The Schmooze Returns to City Hall

Can Tollett end Brown's council losing streak?
Tim Fleck

Last week's City Council session served up yet another bruising sucker punch to the jowls of battered Mayor Lee Brown. Mayor Pro Tem Gordon Quan ignored his appointed role of quarterbacking the administration's agenda and instead voted for a one-week delay in council reconsidering the controversial SimDesk computer contract.

With one of the pact's opponents absent, a vote would have ended in a 7-7 tie. That would defeat the effort by administration opponents to repeal the deal for the public Internet access system that has been supported by the mayor. With a year to go on his final term, Brown has proved himself an innovator in one respect: He's transformed the city's traditional strong mayor into a weak wimp.

The mayor's crew never even saw Quan's defection coming, even though the at-large councilman has been increasingly independent in his votes while considering running for mayor himself next year. So lame a duck is Brown that he can't even control his friends and erstwhile allies on council, much less the increasingly confident opposition.

Thus it was in a desperate mood that Brown announced the sixth soul to serve as chief of staff during his tenure, planning and development deputy director Steve Tinnermon. He succeeds the mysteriously departed former parks director Oliver Spellman (see "Oliver's Story," November 7). That sudden resignation has become a taboo subject in Hizzoner's office, a mayoral version of the crazy uncle locked in the City Hall attic.

Tinnermon cut his administrative teeth in the '90s as a deputy in the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Since coming to Houston in 1998, he has been charged with creating substance out of the nebulous Neighborhood Oriented Government program Brown introduced with billows of rhetoric when he took office the same year.

"It was a bullshit idea in the first place, and probably shouldn't have been done at all, but the planning department was forced to come up with something," one City Hall veteran says of the NOG system of "super neighborhoods" and matching citizen councils. "At least Tinnermon came up with a structure. Whether it's working or not aside, given the job that he had to do, he's done it pretty well."

This is municipal bureaucratic praise of a sort: Tinnermon was stuck with a bad idea but distinguished himself by making the best of it. The Wall Street term for the maneuver is putting lipstick on a pig.

What the mayor didn't announce was far more significant than the chief of staff appointment. Behind the scenes, an old face is returning from semi-exile. Former chief of staff and convention and visitors bureau chief Jordy Tollett is once again parachuting into the mayor's office to try to salvage its disastrous relations with council.

An administrative source says Tinnermon has "a good rep as a nice guy, easy to work with, fairly effective and smart. But he doesn't have a lot of truck with council." Tollett, on the other hand, is acknowledged as perhaps the most effective chief the mayor ever had. That was before he was ousted last year after repeated run-ins with the Brown's inner circle, including Chief Administrative Officer Al Haines and City Attorney Anthony Hall. Conservative Councilman Bert Keller lauded Tollett's earlier appointment as chief of staff as "the smartest thing the mayor ever did" because his back-slapping, deal-making ways are "worth two votes."

According to sources, Tinnermon will handle more routine duties in the mayor's office while agenda director Marty Stein and Tollett concentrate on rebuilding the bridges to councilmembers.

Tollett's new role will be to work closely with Brown in evaluating which issues are worth fighting for, and which are not.

"I hope to be able to communicate the mayor's goals and objectives with City Council and help with Marty any way I can," says Tollett. "I enjoy the art of a deal, and I've been in this budget crunch thing a few times when I worked for mayor [Kathy] Whitmire."

With so much blood in the City Hall waters after the administration's food fight and SimDesk debacles, Tollett's assignment will be akin to trying to charm a frenzied school of piranhas out of their intended meal. He can also expect several of the mayor's own administrators to hope he winds up as fish food.

In those circumstances, it will take a world-class schmoozer to walk away with fingers and toes intact.

Dems Plot Muny Strategy

With Houston City Council district conservatives making like political jumping beans in the coming year (see last week's Insider, "Do the City Hall Shuffle"), Democratic consultants are busy plotting counter-strategy. A bunch of them met last week at the offices of Campos Communications to brainstorm ways to counter the expected runs of Mark Ellis, Bert Keller and Mark Goldberg for citywide positions.

"We're all Democrats, and we're concerned that the Republicans obviously have a strategy to take over City Council, says Marc Campos, who ran Mayor Brown's campaign efforts in the Hispanic community last year. "I think they're pretty smug about it, and we're going to get back in their face."

Among the attendees were George Strong, Kathryn McNeil, Robert Jara and Grant Martin. Also present was Joe Householder, a former Vinson & Elkins flack who worked for Brown's 2001 campaign and just returned to Houston from a stint as press secretary for victorious Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack. Householder has been hired by the firm of Varoga, Rice & Shalett, whose principal Craig Varoga managed Brown's last campaign.

Campos believes Keller and Ellis are vulnerable to defeat by well-financed Democrats, and there will be strong sentiment in the black community to have one of their own succeed term-limited Position 5's Carroll Robinson, currently the council's only at-large African-American.

GOP consultant Allen Blakemore is working with both Keller and Ellis, and is seen by his Democratic counterparts as the mastermind of an attempt to take over City Hall. After Republicans swept the November county elections, Blakemore ridiculed the weak effort of the county Democratic Party.

"I got news for Mr. Blakemore," comments Campos. "He's not dealing with [outgoing Democratic chair] Sue Schechter here. He's dealing with a different set of folks."

Campos says the first step of the ad hoc Democratic group will be to work with canvassing officials and community leaders to seek viable candidates. They hope to be ready to launch campaigns by the February 1 kickoff date for municipal fund-raising. Already, Hispanic Democrats are urging first-term District I Councilwoman Carol Alvarado to counter the big conservative guns by running for one of the at-large positions.

Blakemore professes amusement at his new reputation as the municipal Machiavelli for the right.

"It is true that there are Republicans all over Houston and around the state trying to help get a conservative majority on Houston City Council," says the consultant, who plays down his own role in the effort. As for all the talk of partisan races, Blakemore thinks it's just part of a reaction against affirmative action and other liberal policies favored by Brown.

"I don't think anyone's out there running as a Republican or a Democrat. They're running as conservatives and liberals."

Maybe so, but if there are any conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans to be found on the streets these days, they probably should be granted status as endangered species.

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