An Election-Day Tale of Two (or Three) Cities
There may have been a great historic moment for Houston race relations sometime on the evening of December 6 as Lee Patrick Brown edged past Rob Mosbacher to become the city's first African-American mayor. But if you blinked, you missed it.
The day's balloting was without surprise: Most blacks voted black, most whites voted white, and the Bob Lanier money-raisers and strategists who worked for Brown just did their jobs in grinding out a businesslike six-point victory over once-and-perhaps-future West U denizen Mosbacher. The post-balloting gatherings were also distressingly predictable: While Brown's much-delayed victory speech emphasized the city's Technicolor diversity, election night for the most part played out in stark tones of black and white.
Our Election Day swing began early, with an unannounced afternoon visit to get-out-the vote king Kenny Calloway's nerve center on Lyons Avenue in the Fifth Ward. Calloway, working closely with Brown consultant Dan McClung, spent the day monitoring -- and occasionally goosing -- the turnout of the crucial black vote for Brown.
Entering the wood-frame headquarters of Calloway's Politico, one had the feeling of having stumbled onto a paramilitary operation, where the soldiers were armed with cell phones rather than weapons. Several workers stepped forward defensively when we entered the premises, relaxing only slightly after learning the uninvited intruder was a journalist. Calloway himself was ensconced in an upstairs room. After a brief consultation with him, an aide who identified himself as Lee, and who resembled a slightly smaller version of former Lakers forward James Worthy, returned with a polite but firm eviction notice.
"Mr. Calloway is a very, very busy man right now," Lee explained. "Perhaps if you call back later and make an appointment...."
As we left, Carl Ritchie, an Austin lobbyist who had been a gubernatorial aide to Ann Richards, was hurrying in from ramrodding the "flush teams" and sound trucks plying the southeast side of town for voters who hadn't yet made it to the polls. Ritchie reported that the turnout seemed to be on track, an observation borne out by final estimates indicating that blacks accounted for more than 30 percent of the total vote, just as they did in the first-round election on November 4. Since Brown's margin of victory was less than 16,000 votes, the Calloway-directed final push may have made the difference between a narrow win and a late-night cliffhanger.
As the polls closed, we shifted into a more upscale gear and headed for River Oaks. The king may not have been quite dead and the successor hailed, but the power was definitely hissing out of the Huntingdon condo tower. Completing a karmic circle that began with a 1989 Christmas party at which the local media was introduced to the premayoral Laniers' lifestyle, first lady Elyse played hostess to a motley crew. It included Brown campaign operatives, Lanier administration types, a few TV reporters preparing their live shots for the 10 p.m. news and the odd Lanier crony or two, such as former Metro chief Billy Burge and lawyer Kenny Friedman. You got the feeling more people were invited than showed.
The gathering had a forced gaiety about it, infused as it was with the realization that the Laniers' six-year run as the lord and lady of City Hall was down to a few weeks. At least Bob and Elyse get to keep their money and their residence in the clouds.
For a number of administration functionaries, the sentence is far grimmer. Their days of dining on Tony's at Home beef and casserole, the election-night menu at Casa de Lanier, had dwindled to a precious few.
"There's a lot of melancholy here," observed one administration intimate with a large degree of understatement.
At least ex-police chief Harry Caldwell kept his sense of humor. Upon getting off the slow-motion elevator that conveys guests to the Huntingdon penthouse, Caldwell asked where he might find "His Lame Duckship." After political scientist Richard Murray called the election for Brown on the basis of exit polling, Caldwell cracked, "If that police chief can get elected, this one's going to run for office, too."
Meanwhile, the outgoing mayor spent much of the evening in his study, propped up in his classic feet-on-the-desk pose and watching the five TV screens that conveyed intermittent election results -- along with the Rockets-Mavericks game from Mexico City. Lanier seemed more contemplative -- and less expansive --than usual. Despite the endlessly percolating reports that Lanier will run for this or be appointed to that, this night just might have been the requiem for his short political career.
As the returns rolled in, the mayoral wife gave some first-time visitors a tour of the digs, revealing those over-the-top details that will undoubtedly make the Lanier lair legendary to future generations. Among the items worthy of note were the color TV set up for viewing inside Elyse's office-sized closet; the now-infamous shampoo bowl in the exercise room that she touted in House and Garden magazine as de rigueur for vanquishing bad-hair days in Houston; and those silk-canopied dog beds for the couple's King Charles spaniels. And how many folks do you know who have a bronze head of themselves sitting on a pedestal off the entranceway to their domicile? Mayor Bob does.
