The candidates fidgeted at the head table at the University of Houston campus Hilton ballroom and awaited another question from the luncheon crowd of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Former city councilman Orlando Sanchez and state Representative Sylvester Turner shared one mike, while businessman Bill White and Councilman Michael Christian Berry huddled around another. It was the next stop on the endless series of forums that make up the campaign.
But for the youngest of the four major candidates, this venue brought back fond memories. Berry had arrived here ten years earlier to celebrate his marriage to fellow student Nandita "Nandy" Venkateswaran, the daughter of an Indian air force commodore.
And Berry, now a youngish-looking 32, had scored his first political triumph on this campus: a runoff victory for the school's Student Association presidency in 1991.
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Louisville Cardinals College Football
TicketsThu., Nov. 17, 7:00pm
Rice University Owls Football vs. UTEP Miner Football
TicketsSat., Nov. 19, 11:00am
SWAC Football Championship
TicketsSat., Dec. 3, 3:00pm
TicketsSat., Jan. 7, 7:00pm
Back then, the blond, bespectacled teetotaler from Orange, Texas, was the leader of a student party with the catchy acronym CIA, short for Coalition for Immediate Action. His platform was simple: lower fees and tuition, better law enforcement on campus, and improved student transit services.
His mayoral campaign issues are almost exactly the same on a citywide scale: a steady drumbeat for lower property taxes, more police and firefighters, and improved roads and public transit, even though he's no supporter of rail.
And just like with that earlier campaign, where his allies included a left-wing vice presidential running mate and bloc support from minority and commuter students, Berry is trying to cement a coalition of political opposites in his quest for the mayorship: west end white conservatives, young hip Midtown and Montrose Anglo professionals, and inner-city black moderates, among others.
Armed with formidable networking abilities and the dynamism of his attorney wife, Berry is pursuing a politics of personality that tries to cement that grab-bag support base by blurring ideological labels and focusing on consensus issues.
That he's taken seriously as a mayoral contender is a measure of how far and how fast he's come. When he first declared for mayor in an eccentric predawn e-mail to supporters, Berry's candidacy was widely viewed as a joke. Then he hired conservative hardballer Allen Blakemore as a consultant, raised a half-million dollars and drew in endorsements from the likes of Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune, Republican state Senator Kyle Janek and Blakemore's patron, religious-right kingmaker Steven Hotze. Berry is still viewed as a long shot to win, but fellow Republican Orlando Sanchez is feeling his heat.
When he ran for City Council, Berry tried his best to avoid partisan labeling, a wise move for a conservative Republican in a Texas city that voted for Al Gore over George Bush in the 2000 presidential election.
That reluctance to own up to his admitted partisan leaning earned him the reputation in Democratic circles as a conservative stealth candidate. While Berry supporters rave about his integrity and willingness to tell it like it is, opponents claim he's a shape-shifting opportunist who trims and tailors the truth to fit his political needs of the moment.
After his election in 2002, Berry showed his hidden partisan stripes by quickly gravitating to the conservative bloc on council and becoming an outspoken critic of incumbent Lee Brown. He authored one property tax rate rollback after another, which went nowhere but won him a cult following with anti-tax activists.
At this Hispanic Chamber of Commerce forum at UH, Berry made a point of demonstrating his independence when the touchy question of affirmative action came up.
"Tell the truth, let's get the answers out there, let's stop talking in platitudes," Berry declared. "Truth of the matter is, because I've seen it in play, you have Hispanic affirmative action-qualified companies who'll do everything they can to keep any more companies from being qualified."
The clatter of silverware and low-level conversation at the tables suddenly went silent. Clearly, some in the audience felt Berry was targeting them. You could almost hear the thought in the air: "Are you talking to me?"
"You have a handful of people who are getting filthy rich at being Hispanic or African-American or women-owned businesses in the city of Houston that don't want to graduate [from the program] and don't want anyone else to have those opportunities." It wasn't a pitch likely to draw support from a group heavily supportive of affirmative action, but that wasn't the purpose.
