The Kingdom and the Power
This Easter found Mickey Lawrence taking a break at home from what had been an increasingly vitriolic campaign for the Republican nomination for county attorney. Her runoff against Michael Fleming was only two days away, but politics was off the front burner for Lawrence for at least a few hours that Sunday, as she sat down with her family to a holiday dinner, followed by an afternoon of sun and lawn chairs. The phone in the house rang, and Lawrence left her grandchildren playing in the back yard and went inside to answer it. When she picked up the receiver, a taped message began rolling. A male voice identified himself as Dr. Steven Hotze, and then began to tell Mickey Lawrence all about the politics of ... Mickey Lawrence.
Lawrence, a corporate attorney and longtime GOP activist, recalls the prerecorded Hotze's telling her that she had been endorsed by United Republicans, "a very liberal group that is pro-abortion." In fact, United Republicans is a broad-based organization of both pro-life and pro-choice Republicans that takes no position on abortion and focuses instead on fiscal issues.
Stunned that her anti-abortion views could be so distorted, Lawrence numbly listened as Hotze declared, "Mickey Lawrence is not who she says she is." He went on to accuse her of being a liberal in disguise and lumped her with Kevin Brady, another Republican running against a onetime underwriter of Hotze's political activities, Dr. Eugene Fontenot, in the 8th Congressional District. Since Lawrence had already explained her position opposing abortion on demand at a gathering attended by Hotze, her first reaction was outrage.
"I'm listening to this, and it's Easter Sunday," she recalls, "and what he was saying were lies."
TicketsFri., Feb. 24, 8:00pm
Gridiron Glory: The Best of Pro Football HOF -- 10A-3PM
TicketsSat., Feb. 25, 10:00am
Rice Owls Mens Basketball vs. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs Mens Basketball
TicketsSat., Feb. 25, 7:00pm
Gridiron Glory: The Best of Pro Football HOF -- 10AM-6PM
TicketsSun., Feb. 26, 10:00am
Christians are not supposed to lie any day of the year, of course, but on the day of Jesus' resurrection, it somehow seemed more galling coming from the leading voice of Houston's Christian conservatives. Lawrence was angry, but there was no time to get even. Fleming won the GOP nomination by eight points on the following Tuesday, contributing Lawrence's blond scalp to the tape recorded caller's growing political trophy case.
The automated call to the Lawrence household was one of thousands crafted and paid for by a Houston allergist who in his spare time is a self-proclaimed champion of biblical values as a basis for civil government. Thin and long-faced, 46-year-old Steven Forrest Hotze has carved out a niche in local politics over the past decade as an unyielding and occasionally strident opponent of abortion and public acceptance of homosexuality. He may not be a household name outside Republican circles, but within the party he is admired by a devout coterie of followers, catered to by secular conservatives and feared by moderates, who find themselves in a position of needing his approval to win nominations in GOP primaries. Those summoned to kiss his ring encounter a tough, uncompromising zealot who is used to getting his own way.
"It comes by position in family," says his mother Margaret, herself a grand doyenne among Christian conservatives who once took to the lectern at a City Council meeting to hector Mayor Kathy Whitmire for her support from gay activists. "The oldest person in a family tends to have a certain personality, and you can look in the psychology books and find it. Steve's the oldest of eight, and he's had eight children. He's used to being the boss, I guess. He has his own practice, and he's always been the person who took charge of things."
Adds Clymer Wright, until recently a political associate of Hotze's: "Every meeting I've ever been to with Steve, he ran it."
In addition to operating a successful two-clinic medical practice in Katy and west Houston, Hotze constructs and sells custom homes on the side. He has set up two private firms, Texas 2000 and Forrest Marketing, to handle his political operations, which are based at his Katy medical clinic. Monica Luedecke, his clinic manager, is the administrator for one of his political action committees, Conservative Republicans of Harris County. Hotze also controls at least two other active PACs, Citizens for American Restoration and the Houston Republican Forum.
Forrest Marketing has been paid $58,000 for professional services from several of those PACs in the last two years, giving rise to claims by opponents that Hotze profits from his political activities -- a charge denied by those close to the doctor (Hotze himself did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story). Texas 2000 also received large contributions from lawyer John O'Quinn and furniture magnate Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale to stage a prayer breakfast for ministers and judges at George W. Bush's 1995 gubernatorial inaugural in Austin. Since plaintiff's lawyers and would-be casino operators are usually about as welcome in the conservative Republican temple as Mary Magdalene, Hotze's ideological purity has been called into question recently by some old allies.
