The Poop's on You
Executing a political smear isn't as simple as it sounds. There's a large risk factor involved: If the foul poop doesn't adhere to your opponent on first application, it might just stick to you for the rest of the campaign.
A textbook example of this occurred last week after mayoral candidate Rob Mosbacher, trailing in the polls behind former police chief Lee Brown, tried to stuff some language offensive to women into Brown's mouth. By the time the exercise had played out, however, most of the lingering questions concerned the conduct of Mosbacher's campaign rather than Brown's supposed insensitivity to sexual harassment.
Mosbacher himself was nowhere to be seen when his campaign hirelings staged a news conference to introduce a smarmy radio advertisement pitched to white female voters who are leaning toward Brown or may be undecided about their choice in the December 6 runoff. In the ad, Brown is quoted as saying that three women who sued the Houston Area Urban League and ex-director Victor James for sexual harassment had "welcomed and invited" James's attentions. Brown was a member of the Urban League's board at the time and had recommended James for the job.
To make the point visually at its news conference, the Mosbacher campaign assembled a phalanx of grim-faced white businesswomen behind mouthpiece Howard Opinsky, who took care of the dirty work for the absent candidate. The expressions on the women's faces said they did not welcome and invite Lee Brown to be mayor.
The radio-ad tag line is equally blunt. "Vote against bad judgment," a solemn female voice intones. "Vote against sexual harassment. Vote against Lee Brown for mayor." The ad was not widely disseminated on commercial radio (although it has aired on The Planet/102.9 FM, a station that has a large number of youngish professional females among its listenership), and Mosbacher apparently hoped to reap plenty of free publicity from coverage of the news conference.
The attack had been in the works for a while. Several weeks prior to the news conference, a Mosbacher supporter had alerted The Insider that Brown had been deposed in a sexual-harassment lawsuit and had said something to the effect that the female accuser had asked for it. A quick check of records in the federal lawsuit failed to find any such inflammatory remarks by the candidate. We then contacted Brown campaign officials, who dismissed the idea that their candidate, normally as careful with his words as a Brink's Security guard with the day's receipts, would say anything so insulting to women. As it turns out, they were right.
Brown never said the words attributed to him in the Mosbacher ad. They actually were drawn from court pleadings filed in May 1991 by an attorney who was defending Brown and 22 other members of the Urban League's board and staff. They had been included as defendants in the lawsuit filed by the three former employees of the nonprofit who accused James of sexual harassment before he was fired in 1990. Urban League attorney Martin Wickliff says the phrase "welcomed and invited" is standard legal jargon inserted into any defense pleading against claims of sexual harassment, and any lawyer who did not employ that language would be remiss in defending a client.
"The lawyer's got to make those affirmative defenses in the answers before you can put on any proof at trial," says Wickliff. "Everybody needs to understand that, and it's very unfair for the Mosbacher campaign to have said what they said."
The same boilerplate language is included in responses to the lawsuit filed on behalf of Urban League board members Bill Lawson, the pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, Joy Fitzgerald, the director of the Houston Housing Authority, and Vince Ryan, the former city councilman. Fitzgerald and Lawson did not return phone inquiries to determine whether Mosbacher and his women supporters should be equally outraged at them, but Ryan was willing to talk and was not amused by the Mosbacher tactic.
"It's very sad," says Ryan, now an attorney for the firm of Calame, Linebarger Graham & Pena, which collects delinquent taxes for the city. "I have always had a high regard for Rob Mosbacher. He has a lot of talent, and he certainly has done many things for which he should be patted on the back. This is something for which he should be kicked in the rear end."
After apparent reflection on his legal future should Mosbacher win, Ryan called back to reduce his criticism of Mosbacher to a misdemeanor. "He should be slapped on the wrist," Ryan boldly declared.
Joan Ehrlich, the director of the Houston office of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, calls the Mosbacher maneuver "a gross distortion" of what really transpired in the suit against James and the Urban League.
"Lawyers are paid to defend their clients," says Ehrlich, whose EEOC attorneys represent victims of sexual harassment. "Although board members are technically responsible, they don't control what their lawyers say. It's a huge stretch to point fingers at individuals and blame them for something that they didn't do at all."
