For his next junket, Mayor Lee "Out of Africa" Brown might consider a sleigh ride to the North Pole to try to trade back some of those unwanted packages voters left under his City Hall Christmas tree in the recently concluded election.
Brown lost big in the first round last month when the downtown arena deal he negotiated with Rockets owner Les Alexander fell to a well-financed opposition campaign spearheaded by GOP County Chairman Gary Polland and County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt. The results left Polland crowing that the mayor's political life is going to be hell for the next two years, a sentiment that the city's runoff election only reinforced.
Most of the new councilmembers who take office January 2 promise nothing but headaches and ulcers for the stalwart former cop, who is already having enough problems keeping the current batch of delinquents glued to their seats. Five members, including occasional Brown allies Chris Bell and Annise Parker, staged a brief and unsuccessful walkout last week to delay an airport parking concession deal. The move brought back fond memories of the famed "Killer Bees" who bolted the state Legislature and hid out in an Austin garage apartment to block a legislative vote in 1979.
Brown managed to block the latest insurgency with the cooperation of complacent and compliant Councilman Felix Fraga. But Fraga will shortly be replaced by District H winner Gabriel Vasquez, a far more ambitious and potentially troublesome presence for the mayor in the next millennium.
At almost every position voters elected representatives likely to be more independent from the administration than their predecessors. The easily bulldozed Jean Kelley surrenders her seat to real estate executive Bert Keller, a GOP Rob Mosbacher clone. Lawyer Mark Goldberg replaces term-limited Martha Wong, whose vote the Brown folk could generally count on. Attorney Gordon Quan vanquished Dwight Boykins, who had the solid support of lawyer Kenny Friedman's Friends of Lee group. Quan, for sure, owes no allegiance to the mayor. Likewise Mark Anthony Ellis will take the seat of Ray Driscoll, who backed the mayor during the walkout and the vote on the downtown convention center hotel.
The only newcomer who could be considered a Brown ally is teacher-unionist Carol Galloway. She edged past Richard Johnson, a brain-truster of term-limited Councilman Michael Yarbrough. At least her vote won't be for sale to the highest bidder.
Given Brown's weakened political stature after the fall of the downtown arena, the new lineup promises to put Council on a more equal footing with the city's traditionally strong mayor. It could bring back the era of the early '80s, when a coalition of councilmembers opposing mayor Kathy Whitmire formed a troublesome breakfast club coalition that occasionally defeated her proposals.
Vasquez ran up a 22-point margin over opponent Yolanda Navarro. In the process, he plowed through a negative campaign mounted by state Senator Mario Gallegos, whose perceived political influence took a serious beating. Gallegos and his consultant Marc Campos face a holiday platter of crow.
Meanwhile, Vasquez can look forward to some sumptuous "late train" fund-raisers by downtown power players. They had rated the mediagenic UH professor a potential future mayor but had been afraid to cross Gallegos to support him. "Mario called in a lot of political chits to oppose Gabe," says one player. "He won't be able to go back to that well again."
Campos replies that rumors of the Gallegos machine's imminent demise are greatly exaggerated. "I think people have every right to question our political clout, but if you wanna test us, well, go on ahead. Where in the book does it say you're supposed to win every one?"
Term-limited Councilman Joe Roach steps down from his at-large seat, but according to City Hall sources, the attorney hopes for a present after he leaves: a municipal food concession for his wife. That might explain why Roach has been so unusually agreeable of late in his dealings with the Brown administration. Roach confirms his wife may launch a food service employing handicapped people after he leaves office but says it has had no influence on his actions as a councilman.
Over at Houston Independent School District, Vasquez's Council victory creates another holiday plum, which the board will likely dole out as an appointment to his District 1 seat. Among the hopeful recipients is former state rep Diana Davila, the wife of Roman Martinez, another former legislator. Also in the hunt are Richard Cantu, an assistant director of the city Parks Department, and Heights-area school activist Carla Cisneros. She's the wife of architect Tim Cisneros, who is the brother of former Clinton cabinet member and San Antonio mayor Henry. Carla may face the objections of some activists who consider the seat part of the Hispanic board bloc. She's Anglo.
Vasquez could force a special election in January if he chose to resign from the HISD board by the end of this week. But Gabe seems inclined to go along with the appointment scenario that will make this holiday season memorable for at least one aspiring politico.
"I think that people in the community would prefer an appointment," says the councilman-elect. "I don't think they are up for a January election at all." Whether they are up for having a representative imposed on them by the HISD board remains to be seen.
Over at the Harris County District Attorney's office, veteran prosecutor Chuck Rosenthal has already got his big Christmas present: the decision by Judge Ted Poe not to run for the seat to be vacated by Johnny Holmes Jr. Rosenthal looked like a long shot when he announced for the GOP nomination ahead of everyone else. With the popular Poe out of the way, he's firmly in the driver's seat, having picked up the support of westside kingmaker Steven Hotze.
Republican attorney Jim Leitner, a former assistant district attorney, will provide an alternative. With good conservative credentials as well as the respect of the defense bar, he might have a shot at the mercurial Rosenthal, who has styled himself as a Johnny Holmes junior, right down to a moustache.
If Santa were really in a nice mood, he'd bring the local Democratic Party a full set of candidates for the county positions at stake in 2000. As it is, chairman Sue Schechter is touting former Texas Southern University president and law school dean James Douglas as a possibility for district attorney. There's a real question whether Douglas, who was ousted from the TSU presidency, could win an election for big man on campus, much less carry the GOP-dominated county.
Likewise, there's talk that HPD veteran and mayoral anti-gang task force director Adrian Garcia is considering a run for sheriff. That shouldn't cause incumbent Tommy Thomas to lose any sleep.
According to Democratic activist David Jones, what the local party is really doing is recruiting sacrificial lambs who can draw out the minority vote next November.
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What those voters will find when they get to the polls is far from certain. With the recent departure of state district judge Katie Kennedy, the only Democratic judge left on the area bench is First Court of Appeals Justice Eric Andell. The party is going with a strategy which would bypass the judicial races, leaving most incumbent Republicans without a Democratic challenger next year.
"Does [Schechter] expect me to ask people to fall on their swords [as county candidates] for one or two judges out of 70?" asks a bemused Jones.
Guess he hasn't been infected by the Christmas spirit of giving yet.
Play Santa; deliver your news tips to the Insider. Call him at (713)280-2483, fax him at (713)280-2496, or e-mail him at email@example.com.By Tim Fleck