The Great Non-Communicator
City Attorney Anthony Hall relaxes in his sunlit office at the old City Hall and searches for words to explain the Lee Brown management style. The affable lawyer is an expert on government leadership, having served over the past two decades in the state Legislature, on City Council and as chairman of the Metro Transit board under Kathy Whitmire. Describing his new leader to an outsider is a challenge.
"I think there's no secret that probably the most different aspect between him and either Bob Lanier and Kathy Whitmire is that you can go in a meeting with Brown, and you can talk for 30 minutes, and come out and not know what he thinks about the issue," says Hall.
Brown simply sits and listens to the presentation, relates Hall, "and that is totally different from both Lanier and Whitmire. Get about two sentences out with her, and she was going to tell you for the next hour everything she thought about the thing."
Hall routinely takes calls from befuddled department heads who just met with the mayor and need guidance. "I said, 'You just left talking to him, so what'd he say?" recounts Hall. "And they say, 'I don't know.' " Once Brown feels he's gathered enough information, he acts decisively, says Hall, but the lack of an immediate reaction confuses directors who are used to a forthright executive.
If there's one consistent theme in Mayor Lee P. Brown's first six months in office, it's been communications -- or rather the lack thereof. On the most literal level, Brown hasn't been able to articulate the messages of his administration, or find and keep a competent communications director to do it for him. Nick Rivera, the only person to hold the position, lasted less than two months.
Serving as the mouthpiece for the great non-communicator is less than an inviting assignment. A number of veteran public-relations types have considered the opportunity and passed on it. At present, lining up a media interview with the chief executive can take months. His weekly press conferences at the Council table are largely an exercise in deflecting questions rather than answering them.
The same thread runs through his relations within his own administration, City Council friends and foes, and the community at large. The mayor makes a big show of his availability to take complaints from citizens at town meetings and in Mayor's Night gripe sessions -- laudable enterprises, but hardly the stuff that radiates the image of a strong leader.
"Why I, as mayor, would want to take on the direct complaint channel from citizens is beyond me," says Councilman Orlando Sanchez. He points out that Brown has a whole division called Citizen's Assistance to perform that role.
"For the mayor to go out every day and listen to complaints, well, I think what we need is vision and leadership from that office, a macro-view of the city. He's heavily into micromanaging."
Brown's method of running City Council meetings is equally enigmatic. He presides over the other 14 members like a schoolmaster who has delegated the teaching chores to several favored students. Brown rarely answers when opponents attack administration proposals, preferring to stay above the fray. As a result, Council meetings often drift on and on, as members bicker and quibble over matters both substantial and procedural.
"If you ever differed with Lanier on anything, you knew you had to have your ducks in a row, because he was going to take you on," says at-large Councilman Chris Bell, who believes Brown's hands-off leadership style encourages opposition.
"There are certain times," opines Bell, "when you have to engage the opposition, that you can't leave it to anybody else to fire back." That's mostly what the mayor does, leaving most of the talking to mayor pro tem Jew Don Boney, the administration's designated spokesman.
"Lanier carried the debate," says a Council ally of the mayor, "and Brown is going to have to start doing that. You can't just rely on other people."
Houstonians have had plenty of time to get a measure of the mayor since his arrival from Atlanta in 1982, as Houston's first black police chief, yet the image of this son of California migrant workers as a stolid, cautious, decent man has changed very little. But contradictions abound in his style: What some find unresponsive and boilerplate in Brown, others find predictably reassuring. What he sees as his strengths as an administrator -- caution, non-confrontation and quiet competence -- are his weakness as a political figure. Except in private conversation, in which he is rumored to occasionally be lively, Lee Brown is deathly boring.
Since assuming office in January, the 60-year-old Brown has quickly disabused campaign critics of the notion that he's a lackadaisical executive (his travels while police chief earned him the sobriquet "out-of-town Brown"). Instead, the mayor has jammed his schedule with appearances and meetings seven days a week, to the point where staffers have begun appealing to him to take a day off occasionally.
"He is deep, deep, deep into the minutiae of running the city," says former Lanier adviser Dave Walden. "He's exhibited a work ethic that people didn't think he had in him, especially at that age. He's not a young guy."