Petty election-related resentments periodically burbled up in the cocktail conversation, such as the episode on the Tuesday before the election when Brown debate coach David Berg ordered campaign manager Craig Varoga and media consultant Dave Axelrod out of a coaching session with the candidate. The lawyer had apparently concluded that too many cooks were spoiling Brown's gray matter. Not to worry. The bickering apparently had no effect on Brown's debate performances, which were uniformly painful to watch.
The only African-American at the party, City Attorney Gene Locke, sat quietly with Lanier in the study for a while, and then departed. Locke indicated to The Insider that he's weighing his career options, which include joining a major downtown law firm, and would make a decision over the next few weeks.
Public works director and mayoral co-chief of staff Jimmie Schindewolf, Lanier aide Joe Weikerth and City Hall agenda director Dan Jones eventually gravitated to the Laniers' crimson dining room and settled down to dinner with their dates. Speculation inside the Brown campaign is that Schindewolf will stay on as public works director for a while but will shed his chief-of-staff title. Jones, who's been at City Hall since Jim McConn was mayor, hopes he can cross the administrative River Styx again and find new life in the Brown administration.
Upon bidding farewell to our hosts, we suggested to Elyse that she keep a watchful eye on the public works table, lest they be tempted to repave her apartment with a final spurt of city cash. To her credit, Her Lame Duckness laughed as the elevator doors closed on our last, lingering view of Lanier World.
Over at the George R. Brown Convention Center, the Mosbacher "victory" party sputtered along to the beat of the candidate's own rock and roll ensemble, Mid-Life Crisis and the Hot Flashes, sans Mosbacher's drumming talents. "I've never seen so much cashmere on men in my life," muttered one of our companions. We spotted religious-right kingmaker Steven Hotze and consultant Allen Blakemore at one of the cash bars, and got a rare chance to chat with Hotze.
It wasn't the best of elections for either man, with Blakemore's candidate, Controller Lloyd Kelley, flaming out in the first round after publicly labeling opponent Sylvia Garcia gay, a tactic Kelley later told associates was suggested by Blakemore. However, given Kelley's innumerable missteps, it would be a stretch to make the consultant the scapegoat for Kelley's defeat.
Hotze, who launched his local political endeavors more than a decade ago by organizing the "Straight Slate" to combat gay rights, saw one of his favored Council candidates, former BFI lobbyist Don Fitch, lose to Annise Parker, who will become the first openly gay officeholder in the city's history.
But Hotze had other matters on his mind. He informed The Insider that while he himself wasn't too bent out of shape by the profile of him we had written a year ago, his wife wanted to chop us into "little pieces" and bury our remains in the Hotze family's back yard for mentioning the accidental shooting death of the couple's teenage son in our story. Slightly unnerved by the vision of a future as plant fertilizer in Tanglewood, we decided it was clearly time to move on to our final stop.
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"What time is it? It's Brown time!" bellowed Sheila Jackson Lee to the throng awaiting their man at the Astrohall. But the mayor-elect was off at the party at the nearby Sheraton and taking his time. The crowd got fidgety. Controller-elect Sylvia Garcia's voice was shot, but she kept shouting into the microphone. Asked whether Brown was delaying his entrance until Mosbacher conceded, a campaign official laughed and said, "You don't really think we're that organized, do you?"
County Commissioner El Franco Lee, a charter member of the Brown campaign since its first strategy session in Houston nearly three years ago, held court in the crowd. Lee was hopeful his man could consolidate power slowly while avoiding "rookie mistakes" and run-ins with a revitalized City Council. The election-night results should help, with Brown-friendly candidates Parker, Chris Bell and Carroll Robinson winning at-large seats, though the new Council will be split down the middle between Democrats and Republicans.
The candidate finally appeared after 11 p.m., thanking Lanier, Whitmire and ex-controller George Greanias and invoking the spirit of his late mother. At the conclusion of his speech, the crowd practically rushed out of the Astrohall and on home or to other parties. We ambled across the street to the Sheraton, where the Brown campaign's inner sanctum -- Dave and Sue Walden, Varoga, McClung, Axelrod and other soldiers of the Lanier-Brown team -- was celebrating the win. The group attitude was more one of sheer relief at pulling off a difficult technical maneuver rather than jubilation at Brown's historic victory. And true to the evening's form, not one African-American was in the room while we were there -- other than the hotel's wait staff.
Welcome the Brown Era by calling The Insider at (713) 624-1483 or (713) 624-1496 (fax), or send e-mail to Insider@houstonpress.com.