The Harris County District Attorney's Office received complaints last year about Hotze's use of his private companies in his political activities, but a preliminary investigation turned up nothing illegal. Rather than personal profit, it's more likely that Hotze's motive in creating the companies was to put the more controversial of his political activities and associations outside state disclosure requirements and beyond public view.
Through his links to a downtown PAC called the Committee for a Well Qualified Judiciary, this year Hotze has received ample resources to fund his ongoing effort to reshape the face of the local judiciary and, perhaps in the future, city government. One of his allies estimates that Hotze can deliver a 60,000-vote bloc to his candidates. That's not enough to dictate winners in a high-turnout general election, but in low-turnout contests, particularly runoffs in a GOP primary, Hotze can and has called the psalm, page number and verse for the winners.
It's a considerable amount of clout for someone whose stated beliefs place him to the right of the religious right. "If we are to survive as a free nation, and if justice and liberty are to be restored in our land, then biblical Christianity, with its absolutes, must once again be embraced by our citizens," he wrote several years back in a Chronicle op-ed piece. "Only then can we expect to see Christianity's influence once again to be reflected in the laws of our civil government."
Hotze is a national leader in the Christian Reconstruction movement, whose more extreme elements advocate replacing democratic government with rule by a theocratic elite. Hotze himself has denied that he favors establishment of a theocracy, and one of his brothers, Jim, says that even if the doctor were in a position to do so, he wouldn't do away with democracy. On the other hand, Jim admits he's never discussed the matter directly with his brother. Moderates who have come to grief at the hands of Hotze's political machine would prefer not to put Jim Hotze's conjecture to the test.
Assuming he's not a theocrat, Steven Hotze's politics would still hardly be classified middle-of-the-road, which leads one to wonder why more than $100,000 in contributions flowed to Hotze's PACs this spring from such mainstream Republicans as County Judge Robert Eckels, County Commissioners Steve Radack and Jerry Eversole and a host of others via a roundabout route. The answer to that question reveals both the extent of Hotze's evolution from a fringe player into a serious local power broker and the lengths to which moderate candidates will go to win election.
Mickey Lawrence was not the only candidate in this spring's GOP primary to get a nasty surprise from Hotze. When Martha Wong, the first Asian-American elected to City Council and a candidate for county tax assessor-collector, received a mailed copy of endorsements by Hotze's Conservative Republicans of Harris County, she discovered he had attacked her as a phony Republican who had previously voted in Democratic primaries. The charge was false, and Wong had her past voting records to prove it. As it turns out, so did Hotze.
"I was outraged," Wong remembers. "It was an outright lie."
Wong called her consultant, Allen Blakemore, who was also on Hotze's payroll, and demanded that he arrange a meeting with Hotze to get him to retract the false claims or face a lawsuit.
Since Wong and Hotze were using the same consultant, she figures the doctor either knew his description of her voting record was a lie or he simply didn't care about the truth. While Blakemore says Hotze just made a mistake, he remembers the doctor later conceded he had Wong's voting records in his database all along but never bothered to check them. Hotze also told Blakemore that it really didn't matter, because he would have found something else to say about Wong that would be equally damaging.
Hotze did apologize to Wong and issued a press release the following day. But early voting had already ended, and the damage had been done. Wong says the retraction did not reach the same elderly voters who might have been influenced by the endorsement sheet.
"He was very clever," she says. "He didn't call me until after the polls closed and it was too late for early voting. And that's where I lost." While Hotze agreed to destroy fliers with the false charge and cancel a round of automated phone calls, he continued to endorse the councilwoman's opponent, Roland Elledge, who edged out the better-known Wong in a runoff. The early vote margin proved to be the difference.
Wong doesn't accept Hotze's claims it was all an innocent mistake.
"The ethics of a Christian lying," she says, "are deplorable."
Hotze's mailing didn't carry his name, and on Election Day Wong stood at a polling place and questioned voters who carried the Conservative Republicans of Harris County endorsement sheet to see if they knew its source. Most did not and were shocked to learn it came from Hotze, Wong claims.
