Bob and Kathy and Lee Makes Three!
Starting with his gift-wrapped presentation to the city as a Rice University professor two years ago, Lee Brown has turned up one political ace after another on his meticulously scripted march toward the mayor's office. Now his campaign is playing its final wild card as Mayor Bob Lanier and predecessor Kathy Whitmire, who cumulatively have occupied the top spot at City Hall for the last 16 years, pull off a performance worthy of a Spencer TracyKatharine Hepburn flick in putting their official stamp of approval on Brown.
Not that there was ever much suspense among friends of the two about which mayoral candidate Lanier and Whitmire preferred all along. In the signature appointment of her decade as mayor, Whitmire brought Brown to Houston from Atlanta in 1982 to remake the brutality-stained image of the Houston Police Department. Whitmire, who now lives and teaches in the Washington, D.C. area, has made it clear to Brown and her Houston pals that she's in his corner.
Few have questioned which candidate had Lanier's undeclared backing, since virtually his entire political team went to work for Brown early on. But for any lingering doubters, last Saturday night's lighting of the big Christmas tree outside City Hall provided the answer in the same way that the order of dignitaries in the stands of May Day parades in Moscow used to tip off Kremlinologists to power shake-ups. Lanier and wife Elyse paraded to their seats front and center, immediately followed by Brown and his wife, Frances, who took their place in the VIP section immediately to the right of the incumbent. The four greeted effusively, leaving the distinct impression of a ceremonial passing of the torch to the incoming administration. Rob and Katherine Mosbacher were conspicuous by their absence from the Christmas pageantry.
So with their private predilections in the mayor's contest long an open secret, the main pizzazz of the Lanier-Whitmire pairing derives from the unique chemistry between their personalities, which was last measured somewhere on the pH scale between sulfuric and hydrochloric acid. With the Brown camp planning to run a happy-face "Bob and Kathy" television commercial through Election Day, you could almost forget the serious bad blood between the two that dates back to a 1990 Christmas party at the River Oaks mansion the Laniers then owned.
The event occurred shortly after Whitmire ousted Lanier as her Metro chief. As guests shivered out back in near-freezing temperatures, Whitmire showed up and attempted to use the Western-themed party as the stage for an unannounced political shoot-out. When Lanier refused to allow Whitmire to conduct a news conference on his property, the then-mayor led a pack of waiting media hounds off to a nearby Mexican restaurant, where she in effect accused Lanier of lying when he said she had fired him.
The seeds of that rancor bore fruit a year later, when Lanier bumped the incumbent out of a runoff he later won over state Representative Sylvester Turner. And there was no kissing and making up after Lanier took office, as his cronies helped sabotage an appointment Whitmire expected as director of the National Mass Transit Association.
So this week's joint endorsement is must-see TV in its own right. It not only papers over one of the city's most vitriolic political feuds in memory, it broadcasts the message that if these two powerful egos can put up with each other long enough to stage an appearance together and cut a commercial, they must really like Lee Brown.
Bringing Whitmire and Lanier together turned out to be easier than one might think. Brown fundraiser Sue Walden simply telephoned the former mayor, who immediately agreed to do whatever was asked of her to help Brown. Initial plans for Lanier and Whitmire to appear at a fundraiser for Brown foundered when their schedules could not be coordinated.
Whitmire flew to Houston the Tuesday before Thanksgiving to spend the holiday with her family, and found time to tape her segment of the Brown ad at a local studio. She did not tell her own inner circle in Houston about the upcoming endorsement, and friends we contacted assured us she had simply come to town on a family visit and nothing more.
As we went to press, the still-unfolding plan called for Whitmire to fly back to Houston Tuesday morning for an afternoon news conference at the Laniers' high-rise condo that would be called under the guise of a Lanier endorsement. Midway through the event, Whitmire, who would be stashed out of sight in a back room, would sashay into view to launch the Brown lovefest in earnest.
Whether or not it comes off exactly as scripted, the Bob and Kathy reunion is just the latest in a series of fortuitous developments that make Brown's election seem written in the stars. Following a battle plan formulated in the spring of 1995 by a group of brain-trusters led by County Commissioner El Franco Lee, the candidate has methodically realized nearly every one of his objectives.