Brown's appointments since he took office are also non-controversial and widely praised. They include new Public Works Director Jerry King, a former adviser to mayor Fred Hofheinz. King was imported from the Metro Transit Authority hierarchy with a mandate to pooper-scoop the kingdom of Jimmie Schindewolf, the departed Lanier chief of staff and infrastructure warlord. Parks Director Oliver Spellman is likewise struggling to clean up a messy legacy left by Lanier predecessor Bill Smith, who headed a department labeled "out of control" by City Controller Sylvia Garcia. Then there's Fire Chief Lester Tyra, a former union firebrand and popular replacement for much criticized predecessor Eddie Corral.
As Councilman Joe Roach notes, Brown, a former drug czar under Clinton, has appointed many others to special assistant positions.
"I've never seen so many liaisons," marvels Roach. "We've got two youth and children liaisons, we have a drug czar, we have a gang czar, we have a victims' rights czar, we have a hike-and-bike trail czar, we have a neighborhood government czar. If a problem develops, we seem to appoint a czar to that position at a salary of $60,000 to $80,000."
Since most of the czars report directly to Brown, the mayor winds up micromanaging specific issues, observes Roach, and uses up time that would be more profitably allotted to larger management issues.
On a recent Thursday morning, a rare outsider's look into a staff meeting revealed the impacts of Brown's penchant for special appointments.
More than 50 senior staffers and department heads crowded around a long table in the mayor's conference room in the basement of City Hall. For Brown, the antithesis of his predecessor -- wheeler-dealer businessman Lanier -- these gatherings represent a weekly celebration of his approach to governing through the deliberative bureaucratic process.
First up was discussion of the proposed $2.2 billion budget, which calls for no tax increase. Under Lanier, rarely had councilmembers tried to amend the budget in Council sessions, because disagreements were worked out in budget workshops or in personal haggling with the mayor or his aides.
But now, chief operating officer Al Haines, the tall Mormon who previously served Whitmire in a similar role, presented a crib sheet for 27 budget amendments offered by the Republican opposition at the Council meeting the previous afternoon.
"I don't think it's unhealthy," Brown told the group about the proposed amendments. "But it is important to put forth a statement of the administration's position, and it's important for all of you to do it today." (With the dissent of only Rob Todd, Council last week voted to approve the mayor's $2.2 billion budget package.)
Toward the end of the Brown staff meeting, attendees heard from the woman blamed for handing the mayor his first defeat in a Council vote.
The mayor's assistant on youth issues, former police officer May Walker, had stumbled badly on the recent administration proposal to fund area churches for nondenominational youth programs. Critics immediately opened fire on the hastily conceived plan, questioning the lack of synagogues and other non-Christian participants, as well as the lack of consideration of the issue of separation of church and state.
And she almost caused another blunder as she previewed for the staff her plans for an August youth summit called "Stop the Violence: Mayor Brown's Peace Initiative."
Part of her proposal called for a workshop on "Non-Violent Alternatives to Conflict Resolution" -- with the recommendation that it be co-hosted by none other than West Coast rap artist Snoop Doggy Dogg, acquitted of one murder and known for his "pop-a-cop" compositions.
It didn't take much imagination to conjure up the field day critic Todd would have with the idea of the city bringing Snoop Doggy Dogg to Houston to promote nonviolence. Police Chief C.O. Bradford finally broke the meeting's silence, tactfully suggesting that his department screen suggested rap artists to weed out those "unsuited for this type of program." Everybody who was paying attention smiled. The mayor would not be walking the Dogg anytime soon in Houston.
Agenda Director Dan Jones added an insurance question for Walker. "Will any part of this require Council approval?"
"No sir, by no means," she replied earnestly. An amused and knowing Brown cracked his trademark half-smile at Jones. "Now why do you ask that question?"
Replied the agenda director with a broad grin, "We always think of Council first."
More than a few of the 14 councilmembers, including several of the mayor's erstwhile allies, would take issue with that notion. In the first six months of the Brown administration, most of the focus on his job performance has centered around a series of miscues involving staff.
None of the missteps would be considered major, and they aren't significant enough to provide early fuel for an opponent seeking to unseat Brown after one term in 1999. The economy remains strong, and Brown is also sitting on a campaign war chest stuffed with a million bucks.
But the mayor's slow forward pace and leadership style, long on conceptual rhetoric and short on specific proposals, have engendered a feeling that City Hall is drifting.
