For Katherine Tyra, the road to Sheila Jackson Lee's vacated seat on the Houston City Council now leads straight through Mayor Bob Lanier's office.
As Harris County district clerk, Tyra lent considerable behind-the-scenes support to Lanier's initial run for mayor in 1991. But Lanier hasn't returned the favor. Tyra's runoff opponent for Lee's at-large post, former family law court judge John Peavy, is floating on a campaign mattress inflated by the mayor's inner circle, leaving Tyra little choice but to try pricking the most powerful Houston city executive in decades.
"Bob Lanier, Jon Lindsay, the insiders and good ol' boys at City Hall got a wake-up call," crowed Tyra strategist Allen Blakemore after her strong showing in the first-round balloting on January 21, in which she took 34 percent of the vote to pace the 19-candidate field.
Peavy totaled 26 percent in an election that drew a ghostly 7 percent turnout of voters. The runoff between the two top finishers is expected to be set for late February or early March.
For Lanier, the outcome of the Peavy-Tyra contest may foreshadow November's city elections. While the mayor seems a cinch for re-election to a third and final term if he wants it, three other Council seats will be open, thanks to the city's term-limit law. The last thing a lame-duck mayor needs is a raucous, independent Council, so Lanier's doing his best to make sure the future Council is as acquiescent as the current one.
"He's pulling out all the stops on this," says Blakemore, who claims the mayor is not just asking allies to support Peavy, he's ordering them to enlist.
In politics, tunes can change faster than platters on an old 45 rpm jukebox. For the November 8 election, Blakemore worked for county judge candidate Robert Eckels, who reveled in the covert support of Lanier, the open backing of outgoing county judge Lindsay and a plethora of others who might reasonably fit the profile of "insiders and good ol' boys." But that was then. Last year's responsible public officials and civic leaders are this month's cronies and good ol' boys.
The Peavy posse includes Kenny Friedman, Lanier's personal lawyer, as campaign chairman, and Lanier intimate Joe B. Allen of Vinson & Elkins as guru. Lindsay, meanwhile, lent his pale white face to a Peavy television commercial in which he urged voters to ignore "party, race and gender" in making their choice.
Tyra, by contrast, has drawn an eclectic group of mostly conservative, suburban supporters, including Clymer Wright, the father of term limits in Houston. Wright isn't wholly satisfied with his first batch of progeny on Council and sounds almost nostalgic as he recalls the pre-term limits days, when there were actually 8-7 votes at City Hall and Mayor Kathy Whitmire occasionally was rebuffed by councilmembers. The current Council hasn't said no to Mayor Bob in a long, long time, and Wright hopes this year's elections will yield a spinier brood of newcomers than the last.
Tyra's anti-insider rhetoric, Wright insists, "fits right in with November 8 and the mood of the people." But he suggests that Tyra should avoid appearing as if she's running against Lanier. "It's not a good thing to do," he counsels, "and she'll run against Peavy."
At the same time, he says, Lanier might save himself a hickey by not getting any closer to Peavy in the runoff. Tyra is "riding a conservative tide and will win the runoff handily," he avers. "Lanier has nothing to gain getting involved."
Also counted in the conservative swarm around Tyra is Lloyd Kelley, the occasional Lanier thorn on City Council, who is hopeful the runoff falls after the trail riders hit town next month. "Rodeo time," laughs Kelley. "Bubba's coming to town to vote." He doesn't seem to have much doubt which way Bubba will tilt.
Actually, getting anyone to vote will be the major task facing the two camps. Peavy vows to stick with his issues, an amorphous blob of rhetoric about getting tough on crime and running city government more efficiently, while his supporters hope to corral the votes that went to third-place finisher Annise Parker. She ran the strongest campaign by an openly gay candidate in city history, taking 10 percent of the citywide vote, and says the results have encouraged her to run for another office in the future.
Peavy may try to energize his African-American support base by utilizing a Tyra brochure sent to voters in mostly white precincts in the southwest. The first thing seen by those who opened the brochure was a photograph of Peavy, roughly seven times as large as the picture of Tyra on the cover, with the boldfaced headline beneath: "Because he's one of them." A closer reading reveals that the "them" supposedly in question is "insiders and good ol' boys."
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"No question it was racist," says a Peavy campaign official who declined to be identified. "Why else would you run a large picture of your opponent, if not to show race. I believe it will backfire, because voters are more sophisticated at this point in time."
Blakemore bristles at the race talk. "We mailed 34,000 of these," he says, pointing to the red and white missive. "John Peavy bought network TV on four stations [showing his face]. That's about 100 million impressions. He was already on TV when this hit. The battle lines are clearly drawn, not on race, but whether the people are able to pick their own city councilman or whether Mayor Bob will do it for them."
Tyra, who seems befuddled by the suggestion that the brochure was racist, told one reporter on election night that at least the picture of Peavy was a flattering one.
Certainly the picture Tyra and her friends are trying to draw of City Hall under Lanier is not one the mayor will hang on his wall. Her brain trust is banking that Lanier's emphasis on rebuilding the heavily minority inner city and recent scandals involving minority contractors have eroded city government's image in the mostly white suburbs. In a sense, the Peavy-Tyra match will be a very "special" special election -- perhaps the first preliminary referendum on the mayor's policies and the direction of a post-Lanier Houston.