An operative for one of his opponents noted that the organization's conservative wing supports Sanchez, while former state Democratic Party chairman Bill White has Hispanic liberals in his corner.
"Berry knew he wasn't going to get the Hispanic Chamber support," the operative said, while admitting that he found Berry's presentation "refreshing."
It's afternoon on the Fourth of July, and Berry's campaign has arrived at a barbecue in the mostly black community of Pleasantville in northeast Houston. The entourage includes Michael and wife Nandy, as well as Carl Davis, a former Texas Democratic vice chairman who previously worked the campaigns of Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and state rep Sylvester Turner, another mayoral contender.
Davis is a council aide on the city payroll of Berry, but his real value to the councilman is his connections to Democratic leaders and knowledge of the African-American landscape. He helped Berry secure endorsements of black ministers in his council race. Davis says he's working for Berry because he's the best candidate in the race, but an old liberal cohort laughs.
"Carl's never made this much money in his life. He couldn't quit now if he wanted to."
Most of the partygoers are members of the extended family of longtime minister Frank Sherrard. His daughter, Pat Lee, is an executive assistant at El Paso Corporation, where Nandy is an attorney.
Casual in jeans and boots, the candidate mingles easily in the group, chatting with the young men minding the coals and turning husked ears of corn over a grill. Plastic bags of brightly colored water -- a home remedy to repel flies, but not politicians -- hang from the edges of the carport sheltering the party from passing thundershowers. Two beaming seven-year-old twins, Jordan and Joshua Sherrard, amble about, enthusiastically collecting dollar bills from attendees to pin to their T-shirts in celebration of their birthdays.
Clearly, political issues aren't on the front burner here. This is strictly meet and greet and eat the flesh. Never mind that at this barbecue, every voter in the last election probably went with Brown, Houston's first black mayor and the target of a good deal of Berry's rhetoric on the council and in the campaign.
"That doesn't matter," says Berry backer Pat Lee. "Nobody respects a yes-man."
Berry insists that he isn't being disloyal to his black supporters by opposing Brown when he believes the mayor is wrong. He is openly disdainful of the black Democratic political establishment and the suggestion that his campaign to cut taxes actually means fewer city services for their constituents.
"What a brilliant move that black lobbyists and black politicians, particularly the liberal Democratic black politicians, have convinced you that blacks don't care as much about their taxes as they do [about] social services," Berry says. "What a paternalistic, insulting way to portray an entire community.
"That scares people who rely on that monolithic vote," Berry says, decrying "machine politicians that have gotten everywhere by dividing our community."
Berry assiduously cultivated the black vote during his council run. After being elected, he enraged some of those supporters by voting against a largely symbolic council resolution to endorse the establishment of a federal commission to study reparations for the descendants of slaves.
He had his home picketed, and according to the councilman, even his elderly parents in Orange received threatening phone calls. New Black Panther Party chairman Quanell X created the sound bite of the controversy by declaring to the news cameras that he was publicly revoking Berry's "ghetto pass."
Berry adroitly used the attacks to polish his credentials as a man willing to take on extreme opponents, not unlike the way former president Bill Clinton attacked black rap performer Sister Souljah for racist lyrics and demonstrated his independence from Democratic special interest groups in the process.
Discussions of slavery reparations actually hurt blacks because they encourage people to see each other in terms of race rather than individual achievement, Berry argues.
At the barbecue, nobody asks Berry to flash a ghetto pass. Hostess Lee dismisses the reparations issue and Berry's vote as a meaningless controversy. "It really doesn't matter to me," she sniffs.
After working the crowd, Davis and the Berrys distribute their campaign paraphernalia, and soon everyone's wearing his T-shirts. Before leaving, they pose with the crowd for a campaign picture. For that afternoon, at least, the Berry juggernaut has a high profile on Clinton Park Drive.
Berry is proud of his relationships with several African-American success stories, but the black vote will not be the key to a Berry victory.