"I get the feeling not much is happening," says a veteran downtown lobbyist who admits he has yet to get a handle on the new order. "You can look at the agendas and see how much lighter they are than at the end of Lanier's last term."
The first and perhaps biggest test of the mayor's power to date was the acrimonious "food fight" over a lucrative vending contract at Bush International Airport. Brown endorsed a group called CA One over a popular consortium of local restaurateurs. With the help of new councilmembers Annise Parker and Carroll Robinson, Brown prevailed and established his clout.
"I thought he did a pretty good job of carrying the day on the airport contract," says former mayor Lanier, still a firm Brown supporter. "If they had rolled him on that one, I think they would have thought he was easy pickings."
Brown's affirmative action director Lenoria Walker caused the only major gaffe for the administration when she labeled Councilman Roach "a Republican midget" during a talk at a New Orleans conference. Brown first suspended her for three days. When more inflammatory comments surfaced from the speech, Brown was under pressure to fire her, but she resigned.
Councilman Sanchez said Brown could have been decisive and showed leadership, but "he missed the boat on that one."
Even those who vote with Brown frequently complain that he does not involve councilmembers enough in his decisions. An example is Brown's issuance of an executive order banning discrimination against gays in city hiring without involving the only openly gay member, Parker. To her, it was a case of doing the right thing in the wrong way.
Lanier cites the handling of the executive order as a typical misstep by a new mayor who needs better staff support. "He needs someone around him to say, 'Uh, mayor, this is Annise Parker's field. Call her and let her know you're going to do it.' Let her call three or four people who are important to her to tell them. And then you tell people she's got to work with, that you did it in part because of her importance to you. And make that be true."
It's a point that Brown doesn't seem to get. "That was a campaign promise I made, and carried out, because it was the right thing to do," says the mayor. "Annise can't issue executive orders, only the mayor. So I did not go to the Council on that issue, I issued an executive order."
Added Brown: "Annise hasn't raised any questions with you on that, I'm sure."
In fact, the councilwoman does have some questions. "It was kind of refreshing that he did it as a matter of course without laying the political groundwork," she says, and then spells out the frustrating aspects of his action.
"It's not good for an elected official to look like they're out of the loop with a core constituency. We had had conversations, but it was a surprise to me when it was announced. And a lot of the information should have been available for the media. We could have had all that in place. None of that was done."
Repeated situations like this one have led even friendly councilmembers to conclude that Brown seems to be tone deaf to the nuances of dealing with elected officials.
"I don't believe he seeks out councilmembers," says Parker, who notes that Brown does respond to calls and contacts. "He doesn't run things by councilmembers; we're not part of the circle that provides input. Sometimes he forgets that he's got 14 elected officials with egos and constituents."
And if councilmembers perceived as allies feel that way, those who regularly vote against Brown feel it double.
"The administration has adopted a policy. It's us versus them, and I think over time that will really hurt him," says Roach. "Because you've got to form allies on Council on any issue you can get them on."
Brown replies it was Roach and his Republican colleagues who initiated the division. "You have a group of people on the Council that tend to vote no on everything that comes before it," says the mayor. "We tried to bring them in. I think they should be brought in to do what's best for the city, and not deal with just strictly politics."
Roach says he believes Brown may have just been intimidated by earlier meetings of the GOP councilmembers, which he says were much ado about nothing.
But this is a new era in municipal politics, one in which term limits have made city officials temporary sojourners who have to carve out a political stance if they are to have any future running as a Democrat or Republican for other positions outside the municipal realm.
"I guess the biggest surprise would be on City Council," says Brown, when asked what he's learned in his first six months on the job. "It's much more partisan now than it was when I was police chief. When I was police chief, I didn't know the political affiliation of any councilmember. It didn't make any difference."
Perhaps the mayor's most vocal Council opponent, Todd, agrees with Brown that term limits have sharpened the level of debate.
"With term limits, the net effect is, you have less amount of time to achieve your goals, and it creates more of a sense of urgency, says Todd. "Like, for myself, I've got three and a half years left on Council, and there's certain things, on a capital project basis, from a policy standpoint, that I want to accomplish. And, as a result, it makes me more aggressive." But the same motivation applies to the mayor, argues the councilman, who believes that Brown is also playing to gays, environmentalists and labor with an eye toward a future national office after several terms as mayor.
