Caution: He's Got a Volcano in His Belly
In the 18 months since then-federal drug czar Lee Patrick Brown huddled with a coterie of advisers in downtown Houston to plot out his race for mayor, things have gone pretty much as planned. The former Houston police chief dutifully followed the strategy worked out with County Commissioner El Franco Lee and others, returning to town to build a political base while keeping himself in the public eye through a prestigious professorship at Rice. It was all about as predictable as Brown's wooden Indian persona, which spawned jokes about who might get to roll him on and off the stage at campaign events.
But the surprise Brown unveiled in his first day of open campaigning for the job is that he's going to be a better candidate -- and much tougher to beat -- than even his avid supporters thought possible. The new Lee P., his sleeves rolled in the wilting afternoon sun, displayed heretofore unseen flashes of -- gasp -- emotion, humor and determination.
"I love Houston," Brown kept repeating in his Sunday announcement address at Sam Houston Park. You could almost see banner headlines forming above him: Lee can love! Lee can feel! Lee can even bend down and touch his toes!
For the first time, Brown acted as if he really wanted to be elected mayor for more compelling reasons than simply to fill in the next line on a lengthy resume of public service. During a back yard barbecue at the Memorial home of engineer and Brown campaign chairman Jack Linville, the ex-chief jokingly referenced his more than passing resemblance to Colin Powell, who flirted with and finally backed off a campaign for president last year.
"People said he didn't have a fire in the belly," Brown declared to the racially balanced audience that had temporarily integrated the mostly white neighborhood. "Well, I don't have a fire in the belly, either. I have a volcano in the belly."
Brown is in the process of disconnecting from his Rice professorship and has not yet assembled a paid staff or set up a campaign headquarters. Still, the volunteers pushing his early efforts had to be immeasurably cheered by his performance. "Isn't it great?" enthused transportation company owner Danny Lawson, a member of Brown's inner circle. "He's like Nelson Mandela and Tiger Woods rolled into one."
Perhaps Lawson could be forgiven for the gross exaggeration. Lazarus's mother probably voiced the same sentiment when junior unexpectedly tiptoed out of the tomb.
On the evidence of the turnouts at a string of campaign stops that touched black, brown and white neighborhoods to symbolize his "mayor for all of Houston" slogan, Brown is also going to run stronger citywide than some detractors had predicted. His crowds were more evenly mixed racially than any seen in town since mayor Kathy Whitmire's early years in office. The only tokens on hand were the kind that will get you a ride on Metro.
With a little luck, Brown may also be able to avoid a bruising political fight within the black community. State Representative Sylvester Turner, the most viable African-American candidate for mayor before Brown, is reportedly mulling over the reality bites from a self-commissioned poll that contained discouraging indicators for his prospects. The perception is also growing that Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee will stay out of the fray as well. "She needs a third term to nail down her congressional retirement benefits," confided one Brown operative. The fact that several Jackson Lee types, such as Democratic activist Carl Davis, seemed to be part of the Brown entourage lent credence to that prediction.
Without another big-name black candidate in the race, Brown's November ticket into the inevitable runoff would seem secure. As the summer wears on, the perception that he offers the best chance for African-Americans to finally elect one of their own could preempt any late challenges from the black side.
Since returning to Houston, Brown has worked the circuit of breakfast and lunch clubs to deliver every speech possible while appearing as a talking head in the local media on drug-related issues. At the same time, he cemented his relationship with Bob Lanier -- to the extent that some Brown backers are concerned that Lanier's behind-the-scenes support of Brown might become too obvious and damage Brown's chances among blacks who remain resentful of Lanier's defeat of Turner in 1991. That's one reason Lanier did not attend the Linville barbecue, according to a Brown operative.
Brown's newly formed coalition is an unlikely assortment of Whitmire administration fixtures, such as former municipal courts head Don Hollingsworth and ex-fire chief Robert Clayton; big-money backers that include shopping center magnate Jerry Moore and Gallery Furniture's Jim McIngvale; and Lanier regulars like former Metro chairman Billy Burge and fundraiser Sue Walden. Walden's husband Dave, Lanier's political projects man, is expected to join the Brown campaign later in the summer, while Democratic operative Craig Varoga, who masterminded the hardballing media campaign that destroyed Turner in his 1991 runoff with Lanier, is also expected to be on board.
Commissioner Lee, long a kingmaker in black political circles, introduced Brown at Sam Houston Park with an open admission of his background role in launching the campaign.
"A Lee Brown candidacy is something I wished and dreamed and cajoled and coerced for," said Lee. Kenny Calloway, the commissioner's political point man, circulated out in the crowd, sizing up the turnout of 300 to 400 people. Unlike Rob Mosbacher, Brown didn't need to bus in supporters or provide free food and a weekday lunchtime announcement to draw a decent audience to Sam Houston Park.
Perhaps inspired by the rocking sermon his Chicago-based minister son Patrick delivered at the Payne Chapel AME Church earlier Sunday, Brown's announcement speech at the park's Jack Yates House was easily the best of the infant campaign season. He spoke movingly about his poverty-stricken childhood and self-made career, displaying real emotion. "We lived in a barn," Brown said of his early days in a family of California farm workers. "I washed dishes to get through college." He gracefully left it to the audience to make the inevitable comparison between his early years and Mosbacher's gilded upbringing.