"My impression is that the inner-city ministers probably have had all they want of Michael Berry," says Democratic consultant Dan McClung of Campaign Strategies, who adds that the councilman's black support from his initial council race has soured. "His voting record on their issues has been probably demonstrative to them that there are better candidates in that field." McClung predicts that Berry will not get even 1 percent of the black vote.
That won't matter, since the Berry team is counting on a runoff matchup with state Representative Turner, the African-American in the contest. But to get to a runoff, Berry will have to convince Republicans that he's a better standard-bearer than former councilman Sanchez, who had their near-unanimous support in his race two years ago against incumbent Brown. He must also win a battle with White for independent votes.
Given that strategy, his vote against the reparations resolution and his criticism of unnamed affirmative action profiteers may ruffle black and brown politicians, but it appeals to Republicans and independents.
Berry's campaign material is crafted along the same lines. A clever brochure features Brown and Sanchez on opposite flaps of the front cover with the headline "More of the Same, The Status Quo." It then opens to a panoramic view of the pale-faced solution, Michael Berry. While the pitch can be interpreted as meaning Brown and Sanchez are controlled by the same City Hall lobbyists and special interests, others see an emphasis on race, a tactic that could be switched in the runoff to include the face of Turner rather than Sanchez.
His election to council showed that Berry can be an astute strategist with effective ads against his opponents, although some critics say this hard campaigner has yet to reveal his true self to the electorate.
Michael Berry grew up in a family where "Republican" was a dirty word. He was born in 1970 as the youngest of four sons of Norman Lee Berry, a DuPont chemical plant maintenance supervisor in the industry-heavy East Texas town of Orange. His mother, the former Loretta Sieber, worked as a nursing home attendant.
"My dad frequently says that the only Republican he would ever vote for is me," the candidate says. "He views Republicans as rich people and Democrats as working people, and that's it."
He describes his father as a kind man who has wrestled with conditions such as asbestosis and diabetes since Berry was a child. Without getting more specific, Berry says alcoholism was a problem in the family, and that his somewhat reclusive father became as much an inspiration of what he wanted to escape as what he wanted to become.
"I saw someone who had kids to support, a lot of health problems, so he wasn't hirable anywhere else," Berry says. "So he was in this rut and he couldn't get out of it. I watched that and I'd swear to myself that I didn't care what I ever made -- I'd like to make a lot of money -- but more important than that was that I be happy."
From the beginning Berry remembers being protected by his older brothers and held up as a symbol of achievement. "I always had a lot of support and people told me from an early age, 'You can do anything you want to do,' " he says.
Chris Freeland, a childhood friend, recalls an automatic assumption back then that Berry was headed for a big future, perhaps in politics. "Michael was so people-oriented, outgoing, and could befriend anybody."
Berry excelled at public speaking and debate in school, and was considered a good athlete, particularly in tennis. That sport introduced him to more affluent people, including his role model, a tennis-loving orthodontist named Bennie Mozzola.
Mozzola exposed him to other political viewpoints as his children befriended Berry.
"I would hang out with the boys like I was a member of the family in the living room, and every evening Dr. Mozzola would watch political shows, and talk back to the TV, and there was this raging debate. And that's where I began to sort of refine these ideas -- questioning everything."
He says that for college, he chose the University of Houston in part because it was one of few schools that would refund back to a student in cash the difference between tuition and scholarship funding.
The summer before he enrolled at UH, Berry flew to Costa Rica in a cultural exchange program. He says he gained a working knowledge of Spanish there, partly by approaching strangers all day long, asking them for directions to places he already knew so he could hear their dialect.
At UH, Berry quickly snagged a job as a phone solicitor for the alumni association. He was soon assigned to train a young Indian student. From that chance connection, a marital-political partnership was born that might be the closest current analogy in Houston to Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Nandy Berry bustles about the upstairs kitchen of the couple's combined business-and-residential enclave where they've lived since moving from West University three years ago. The ground floor, once Berry's company office, now houses his mayoral campaign. Out back is a guest house where a nephew of Nandy's is staying. In the front and back patios she's cultivated gardens full of spices and flowers.