Brent Perry, the winner of this year's Republican primary in the 25th Congressional District, found himself on the wrong side of Hotze after federal judges overturned the primary results and created wide-open special congressional elections on the November ballot.
Following the judge's decision, Hotze's brother Jim declared his candidacy in the special election in the 25th District. But after the younger Hotze dropped out, Perry buttonholed Steven Hotze at a candidates' forum and asked for his support. According to Perry, Hotze bluntly informed him he didn't consider Perry a strong enough challenger to incumbent Democrat Ken Bentsen.
And within days, one of Hotze's favorite officeholders, anti-abortion activist and state District Judge John Devine, jumped into the race against Bentsen, creating a fractious crew of competing Republicans and the possibility that Devine could wind up in a low-turnout runoff, where Hotze's support would be most effective. Perry visited Devine to try to talk him out of the race and claims the judge told him Hotze had promised Devine his support, including inclusion on that potent endorsement mailer that did in Wong.
While his muscle in general elections has yet to be seriously tested, his near clean-sweep in this year's Republican primaries has left party moderates bitter and frustrated: bitter at what they claim are the un-Christian tactics of the holier-than-thou Hotze, and frustrated because his expanding influence is fueled by money contributed by mainstream Republicans.
"I don't think Steven Hotze would have any influence except over a small number of people if he was not given money to do what he does -- his mailouts, his callouts, that kinda stuff," says Judith Jones, a former ally of Hotze's who has since turned against him. "He's a theocrat. He really believes this stuff -- the purpose of civil government is to punish evil. I think that actually has a very small following. But the people who give him money are the people who give him his vehicle. If they didn't give him money, he couldn't do it."
For the November general election, Hotze is masterminding something called the "Unified Republican Candidates Campaign." His money pitch, as presented to Republican incumbents and challengers in one-on-one conversations, offers what he bills as "a four-pronged attack" whose purpose is "to provide leadership which would limit civil government, deregulate business, combat criminals, lower taxes and encourage traditional family values." In return for a candidate's contribution to his effort, Hotze promises to mobilize Christian conservative voters, push an early mail-in ballot to the conservative elderly, bombard 250,000 households with direct mail and provide three rounds of computerized automated phone calls to the same households.
Those calls would feature the voices of Senators Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison, as well as County Judge Eckels. With voices of authority like that making the pitch, what Republican wouldn't sign on to the Hotze program?
Steven Hotze was born in Houston on July 5, 1950, into a devoutly Catholic family, one of seven brothers and one sister. His father Ernest, who died last November, moved from Dresser Industries to found Compressor Engineering Corporation, the family firm now run by Steven's brother Bruce and employing a number of other family members. As chairman of the company, mother Margaret exercises an active role. Hotze attended St. Michael's Catholic School and later St. Thomas High School, where he evinced a bent for conservative political organizing early.
According to Margaret Hotze, as a St. Thomas senior her oldest son helped organize an "Up with America" rally that resulted in a downtown parade. As the class president, he teamed with a young black San Antonian, Alan Keyes, to run unsuccessfully for governor and lieutenant governor of Boys' State in the late sixties. Even then, Hotze held a firm world-view that posited big government and homosexuality as two great evils to be combated. His role models were close to home. Ernest bankrolled conservative causes, while Margaret was a GOP precinct chairman and an early anti-abortion organizer in Houston. Hotze's brothers, particularly Bruce, Jim and Chris, were conservative activists then, and are today.
The Catholic Church was too liberal to hold the allegiance of Hotze for long, and he joined the campus Crusade for Christ while a University of Texas student. "What distressed me," says a Catholic cleric who knows the family, "is that he's taken his wife and his children away from the church, and that's a great source of distress to other members of the family, all of whom are very staunch Catholics." Hotze's wife was also a devout Catholic, says the cleric, "but it was a matter of keeping the family together, and he's stronger than she is."
Hotze graduated from UT Medical School in Houston while supporting himself working on homebuilding crews. He married Janie Smith, whom he met in high school, while in college at UT in Austin, and the first of their eight children was soon on the way. After earning his medical degree, Hotze moved to Austin to work as a corporate physician for IBM, where he joined the Austin Citizens for Decency, pushing a referendum to sanction the denial of fair-housing protections to people because of their sexual orientation. In Austin's then-highly liberal environs, Hotze's politics were definitely on the fringe. The Citizens for Decency proposal failed.
