Some of Houston's best political precognitives are hard at work this summer trying to prevent what they foresee as an electoral disaster. Operating out of the Department of Pre-Elections, these agents have detected a frightening scenario in the making: Houstonians wake up after the first round of the city elections in 2003 and find their only remaining choices for mayor are named Orlando and Sylvester.
More and more, the future is looking like a reflection of the past, with a likely confrontation between previous runoff losers. In 1991, state Representative Sylvester Turner squeezed ten-year incumbent Kathy Whitmire out of contention. Then he lost the runoff to Bob Lanier after reports by Channel 13's Wayne Dolcefino linked Turner to an insurance-fraud scandal. Although Turner later won a jury verdict in his libel suit against Channel 13, he never fully dispelled the cloud created by the allegations. Lanier took an iron grip on City Hall and sailed through re-election in his final two terms.
Former probation officer and three-term at-large Councilman Orlando Sanchez, whose job history is otherwise as skimpy as a string bikini, came within two points of Brown last year with an alliance of westside Republicans and Hispanic voters. Sanchez lost because he campaigned as a Republican and called in a posse of well-known GOP faces. That tactic backfired in a city that rejected similar tactics by Rob Mosbacher against Brown in 1997 and tilted to Al Gore over George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential race.
Both Sanchez and Turner have declared their intentions to run again for mayor. It calls to mind a political version of one of those dreadful Japanese horror movies pitting Godzilla versus the Monster du Jour. The fight might be momentarily entertaining, but who really wants to live with the winner afterward?
According to sources, Lanier commissioned a poll recently that showed that of a group of mayoral hopefuls, Turner and Sanchez had substantial name ID with voters. While Sanchez benefited positively from his recent campaign, Turner still carries considerable negatives from the 1991 race, even among his likely support base of black voters. Thus a Turner-Sanchez pairing seems weighted to put Orlando into the mayor's chair.
Even before Brown beat Sanchez last fall, Houston business types were scouring the scene for one of their own to take to the polls in 2003. The first objects of speculation: the triple ivory towers of Enron chairman Ken Lay, former Texas Commerce Bank chairman Marc Shapiro and former port commission chair and developer Ned Holmes.
History quickly knocked down some of the pretenders. Enron's collapse turned Lay into a political pariah, and New York-based Shapiro dropped off the radar screen. After several stops and starts, Holmes finally ruled himself out of the race last week, reportedly because of the long-term illness of his wife. Downtown folks who held their noses and supported Brown in order to make a fresh start next year suddenly found themselves without a horse to ride into City Hall.
If this mayoral cycle runs like the last one, the de facto campaigning will begin within months, so the quest for a business candidate is getting urgent. The latest option is William Howard "Bill" White, CEO and president of the giant Houston-based Wedge Group holding company. He's a former partner in the civil law firm of Susman Godfrey, and a previous chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.
The 48-year-old White served as an energy undersecretary in the Bill Clinton administration and later helped organize Frontera Resources, an oil-and-gas venture in the Caspian Sea area. He's married to Andrea Ferguson White, a former partner in the Liddell Sapp law firm. They have three children: 15-year-old Will, 13-year-old Elena and Steven, ten. The family's multistory house has wall-length windows overlooking the wooded banks of Buffalo Bayou in the gated community of Stablewood, off Memorial just outside the West Loop.
The Insider caught up with White at his home during the July Fourth holiday. He was relaxing and recuperating from a bike accident in Memorial Park three weeks ago that broke a collarbone and bruised some ribs. White is a slender, blue-eyed man with thinning red hair who comes across in interviews as low-key and affable. Lawyer acquaintances who've seen him at work in a courtroom describe an aggressive personality bolstered by a razor wit.
White says he'll make a final decision on the race "very soon" and is taking aim on public transit as a signature issue.
"I love Houston and want to make it a better place to live and work," says White. "We've got to start winning the war on traffic congestion. We're getting further and further behind over much of the last decade, and it's unacceptable. The people waste so much of their time just sitting in traffic that's not moving or trying to navigate through potholed streets."
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Lanier poll shows traffic congestion and road construction is a primary concern of Houston voters. The former mayor has discussed the upcoming race with White, and says White has both the résumé and the bank account to become a contender.
Although White's name ID with voters is low, Lanier notes that "he can provide a lot of his own money that he could put into the race, which is particularly important in a city race where there are limits on individual contributions. Ned Holmes would have had that same ability."
White's business credentials are as solid as Holmes's. From a westside Houston perspective, he also sports a scarlet D (as in Democrat) label that has so often proved fatal to moderate candidates in the past.
Former city controller George Greanias (1997) and last year's No. 3 finisher, former at-large councilman Chris Bell, ran nonpartisan races and tried to appeal to Republicans. They both failed to win enough crossover votes to make a runoff.
Asked how he can avoid that trap, White says the solutions for issues that matter to voters are neither Republican nor Democrat. "It's sad that there's so much partisanship at City Hall. It's a bad thing, and I think most Houstonians agree with me."
Fund-raiser Sue Walden worked for both Lanier and Brown, and had counseled corporate leaders to stick with Brown one more term in hopes of electing someone like Holmes. She doesn't see Democrat White gaining that support. According to Walden, "traditional city contributors and Republican donors have told me they are looking to go with Orlando this next cycle."
Bell, now the Democratic nominee for Congressional District 25, is doubtful that anyone with a Democratic identification can draw significant Republican backing for mayor.
"It makes it almost impossible," says Bell. "I like Bill, consider him a friend, and would tell him the same thing. The lesson from my campaign is that city elections have become extremely partisan, that the trend is going to continue, and the game is going to have to be played under those ground rules."
Bob Stein, Rice University's dean of social sciences, figures White has some assets Bell lacked that can appeal to conservative voters.
"My sense is that what Bill White has going for him, and Chris didn't have, is some credibility in having administrative experience," says Stein. He cites White's success as a corporate executive and his strong ties to Houston downtown business groups as evidence he could mount a Lanier-style campaign that could appeal to Republican business interests.
Even so, Stein predicts that White will need some help in the form of additional minority mayoral candidates to splinter the blocs. "You need somebody to draw votes away from either Sylvester or Orlando, preferably both, but at least that way White's 22 to 28 percent might be enough" to make a runoff.
One of those splinters could be freshman councilmember Michael Berry, who sent an e-mail early last Sunday announcing his mayoral candidacy. In his 2001 campaign, Berry got the support of white conservatives and black ministers, and could siphon off support from the front-runners.
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White, once in that runoff against either Sly or Orlando, could win by picking up Democrats and blacks against Sanchez, or Republicans and Hispanics against Turner.
It's a convoluted game plan that will need the right breaks at the right time.
"If we're going to succeed as a community, we're going to have to do it with a broad coalition," says the candidate in waiting. "People have given me positive reinforcement that they saw me as somebody who could bring people together."
Maybe so, but in order to win he's going to have to pull some people apart first.