"It's a lot like an Indian family compound," her husband says of the gated property. The lower Westheimer location is in the heart of old Montrose. In recent years the area has been toned down considerably, with gay bars and nightclubs forced out by upscale development. But it won't be mistaken for West U anytime soon.
On this day both Berrys rode the Metro bus to their jobs downtown. For Michael, it was an admitted photo op since he usually drives. Nandy is the regular rider to her job as a securities attorney for El Paso.
Aboard the bus, the woman driver whispered, "Are they Republicans?" Asked why she had that impression, she zeroed in on Berry's suit and "the way he's running down Mayor Brown."
Nandy is Berry's not-so-secret weapon, a forceful presence on the campaign trail, where she can usually be found watching her husband's performance, less in the mode of an adulatory spouse and more like a professor keenly appraising a star pupil. One downtown political action committee director says he wishes she were the candidate rather than her husband. Slim, with long black hair and shining eyes, she matches Berry in an ability to focus on conversational partners as if they were the only thing of interest in the room.
She has the optimism of an immigrant who has realized the American dream through hard work almost from the moment she set foot in the United States -- a husband, a career, an unlimited future.
"I think the biggest feather in my cap is that my wife is smarter, more attractive, a better athlete, and the kind of person I aspire and hope to be," says Berry.
A former associate paints the couple in a less flattering light. "She's very sweet and smart, but she doesn't question him," says the source, who wishes he had a spouse who would earn the paycheck, pay the bills and cook the meals. "He's got a hell of a deal."
Recently Nandy filled in for Michael and read a mayoral proclamation at the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey circus. According to another councilmember in the crowd, she introduced herself as "the wife of mayoral candidate Michael Berry" and ended the presentation by telling the crowd, "Let's have a round of applause for Michael Berry, the next mayor of Houston." Even the candidate would have had trouble making that kind of bald-faced pitch at a nonpolitical function.
She comes from a lineage of high achievers. Her paternal grandparents were protégés of the revolutionary Mahatma Gandhi. Nandy was raised by the family of now-retired air force Commodore Anand Venkateswaran after her pediatrician mother died of viral pneumonia when she was ten years old. After she graduated from Bangalore University, her father advised her to go where they had no family network in order to develop her independence. So she struck out for Houston, with little funding and less support.
By the end of her first day as a solicitor for the UH alumni association, co-worker Berry asked her out. That shocked the culturally conservative young woman. "In India, you don't date. I said, 'I don't know. I'm not sure yet.' So he walked me out and we started talking about classes and we became best friends." Four years later, they became husband and wife.
Berry credits Nandy with opening his tastes to a wider range of literature, culture and art. "She grew up in those old English clubs on military bases, and the best part of the clubs was the libraries. That's where she grew up, not with a TV but with books."
When Berry was a UH sophomore, Andrew Monzon, the leader of a small liberal-left campus group called the Progressive Student Network, put together a slate of candidates for the Student Association election, more as a lark than anything else. Their main point was protesting U.S. involvement in the first Gulf War, hardly an issue the Student Association could do much about.
Berry, a candidate for president, offered him a deal: Monzon should run for senator, and then Berry would make him speaker of the association. Monzon says he knew that wouldn't happen because Monzon was relatively unknown. So he insisted that if Berry wanted his support, then Monzon would have to be on the ticket as vice president. After some hesitation, Berry agreed.
Monzon remembers that even then, Berry had an aversion to political labels. The very title of their slate, Coalition for Immediate Action, defies specificity. Monzon recalls that Berry's most significant action in office was a proposal to cut the Student Association budget, a painless move because the cuts wouldn't go into effect until the following year. During the year Berry also successfully pushed for the creation of a student regent position.
"Michael stood out as a person who always went to class and tried to chum up to the professors, sat in the front row, that kind of person," says Monzon. "He's intelligent -- I'll never slight him for that -- but he's always been slick, and you just take everything he says with a grain of salt."