Eventually, Hotze moved his brood back to Houston, where he opened a medical clinic on the North Freeway. The clinic doubled as a political meeting place, a technique of consolidating his professional career and political interests that the doctor has maintained to this day. One visitor recalls the operation as a classic workman's comp practice, with linoleum floors and barbed wire fence around the suite of offices. With success Hotze upgraded his practice to deal exclusively with allergies. His Allercare operation began with an office on Braidwood Street in Katy and has now expanded to the more upscale West Houston Allergy Clinic on Blalock.
In a pending lawsuit against Cable Communications Network, Hotze claims he suffered $363,000 in actual damages for the company's alleged failure to broadcast his commercials for his allergy clinic as specified in a signed contract. Hotze claims in the lawsuit that he makes most of his profit on his practice from August to November -- the autumn pollen season -- and the failure of the Cable Communications to air the commercials in 1994 "devastated" his practice. Since business at Allercare is now booming -- at least according to Hotze's mother and others who know him -- the term "devastated" must have been relative.
By the early eighties, Hotze had achieved a moderate degree of economic security and was ready to assume a more active political role in Houston. He seized the day when Houston City Council, at the urging of gay and lesbian activists flush with the victory of Kathy Whitmire and other candidates they supported in 1983, pushed for an ordinance providing protection against discrimination for gays in the city workplace. Council approved the measure, but in the process provoked a backlash that would level the political gains achieved by gays.
In the eyes of Hotze and other conservatives, the ordinance granted homosexuals status as a protected minority and was a de facto approval of their lifestyle. Hotze mounted a petition drive that led to a 1985 referendum and voters' overwhelming rejection of the ordinance. It was the first taste of victory for Steven Hotze the political organizer. Clymer Wright recalls being amazed at Hotze's knack for energizing conservatives in the effort. "He had called this meeting at Westin Oaks Hotel, so I went. I saw streams of hundreds and hundreds of people coming in. And I wondered where all these people were going. They must have had close to a thousand people there. I was really impressed by his ability to get that kind of turnout at any kind of meeting. He ran the whole thing."
The win emboldened Hotze and his supporters to organize the "Straight Slate" of family-values candidates, including his mother Margaret, for that fall's city elections. Though none won office, Slate candidate Jim Kennedy forced incumbent Judson Robinson Jr. into a runoff, and the entire effort spooked Whitmire into distancing herself from her gay allies.
At that point, Judith Jones found herself one of the few women in Hotze's inner circle, working on the effort to defeat the gay job-protection referendum. Wright and the late River Oaks banker Jimmy Lyons also were involved in the effort. Hotze printed up his own petitions to force the referendum and began circulating them through Houston churches.
"Hotze never works with anybody," says Jones. "He does it his way. Even when it's the right way to do it, he still doesn't work with anybody."
Hotze regularly scheduled 7 a.m. meetings on Saturday at his home on Piping Rock. His wife never participated. Jones remembers that Hotze would first conduct a prayer, then open each meeting by saying, "Okay, keymen ... and Judith." Those close to Hotze included Charlie Hartland, a home schooling advocate, former Council candidate Al Clements and computer whiz Paul McClintock. That inner circle has remained stable for years, although McClintock recently moved to Seattle to organize for the Christian Coalition there. David Lane, a fundraiser for Hotze, has also departed town to work for Jerry Falwell. For the most part, Hotze has stuck with the guys.
Jones says Hotze positions himself so he doesn't have to deal with women in a serious political way. That's a frequent observation by other Hotze watchers. Although Steven's mother is a towering influence in his political life, according to Jim Hotze, for the most part Hotze's peers are male. And even with his mother, Jones says, the tension between the two was often palpable during meetings where both were present. During the mid-eighties, Hotze, according to Jones, was "running on sheer nervous energy, jumpy as a cat on a hot tin roof, just bouncing off the walls."
