Geraldine "Jeri" Lara Kuhleman wore a perplexed look as she stood in front of a South Post Oak shopping center on a sparkling Saturday morning in late September. For the first shot in her surprise campaign for City Council District C, she had scheduled a news conference to showcase a trashed office space with junked city computers -- what the incumbent had pledged to be a neighborhood service center for residents.
By sunrise on this Saturday, however, the office had been cleaned and equipment removed from sight. Kuhleman's planned photo op had vanished up a vacuum cleaner. To add insult, the boyfriend of the incumbent's chief of staff was there, holding out an open cell phone during Kuhleman's short speech to let someone on the other end listen in.
But this candidate shouldn't have been surprised. After all, she probably knows Councilman Mark Goldberg better than anyone else, having been his wife for nearly three years until they divorced in 1998.
"Mark's a nice guy and a good time," says Kuhleman, "but he's still a kid." She says she left him after discovering he hadn't filed his income tax returns for several years. Having raised four daughters in a first marriage with a deadbeat husband, Kuhleman wasn't about to put up indefinitely with a second.
Kuhleman initially announced as a candidate for an at-large council seat but said supporters urged her to zero in on Goldberg instead. Knowing Mark as she did, it didn't take much to convince Kuhleman she could do a better job. She is a longtime neighborhood activist with extensive civic club connections.
Constituents, Kuhleman believes, have seen the Goldberg she experienced as his wife. "He's unpredictable. He may say one thing, but he means something else. He'll give the impression he agrees with you, but he's just parroting back what you want to hear."
She's also getting tired of the media focus on the "angry ex." "This is not about personalities," insists the candidate. "It's about doing the right thing. District C deserves better representation."
Kuhleman's parents, Margarito and Josephine Lara, are second-generation Houstonians with roots in central Mexico. They discouraged their children from speaking Spanish, and Kuhleman says she was not even aware of being Hispanic until a third-grade teacher asked those students to stand up in class. "When I told my mother what happened, she was very upset," Kuhleman remembers. She says she never felt discrimination but was later conscious of prejudice against her father, a teamster with Borden's Creamery.
Goldberg was her classmate at James Madison High School, although she married the son of a laundry company owner. She divorced in the late '80s, then started a medical services business. Kuhleman encountered Goldberg in 1991, following the death of his paraplegic wife, lawyer Vicki Bailey. They had a four-year courtship, married and went through the divorce in 1998. Relations remained amicable enough for Kuhleman to work in Goldberg's first campaign, which he won in a razor-thin runoff with Maryann Young.
Kuhleman remembers an early 1999 evening when Goldberg dropped by to seek advice on his looming council candidacy.
"I was shocked and surprised," remembers Kuhleman. "He was asking me, 'How should I run? What should my priorities be?' It was infuriating because I was thinking, 'If you don't even know, why are you doing it? How are you going to get people to vote for you?' "
Kuhleman says she warned Goldberg then that his personal finances might not stand up to public scrutiny.
Goldberg picked up some influential support, including help from a political action committee made up of Mayor Lee Brown backers. After his election, some of them were shocked when Goldberg cozied up to council conservatives, voting with them against the mayor to roll back property taxes.
"Basically he has alienated his initial supporters," says Kuhleman, who promises to be responsive. She firmly supports both same-sex benefits for gay city employees and the nondiscrimination ordinance.
Goldberg was absent during that ordinance vote but says he supports same-sex benefits. A third candidate, 76-year-old retired marine major Hugh W. Hardy, advocates banning those benefits.
Asked about the former satellite office, Goldberg says he closed it after constituents never called there. It is now used as his campaign headquarters.
Kuhleman's campaign released documents showing more than $34,000 in IRS tax liens against the councilman from 1990 to 1998. Goldberg resides in the district in a house owned by his parents, who live in Israel. The only residence he owns is an eyesore on Ram Street in District F.
Asked about his taxes, Goldberg initially attributed the liens to the 1980s, when his first wife was ill. Told that the tax years in question occurred much later, he said he would have to check into the matter. He also claimed he had sold his Ram Street house and new owners were renovating it.
The councilman then called back to clarify that the house had in fact not been sold, that the purchase was still under negotiation.
Two days later, Goldberg rang back again to announce yet another last-minute cleanup. He proudly declared he'd just written an $18,721 check to the IRS to cover back taxes. If nothing else, Kuhleman's campaign has given the federal treasury a boost.