Monzon says the only problem he had with Berry came when several people started questioning overtime payments to Nandy, who by then had a job in the Student Association office. After Monzon raised the issue, he was targeted with a student senate proposal to eliminate his position as vice president. It didn't pass, but he doesn't think the timing was coincidental.
He also jokes that at the time he had a reliable way to determine when Berry was telling the truth.
"He had a horrible facial tic and you could easily tell when he was lying," chuckles Monzon. "It was a blinking and twitching of the right eye. I don't know if he ever noticed or anyone pointed it out to him, but it became a bit of a joke with us. Like, 'Uh-oh, look at Michael's face.' "
Monzon also recalls Berry's fascination with Lyndon Johnson, right down to amateurish attempts at imitating the classic political maneuvers of the old master, including humiliating staffers by forcing them to continue business in awkward places.
"He couldn't do the Johnson treatment because he was never intimidating," explains Monzon. "But there was one time where he was talking to me at UH, and he expected to continue the conversation in the restroom. I was like, 'Nah, I'm not going in there.' "
Monzon, now an HISD magnet school coordinator, recalls encountering his old running mate at a Heights cafe, when Berry was campaigning for City Council. According to Monzon, Berry greeted him effusively and offered his phone number, but Monzon told him, "You know you're never going to answer my calls." The two shared a good-natured laugh and Berry offered a bumper sticker. Monzon took two.
"There was a real nice one with a magnet, so I was able to scrape the 'Berry' off and put something else on," chuckles Monzon. "That's a good kind of bumper sticker."
During Berry's term as student president he became close to several of the school's executives. He and Nandy were regulars at parties hosted by then-chancellor Alex Schilt.
"That was back when UH was blowin' and goin' and really wastefully spending your public dollars," recalls Berry. Since the couple didn't drink, Berry says, they'd grab water glasses for toasts. "It was heady stuff." Berry says he has never used illegal drugs and was something of an anomaly on the student party scene.
"Some people look forward to 'I'm gonna go and lose myself.' Well, I don't like to lose myself. I'm much happier having four friends over for dinner, have a good conversation till late in the night, hustle them off and go to bed," he says. "That's my idea of a good time."
Berry's good time at UH ended when he graduated with honors and a political science degree, then headed to law school at the University of Texas, with some study for a year at the University of Nottingham in England.
When he returned, the couple landed jobs at downtown law firms. Nandy -- she'd gone to UH law school -- went with Haynes and Boone, while Michael signed with Jenkens & Gilchrist. He says he had no sense of accomplishment handling cases that were already under way, and felt trapped by the heavy workload. "I was working a lot of hours, more than any of the associates, and yet by the record I was working just as many, and I didn't see that changing."
After less than a year, he quit.
"I've always believed you should live life like you don't know if there will be a tomorrow. People say, 'Stick it out for a couple of years and see.' I say, 'I don't like it, I'm not going to like it, and life's too short.' "
Berry says he began searching for a new pursuit, "one that wouldn't be too intellectually draining, and that would enable me for a period of years to decide what I'm interested in."
"I would sit and look at the phone and hope it would ring. Nandy would call me four or six times a day and make up reasons she was calling, just to get me through. I had to 'eat what I killed' and get people to trust this fair-haired boy, who looks 12 years old, to sell their million- dollar house. It's not easy."
Berry claims that "within a year I knew as much about real estate inside the Loop as anybody." He tells of running the numbers on spreadsheets and compiling more information than veteran realtors.
One of the more intriguing transactions was his own Westheimer business-residence. Berry's company, Brenham Partners Limited, purchased it from a South African in 2000 for $250,000. Five days later, Brenham sold the property to Michael and Nandy for $315,000, a $65,000 markup. A source familiar with the deal claims it was a quick way to realize a swift infusion of cash into the family budget, through the company that Berry controlled.