Hotze's frenetic style showed in other ways, including a tendency to over-commit himself financially on his political activities. "During the Campaign for Houston [the vehicle to fight the gay-rights ordinance], everybody showed up one morning to run the phone banks," Jones says, "and it was locked because he hadn't paid the phone bill." She laughs at the memory. "But Ernie [Hotze's father] came through that day and paid the people in the building what Hotze owed them."
"He's bailed him out of more stuff," Jones says of the late patriarch of the Hotze clan, "and I want to see what happens now."
Margaret Hotze seems to suggest the family will no longer pick up the overruns for Steven's political adventures.
"What really bothers me is that people think that Steven does this for some benefit," she says. "He's run in the hole every year with [his political activities]. His dad sometimes would have to help him because it would cost him more than he could afford. And now his dad is gone, so that's that."
Over the years, Hotze also has developed a reputation for making and then breaking pledges to candidates, often citing divine guidance as an excuse. Jones remembers an incident at the 1986 GOP state convention where conservative Diana Denman, the party's incumbent vice chair, thought she had Hotze's support for the chairmanship. "We'd been working on this race for months, and two days before the convention, he switches to someone else," says Jones, who recalls sitting in a hotel suite watching as Hotze walked into the room. "Clymer Wright literally pounced on him and picked him up by the lapels, yelling, 'How dare you do this!' And Hotze very calmly told Clymer that he'd had a middle-of-the-night revelation from God to support this other guy."
Hotze's man was an Austin minister, Sam Hoerster. When Denman realized she didn't have the votes to win, she withdrew from the contest and a moderate from Houston, George Strake, beat Hoerster by better than 3,000 votes.
Jones shakes her head.
"It's not lying with these people. It's not breaking your word. It's revelation!"
The defeat of the Straight Slate in 1985 ended only the first chapter in Steven Hotze's political career. Hotze concentrated on building his medical practice, turning his focus to allergies and moving his offices from the North Freeway location to a suite of offices in Katy. But by the early nineties, he was once again building political vehicles to further his views. He helped found the Citizens for American Restoration in 1992, and began constructing the money web that has made his political operation so potent.
How Hotze gets that money is a point of increasing controversy within Republican circles. A caustic, well-researched -- and anonymous -- mailout produced by moderate Republicans recently called attention to the interplay between the Committee for a Well Qualified Judiciary, a downtown PAC run by Crain, Caton & James attorney Frank Harmon III, the husband of U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon, and a trio of PACs under the control of Hotze and his political lieutenants.
Harmon's PAC collected more than $100,000 in contributions from dozens of incumbents and challengers this spring, then quickly disgorged it into Hotze's Harris County Conservative Republicans and Citizens for American Restoration. In 1994, Harmon's PAC performed the same role, though on a much smaller scale. While Harmon and Hotze consultant Allen Blakemore characterize the complicated money trail as an innocuous fundraising device, others see it as a laundromat to funnel dollars from moderates into the hands of the religious right.
Tall, thin and talkative, Harmon seems ill-suited as a political partner for Hotze. He is not particularly religious and claims he does not attend church. A friend, however, describes him as "probably more conservative than Hotze." The alliance between the two provides Hotze with the cash to run his political program and Harmon the ability to deliver a guaranteed pool of conservative votes to candidates and incumbents. Some county insiders also believe, rightly or wrongly, that contributing to Hotze through Harmon's PAC helps win Hotze's endorsement and protects GOP incumbents from facing Hotze-sponsored ultra-conservatives in future primaries. (Hotze has indicated to intimates that three Republican judges elected in the 1994 GOP landslide, Werner Voight, Jim Wallace and Lon Harper, are so incompetent he will find more conservative candidates to run against them in the 1998 GOP primary.)
This spring, Harmon's PAC received $15,000 contributions each from the campaigns of Michael Fleming and his ally, Commissioner Steve Radack. Commissioner Jerry Eversole also kicked in $5,000. That money was then packaged along with $70,000 in other contributions and given by Harmon's PAC to Citizens for American Restoration and Harris County Conservative Republicans.
"They don't want to be associated with Hotze's name, but they want his political help," says one consultant of the donors to Harmon's PAC. Harmon, naturally, has a different take on his political marriage with Hotze. He characterizes the partnership as a joint effort to elect the best, most conservative Republicans possible. Since judicial candidates are prohibited from taking positions on issues that may come before their courts, Hotze, according to Harmon, does not question them in detail on their positions on such issues as abortion or gay rights.
