If He Had a Hammer
History will record that Houston's 1997 mayoral destruction derby officially got under way shortly after 8 a.m. on Saturday, February 8, when Rob Mosbacher stood to address a collection of still-drowsy east-side business folk at Rio Posada Restaurant.
Among the 30 or so listeners clutching their coffee cups for dear life as Mosbacher launched into his first campaign speech were John Hernandez, a Texas Commerce Bank vice president; Lupe Fraga, the brother of City Councilman Felix Fraga; and Fiestas Patrias organizer Sal Esparza. They had been summoned to the Fulton Street eatery by Justice of the Peace Armando Rodriguez, an old friend of Mosbacher's family.
It seemed awfully early for such an elocutionary exercise, considering both the hour of the gathering and the nine months remaining until Election Day. But Mosbacher, who on the previous day had filed a document at City Hall designating fellow second-generation energy executive James Calaway as his campaign treasurer, earnestly set about explaining to the community leaders what they might have in common with a wealthy independent oilman, former statewide Republican nominee and recent immigrant into the Houston city limits from West University Place.
First, Mosbacher paid obeisance to Mayor Bob Lanier -- an exercise that will probably be an automatic prologue for every candidate who enters the race.
"I think the current mayor has made tremendous progress in a host of areas," said Mosbacher, mowing through a list that included weed cutting, ditch cleaning, road paving, more street signs, neighborhood protection, ad infinitum. As mayor, Mosbacher promised, he would "finish" Lanier's agenda.
"But the next mayor," he added, "must have his own agenda."
And what might that be?
Mosbacher's answer, in a nutshell, was "public education."
Lest one think that Mosbacher was mistakenly running for the HISD or Alief school board, or angling for an appointment as superintendent, he quickly explained that he's well aware that the mayor has no responsibilities for the schools. Nevertheless, he said he intends to use the municipal office "to focus more attention on public education" and somehow "rebuild our schools." (Mosbacher apparently will not do any of the physical reconstruction himself: At one point in his speech, he sheepishly admitted that his volunteer work helping to build low-income homes on the east-side probably resulted in some doors falling off only a year or two after they were hung.)
"A mayor can't wave a magic wand and make things happen," Mosbacher told the group, but "an individual who has the position can facilitate and bring people together to do things they can't do on their own."
Given that spiel, perhaps it was not by coincidence that Mosbacher had lobbied for HISD Superintendent Rod Paige to hire Alabama Republican operative Terry Abbott as the district's $110,000-a-year public relations specialist -- at about the same time Mosbacher began plotting his run for mayor on an education platform.
As The Insider polished off his Rio Posada migas, the thought occurred that Mosbacher, whose three pre-teen children have never known a classroom other than those at the very exclusive St. John's School in River Oaks, might not be the best person to offer himself as a Mr. Fix-It of public education.
On the other hand, if he can move into Houston after a decade of paying property taxes elsewhere and immediately begin running for mayor, perhaps nothing's too big a stretch.
We Are Family
The runoff campaign between the Reverend James Dixon and lawyer Chris Bell for John Peavy Jr.'s at-large seat on City Council may have been free of overt racial appeals, as the Chronicle noted in a front-page story this week, but before that sign of civic maturity prompts Houstonians to suffer nerve damage patting themselves on the back, it's instructive to look at the less savory broadsides going out to selected audiences -- with or without the candidates' knowledge.
For instance, a comparison sheet being circulated by an unidentified person or group parading as "Concerned Citizens of Houston" underscores Bell's endorsement by the Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus and alleges that Bell supports the creation of "a gay-friendly Council district" and "same sex benefits for city employees." (The latter statement is indeed true -- Bell says he supports the extension of benefits to employees' partners of either sex. Dixon would oppose such a change, which is not being considered by Council at the moment. As for the former statement, Bell says he'd consider backing the return of heavily gay Montrose to District C from the predominantly black District D, where it was moved after the last Council redistricting.)
Then consider the glossy color brochure the Bell campaign sent to a southwest side voter of our acquaintance. The cover warns, "Proceed With Caution -- Voting Ahead." Inside, there's a side-by-side comparison of the two candidates, and in case you didn't know that one is white and the other is black, it's topped by pictures of Bell and his African-American opponent. (Elsewhere in the flier, Bell is pictured with his wife and infant son; the text notes Bell's domestic arrangement and points out that Dixon is "unmarried.")