When questioned about the transaction, Berry initially explained the difference in the two sales prices as improvements made to the building. Confronted with the fact that the transactions were only five days apart, Berry said, "Is that right? I mean, to tell you the truth, I don't really remember."
During that same general period a business associate remembers Berry telling him about traveling to Cuba for recreational purposes, going there by way of Mexico City under an assumed name while Nandy vacationed on her own in Paris. Asked whether he has ever visited Cuba, Berry replied with a flat no, and requested no explanation for the question.
Although Berry didn't volunteer it, a source says one of the less savory aspects of his business was the purchase and quick resale of low-income apartment complexes. This person remembers Berry spending part of his time collecting rents from substandard dwellings full of undocumented immigrants.
"Michael had these people over a barrel. He was basically a slumlord and charged them to live in squalid conditions, and they couldn't complain about it."
Berry denies that. "No, that's not true. I mean, they were not River Oaks properties, but by the same token I didn't check the immigration status, but I feel certain the residents were not illegal aliens."
Berry admits he did collect rents until he hired a collector. "At one point, the company was pretty small. I was fixing doors and changing locks and replacing carpet. So, yeah, I did all that myself."
One of the complexes he purchased was on Brandt Street in east Montrose. Resident Morgan Mull remembers meeting Berry when he bought the dilapidated 30-unit complex in early 2000.
"When he first bought the property he was around quite a bit, fixing it up a little," recalls Mull. "He was very affable, nice. Went through all these paint chips to see what kind of color would be the best, which I thought was kind of odd."
Later, Mull says, he noticed suspected dope dealers and prostitutes moving into vacant units. He is convinced that Berry quickly filled the complex to give the impression to potential buyers that it had full occupancy. He sold the apartments to a young woman as the situation worsened.
According to Houston police records, calls to the apartments for a variety of complaints ranging from drug dealing to prostitution to burglary surged in the last months of Berry's ownership, and peaked after the new owner took over, with an average of 28 calls a month. By comparison, police were called to the complex only four times in the first six months of this year.
A neighbor who asked not to be identified says an ad hoc committee was formed to get the complex cleaned up. "Berry had filled it with almost anyone who could pay the rent so he could show this high occupancy rate and income stream. He claimed he didn't know anything about it and it was his manager that did it."
Mull says the manager told him the exact opposite: that Berry had produced the renters and the manager had nothing to do with it.
Berry says that he had no neighborhood complaints before selling, and that he worked with residents afterward to try to clean up the property. He insists the problems did not originate with the tenants he put in the building, but rather from street crime and "walk-up traffic" in the neighborhood.
By then, Berry had begun phasing out his real estate activities to begin a new career thrust: running for City Council.
In the fall of 2000, Houston political consultant Nancy Sims was managing Eric Andell's re-election race for his then-appellate court bench. On the campaign trail, she met an eager volunteer, Michael Berry, who began tagging along with Andell. He was flattered by Berry's attention, but the wary Sims saw something else.
"He was a very ambitious young man anxious to meet powerful people," remembers Sims. "He mostly accompanied Eric everywhere he could so that he could meet his friends."
Her next encounter with Berry was secondhand. He'd began preparing his run for City Council. Sims heard from a Houston Chronicle reporter that Berry had said he'd hired Sims as a political consultant.
Sims had not even submitted a proposal to his campaign, much less talked to him about it. "When I was in that business I did not agree to work for a candidate until we had done an interview with him."
Still, the reports kept coming from people who had talked to Berry and were told Sims was representing him. "If it was convenient for him, he would tell people that," says Sims, who suspects Berry dropped other consultants' names as well. "If he thought someone's name would help him with a certain person, he would use it."
When Berry eventually called, she told him she was concerned about his using her name. Sims says they agreed to continue the discussion when she returned from a holiday trip.
Sims said she heard nothing from Berry for three weeks. Then she received a message on her voice mail from the candidate explaining that he could not hire her "because you're pregnant, and you cannot give me the attention I deserve because of that." Sims was six months pregnant at the time.