The lawyer attributes Hotze's clout not to his command of a classic political machine, but rather to his standing among conservatives.
"Conservative Republicans have a lot of respect for his opinions," says Harmon, "and if Steve says 'Candidate A' is the most conservative, best qualified candidate, I think a lot of people who know Steve and know what he's been doing for years will accept his judgment on that." The Committee for a Well Qualified Judiciary does not issue its own endorsements, and Harmon says if it did he doubts it would have anywhere near the impact of Hotze's mailouts.
In shunting candidate contributions from his PAC to Hotze, Harmon claims he's actually functioning as an agent of party harmony. "I think some people had a concern, especially if they are in an elected position, that they don't want to publicly be supporting one wing of the party." Of course, says Harmon, anybody who checks campaign filings would figure out what was going on.
Radack indicates he was well aware of where his $15,000 was going when he gave it to Harmon's PAC, and he sees no downside in being identified with the doctor. As to why he didn't give it directly to Hotze, Radack offers the murky reply, "I wasn't absolutely sure that's where Harmon would spend it all."
Likewise, state District Judge Scott Link wasn't especially concerned when told his $10,000 to Harmon's PAC wound up in the Citizens for American Restoration account. "The fact that he funneled it on, if in fact it occurred, that does not surprise me," says Link. "I contribute money to various activities of folks that are interested in helping the Republican Party, and those are just two." Link points out that he has independently contributed to Hotze's PACs, so he obviously isn't afraid of being publicly linked with Hotze.
County Judge Eckels says he wasn't aware that $10,000 of his campaign dollars wound up in Hotze's PACs, and he professes not to have thought about any downside in being associated with the doctor. Hotze did support Eckels in his primary battle against Katherine Tyra in 1994, a position that led Tyra to charge that Hotze was going with the money against a more conservative candidate. Eckels' willingness to meet with a gay organization, the Log Cabin Republicans, during the campaign somehow did not earn him the enmity Hotze generally holds for other candidates who associate with gay organizations.
Harmon denies that the candidates making contributions to his PAC are in effect trying to buy Hotze's endorsement or his help in avoiding future primary challengers. Of course, he adds, the endorsed candidates might then feel a responsibility to help pay for the postage and phone bills incurred by Hotze in getting his message out.
"Some candidates have money and some don't," says Harmon. "And yes, they are asked to contribute money to help pay to get the message out. But if they don't have the money, they don't contribute anything. There's no connection giving money and getting the endorsement." The formula works out this way: Hotze will promote his ideological soul mates for free, but mainstream candidates with the money must pay.
When Hotze and Harmon disagree on a candidate, the doctor knows best. A case in point was the spring primary for a state Court of Criminal Appeals nomination. Among the candidates were Brad Wiewel, who was backed by Hotze, and state District Judge Mike Kiesler of Dallas, Harmon's favorite. Neither won the statewide contest, although Hotze's endorsement helped Wiewel carry Harris County. Despite providing the funding for Hotze's machine, Harmon says he has to accept the doctor's decisions on who to support with the money. "I think Kiesler was better, but Steve made the call. I had to give in on that."
The Hotze that Harmon claims to know is the opposite of the devious, shifty, untruthful figure sketched out by Jones and Wong.
"He's really very engaging, very smart," says Harmon, who then pauses. "I don't think anybody you've talked to would say they don't like him."
Consultant Allen Blakemore is in a good position to discuss the angled relationships between Hotze, his political action committees and the private companies Hotze has set up.
Blakemore says he is paid by Hotze for political work, but you won't find the payments listed on any filing with the Texas Ethics Commission. His paychecks from Hotze, explains Blakemore, come directly from Forrest Marketing. Asked whether Forrest and Texas 2000 were created simply to keep Hotze's political activities out of the reporting process, Blakemore replies, "I believe so."
Hotze's PACs also pass money between themselves, leading Blakemore to crack that Hotze stuffs contributions he receives into whatever hole he needs to fill on a given day. To make things even more incomprehensible, Texas 2000 itself received a $1,000 political contribution from Harmon's Committee for a Well Qualified Judiciary, with no explanation how a private business could qualify for a campaign contribution.
