Shaping the Council to Come
While one holiday cycle is gathering momentum, the city's currently officeless politicos are already thinking about the choice electoral presents they might be unwrapping a year hence. With five term-limited Houston City Councilmembers having to vacate their seats in 1999, and two others considered vulnerable among the 14 at-large and district seats, the season has already begun for Council wannabes to make those essential lists of supporters and begin enlisting their help.
District campaigns generally require extensive grassroots networks, and the funding price tag for a citywide race ranges from $110,000 to $150,000. So a successful run for municipal office on either level rarely proceeds from a spur-of-the-moment decision.
"The candidates are starting to make the rounds," says Joe B. Allen, the veteran city hall lobbyist and director of the potent political action committee of downtown law firm Vinson and Elkins. "My view has been until we got the November '98 elections over it was too early to talk about November 1999. But I think what we're starting to see is that rumors are surfacing and people are calling for interviews and people are showing up at events and starting to talk to consultants."
The first to make it inside Joe B.'s door was Gabriel Vasquez, a UH professor and first-term Houston Independent School District trustee. He is eyeing the District H seat that Felix Fraga must surrender. Vasquez is clearly serious about his Council bid, having enlisted the city's premier fundraiser, Sue Walden, to round up those establishment big bucks.
Lining up in the hall for a visit is former Houston Police Patrolmen's Union president Mike Howard, who has designs on the District G seat lightly held by Jean Kelley. She is the spouse of former councilman John and was slipped on the ballot to replace him at the last minute last year. The maneuver earned her only token opposition from flaky Karen K. Kristopher, who spent part of the race in jail on a charge of theft of a rental car. This time around, Kelley doesn't figure to have such a wide-open track, and the usual power of incumbency may not apply to her.
While some observers, including term-limits architect Clymer Wright, have questioned the quality of the new generation of officials the law washed onto City Council, Allen is more upbeat. "There really is a much bigger pool of talent willing to run for City Council than I think most of us anticipated," says the attorney. "In other words, we're not running out of capable, talented people who are willing to run .... It turns out they are willing to run, they just didn't want to run against a long-term incumbent where the likelihood of winning is very small."
Campaign Strategies' head Dan McClung sees the impact of term limits a bit differently. Because district and citywide Councilmembers are treated similarly under the term limits law, McClung believes that district seats no longer have the same attraction for established officeholders that they once had. In the seventies, when district-only elections began for some Council seats, a whole generation of Houston state legislators, including Ben Reyes, Anthony Hall and Lance Lalor, sought and won them. Reyes stayed on for decades until term limits sent him to the sidelines in 1996. Hall used his district seat as a springboard to run for an at-large Council seat and later made an unsuccessful bid for Congress, and Lalor went on to become city controller before self-destructing. With the three two-year term limits now in effect, legislators would have little motivation to abandon their non-term limited positions for a temporary career on Council.
"Now, whatever race is up, you go for," explains McClung. He cites Orlando Sanchez and Chris Bell as examples of rookies who ran and won citywide. The fact that an officeholder is term-limited also encourages potential challengers to try to wait them out, rather than marching against the incumbent in a direct challenge, as Controller Sylvia Garcia did last year against the hapless Lloyd Kelley, in an exception to the rule.
Next year will be no different, judging by the possible candidates whose names have made one or another of the lists compiled by political consultants, lobbyists and erstwhile kingmakers contacted by the Insider. At the top of city ballot, both Mayor Lee Brown and Controller Garcia will apparently benefit from the chilling effect of term limits on challengers. No one we talked to on the Republican or Democratic side of the campaign game saw a big money opponent for either official.
Among the five at-large Councilmembers, only Joe Roach is on his way out because of term limits. Early rumors that Roach's wife Becky might run for his seat appear to have been killed by the Councilman's denial, relayed through an aide. Gordon Quan, a Chinese-American lawyer, has already enlisted the services of Quantum consultant Nancy Sims in his bid for the position. Former Good Morning Houston television co-host Jan Glenn says she's been urged to run by friends, but has made no decision. Dwight Boykins, an attorney who lost an at-large race against Carroll Robinson last year, is expected on the ballot, as are perennial candidates Elizabeth Spates and the Reverend Andrew Burks.