The meat of Brown's speech included proposals based on his police experience, such as linking the city's parks department to HISD for programs to keep youth off the streets. He also found a way to pay obeisance to Lanier without getting too smarmy about it, claiming that the outgoing mayor's popular Neighborhoods to Standards program was just a logical outcome of his neighborhood-oriented policing philosophy. Brown didn't mention that neighborhood-oriented policing, at least as rhetoric, quickly went out of style at HPD when Lanier appointed Sam Nuchia as chief. To hear Brown tell it, though, neighborhood-oriented policing is now the key component of national law enforcement strategy, and "it all started right here in Houston, Texas."
Now it's time for the sequel to Neighborhoods to Standards, Brown told his audience. Get ready for "neighborhood-oriented government," which we'll henceforth refer to as NOG. "I want to be able to say we started a new method of government," Brown had explained earlier in the day. But exactly what NOG might be remained unclear. It sounds vaguely like a throwback to Chicago ward politics, with a mayoral organizer on every block. But whatever NOG is, Brown sounded as if he really believed in it.
At the Payne Chapel in the Fifth Ward, pastor Michael Gibson summoned Brown and his wife to the front of the church to receive the congregation's blessing. He then implored the members to extend their right hands toward Brown while praying for his success, for a moment creating the surreal image of a crowd giving the candidate a silent "heil Lee" salute.
"When you let God begin your effort," Gibson intoned to the rapt congregation, "supernatural things happen."
Judging by the polished, energetic performance Brown put on at Sam Houston Park several hours later, the good reverend must have been right.
Bringing It All Back Home
There are two thing you can say with certainty about City Controller Lloyd Kelley: He's an impatient young man on the move, and he doesn't mind stepping on toes to get things done. Lately, he's managed to exhibit both characteristics -- on the political front and on the Woodland Heights turf he shares with some rather unappreciative neighbors.
The political flap began when the Austin-based newsletter Texas Weekly reported that Kelley will run for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission next year if Republican incumbent Barry Williamson decides not to seek re-election. The item caused a stir, particularly since Mayor Bob Lanier and other power players had recently attended a fundraiser for Kelley hosted by Port Commission chairman Ned Holmes and forked over contributions to help his re-election bid.
According to one irked political source, Kelley aide David Hagy flatly denied there was anything to the newsletter report. Unfortunately, Kelley consultant Allen Blakemore does not seem to be reading off the same script. Blakemore confirms that he and Kelley are discussing possible statewide races and that Kelley just might run for controller and railroad commissioner at the same time.
But wouldn't campaigning for two offices at once be an affront to voters? "It is a whole lot more honest than what we're used to getting here," argues Blakemore, alluding to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee's filing to run for the federal post on the day she was sworn in to a City Council term in 1994. "The point is that if he decides to do this, the voters are going to know about it."
On the home front, Kelley's already icy relations with next-door neighbor Wiley Smartt dropped a few degrees last month, when Kelley allegedly tried to pull some strings at City Hall to get a sewer tap connected at his new home in Woodland Heights. Smartt had testified against Kelley at a city Ethics Committee hearing probing how the controller first delayed a city order to tear down the house and then bought it for almost nothing. A Kelley aide received a hand slap from the committee, but the controller emerged unscathed.
Kelley recently moved into the newly renovated home, and gave selected members of the media a tour. (Somehow, the Press was overlooked when the invites went out.)
Smartt claims that Kelley tried to get a city crew early last month to tear up Smartt's back yard to make the sewer connection because construction on Kelley's lot had blocked access to a second tap. Because Smartt was out of town and had left several imposing German shepherds in his back yard, the crew could not get access.
The following day, city workers blocked off Norhill, tore up newly laid pavement and directly connected Kelley's sewer tap into the main line, Smartt says. In the process, they tore up a sidewalk between the Kelley and Smartt driveways, and when a city crew came back to replace it, Smartt says, Kelley stopped them and later tried to plant grass over the area.
"He was out there planting his grass and soil [where the sidewalk had been]," says Smartt, "picking out the concrete with this little grin like, 'Guess what I'm doing?' " Smartt suspects Kelley has used his influence to get the sewer line connected and then to stop the replacement of the sidewalk.
Dan Jones, the Lanier administration's agenda director and general Mr. Fix-It, recalls that Kelley did telephone him last month to try to expedite the sewer connection, but Jones denies anything improper occurred. Asked whether helping an elected city official with a personal sewer problem is unusual, Jones replies, "Oh, hell no. I get these kinds of things all the time."
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Jones says he warned the supervisor working the Kelley tap not to do anything he wouldn't do for the average citizen. "Everybody in the world is watching Lloyd and that house," says Jones. "If anything here smells like a political favor or is out of line and you wouldn't do it somewhere else, don't do it, 'cause you're going to kill all of us." Jones says he's confident Kelley did not receive special treatment in the digging of the tap and that the street connection was the only feasible solution.
As for the sidewalk replacement, Jones says he raised that issue with Kelley later and that the controller claimed his sole concern was the safety of a large oak whose roots ran under the sidewalk path. After checking with public works staffers and determining that a ten-inch sidewalk is no danger to a large tree's roots, Jones says the sidewalk replacement will go forward. Kelley did not return an inquiry from The Insider, although one of the controller's aides says Smartt should be grateful that Kelley took a derelict building and turned it into a beautiful home.
Wiley Smartt isn't buying it. "That's B.S. about killing the trees," he says. "I think it has more to do with tough love for the neighbors."
The Insider can't help with your sewer connection, but he is available to accept information from you at 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax), or through e-mail at Insider@houston-press.com.