It's a time-honored tactic for a white candidate's mailings to white voters to picture a black opponent. But Quantum Consultants Nancy Sims, who produced the brochure, takes umbrage at the suggestion that Bell was appealing to voters' prejudice by highlighting Dixon's mug.
"Just because he's black, we're supposed to not treat him like an equal?" says Sims. "If it were two white men, there would not be a question in the world."
Of course, if both candidates were white, race wouldn't be a factor, would it?
Sims also denies there was any intended subliminal message in Bell's pointing out that Dixon isn't married, noting that marital status is one of the questions routinely posed in pre-election literature distributed by the League of Women Voters.
Besides, says Sims slyly, the twice-divorced Dixon "is going around saying he's a family man, and we really are a family."
Losers' Job Fair
It's gotten to where a Democrat can't get elected hide inspector in Harris County, but with Bill Clinton back in the White House for a second term, there's still hope for the party's political job seekers.
One highly coveted post is the bench recently relinquished by U.S. District Judge Norman W. Black, who's moved on to semi-retired senior status. Said to be high on the list of Black's would-be successors is Keith Ellison, a former Baker & Botts partner who won his spurs representing Democratic members of Congress in the recent litigation over redistricting. But don't count out highly regarded Judge Murry Cohen of the state's First Court of Appeals.
Another candidate to replace Black is Ruben Guerrero, who lost his state district judgeship in the 1994 GOP landslide. Then there's Richard Schechter, a TSU law professor whose wife Sue Schechter, a former state representative, ran the Democrats' "Texas Coordinated Campaign" in Harris County last year. Also in the hunt but said to be fading is Carolyn Clause Garcia, the Democrat with the Cajun background and Hispanic surname who was knocked out of her state district bench last year by the GOP's Caroline Baker.
The field for another federal judicial opening, this one for a U.S. magistrate's seat, appears to have narrowed to the two contenders who faced off in last spring's Democratic primary for sheriff -- HISD security chief Bruce Marquis and HPD assistant chief Art Contreras. Marquis won the party nomination but lost the general election to incumbent Republican Tommy Thomas.
While Clinton will make the appointments, the senior Democrat in Texas's congressional delegation, San Antonio's Henry Gonzalez, will make the recommendations to the president. Conspicuous by his absence from the list is former state district judge Lupe Salinas, who had his hopes of ascending to the federal bench dashed by a long-running and recently concluded investigation of his campaign finance practices by the district attorney's office.
Meanwhile, Democrats waiting to see if U.S. Attorney Gaynelle Griffin Jones's post comes open at the end of her term in August would no doubt give their eyeteeth for a copy of the report by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility on Jones's handling of several politically charged cases, including a sting investigation of local family court judges that never produced indictments.
"Nothing's been made public," replied Justice Department spokesman John Russell when The Insider asked about the report. Pressed whether that meant the report has been completed but would not be made public, Russell coyly answered, "Could be."
According to Russell, if Jones wants to make the report public, she can release it. Otherwise, it would be sealed under federal privacy statutes. Jones did not return several phone inquiries from The Insider, but her attorney, Rusty Hardin, says that as a matter of practice he would not recommend releasing such a report.
Says Hardin, "My advice to anyone, anytime, is that when confidential investigations are done, both in fairness to witnesses and everyone else, confidential matters discussed shouldn't be made public."
Particularly if they make your client look bad.
Round-the-Clock Media Death Watch
Last week we reported that Tony Vallone's frothy la Vita as Houston's first media casualty of 1997. While it's true that la Vita has been dispatched to the boneyard for departed magazines, we overlooked an earlier addition to that growing media compost pile:DBA, the mostly puffery-stuffed business monthly that will not be seen again after the upcoming March issue.
Still clinging to life but in arrears on its last round of paychecks is the Houston Daily News, the on-line newspaper masterminded by ex-con Paul Allen. According to one employee, Allen, who was released last year from a federal prison after serving a sentence for defrauding the Butler & Binion law firm, is now out of the picture at the on-line operation.
Allen exercised operational control over the Daily News and decided to assert his authority two weeks ago by pulling the publication off the Web without notice -- an especially galling development for staffers who were busy reporting on the Northline Mall collapse.
"With his little power play, he fucked over everyone," says our source on the staff.
Other investors are trying to keep the operation alive under a new name, possibly Houston Today.
But maybe not tomorrow.
Call The Insider at 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax), or drop him a line by e-mail at Insider@houston-press.com.