Todd also figures councilmembers' newly emboldened stance against the mayor has something to do with the fact that he isn't Bob Lanier. "If you compare the Council meetings to the savanna in Africa," quips Todd, "Lanier was an armor-plated rhinoceros and Brown is a chunk of raw meat."
Perhaps the most remarkable, and most unremarked aspect of the Brown mayorship is its true empowerment of African-Americans at City Hall. Just as Lanier clustered around him middle-aged white associates and River Oaks neighbors like Billy Burge and Holcombe Crosswell, Brown has assembled a coterie of old friends and associates trusted by him. The power circle is as racially groundbreaking as his own election as Houston's first African-American mayor.
Brown may be, as his campaign slogan declared, "The mayor for all Houstonians," but like Lanier, he has stuck with his friends.
"I'm seeing a black mayor surrounded by a lot of black people," says one politico, who says a recent poll put Brown's approval rating at 71 percent. That is proof, the politico said, that the public "either doesn't see it, or they don't mind it."
Brown has a smattering of outside Anglo counsel, including shopping-center developer Ed Wulfe, Mayor Day attorney Kenny Friedman, former chief of staff Walden and, on occasion, Lanier. Still, the perception is that Brown has gravitated to the people he knew and trusted as police chief -- older, successful black men -- and he relies on them as his kitchen cabinet.
Within city government, the African-American power circle starts with a veteran, City Attorney Hall. His appointment was not universally popular.
"Putting Anthony in that little tank down there is like putting a piranha with a bunch of goldfish," one political observer said. "That's fine if you want the piranha running the show, but I don't think Brown wants that piranha running the show."
That observer cited a proposed ordinance, touted by Brown as a tough regulation of City Hall lobbyists. Hall refused to show early drafts or take outside input. As a result, it was introduced and immediately diverted to the Council's Ethics Committee, which is preparing a similar version.
The source said Hall's "attitude is almost 'Fuck you -- you're on Council, this is a function of the administration, you can look at it after the mayor sends it down to you.' "
Hall explains that he advised Brown to take the ordinance directly to Council to preserve an essential prerogative of the mayor. "He shouldn't have to send it to them before he can present it to the people of this community," Hall said.
In naming Councilman Boney as mayor pro tem, Brown turned what had been a largely ceremonial position into a legislative floor whip for the mayor at Council. Boney's influence has been limited by his recovery from a respiratory illness over the past few months.
A mayoral intimate with some vested interests is Danny Lawson, a bus company owner viewed by outsiders as the most likely confidante to get the mayor in trouble.
Suspicions were raised that the Metro board delayed voting on a $68 million bus purchase contract to allow Lawson to become involved in that deal later.
Lawson was a target in a late 1980s federal probe into allegations that his relationship with the Chicago Transit Authority chief led to a sweetheart bus contract with Lawson in that city. No evidence of that surfaced. During the same time period, Houston black political leaders threatened to oppose a Metro rail referendum if Lawson was not included in bus purchase contracts.
A City Hall veteran had Lawson in mind when praising Brown's ethics but questioning some of his associates. "It's like trying to train a dog to eat with a knife and fork. As soon as you walk away from the table, that dog's going to put his nose in the bowl."
Perhaps the most significant personnel decision facing Brown when he entered office was what to do with Jimmie Schindewolf, the powerful Lanier chief who was once described by former city councilman Ben Reyes as "more powerful than the mayor."
Schindewolf wanted to stay in the new administration and retain the preeminence he enjoyed under Lanier as both chief of staff and public works director. Brown brought in a new inner circle of advisers and a determination to carve out his own administration. He did not intend to preside over "Lanier 2," as some downtown interests had earlier, and erroneously, tagged the new order.
Brown told Schindewolf he could keep public works, but not the chief of staff position. Schindewolf resigned and headed for a lucrative consulting relationship with the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.
A member of Brown's advisory group said Brown's decision "was just common sense -- didn't take that much strength. You don't go through what a guy does, getting elected mayor, and turn it over to a guy who didn't do anything. So that was never in the cards."
