The rumor popped up last week like a Gulf Coast summer thunderstorm that boils up out of the blue, drenches everybody, and just as quickly disappears.
The tale could have been inspired by one of those mournful Jane Ely columns in the Houston Chronicle, pleading for divine civic intervention by Houston's antiquated old guard to lead us back to the light.
The plot goes this way: Former mayor Bob Lanier meets with three of the city's business demigods. They thrash out which one would deign to come down from Olympus (or the nearest office tower) and take over Houston City Hall after Mayor Lee P. Brown wins in November and serves out his final allowable term.
What about the current mayor's race, you may be asking? Isn't Brown in a contest with Councilmembers Orlando Sanchez and Chris Bell?
Sorry, but that's short-term plebian thinking. We're talking here about the sort of Delphic Oracular vision that had Brown resign his Clintonian drug czar position, return to Houston to join the Rice faculty in 1995, and run as Lanier's handpicked successor to be the first black mayor of the city.
The updated scenario envisions Brown in turn handing off the baton to a consensus business candidate in 2003. By this reasoning, the current wanna-bes on the council are hyperambitious political gnats hardly worthy of a swat, much less the mayor's chair.
Which gets us to the three rumored crown princes in waiting:
Kenneth Lee Lay, the 60-year-old Enron éminence grise and California energy plunderer. He's a neighbor of Lanier in the Huntingdon high-rise at the edge of River Oaks.
Ned Sweeney Holmes, the 57-year-old former Houston port commission chair, Brown campaign treasurer and Parkway Investments chief -- and a River Oaks Boulevard mansion resident.
Marc Julian Shapiro, the homeboy banking whiz kid and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. vice chairman, 53. He works in New York City, but maintains a residence off Memorial Drive -- and a Houston voting presence.
So how much of the tale is true? More than you might think.
Lanier says the three did not meet with him together at any time to discuss their possible mayoral future. But the former mayor has discussed the subject with each of them, and says each expressed interest. It's all part of an effort, he says, to recruit good potential candidates for the city's top post.
In his conversations, Lanier emphasized to the three that "it's not worth running if they are running for the title, but if they really think they can do things to help this city, then it's an enormously satisfying job."
"But on the other hand, there's a lot of hassle that goes with it," Lanier says. "And what makes it worthwhile, particularly for a person who is a little older and has enjoyed maybe some success, and are not pursuing it as a career, is the idea they can really get in and do something."
Lanier likens the current talks to the process he went through when deciding whether to challenge former mayor Kathy Whitmire. He recalls consulting with veteran mayors Richard Daley of Chicago and Henry Cisneros of San Antonio to get a feel for what the job might be like.
He cites Cisneros's advice: "Don't jump into this thing at the last minute. Take a couple of years and know exactly what you want to do, then campaign on it, and then do it."
Lanier figures Shapiro, the former head of Texas Commerce Bank here before it was swallowed by Chase, could fit nicely into the 2003 picture.
"He's approaching what I think is a retirement eligibility time," comments Lanier. "He's right there at the top ranks [at Morgan Chase] but not the No. 1 person." That's a diplomatic way of saying Shapiro lost a shot at the company's chairmanship when it merged, and he may be looking for new opportunities. "I think it's possible he will move back to Houston," says Lanier, "and if so, I think he would look at" political options.
Shapiro has served as board chairman of the Harris County Hospital District and recently played a key role in union negotiations on the construction of the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. In his banking positions, he oversaw extensive loans to Houston inner-city interests. He could use that background to appeal to minority leaders for support.
Shapiro also could duplicate Brown's feat as a first. Houston has never had a Jewish mayor.
Rice social sciences dean Bob Stein, the man who helped Brown re-enter Houston politics, says Shapiro's faith is a factor.
"It means that Shapiro could appeal to and mobilize Jewish voters, not that there are many of them," the political scientist says. "There may be money there; there may also be alliances with other minority groups that may feel sympathetic to the issues and positions of Jews in the community."
From New York, Shapiro issued a graceful "flattered" to be mentioned, "but entirely focused and dedicated to what I'm doing for J.P. Morgan Chase."
As for Holmes, Lanier points out that he's no longer port chairman and is administering the family estate. "My feeling," jokes Lanier, "is that the estate's probably in good shape."
Holmes has a background as a westside developer. He dabbles in politics and has bankrolled everybody from dogcatcher to mayor over the years. He loves to give his chosen candidates tours of his infamous R.O. "trophy room" chock-full of stuffed animal corpses. He opened his home for a Brown fund-raiser earlier in the spring.
Holmes did an "Aw shucks, who, me?" routine when questioned about mayoral ambitions. "I think those guys would be great mayors," he chuckled about Lay and Shapiro. Before every election, his name routinely appears on lists of possible mayoral candidates, "so I can't help but think about it," he said. "I just try to figure out how I could afford it." For now Holmes says the only issue on the table is what happens this year, and he's backing Brown. "November '03 is a long time away."
Intriguingly, when Holmes is asked whether he has discussed a mayoral candidacy with Lay and Shapiro, he avoids a flat denial:
"You'll have to talk to Lay and Shapiro about that."
As for the ultimate energy godfather, Lay passed along the day-to-day operations of Enron several years ago and is now chairman. "He's at a stage in his life," says Lanier, "where this could prove attractive to him."
Lay backed the successful referenda for Enron Field and the basketball arena and worked closely with black and brown leaders to guarantee a share of those contracts to minority businesses. He was also an early key supporter of Sheila Jackson Lee in her 1994 bid that ousted incumbent Craig Washington in the Democratic congressional primary. Lay, despite his Republican credentials and ties to President George W. Bush, would be in a position to cash chits of support from the African-American establishment.
Lately Lay has been in the national news, with Enron demonized by California politicians as a price-gouging energy pirate responsible for that state's electricity crisis. It's not a charge that will hurt him at home.
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"If anything, it gives him a little edge," says Stein. "I don't think Houstonians will be critical of Lay. Their view is that's jobs for us and it's California's problem."
Quips Lanier: "I'd not counsel him to run for mayor of L.A."
So who's going to sort out which of the golden threesome becomes the future establishment candidate for mayor? At least for now, the man who's been talking to them isn't saying.
"Nothing I'd care to comment on," drawls Lanier. "I don't know enough to say anything that I think would be helpful."