The money train runs two ways between Blakemore and Hotze. Blakemore and Associates has contributed $19,500 over the past two years to Citizens for American Restoration and another of Hotze's PACs, Houston Republican Forum. Blakemore is credited on PAC filings with giving two checks totaling $7,000 to Citizens for American Restoration on the same day back in April 1994, though he claims the money was actually given over a longer period. That generosity made other consultants suspicious that what Blakemore was actually doing was laundering contributions from candidates he represents who don't want their names associated with Hotze.
Blakemore says that's not true. "It's illegal to accept a contribution for the purpose of giving it to someone else," he says, likening his contributions to the Hotze PACs to giving money to the Republican Party. "We see things going on that are of benefit to all of our clients and candidates and say this is part of the cost of doing business. It helps my people and helps me win elections." Somehow it didn't quite work that way for Martha Wong, who was shafted by Hotze despite having Blakemore as a consultant.
Another GOP candidate who's angry at Hotze is state senator-elect Jon Lindsay. The former county judge contributed heavily to the Committee for a Well Qualified Judiciary, which passed the money on to Hotze's operations. But Hotze endorsed Lindsay's opponent in the Republican primary, Jerry Dumas, who came within two points of beating Lindsay after benefiting from some of his campaign largess.
"Without Hotze's support, Dumas would have been a double digit loser," says one consultant with close ties to Lindsay.
If Frank Harmon hasn't found anybody who doesn't like Steve Hotze, he probably hasn't spoken with Betsy Lake for the past few years. A former Harris County Republican chair, Lake fought Hotze for control of the local party during her two terms, the first of which was largely consumed in a guerrilla war between the two. "If I could have used my energy toward doing positive things for the party rather than have to worry 24 hours a day about what Dr. Hotze and his inner circle of friends were up to," says Lake in a resigned tone, "what more we could have accomplished?"
Lake describes herself as burned out on politics as a result of that struggle. After her first election in 1992, Hotze and his supporters on the county party's executive committee seized the regular Republican administrative apparatus and its west-side head-quarters on Augusta. "They thought I would act like a woman and just quit and give them what they wanted," laughs Lake. "Well, I hung on. I didn't let them run me off."
Lake responded to the challenge by creating her own fundraising mechanism and setting up headquarters on Chelsea in the Museum District. Hotze, true to his form as a political loner who likes to dictate rather than work in committee, eventually tired of party administrative duties. Snafus such as failing to pay the office phone bill resulted in a well-publicized service shutdown in the Augusta headquarters. He eventually closed that operation and went back to running his own political show out of his Katy medical clinic. After Lake was succeeded by Gary Polland, the party reunited at the Chelsea offices.
According to Lake, Hotze is a master at wrapping himself in Christian rhetoric while behaving in a downright devilish fashion.
"He's very devious, very frightening, very extreme in his beliefs," says Lake, who often found herself in the difficult position of counseling candidates on dealing with him. "I almost felt at times these were frightened children. Most of them had never had any dealings with a campaign and had no idea what they were getting into, but they wanted to run for office. And the first thing they encounter is having to deal with his power machine, and they felt very threatened."
Lake describes Hotze as a classic, talented demagogue who preys on voters by exploiting divisive issues. "He does this in order to ultimately achieve his agenda," says Lake. "He's a master at it." A Methodist with a degree in religious education whose father was a minister, Lake believes she's in a position to judge that Hotze "has blackened the eye of Christianity" with his win-at-all-costs politics.
Like other moderates who've dealt with Hotze, Lake cites his unpredictability. "I don't think I've ever known anyone who could look you in the eye and say something and then an hour later go out and do the completely opposite thing."
Lake has temporarily retired from politics, with the exception of volunteer work for the Bob Dole campaign. But she says she may return to the public arena in the future to fight Hotze's influence. "I shudder every time I think what he's capable of doing and why he's doing it. And yet, I feel very helpless because I don't know how to stop him. Because he is truly holding candidates and elected officials hostage."
At the other end of the Republican spectrum, Clymer Wright believes Hotze has changed in the past few years by focusing less on furthering the Christian conservative agenda and more on gathering money and the influence it brings.