"If there were other reasons, he did not tell me," Sims says. "He never met or spoke with me." Sims considers the taped message inappropriate and sexist.
"If I said that, that's not the appropriate term or not the appropriate answer," Berry said at the time when the Houston Press Insider column carried an item on the dispute. "That's not what I intended to convey, but I don't believe I said that." According to Berry, he decided not to hire Sims because of her reputation as a controlling campaign manager.
"I had done some background research and people had told me, 'You and Nancy will clash,' " Berry says. "Nancy is a very hands-on candidate. She's going to tell you what tie to wear, what to wear, and what to say and not to say."
Sylvester Turner, a mayoral opponent, also says Berry used him on his climb up the political ladder. Turner says he supported Berry in return for Berry's promises to help Turner in a future run for mayor -- and that Berry has obviously reneged on that pledge.
Turner says he antagonized some Democrats during the council race with his support of Berry, but, he adds, "I saw a young man who, even though he was a Republican, I thought it was an opportunity for our community in a sense to kind of build some bridges."
The state rep now says, "The only advice I would offer to anybody who is now supporting him or gets on his bandwagon is 'Get it in writing!' "
According to Berry, Turner called him and threatened that "if you stay in this race, I will destroy you."
Turner laughs at the claim, insisting that he told Berry only that running for mayor was not a "wise decision" and that reneging on his pledges "will come back to haunt" him. Turner pauses. "Tell me, do you view that as a threat? I don't view that as a threat."
According to Berry, the conversation ended with Berry saying, "I'm not going to be scared off, intimidated or bullied out of doing what I believe is the right thing."
The issue of veracity emerged in the early stages of the campaign. Berry's team made an issue of the failure of several Sanchez supporters to pay their property taxes on time. As it later developed, the Berrys hadn't paid their HISD taxes for the previous year. The Chronicle quoted Berry as blaming his wife for what he called a onetime mistake. The candidate says that's a distortion of what he meant.
"I'm the one in public life and I'm the one who has to take the blame and responsibility, and I do," Berry says.
The problem with that explanation was that the Sanchez campaign then documented previous late payments by the Berrys on their taxes, and produced copies of the penalty checks signed by Michael rather than Nandy.
A former associate is not surprised that Berry would cast Nandy in an unflattering light to get off a political hook.
"There's no one that Michael would not stab in the back to get what he wants," says the source. "Not even his wife. The only type of relationship he develops with anyone is people from whom he can gain something."
After winning his city seat, Berry immediately distanced himself from colleagues by announcing he would refuse his council salary. According to Berry, Nandy suggested the move as a way of showing he was serious about cutting wasteful city spending.
"The public applauds the fact I don't take a vehicle allowance and I don't take a salary," says Berry. "And a lot of public officials ridicule that fact." He says public office should be a sacrifice and that officials should stop using their positions "to feed their egos and to feed their sense of being the king."
His rejection of his city paycheck may have gotten good play, but it did not enhance the newcomer's relations with his colleagues, all of whom continued to receive their salaries. Berry's next shocker -- that he was running for mayor after only five months on council -- also did nothing to further his influence with the other councilmembers.
Councilman Mark Ellis says that announcement was the point when Berry ceased to be a serious factor at City Hall. "I turned to him at the council table and said, 'You're not going to get anything passed in your first term,' " recounts Ellis, the conservative council leader who spearheaded the successful property tax rollback in recent years.
Berry asked Ellis what he meant.
"You don't understand human nature, do you?" Ellis says he answered. "There's 14 other egos sitting around this table, and they aren't going to want to feather your cap to further your political career."
In his initial year on council, Berry failed at one effort to roll back the tax rate, while causing problems for fellow council conservatives. They had worked out deals with the Brown administration to get the mayor to agree to other budget initiatives, like an increase in the homestead exemption for the elderly and disabled.
By dropping in his budget bomb without clearing it with the others, Berry embarrassed colleagues and put them on the spot. Either they honored their commitments to the administration, or they risked antagonizing their own constituents.