With Schindewolf out of the way, Brown then named Metro executive Jerry King to the post. King immediately began slowing down the overheated public works machine that had been spewing out design and construction contracts at a breakneck rate during the final six months of the Lanier administration.
King's ongoing evaluation of the department has in turn provoked fears that the pipeline of city work could slow down next fall just as declining oil prices undermine the current mini-boom in town. An administration source confirms there has been a dramatic fall-off in the approval of non-utility construction and design contracts that will not become apparent until early next year.
"I've had members of the engineering and architectural communities come and say, 'Look, there are projects that need to be put up on the street that are not being put up,' " says Councilman Sanchez.
"I think what everybody's worried about is that he may get his public works team in place," says Rice Dean of Social Sciences Bob Stein, "but by then, you're in an election cycle and your projects are not getting done."
That slowdown has Brown advisers worried that it could make the mayor, who defeated Rob Mosbacher for the seat, vulnerable to an early mayoral challenge funded by contractor contributions. "If I were a Mosbacher mole-type and was trying to torpedo the Brown administration," warns one of Brown's staffers, "the way I'd do it is to have the infrastructure program stall."
Brown seems oblivious to those worries. "That is not a concern of mine," he responds when asked about a possible construction slowdown. "I don't even know what they are talking about."
The mayor has placed much of the rhetorical emphasis of his new administration on his campaign promise to create what he calls Neighborhood-Oriented Government. His lieutenants can recite line-and-verse the tenets of NOG, starting with "not a program, a concept." To bolster NOG, Brown has created a supporting mythology, namely, that it is an extension of "neighborhood-oriented policing," which the mayor claims to have pioneered and which is now universally accepted as the right way to police communities.
Hall says that skeptics of NOG are making the same mistake he did when Brown arrived in town as police chief in 1982 preaching neighborhood-oriented policing.
"It proved to be absolute genius," says the city attorney. "When you go through a mayoral campaign, the question of police-community relations almost never comes up.... It's a non-issue, and it got to be a non-issue because police started to be involved in the communities, the neighborhoods where they do their jobs. It was magic."
The claim that Brown invented the idea of police involvement in community affairs is, of course, absurd. What he did preside over, in the Whitmire mayorship, was the integration of the Houston police. The aggressive recruiting and promotion of minorities and women stripped the department of its oppressive identity as an occupying force in minority neighborhoods.
To launch NOG, Brown hired Gloria Cordova, a veteran public works assistant director, at $85,000 a year, to oversee the process of delineating "super neighborhoods" within the city and then coordinating communication between city departments and neighborhood leaders and organizations. According to the mayor, the aim is to give neighborhood leaders and organizations a voice in setting priorities for how city services and money are directed to their areas.
Asked whether it might take him three terms in office to instill his concept on the city, the mayor replies airily, "Oh, by that time we should have people coming here looking at what we're doing as a model for the rest of the world."
Roach figures the mayor has a long way to go to make NOG much more than rhetoric. "I haven't seen anything on the ground," he remarks, "and I know Gloria is struggling with the concept and the implementation."
Audiences at Brown appearances have learned to accept speeches long on feel-good generalities about helping and improving the city. At a recent address to a business crowd, he displayed his occasional wooden stabs at humor. Brown told of accidentally boarding a bus with mental patients, who were confessing their delusions. When his turn came, Brown declared he was mayor of Houston, and an attendant said, "This one is really crazy!"
The crowd tittered with an "at least he's trying" reaction. Then came the generalities about his goals, until he veered dangerously close to being specific -- on controversial light-rail issues.
"I'm biased in favor of light rail," he tells the group. "Of course we will have to do studies, but that's my bias." Brown also takes a swipe at his predecessor's killing of a rail plan in 1991, telling the audience that the billions in federal dollars Houston might have used for its transit system were lost to other cities.
Brown's rail bias led him to Dallas for a day of riding and praising that city's train system. It provided the motivation for the mayor's abrupt shakeup of the Metro board, replacing Lanier's buddy and anti-rail ally Crosswell as chairman with Robert Miller, the county appointee who, like Brown, is pushing light rail.
In embracing rail, Brown not only runs the risk of rekindling the bitter rail wars that precipitated Whitmire's defeat in 1991 after five terms. He could also alienate Lanier, the man who succeeded her and also helped Brown win the mayorship.
