Mr. Blum Goes to Washington

Some Houston leaders won't be sorry to say good-bye to Blum.
Scott Gilbert

He first earned local headlines with a quixotic run against then-congressman Craig Washington in 1992. Since then, former liberal firebrand-turned-neoconservative Edward J. Blum has been a continuing thorn in the municipal side of former mayor Bob Lanier and successor Lee P. Brown.

In the '90s, Blum and his supporters launched the unsuccessful Proposition A to eliminate the city's affirmative action program, and they peppered local courts with lawsuits against anything that he deemed race-based -- including city and state redistricting plans and HISD admissions policies for its Vanguard schools.

Now the 48-year-old Blum (pronounced "Bloom") is folding up his local organization and joining the Washington-D.C. based American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI) led by Ward Connerly, the black former University of California regent who campaigned for the controversial Prop 209 to outlaw affirmative action in California government programs.

Blum founded the Campaign for a Color-Blind America in 1994, shortly after winning a federal lawsuit to force the redrawing of Houston congressional districts that had been designed to maximize black and brown voting majorities. The nonprofit organization provided help for plaintiffs challenging racial gerrymandering and affirmative action programs at all levels of government. Blum says the new arrangement with ACRI will provide litigants with the same services.

"We're going to in essence dissolve the Campaign, release the board, and the American Civil Rights Institute will open up a legal defense division," he explains. Blum will become director of legal affairs. He expects to work full-time at setting up the operation over the next year while maintaining a Houston Heights residence for voting purposes.

"We're not moving permanently to Washington," Blum says. "What we hope to do for the first year is get our feet on the ground, and then hire a general counsel to handle most of the responsibility." Blum, who is not an attorney, would like to find a lawyer who can "determine which cases this division takes, determine where it's going to put resources in other lawsuits, etc."

Blum hopes a conservative law firm will donate office space for the new operation in the nation's capital. He's counting on idealistic young volunteers to help launch the effort.

"Part of the cachet of having a Washington office," explains Blum, "is you get a lot of summer interns, a lot of kids who are willing to give you a summer or their first year out of law school just to be able to work in a public-policy arena."

Blum has been a longtime disciple of Connerly's. He credits the Californian with inspiring Houston's Prop A in 1997, which went down in defeat after Lanier and Brown campaigned against it. Referendum supporters claimed Lanier's administrators illegally reworded the ballot language to confuse voters, and they later sued the city to overturn the election. The issue is still on appeal.

"Clearly the most prominent and most effective leader in this movement is Ward Connerly," says Blum. "Ward as chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute brings an enormous amount of experience and wisdom and power to an organization like the Campaign, which really has not been as effective as I think we could be with a better budget, with the kind of leadership and infrastructure that Ward's group can provide us."

The Michigan-born Blum's politics have turned 180 degrees since his days at the University of Texas in the early '70s. He worked alongside other liberal activists like future Houston City Councilman and Mayor Pro-tem Jew Don Boney in the pro-affirmative-action Taskforce for the Improvement of Minority Education. Back then, Blum was an avid reader of African literature and considered becoming a serious academic in that field.

Instead, after drifting through jobs as a high school English teacher and a book dealer, he settled on a career as an investment adviser. He married the former Lark Pollack, who sold insurance until her recent retirement. He also began reading Commentary and other conservative publications, and his politics moved to the right. Where once he believed racism was the nation's most pressing problem, programs that set racial quotas and preferences became his new target.

Some of the financial support for Blum's new venture comes from an unlikely source. Several weeks before the 1997 vote on Prop A, Blum claimed that Lanier intervened with his then-employer, investment firm Paine Webber, to try to get the firm to curb Blum's political activities. Blum resigned from Paine Webber the following year, saying it had been coerced by city officials into muzzling him. Blum went to work for a small Nashville-based investment bank, but he moved on when it was eventually sold to Paine Webber.

Although Blum did not sue Paine Webber for violating his free speech rights, sources say the company paid a sizable settlement to Blum. That left him in a position to pursue his political endeavors on the national scene.

"Now that I don't have a real company to work for," he says, "this is a good time for me to dedicate three to four years to seeing if we can create something that's really effective."

Blum, on a monthlong vacation with his wife in Maine, chuckled when asked whether Lanier and Paine Webber should get partial credit for financing his new career.

"I can't talk about that," replied Blum. "You're a clever enough journalist -- you'll be able to print something if that's where you want to go with all this."

If the Blums really intend to maintain more than a token presence in Houston, they've chosen a rather downscale residence. Blum's voter registration card lists the address of a modest Heights bungalow on West Gardner. A Georgia resident owns the house, which is valued on the tax rolls at less than a quarter of the Blums' current Houston property, a half-million-dollar spread in upscale Piney Point.

If the Heights pad gets too funky for the Blums' taste, they can always follow former president George Bush's example and rely on the Houstonian Hotel for a fictional residence.

GOP Grilling Set

A state legislative hearing finally has been set in Houston to probe that botched effort by local GOP leaders to pressure two appeals court judges whose opinion overturned the state homosexual conduct law ("Subpoena Envy," The Insider, August 10).

An aide to state Representative Senfronia Thompson, chair of the Committee on Judicial Affairs, reports that subpoenas now have been issued. They summon Harris County GOP chair Gary Polland, party treasurer Paul Simpson, Trinity County chair Janet Brannen and Washington County chair Richard Stadelmann. They are to appear September 27 at 10 a.m. in Houston City Council chambers.

The hearing will explore the circumstances surrounding the letter draft to appellate Justice John Anderson demanding that he reverse his opinion or drop his re-election bid. Simpson wrote the letter with Polland's approval. It was sent to the 14 county party chairmen in Anderson's district. Thompson says that if the fact-finding hearing determines criminal action occurred, the matter will be referred to District Attorney Johnny Holmes.

For those who've been dying to see the controversial Polland put on the hot seat (and we know who you are), don't miss showtime.

Bell Notes

Sally Walker Davies, coordinator of communications and special projects for Councilmember Chris Bell, points out that her boss won his seat in a special election in 1997 against the Reverend James Dixon, rather than against former council aide Richard Johnson, as reported in last week's Insider. Bell defeated Johnson later that year in the regular election.

Davies also noted that Bell was not defeated by Orlando Sanchez in 1995, as we wrote, since Bell failed to make the runoff in which Sanchez beat David Ballard. On that one we'll let the reader make the call: If you run in a crowded field that includes the eventual winner, have you been defeated by him or not?

Bell consultant Nancy Sims says Bell's mayoral trial balloon had a quickly chilling effect at City Hall. She claims several business sources told her they've been warned by Brown operatives that anyone chumming up to Bell will incur the wrath of Hizzoner and surrogates.

The mayor himself popped up on the KHOU/Channel 11 morning show Thursday to assure anchor Tonya Bendickson that everything is just hunky-dory at City Hall, that all that talk about a budget shortfall is pure bunk.

Just a coincidence, we're sure.

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