Ellis says Berry had also not done his homework on a tax reduction proposal, to show how the budget could still be balanced. "Michael came in and just said, 'We're going to cut the tax rate one cent.' Everybody looked around the table and said, 'Okay, where's it going to come from?' "
True to Ellis's prediction about Berry's effectiveness, of nearly 90 amendments offered by the freshman for this year's budget, only four passed.
"Nearly half of the budget amendments put forward by 14 members of council came from him," says Councilwoman Annise Parker, a candidate for city controller. "We politely debated for a while, and he was losing, and we got tired of it. So we bundled all the remaining Berry amendments and killed them by a wide margin."
According to veteran Parker, councilmembers win votes if they have great ideas that command instant support, or they take the time to talk with colleagues and convince them.
"He's bright, he's handsome, he's very articulate. I don't know that he rubs his colleagues the wrong way," Parker says. "He just doesn't take them into consideration."
After he announced for mayor, Parker recalls, Berry began speaking more at the weekly council "pop off" sessions where members air concerns. At the end of one particularly long-winded Berry presentation, Parker and Councilwoman Carol Alvarado looked at each other and then intoned sotto voce into their microphones, "Paid for by the Michael Berry for Mayor campaign."
"I think I reined in a lot of wasteful spending," says Berry in defense of his record. He says City Hall, before every decision, now has to consider, " 'Is this wasteful or inefficient?' because of Michael Berry."
Fellow conservative Bert Keller admires Berry's aggressiveness and self-confidence.
"I love that 'rudie type' attitude that Michael exudes and instills in others," says Keller, who adds that it also has drawbacks. "Maybe it will show that he wasn't ready and hadn't experienced the day-to-day, pay-your-dues in the process of learning how to get things done."
Ellis, who has endorsed Sanchez, offers Berry a backhanded compliment.
"Michael is a great candidate. He's got more energy than the Eveready bunny. But I've yet to see him be effective in trying to implement change here with the administration for the city."
It's dinnertime at the Berry household and the candidate has assembled a few friends to sample Nandy's Indian cuisine. Among them are Edna Ramos, a retired commercial pilot, architect John Cryer, attorney Geoff Berg and financial investor Jim Noteware.
"I believe he truly wants to fix the city, and it's not just words. He has the desire and energy to do it," says Ramos, who helped organize the Downtown and Midtown Residents Association. "I agree that he could change things and send Houston on a better path than the one we find ourselves on."
"Michael's really good about asking people to do things, and he can figure out what somebody's real contribution is," says Noteware. "Not only is that good in a campaign, I think it is wonderful in elective office." Noteware recalls that Berry was already discussing running for mayor even before he had been elected to council.
Berg has known the Berrys since Nandy was a law student and says he marvels at the candidate's knowledge of what's important to different types of people. "I've seen him at various events, and Michael could probably walk into any community and be an honorary Jew, an honorary Pakistani, an honorary Indian," Berg says. He notes that Berry's position on a nonmunicipal issue, the defense of the state of Israel, is actually his strongest attraction to the candidate.
Wine is served at the dinner, a relatively recent cultural innovation for the Berry household, since Nandy doesn't drink and Berry says he started sampling alcoholic beverages only five years ago.
The highlight comes when singer-songwriter John Evans drops in to audition a campaign song for the candidate. Evans, a lanky former Lamar Tech quarterback with Buddy Holly hair and glasses, is one more testimonial to Berry's unconventional political appeal.
The theme song isn't quite up to the visceral originality of other songs by Evans about love and loss. But as a contribution to the election jingle genre, it works.
"I'm gonna take a stand," croons Evans, "For this city and the work at hand / I'm gonna fight for what is right." Evans concludes, "I'm doing it all for me / I'm doing it all for you / I love this city and I hope you love it too."
It's a fitting campaign theme for Michael Berry. His critics can embrace the line about "doing it all for me," while all the starry-eyed followers can groove with the "fight for what is right."
It's just like Michael Berry: all things to all people.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.