First term at-large Councilmember Annise Parker is the only openly gay elected official in Houston city history. She was expected to draw some sort of an opponent fueled by the same social conservative political faction led by Dr. Steven Hotze that once fielded an unsuccessful municipal "Straight Slate" in the mid eighties. Parker's solid performance in her first year on the job seems to have eliminated the possibility of a mainstream opponent with any significant financial backing. Consultant Allen Blakemore, who works with Hotze, says he's detected no opposition to Parker's re-election, from the religious conservative camp or elsewhere.
"I don't see a serious challenger for Annise," says a downtown PAC leader. "Annise is very pro-business, in my opinion, and there's nobody in the business community who's upset with Annise that I'm aware of. She's conducted herself very well."
Likewise, Position 4 Councilman Bell, who faced strong challenges in a special election and first term ballot, looks to be home free this time. "Chris Bell is golden," says the same PACster, noting that Bell, like Parker, has given the business community no reason to back an opponent. "He gets high marks as reasonable and rational, and does very good analysis on issues."
No one we queried believed either Position 3 Councilman Orlando Sanchez, who has one more term left and has been touted as future mayoral material, or Position 5 first-timer Robinson is likely to draw serious opponents.
At the district level, freshman Councilman Bruce Tatro is considered vulnerable in the Spring Branch neighborhoods of District A, but Republican activist Toni Lawrence has turned down overtures from former councilwoman Helen Huey and others to make the race. Likewise, conservative, loose-lipped District E Councilman Rob Todd looks secure for one last term in his bifurcated Kingwood-Southeast Houston-Clear Lake kingdom.
District B Councilman Michael Yarbrough, under indictment by both term limits and the Justice Department for bribery-conspiracy, will likely try to pass on his seat to his machiavellian political manager, Richard Johnson. The only other opponent in the race so far is teacher unionist Carol Galloway. Ernie McGowen Jr., the son of the former councilman, is also considered a possibility.
In District C, Martha Wong's departure opens the way for a big production. The tentative casting call includes attorneys Greg Travis and Steven King and former state rep candidate Ben Dominguez. Since Wong is the only Asian-American member of Council, one consultant is promoting the name of mayoral staffer Helen Chang for the race.
District F, whose incumbent Ray Driscoll is moving out, will likely draw candidates far better financed than Texas Southern University student Dionne Roberts, who made an impressive showing last year in losing to Driscoll. This race, say consultants, has not even begun to take shape, even in the rumor mill.
In District G, Stepford Councilwoman Kelley will undoubtedly face more opponents than just former cop Howard and real estate developer Bert Keller, another name on several candidate lists. "Don't underestimate Kelley's chances to win," cautions a major lobbyist, who notes that Kelley's connections via hubbie and 2012 Olympics bloodhound John count for much more than campaign war chests in the quirky politics of a district contest.
The real free-for-all figures to be in Felix Fraga's District H. In addition to UH professor Vasquez, virtually every ambulatory political junkie in the area is trying to score the Council seat. Yolanda Navarro Black, a first term Metro board member, is expected to resign from the transit board next year to make the race. Then there's former assistant fire chief Lalo Torres, former Fraga aide Manny Barrera, first term Houston Community College board member Abel Davila, landscaper and Congressman Gene Green and Mayor Brown supporter Sal Esparza.
Depending on how the races break, the already small number of women on the Council could dwindle even further. In recent years term limits eliminated Gracie Saenz and Eleanor Tinsley, while congressional ambitions lured Sheila Jackson Lee into stardom as a Bill Clinton impeachment talking head. With Wong's impending departure, should Kelley lose in the coming campaign the Council distaff contingent could conceivably dwindle to one -- Parker. That prospect has the mayor's dollar-a-year advisor on women's issues, Cindy Clifford, who organized an informal lunch group called Politically Organized Women. Clifford says she's concerned by the small number of women on Council. POW members plan to contribute $500 each to support strong women municipal candidates, as well as men who are supportive of women's issues.
Mayor Brown, who unlike his predecessor has had plenty of difficulty in handling the current Council, also has a large interest in the outcome of next year's election, presuming his own seat is safe. Just as Lanier subtly supported his allies through behind-the-scenes financial and political support, so one administration source predicts Brown will use his sizable campaign treasury -- and political operatives -- to safeguard his narrow margin of support among the newly rambunctious Council. The new year will reveal whether the mayor is any more effective as a political godfather than he has been as a Council shepherd.
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