Stolid Citizen

You could hear the organ swelling and the congregation clapping a block away from Salem Missionary Baptist Church, a small redoubt of piety in the northside neighborhood of Independence Heights, where the windows of the frame houses are covered by burglar bars or two-by-fours. Outside, it was a beautiful late fall morning -- so clean and crisp and temperate as to be prima facie evidence of God's inexhaustible good grace. Inside Salem Missionary, the Reverend J.C. Nickerson was vigorously calling down more of the Lord's blessings on the guest of honor.

"Remember brother Lee Brown this morning!" Nickerson entreated. "You brought him for a time like this...."

The object of Nickerson's request stood to his right, gently swaying to the building strains of the organ while the pastor addressed the 50 or so congregants who were on their feet near the front of the sanctuary, clapping and shouting the occasional amen! Nickerson recalled that back when he was chief of police, in 1986, Brown spoke at a banquet the church held --came himself, didn't send an emissary -- and then the reverend remembered how things were in neighborhoods such as Independence Heights before Kathy Whitmire brought Brown to town.

"Folk were running from the policeman,'' -- and by "folk" Nickerson meant black folk -- "but after this man took over, relationships were mended."

The story's somewhat more complicated than that, but Nickerson's message was essentially true. Whatever else has been said or written about the record Brown amassed while job-hopping about the country -- and Brown surely never knew what a sorry public servant he had been until Rob Mosbacher began telling people so --the Houston Police Department did indeed undergo a fundamental change for the better under Brown and Whitmire. That was no small accomplishment to the people in mostly black neighborhoods such as Independence Heights. Not only did the HPD lose its unsavory national reputation as a butt-kicking brigade of throwdown-gun-planting rednecks, but today the department looks more like the people it serves, and in Independence Heights, people have come to expect the same level of protection provided the richer and whiter neighborhoods across town.

In patting ourselves on the back about what a "diverse, cosmopolitan and international" city Houston has become, it's easy to forget what it was not so long ago: just a big town in East Texas, which is to say a big town in the Deep South, which is to say a town that was strictly segregated, and one in which that particular social arrangement was often reinforced by the officers of the law -- even within the lifetime of 46-year-old Rob Mosbacher. Ask almost any African-American or Hispanic native of Mosbacher's age, and they're likely to have a story about how they feared the cops when they were younger.

That's a big reason why the mere presence of Lee Brown -- evanescent though it may be -- was enough to bring the congregation of Salem Missionary Baptist Church to its feet, on a Sunday morning when Brown was as close to being the mayor of Houston as any African-American has ever been.

At Salem Missionary, Lee Brown looked to be at ease -- or as at ease as he can be in public. He took the pulpit and spoke extemporaneously, although he said nothing especially interesting, and nothing that he hadn't probably said on dozens, if not hundreds, of previous occasions.

But in marked contrast to his many appearances at luncheons, before civic clubs and in televised debates, at Salem Missionary Brown sounded natural, unforced -- as if there's an authentic self somewhere below the thick clouds of preprogrammed blather he's emitted for six months, a self that may, on special occasions or in hospitable surroundings, even reveal itself to the strangers he wants to serve.

Brown came to the Reverend Nickerson's church as more than just another candidate seeking office: He stood before the congregation as a symbol, a very powerful symbol, which is why they cheered as loudly when he told them he was the first African-American in the country to obtain a doctorate in criminology as when he promised to drive the drug dealers from their neighborhood.

And it's on the field of symbolism that Brown seems most comfortable. Even his schedule on the Sunday morning before his runoff with Mosbacher was packaged for effect. He started at Christ Church Cathedral downtown, and after his stop at Salem Missionary he went to St. John the Divine Episcopal Church on the lip of River Oaks, a neighborhood with its own private police force. Mosbacher Country, most definitely. But Brown, as you may have heard, wants to be the mayor for all of Houston.

St. John was not a typical stop for a candidate -- the pastor couldn't immediately recall any supplicants for public office dropping by before an election, at least not on such an overtly political pilgrimage as Brown's -- and the mayoral hopeful did not get to stand before the almost all-white congregation and recollect how he grew up bathing in a No. 3 washtub. He simply sat and listened to the Reverend Larry Hall's 11 a.m. sermon.  

