Political consultant and lobbyist George Strong went fishing for laughs last week when he rose to lecture a meeting of the Harris County Democrats on upcoming elections.
"I'm going to start my little speech tonight with a joke," Strong told the audience, which waited expectantly. The anecdote was brief, only two words: "Michael Berry." The crowd cracked up.
Overnight, the first-term at-large councilmember had become a symbol of unbridled ambition run amok, a possible political successor to ill-starred former city controller Lloyd Kelley, who flamed out on his self- proclaimed road to the White House. In an e-mail fired off to supporters in the predawn hours of a Sunday, Berry declared he was just obeying the will of his people by running for mayor in 2003.
"After receiving a number of phone calls asking me to consider this, and after giving it a great deal of thought and prayer and seeking the advice of others, I have decided to do it," wrote Berry. "And I intend to win."
Like countless candidates before him, Berry proclaimed he "has the vision of where Houston needs to be -- and the passion to get us there."
Adding to the surreal edge of Berry's declaration was a follow-up e-mail from supporter Jim Grace of Center Point Energy. He compared his man to the late Oscar Holcombe, considered one of the landmark chief execs in Houston history. Grace helpfully included a list of other young chief executives around the country.
"History is replete with individuals about the same age as Michael (he will be 33 at his inauguration) serving as mayor of major American cities," explained Grace, who cited such names as Marc Morial of New Orleans and Jerome Cavanagh of Detroit. He oddly failed to mention the prototype for boy mayors of Houston, namely Fred Hofheinz, who was elected in his mid-thirties and whose father, Roy, was a Harris County judge while in his twenties and later a Houston mayor as well.
Hofheinz himself is mystified by the latest precampaign development. "Mayoral races are always oceanic, and the tides move them," says the attorney, who lost a comeback campaign against Kathy Whitmire in 1989. By his measure, Berry is too lightweight to even make a splash at this stage of his career.
"I don't think Berry's been around long enough for anybody to know who he is. The only possible motive I could see is that he might be a stalking horse for somebody else to try to whittle away at either [Orlando] Sanchez or [state Representative Sylvester] Turner, but I can't even see him doing that. I don't know which one he'd whittle on."
Over at City Hall, the response was similar to that of the Harris County Democrats.
"We're just shaking our heads and laughing and thinking, '4 a.m.? Yeah, what was he smoking?' " chuckled one council colleague. "And then we alternate with 'We need to get five people to announce for his seat right away so he can't change his mind."
Realtor Berry has been on council only six months. His most notable action was an unsuccessful attempt to impose a one-cent property tax rollback last month that would have blown a $10 million hole in the just-passed city budget. This after he voted the same day to add a half-million dollars to the city's Funday in the Park entertainment contract.
"Like a couple other of our colleagues, he is breathtakingly ambitious," says the same councilmember. "He's very blunt that he ran for [council] because he thought he could win it and it's a stepping stone to what he really wants: higher office."
Republican political consultant Allen Blakemore accords the councilman a bit more respect. He believes Berry could draw Republican support away from Sanchez in a general election because "he's done as much on the issue of tax cuts in six months as Sanchez did in six years."
While Berry's announcement brought mirth in many quarters, one person who found nothing to laugh about was unannounced mayoral contender Representative Turner. When Berry fashioned his unorthodox coalition of white conservatives and black community leaders to defeat Democrat Claudia Williamson last year, Turner was a key member of the team.
"I think people know the level of support I gave," says Turner, who met The Insider for coffee and political chat at the downtown Hyatt. "I worked very hard for Mike. At one time I even created a little friction between myself and some Democrats because of my support of Mike. I saw a young man who, even though he was a Republican, I thought it was an opportunity for our community to build some bridges."
Turner claims that during joint appearances before black community groups and in interviews, Berry pledged not to run for mayor in 2003 and to support Turner's expected bid for that job.
"Mike has made those representations all throughout the black community," says Turner. "But apparently something has happened to change his mind."
Asked whether he is still a Berry supporter, Turner offered a tight smile and comment. "You should put that in the past tense Mike has not proven to be who we thought he was. I indicated to Mike repeatedly during the [council] campaign that if at any point I came to the conclusion that he was not who he claimed, I could not be a supporter. I guess that's moved much quicker than I realized."
In an e-mail to The Insider sent at a more conventional hour (6:28 p.m.), Berry reiterated his decision. He has named attorney Bruce LaBoon as campaign chair and Seitel board chairman Fred Zeidman as finance chair.
Trapped in a particular touchy position is Berry chief of staff Carl Davis, the former vice chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. Davis, a longtime player in Houston African-American politics, helped organize Berry's support among blacks and secure the endorsements of ministerial groups. He's close to Turner but is on Berry's payroll.
"I'm not going to get caught in the middle of this," commented Davis. "I'm not saying anything."
Turner makes it clear Berry will have no impact on his own effort to win the city's top job. He says his defeat in a runoff race against Bob Lanier in 1991 was nothing more than a training exercise for 2003. He cites, as the seal on that episode, the verdict against Channel 13 in the celebrated slander trial that followed stories linking him to insurance fraud.
"A short synopsis would borrow the words from the Texas Supreme Court: 'The story was false and defamatory,' " Turner says. "Put a period there.
"You're going to have experiences that you may not enjoy, but they also help to strengthen you and prepare you for the next go-round, or the next leg of wherever you're trying to go."
He's launching a charm offensive to convince former critics that he's the right man for mayor.
"I'm saying that to some of the businesspeople downtown," explains Turner. "Before you feel compelled to go out and have to find somebody, talk with the guy. You may be fighting an erroneous perception, or fighting a perception someone else is trying to create."
Calling all the bad publicity part of the "old era," Turner declares, "This is the new era, and you don't build on the new era carrying old baggage. And neither do you allow anybody to take you back to the old era. It's not productive, it serves no purpose, and you don't get very far."
KCOH/1430 AM talk show host Michael Harris says it may not be so simple for Turner to bury the past. He believes Berry's attempts to reach out to the black community might earn him African-American votes in a matchup with Turner, and that the scars of 1991 remain a liability for Sylvester.
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"I like 'em both," says the commentator. "Sylvester's an old friend, and Michael's a new friend." Harris notes that Berry has been more accessible to him than any other member of council.
"He hasn't been around nearly as long as Sylvester, but Mike has shown he is pretty astute up until now. He may have cut his throat by deciding he's going to run for mayor so quickly. But hey, it's his career, and I'm not going to down him for it."
According to Turner, Berry has exploited the black community for support but is finally showing his true color. Turner says anyone receiving promises from Berry should not take them at face value.
"The only advice I would offer to anybody who is now supporting him or gets on his wagon is 'Get it in writing!' "