"It's my view that some of the people he's now backing have not been all that good as Christians or conservatives," says Wright. "You can start following the money trail and it gets back to that. That's what's so disappointing about what I call the 'new Steve Hotze.' "
Perhaps Hotze has come to believe that to do God's political work sometimes requires cooperation with people who may not measure up to his own ideological standards. By 1990, he was willing to countenance a compromise on the party's abortion position with moderates at the state Republican convention, saying, "We've lost a lot of people [in elections] by going for broke every time."
On a recent Sunday, Steve Hotze paused outside the front entrance of Bethel Independent Presbyterian Church on Bering Drive, chatting with fellow congregates as they exited the noon service. The meeting hall is a large, linoleum-floored auditorium with minimal decoration, befitting an austere, Calvinist sect. The congregation of more than four hundred was composed mostly of older white couples, who had just weathered a long, rambling sermon on the subject of proper prayer, laced with references to the value of secrecy and praying not for public consumption but for maximum effect.
"Go to your secret place," advised pastor Robert Tolson. "Be secretive as an oyster."
The sermon could easily apply to Steve Hotze's evolving political style, working behind-the-scenes with a small group of people, a cash conduit and a technology that produces prayerful results on Election Day.
Having launched the crusade to inject moral issues into local politics, Hotze is now considering injecting his machine into next year's municipal elections and the still-cloudy race for mayor if Bob Lanier departs the scene. Hotze has met several times with mayoral chief of staff Dave Walden, and is known to be a big booster of Orlando Sanchez, the conservative Republican who won an at-large Council seat last year. Whether the methods that have made him a power in Republican politics can translate into the more diverse arena of non-partisan city races remains to be seen.
Once described as skeletal thin, with jumpy nerves, Hotze appeared fit, tanned and relaxed in a well-tailored brown suit that recent Sunday, perhaps the result of a new dedication to perfecting his golf game at Memorial Park. The Hotzes are in the process of moving into a half-million-dollar home in Tanglewood he purchased in August, prompting Margaret Hotze to say she's glad the family has left the Piping Rock residence.
It was there in 1992 that Hotze's 14-year-old son David shot himself in the chest with a revolver at the house, and died on the way to the hospital. The eighth-grader had returned home from St. Thomas Episcopal School during the day, complaining that he wasn't feeling well. After the shooting, the boy apparently replaced the pistol in a holster, then called 911 for assistance. The Medical Examiner's office later ruled the shooting accidental. Margaret Hotze says that the incident devastated the family, but did not change Steven Hotze's anti-gun control beliefs.
"It was just a freak, freak accident," she says. "As [Steven] said, 'The Lord must have wanted him, because a quarter inch either way, he would have survived.' "
With the tragedy in the past, his practice expanding and his oldest daughter getting married, it's now a hectic, fulfilling time in the doctor's life. Hotze's brother Jim says he's slowed down a bit, and seems to be enjoying his business and political successes. And as he's matured, Hotze has modulated his rhetoric and demeanor, at least for mainstream consumption. Commissioner Radack says the new Hotze is more accessible, and acceptable.
"I think that Steve Hotze has adopted some methods that definitely make him a force to be reckoned with," opines Radack. "He's more open-minded and listens to more views, and I think that's paid big dividends for him in having some of the influence he obviously has on elections here in Harris County."
Betsy Lake dreads the prospect of Hotze's acquiring even more influence and acceptability. "He's going to stumble at some point," she predicts, "because I truly feel that the voters of Harris County are going to wake up and say, 'Look at what this man is trying to do. He's trying to control everything. He and his group of men.' "
In a speech two years ago at a banquet staged by the conservative American Vision organization in Marietta, Georgia, Hotze told the audience he had daydreamed he was elected mayor of Houston, and on his first day in office ordered Police Chief Sam Nuchia to close all the abortion clinics.
But then reality intruded.
"Of course," he conceded, "I couldn't be elected mayor."
But if you can't be the king, the next best job is kingmaker. In one of his mailouts from Citizens for American Restoration, Steven Hotze quotes the Bible: "Civil government has been established by God for the purpose of providing justice. The word of God alone defines what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong."
The Almighty, however, doesn't issue endorsements at election time, at least in Harris County, so someone has to interpret the word. With his old-time religion and his new taste for funding and power, Steven Hotze has carved out an ingenious role for himself as God's own political consultant.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.