Political Identity Crisis
For the first time in 32 years, come January Houston city government may be without a single black man in elective office, although there are two African-American women on City Council. The only possibility for a male counterpart is attorney Ronald Christopher Green in the Position 4 runoff against Bert Keller, but he's embroiled in an increasingly acrimonious dispute with erstwhile allies over his political leanings.
The 33-year-old Green insists he's a loyal Democrat, and he has gotten the nod from the Harris County Democratic Executive Committee and the party itself for the at-large council seat. But he's also been endorsed by Ed Hendee, the right-wing radio KSEV talk show host and chairman of a group championing city property tax cuts. That has a number of Democrats demanding written assurances that Green is not a conservative stealth candidate.
Support from liberal groups like the Houston Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus and the Tejano Democrats would have been considered automatic for a Democrat running against Keller, the conservative incumbent in District G. Yet both organizations have decided to stay neutral for the runoff. They are suspicious that if he got elected, Green might turn around and back conservative initiatives such as tax rollbacks, city revenue caps and abolishment of the new drainage fee.
Since Keller voted against the tax rollback shortly before the November 4 election, some Democrats view him as an acceptable moderate on the ostensibly nonpartisan City Council.
District D Councilwoman Ada Edwards recently met with Green, telling him that she would endorse him only "if he put into writing for me that he did not ascribe to the values of [KSEV owner] Dan Patrick, and the Hotzes and Hendees and that sort. And to say in writing that he did not solicit or will not accept their endorsement."
According to Edwards, "If that's the values that he is looking to work to enhance and broaden on City Council, that doesn't work for my district."
Edwards also asked for a pledge that Green would not support a tax rollback. She says he agreed to those conditions, and promised to give it to her in writing. Edwards, a streetwise activist, is waiting before issuing the endorsement.
"I don't believe anybody," she explains. "I just watch people. I'm going to let him live and die by his own words."
Green's former opponent in the general election, Democratic National Committeewoman Sue Lovell, made a similar request of the candidate. She also says he promised to deliver such assurances in a letter.
"He was asked to refuse the endorsement of these extremists, and he hasn't yet done so."
The same concerns trouble Jolanda Jones, an African-American attorney who came in third in her race for Position 3. Both Jones and Green had initially planned to run in Position 5, but were squeezed out of that race in an effort by local black leaders to pick a consensus candidate (see "Herding Cats in District 5," July 31.)
Jones says she feels an ethnic solidarity with Green, but isn't sure she trusts him.
"This is a very hard call for me because I'm black and Ron's black," comments Jones. "Certainly there are no black males on council unless Ron makes it, and that concerns me I don't know that I'm to the point of saying Ron's a Clarence Thomas, but if Clarence Thomas was the only black man that could be on Houston City Council, he would not get my vote."
Jones says she told Green that KSEV represents "hatemongers" and added, "They scare me, and I just need to know for certain that what you tell me is what you tell them."
Like the others, Jones says she received assurances from the Green campaign that he would issue a written statement clarifying his position. Green admits he made those promises, but has since changed his mind after thinking and praying about it.
"There won't be any letter. I won't be signing anything," the candidate says bluntly. "It's an unreasonable request. I'm not going to trade my dignity for an endorsement from anyone. And I don't think it's fair for me have to write some letter or sign anything when, in fact, I didn't sign anything when I just sat down and engaged in conversations."
Two other Democrats, mayoral candidate Bill White and council hopeful Peter Brown, both have runoff campaigns that capitalize on endorsements from Republicans, Green notes. "They've not been asked to sign anything disavowing any sort of support."
Green admits he did call county Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt, one of the leaders of the tax rollback movement, to discuss city finances. He denies making any commitment to support tax cuts.
According to Bettencourt, Green expressed concern to him about the rising taxes on Green's Riverside-area home.
"He stated that something needed to be done because of the fact that taxes had gone up 89 percent in six years," recalls Bettencourt. "I think he and [Hendee] really did have a conversation about property taxes and that he would probably take a Carroll Robinson type of vote on this issue, which is as taxes go up he would consider lowering the rate." Bettencourt says he has not endorsed Green, and doubts he will.
As for the support of KSEV, Green says he never asked for it and views it more as an anti-Bert Keller sentiment than an endorsement of his campaign.
"I've never listened to that radio station, so I've never heard these people say this kind of stuff. And that may just be political ignorance on my part."
Green recites his support for a host of issues dear to area Democrats, including Metro's rail plan, an antidiscrimination ordinance and insurance benefits for domestic partners of gay municipal employees. Green says Keller is attacking him in radio ads on those issues, "but that's what I believe."
While Green says he has never represented himself as a Republican or a conservative in his campaigning, veteran Houston political consultant Mary Jane Smith disagrees vehemently. She claims she met Green at a Republican gathering during the campaign, where he was wooing conservatives.
She says she asked him about the drainage fee, and he indicated he would never have voted for it.
"You would like the way I vote," she recalls Green saying. "He went on telling me how Republican he was, how conservative he was -- that he would be voting with all those other conservatives on council."
Smith was angry at Keller at the time, and says she began telling all her GOP friends, "Let's go with this guy. Green's the man. Tell everybody that."
According to Smith, she later learned that Green was giving Democratic women's groups the opposite message: that he was a loyal party member and did not seek the endorsement of KSEV or other conservatives.
"Green lied to me," claims Smith, "and you know, I can't stand a liar. Bert Keller is dumb, but at least he didn't lie to me."
Green responds in kind.
"It's absolutely false, and with all due respect to Mary Jane Smith's husband [federal judge Jerry Smith], that is an absolute lie." Green says he and his wife, Hilary, bumped into her at a GOP fund-raiser for a mutual friend.
"We came in, we said hello, she asked me who I was running against. And that's all I remember."
Green believes the quibbling over his political credentials amounts to petty political infighting on both sides of the partisan divide.
"I think a lot of people want to use me to get back at some other faction," says the candidate, who gestures to framed photos of civil rights-era marches on the walls of his Midtown law office.
"I've atoned for my sins, if they are sins," says Green. "If it's good enough for the Democratic Party to endorse me unanimously along with many other organizations and elected officials, I think that's good enough."
The voters will render their own judgment on that in the runoff next month.