Lanier makes it clear that in order to continue supporting Brown, he will try to accommodate a minimal rail plan, particularly if it's "part of renewing south Main [Street] and it's a pretty little rail and has some sizzle to it -- a twain twack, I call it...."
According to the former mayor, building some kind of train might placate downtown political pressure focused on Brown through the Houston Chronicle.
"I think the Chronicle has exerted tremendous influence on the idea that some kind of rail ought to be a very high priority for both the mayor and all persons who want to be elected to Council," analyzes Lanier. "I think, beyond that, there are a few political people pushing it, but the dominant political strength there is the Chronicle and how they present it."
Brown is committed to holding an election to get voter approval for any rail project, a seeming invitation to resume the mobility wars of a decade ago. The mayor regards the election as his own way of getting off the political hook.
"If people don't want it, we won't do it," says Brown. "It's just that simple. We still go by majority rule in a democracy."
After the fashion hothouse that was the Lanier cocoon at the old City Hall, before it was closed for renovation, a visit to Brown's inner sanctum on the third floor is a dip into temporary austerity. Six months into office, the walls are stark. Instead of the pricey furnishings arranged by first lady Elyse during the heyday of Lanier's first term, the largely bare room has a leased desk, a computer, a conference table and chairs.
More than the decor marks the difference between the Brown and Lanier administrations. While Elyse was an omnipresence who chaired the Houston Image Group and supervised Mayor Bob's comfort zone, Brown's home and family life are largely submerged in his no-nonsense approach to the office. His schoolteacher/counselor wife, Frances, dislikes the public spotlight and declines the usual stand-by-your-spouse sorts of interviews that soften a politician's image and make him or her seem more human. That is not expected to change until Brown hits the campaign trail next year in his reselection bid.
However, the threadbare look of Brown's office will change. He's ordered that staffers go on a scavenger hunt to reclaim the original furniture that was in the old City Hall when it opened a half-century ago. "Just as we preserve the historical significance outside," intoned Brown about the lengthy renovation of the art deco-style building, "I want to do the same thing on the inside."
Brown also seems to be resisting any makeover of his own management style, despite criticism from opponents and at times puzzlement from his friends. Interviews with Brown are generally unenlightening affairs, since the mayor rarely ventures into unescorted waters, preferring to churn out a series of time-tested slogans and truisms. With the mayor, one does not expect the unexpected. The closest one ever gets to a spontaneous expression from the bureaucrat-to-end-all-bureaucrats is that wistful half-smile, followed by something halfway between a giggle and a laugh.
He was asked what it would take to draw a gut reaction from a mayor whose only flash during the campaign came when opponent Rob Mosbacher attacked his integrity.
Eyes glinting as if enjoying a private joke, Brown replied tersely: "A reason."
The constant jabs from councilmembers, the sorts of darts that regularly had Lanier fuming, aren't reason enough?
"That's what people do," replies the mayor of the bickering at Council. "Why would you get upset about that? That's not a reason. We're doing okay in getting things passed through Council."
As for his silence at the Council table while others carry the defense of the administration, Brown seems to regard that as dirty work outside his job description. In Brown's eyes, his silence reflects strength rather than weakness.
"Jew Don Boney is my floor leader. That's why I picked him. He's good at the Council politics, and I wanted someone who could do that for me. So it's not by default but by choice that he's the one who does that."
The mayor is amused at the suggestion that the media is frustrated by the utter lack of fire he exhibits both in presiding over Council and running the city.
"I'm 60 years old, and I'm not going to change," declares the mayor. "I've done what I've done with my life. I've been what I am. I'll be what I am and do what I do for the rest of my life."
Brown then touched on the best reason for him not to change. By not inflaming passions, by not making enemies for life, by not providing an environment where scandals can easily take root, Lee Brown has wound up on top, and boring or not, will likely be there for a while.
"The style I operate under is my style," concludes Brown. "That's what I've done all my life, and it hasn't failed me yet."
Walden, the pre-eminent political hatchet man at City Hall during the Lanier era, predicts there will be two more terms to study that style. "Absent a huge fuckup, a bad economy, he's in there for the next five years," predicts Dave Walden. "And everybody who doesn't like him better learn to like him. And they better hope he does a good job, cause he ain't going nowhere."
E-mail Tim Fleck at email@example.com.
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