First, he disentangled himself from the Clinton administration back at its nadir following the '94 Democratic congressional wipeout, when association with the president seemed a ticket to political oblivion. He then nailed down a high-profile appointment at predominantly white Rice University, where he could begin crafting his "mayor for all of Houston" theme while speaking to community groups and reestablishing local visibility.
Then he had to get a lock on the black vote by dissuading any of a number of African-American elected officials from running for mayor and splintering the chances of a black candidate getting into the inevitable runoff. Initially, that was a long shot, since '91 loser Turner, fresh off a court victory in his libel suit against Channel 13, seemed determined to seek vindication at the polls. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who's never met a political contest she didn't like, also seemed a likely contender. But in the end, Brown's alliance with Commissioner Lee and the weaknesses of Turner and Congresswoman Lee in citywide polls provided Brown an unobstructed lane through the black community into the runoff.
With the African-American vote in hand, Brown had one of the two pillars of the coalition that had elected Whitmire in five straight mayoral elections. Moderate and liberal whites made up the other major component of that coalition. That group, for the most part, voted for former controller George Greanias on November 4. Had Greanias edged Mosbacher, he might have provided stiffer competition for Brown. As a fiscal tightwad, Greanias could have appealed to conservative and progressive whites, in effect piecing together the formula that carried Lanier to victory in 1991 over Turner.
But Greanias lost, and after a decent period of meditation, endorsed Brown, giving the candidate a near-sweep of the most powerful municipal endorsements up for grabs. "He's either very, very smart, or very, very lucky," observes a key supporter of the man who is on the verge of re-creating the same voting bloc that kept Whitmire in office so long.
Should Brown win on December 6, the debate can then begin on whether inheriting a city administration after Lanier's spending spree constitutes luck or misfortune. And unlike Lanier, it seems doubtful the mild-mannered Brown can whip a City Council split down the middle between Republicans and Democrats into the servile sheep-impersonators that Lanier herded for so long.
We All Scheme for Ice Cream
John Peavy Jr. quit his at-large City Council seat earlier this year rather than give up his interest in Peacole, an ice cream and yogurt company he owns in partnership with state Representative Garnet Coleman. Peavy had been the target of an ethics complaint accusing him of a conflict of interest, since Peacole holds a food-stand concession at Hobby Airport. Since his resignation, Peavy has been indicted in the FBI's Hotel Six sting for allegedly accepting payoffs in return for his vote for the Duddlesten hotel project.
But those turns of misfortune apparently haven't hurt Peavy's ice cream business. The Insider has learned that Peacole has been added as a minority subcontractor at the George R. Brown Convention Center by prime contractor Aramark, which recently won a city food-services contract worth more than $6 million. The addition of Peavy's company came after the Council voted to approve the contract with Aramark, according to acting Convention and Visitors Bureau chief Jordy Tollett.
"Aramark is using him in some of our venues, and he has done stuff in the George R. Brown," confirms Tollett. "But he was not in the original proposal, and I guess he's working with Darryl King." King is a longtime City Hall insider with a fried-chicken concession at city airports. He is a 10-percent partner in the Aramark contract.
Neither Aramark nor Peavy returned calls from The Insider seeking an explanation for how the ex-councilman managed his latest jump aboard the ship of foods.
That Devilish Christian Coalition!
On the day before Thanksgiving, the Texas Christian Coalition invited its members and supporters to have a free telephone feast at the expense of one of its political enemies, the national AFL-CIO.
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In a piece of e-mail circulated to fellow travelers across the state, the Coalition suggested they "call the Hill toll-free" and provided the number of a free AFL-CIO hotline to the congressional switchboard at the Capitol. "Each phone call will cost the unions between $4 and $10," the message noted. "Use it if you're on the Hill or off the Hill. Give the number to 15 of your closest friends and have them call their congressman or senator just to say hello."
A staffer for Congressman Nick Lampson of Beaumont, who rode AFL-CIO support to victory over Republican Steve Stockman last year, was unperturbed that the toll-free number had fallen into the wrong hands.
"We're always happy to hear from our constituents," said Lampson press secretary Jonathan Brown, "no matter how they manage to make the call."
Be a sharing person and call The Insider now at (713) 624-1483 or (713) 624-1496 (fax), or send e-mail to Insider@houstonpress.com. And don't forget to do your civic duty and vote. Just once, though.