-large Democrat Carroll Robinson is undecided, after offering an alternate resolution described by one colleague as "all feel-good and no substance."
At-large Councilwoman Annise Parker reluctantly backs the resolution, reasoning that "the president has not made a case for a preemptive strike, and I believe we need to allow United Nations inspectors to do their job." If the resolution gets rejected, the Democrat figures its supporters will be politically damaged. Since she's running for city controller, the payback could come sooner rather than later.
"I am absolutely convinced," explains the councilwoman, "that it will be used against anybody who votes for it by conservatives in Houston elections and in Austin."
State Guns for Golden Eagle
State regulators have ordered a former City Council candidate to surrender the operator's license of a controversial youth center for drug and alcohol treatment.
Officials of the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse notified Golden Eagle Leadership Academy CEO Richard Johnson of a range of alleged state violations at the facility at 14230 Walters Road. The most serious accusation is that Golden Eagle failed to notify the state of the alleged abuse of adolescents and that it did not take immediate action to prevent or stop the abuse. Investigators also cited instances where youths were physically restrained without justification or approval by qualified counselors.
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Johnson has had other scrapes with regulators over the center. After a commission investigator cited Golden Eagle for violations two years ago, the six-foot-five Johnson and supporters stormed the agency's Houston office and confronted the frightened investigator, who called Houston police for protection. Johnson, with the help of a local NAACP leader, took his complaints to Austin. The investigator was fired and Golden Eagle continued its operations.
In 1997, the Houston Press reported allegations by Hispanic and Anglo parents that their sons were physically assaulted at the academy by a group of black teens. The group, called the MFOI, was organized by former Nation of Islam minister Quanell X. In subsequent years, the Press was told by sources that Golden Eagle used its vans and staff in political efforts of Johnson's. Those reports came when he was an aide to then-councilman Michael Yarbrough, as well as in several unsuccessful council candidacies of his own.
Johnson can surrender his license or contest the revocation at a state hearing. He did not return an Insider call for comment.
Commission general counsel Thomas Best has already sought representation from the Texas attorney general for an anticipated legal fight with Johnson, stating that the continuing actions of the center's staff could "pose an immediate threat to the health and safety of its adolescent clients."