But it was not an uneventful visit: While filming Brown and his entourage during the service, a Hispanic cameraman for Channel 2 (accompanying an Asian-American reporter) was blindsided and knocked off his feet by an angry St. John's parishioner. (Later, an embarrassed Reverend Hall related that the man had been upset by the presence of a video camera in the sanctuary, although it's not much of a stretch to assume that Brown's being there might also have factored into the man's outburst.)

Brown departed River Oaks without further incident, rolling on to Union Bethel A.M.E. Church on the southwest side of town, where he was again invited to the pulpit. There, he spoke of a time when "many of our citizens were afraid to send their children out on the streets, not because they were afraid of gangs, but because they were afraid of the police." That reminiscence was met with an agreeable chorus by the mostly middle-aged churchgoers, and Brown's visit ended with the choir singing a soul-stirring hymn, dedicated, as the church's female pastor put it, to the "first black mayor" of Houston: "With Jesus I know I can take it / With Jesus I'll stake a stand / With Jesus I know I can make it / My life is in His hands."

"Lee Brown, your life is in His hands," ad-libbed the church's minister of music. "Don't be worried about it, Lee Brown...."

Brown didn't appear to be worried, but who knows? If he was, he certainly wouldn't be giving it away.

It was six years ago to the day, on a Sunday morning before a December runoff election, that Sylvester Turner woke up in a position similar to Lee Brown's. Turner, too, seemed to have a decent shot at being the city's first black mayor, but before that day was out, whatever chance he had was wrecked by Wayne Dolcefino's revelations on Channel 13. This week, the prospect of history somehow repeating itself -- of Brown being buried in a last-minute avalanche of "mud" -- was a subject much remarked upon in black Houston, and it was a point the Reverend Nickerson raised from the pulpit at Salem Missionary Baptist Church.

But judging by his halting, inattentive performance in the first of the series of debates leading to Saturday's election, it's not the mudslinging that should have Brown worried. Beyond exuding a bland sort of moral authority ("Houston is better than that ... Rob, you're better than that...") Brown, as usual, just couldn't seem to put together much of a coherent argument for why he'd make a better mayor than Mosbacher.

Which, of course, doesn't mean that he would be a bad mayor. Running for office has almost nothing to do with actually serving in office. And Brown has been helped by the fact that Mosbacher hasn't presented much of an argument on his own behalf. Although he's actually taken two of the more interesting positions of the entire campaign -- his insistence that he won't spend public money on a new basketball arena, and his more recent promise to cut bus fares in half -- Mosbacher has otherwise distinguished himself as a pandering weenie, his dodge on affirmative action amounting to a classic exercise in tortured logic.

Which doesn't mean he'd make a bad mayor.
It's unlikely he'll get the opportunity to prove that, though. The demographic odds are stacked against him, so he's had little recourse but to whang away at Brown. The subtext of Mosbacher's attacks has been that Brown is the ultimate beneficiary of affirmative action, that he's been given jobs he didn't deserve simply because he was black, then bungled them and moved on. It's not something Mosbacher says, but it's there to hear if you listen closely. What Mosbacher does say is that while Brown has been tethered to the public payroll for a good part of his life, he himself has acquired something he calls "real world experience" by presiding over his family's energy concerns.

Coming from another candidate, that argument might resonate, but coming from Mosbacher, whose real world experience may or may not include ever having filled out a job application, it just sounds condescending. Besides, as Brown, likes to say, "People in Houston know me."

Well, yes and no. Somehow, after six months of visiting almost every nook and cranny in Houston, Lee Brown has managed to remain almost as much of an enigma as he was when he began his campaign.  

It was hard to tell whether Brown was moved at all by the singing at Union Bethel A.M.E. Church. Afterward, making small talk outside, I asked him whether he enjoyed visiting small churches such as Bethel, since he seemed to be at home there.

His eyes flickered momentarily behind his glasses, but then he gathered his shoulders, brought his fingertips together, and began to expound on how little churches are important, but so are the big churches, which was why he had gone to both that morning ... and by the way, have you heard that he wants to be the mayor for all of Houston?

I lost track of the rest of his answer, but I got the picture. I think.

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