As the councilman is learning the hard way, when you go toe-to-toe with an ex, it can get expensive.
Off to the Races
At Large and Mysterious
Seats being vacated by mayoral candidates Orlando Sanchez and Chris Bell are crowded with contenders, but money and endorsements narrow the field.
In Position 3, George Biggs, an aide to councilman Rob Todd with interests in several nightspots downtown, has the money -- not the respect. "A bar owner for council?" scoffs the director of a major political action committee. "I don't think so." Biggs is the son of big-bucks society plastic surgeon Tom Biggs, and also gets credit for teaching boss Todd how to boogie.
The smart money is spread among Shelley Sekula Rodriguez, widow of KHOU/Channel 11 anchor Sylvan Rodriguez, Democratic attorney Marc Whitehead and Andrew Burks Jr., the only African-American in the race. Burks came close to beating Sanchez before and could benefit from a spirited contest in heavily African-American District D, plus Mayor Brown's multimillion-dollar effort to turn out the vote.
In Position 4, realtor Michael Berry has blanketed the town to the point of overkill with posters and billboards. Berry is less than forthcoming about his stance on issues, refusing to tell Democrats how he stands on abortion, and pulling a similar fade with gays about same-sex job benefits. Berry's apparent strategy is to overwhelm the opposition by sheer force of cardboard.
Businesswoman Claudia Williamson is lighter on campaign cash but has picked up most inner-city endorsements, including the Harris County Democrats.
If Berry doesn't win outright, look for a runoff where positions will be harder to conceal behind signs.
A Is for Acrimony
In northwest Houston's District A, incumbent Bruce Tatro and Republican activist Toni Lawrence are rematched. While Tatro has more than his share of enemies in the conservative Spring Branch neighborhoods, his downtown support remains solid. Look for a narrow Tatro win.
B Is for Bungling
Incumbent Carol Galloway ought to be cruising in this north Houston district, which put up for three terms with the likes of Michael Yarbrough, arguably the sleaziest local public official since Ben Reyes moved to an out-of-state jail. Yet somehow she finds herself in a race with two lively opponents, civic activist Cleo Glenn-Johnson and businessman Kurtyce Cole. Glenn-Johnson even snagged a Houston Chronicle endorsement, inexplicably bylined by the candidate herself on the Web version of the paper. Since Galloway is closely allied with Mayor Brown, she'll probably ride his campaign to a narrow victory, but not without a serious wake-up call.
Down and Dirty in D
Of the major contenders here, only community activist Ada Edwards has a squeaky-clean résumé. Realtor and former congressional staffer Gerald Womack lost his real estate license in the early '80s for unprofessional dealings (see The Insider, August 9); attorney and lobbyist Darryl Carter pleaded guilty to check forgery in the same time period (see The Insider, September 6); and Houston Community College trustee Chris Oliver recently made headlines for calling a college instructor a "bitch" when she asked him to stop exercising at a school gymnasium because it was interfering with her class.
Look for Womack, backed by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, to make a runoff against either Carter or Edwards.
E Is for Everybody but Rob
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With term-limited incumbent Rob Todd looking to run for Commissioners Court, a flock of six candidates is vying to replace him. The early favorite is Todd's former staffer Adelaide "Addie" Wiseman, who wised up to Todd and left the office before his cell phone high jinks hit the fan (see The Insider, December 7, 2000). Wiseman has the endorsement of the Chronicle and the early support of several downtown political action committees. She operates a landscaping business but has another talent -- stand-up comedian -- which could be a major public asset on the new council. Look for Wiseman in a runoff, possibly against broadcast consultant Bill Jones or Asian-American real estate broker Jan Lang Kish.
Off the Hook in G
Bert Keller's first term in office was anything but boring. A drunken night at a topless bar led to a collision with a parked truck, capped by his fleeing to sober up in a nearby apartment. Then he ran afoul of County Court Judge Janice Law for failing to stick with the public service schedule mandated by his guilty plea. And Keller's wife, Susan, took up with council colleague Rob Todd for a fling, giving Bert the dubious title of Cuckolded Councilman. Still, Keller faces no well-funded opposition for re-election, leading one to wonder what it takes to get fired by the voters. The Chronicle endorsement went to Anthony Osso. See this week's News Hostage for Osso's unique bar connections.
Keller aide Mike Howard explains that the councilman has continued to perform his job through his personal travails, while Todd's affair with Mrs. Keller has only provoked sympathy for Bert among the good Republican women of G.