There's a new player in town on the anti-crime and victims' rights front, one that plans to tap the outrage of a fed-up citizenry through the power of talk radio. And it's likely that politicians who don't toe the prevailing party line on crime (that is, lock 'em up and throw away the key) will have more to fear from the Houston Crime Commission than will criminals.
Bankrolled by a $5,000 contribution from radio magnate Dan Patrick's Sunbelt Broadcasting and carrying the imprimatur of Mayor Bob Lanier's office, the Houston Crime Commission has more on its agenda than keeping malefactors behind bars. The "commission" -- and how's that for an official-sounding title? -- wants to have an impact on public policy, and that entails endorsing candidates in the fall elections.
The involvement of Patrick -- whose "Super Talk Radio" stations KPRC and KSEV are responsible for bringing local AM listeners the musings of talk lords Jon Matthews, Mike Richards and Roger Gray, and national nabobs Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy -- appears to be the key to the group's success. Andy Kahan, the director of Lanier's Victims Rights Office and president of the commission, says Patrick has pledged a "total commitment" to the new group by "making crime the stations" number-one issue, as a public service." The group is headquartered in the same Katy Freeway building that houses Patrick's stations.
But Matthews, the local talk-show host with the largest audience, suspects Patrick's commitment may be more limited. "I do not have a direct involvement with the Houston Crime Commission," he says. "I would have them on the show just as I would any other organization to
iscuss the issues. I'm not going to be their mouthpiece, by any stretch of the imagination."
Perhaps not, but Patrick is the boss. Prior to a July 8 rally the group staged outside City Hall, guests from crime victims groups were scheduled every day for two weeks on Super Talk Radio's shows. Representatives from Justice For All, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Parents of Murdered Children and other groups all had their turn at the microphone. One outfit declined to participate: the Houston Police Department's homicide division which, according to Ginna Butler, who works with the commission and for Patrick's stations, didn't want to be seen as officially endorsing any specific crime victims group.
Kahan tried to prepare Patrick for a less than overwhelming turnout for the lunchtime rally, which was attended by several hundred people on an overcast, threatening day. The rhetoric was predictable, with the usual suspects (Judge Michael McSpadden, Constable Victor Trevino and attorney Rusty Hardin) saying the usual things about the awfulness of crime. Speakers ranged from the sublime -- as when Dr. Levi Perry spoke of how his life had changed in an instant when his son, Levi Perry, Jr., was killed while jogging in MacGregor Park -- to the ridiculous -- as when state Sen. Buster Brown tried to lead the understandably reluctant crowd in the inspiring chant, "Victory for the victims."
After the cheerleading, the group chose a familiar and easy target for its first order of business: Elmer Wayne Henley, Houston's own mass-murderer, convicted of six murders in the early 1970s. Henley was up for parole July 19. Butler typed up a public service announcement opposing Henley's parole and had it aired 32 times within 24 hours on Patrick's stations. She says the PSA triggered more than 40 faxes, with the signatures of 150 people, entreating the state not to spring Henley. Armed with that show of public opposition, Kahan trudged up to Palestine for Henley's parole hearing. Not surprisingly -- and almost certainly unrelated to Kahan's appearance -- it was decreed that Henley should stay behind bars. Kahan and Butler stress that the Henley effort was merely a trial run. When issues are larger, and when the commission endorses candidates, they will capitalize more fully on the group's radio ties.
"With Elmer Wayne Henley, everyone knows he isn't really going to be paroled. That wasn't a huge issue," says Butler. "But when we have a huge issue come up, we'll stop and do a program on that issue. So yes, it will fit into the programming from time to time."
Kahan says the group is starting to attract outside money, having raised about $3,000 on top of the seed money Patrick's company provided. Fund-raising will be a major activity of the commission, as Kahan wants to provide direct assistance to victims of crime, and support other victims' rights groups. He plans to hit on private businesses for donations.
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Naturally, the group's plans to back candidates gives rise to a number of questions. Will the stations plug the endorsements? Will talk-show hosts, unbound by any "fairness doctrine," chat up certain contenders? Will the commission -- which will actively be seeking funds to push its agenda -- accept donations from candidates? And last but not least, is there really any serious contender for public office out there who isn't opposed to crime?
Most of these questions remain unanswered. Patrick, who is secretary of the group, is on vacation and unavailable for comment. Butler acknowledges that much needs to be sorted out. Matthews, who routinely avoids endorsing candidates on air, claims he won't be swayed.
"I may announce an endorsement as a matter of fact," Matthews says. "I wouldn't go out of my way to do it. Just as I would probably read the endorsement of the group CourtWatch. But just because I read them doesn't mean I agree with them."
Kahan is aware that working for the mayor and heading an organization that will endorse political candidates could pose a problem. "Luckily, the mayor rarely endorses candidates," he says. "If he does, I would probably abstain. I'm well aware I'm going to get into a lot of tight squeezes.