Attorney Larry Doherty represented James in the suit and also specializes in suing other lawyers for malpractice. The words in a court filing are not the actual remarks of a defendant, Doherty notes, and Mosbacher --who has a law degree but has boasted of never actually practicing law --is way off-base in pretending that they are.
"This is as cheap a political trick as somebody who should know better can play on the public," says Doherty.
For some reason, The Insider was not invited to the Mosbacher news conference (we're probably not on the candidate's Christmas-card mailing list, either), but Nancy Sims, a consultant who works for the Mosbacher campaign, defended the radio ad to us as a justified, fair questioning of Brown's ability to appoint qualified people if he is elected mayor.
"We're talking about electing the chief executive officer of this city," says Sims. "And one of the most important things that person does is hire people. And here we've got Brown pushing someone to be hired who is a sexual harasser, and we think that is a very fair issue."
For the record, Brown says he did not serve on the Urban League personnel committee when James was selected, and was unaware of any allegations of sexual harassment against James when he recommended him for the post.
Ellen Cohen, the director of the Houston Area Women's Center, finds the sudden emphasis on sexual harassment somewhat puzzling, since both candidates seem to be progressive guys.
"I think both Lee and Rob are sensitive about the issues affecting women," says Cohen. "When Lee was chief of police he took them very seriously and worked closely with us and other groups involved in sexual assault and sexual harassment."
So if Lee Brown is not an insensitive coddler of sexual harassers, where does that leave Rob Mosbacher with Election Day rapidly approaching? A tipster called us recently to suggest a new line of attack on the front-runner.
"Check out Brown's college transcript in the HPD personnel files," advised the caller with a breathy hint of scandal. "You'll find he made a lot of Cs."
Stay tuned for the next Mosbacher ad.
You Can Find Me at the First Tee
It seems as if the atmosphere at Grif's (or maybe it's the refreshments) brings out the best (or is it the B.S.?) in our political hopefuls. Whatever the case, in the interest of voter education, we'd like to offer a few of the more edifying lines uttered last week when the Montrose sports bar played host to a forum for City Council candidates in the December 6 runoff:
*To the question "Do you have another job, and if so will you still be able to be a full-time councilmember?" at-large Position 1 candidate Don Fitch, a former executive and lobbyist for waste-disposal giant Browning-Ferris Industries, gave this candid response: "I retired from BFI earlier this year, and I intend to be a less-than-full-time councilmember. I would hope to play a little golf." We suggest Fitch consult County Commissioner Jerry Eversole, an inveterate linkster, on how he can successfully juggle the two endeavors.
*Dave Wilson, the District A candidate and part-time ethics crusader, served up a dip of sarcasm in response to the same question: "I plan on being a full-time councilmember with a part-time yogurt stand," quipped Wilson, who was responsible for the conflict-of-interest complaint against ex-councilman John Peavy over Peavy's part ownership in an airport ice-cream concession.
*At-large Position 4 contender Richard Johnson provided an inventive explanation of why he owns a house outside the city while seeking a job that requires officeholders to reside in Houston. "I know many people who have two houses -- lots of people have a second house at the beach or in the country," said Johnson, who owns a house off Wallisville Road in east Harris County but lists his mother's home in Pleasantville as his address on his voter registration. It was his wife, Johnson explained, who wanted to purchase the house. "I said, 'Darling, if you want it, you can have it.' She deserved it. It made her happy. That's why I did it."
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Seven Come 11
If Channel 11's reporters seem to be a bit tense on the air lately, they may have good reason. According to news department insiders, the word has gone out to a number of veterans that they need to shape up in the coming month or expect to be shipped out.
At least seven familiar faces reported to be under the gun are John Getter, Charles Hadlock, Susan Starnes, Sam Saucedo, Norm Uhl, Debra Martine and Sandra Gin.
"People are speculating like crazy," admits station manager Peter Diaz, who would only say that discussions are continuing with a number of staffers about their future. News director Joe Duke, whose job is also reported to be in jeopardy, declined to comment on personnel matters.
The Insider is giving thanks this week for any news of shady or underhanded or mindlessly idiotic doings by our elected officials, bureaucrats and media nabobs. Call now at (713) 624-1483 or (713) 624-1496 (fax), or do the cyberspace thing at Insider@houstonpress.com. Have a happy holiday!