To Run or Not to Run...

Sanchez: His council campaign contributions bought, among other things, makeup for media appearances.
Kent Manor

Several months ago, Councilman Chris Bell dropped by colleague Orlando Sanchez's office in the City Hall annex late in the day to discuss an agenda item for an upcoming meeting. Bell, who was mulling over a high-risk challenge to incumbent Lee Brown, recalls that during the conversation the 43-year-old Sanchez had a question for him: Was Bell running for mayor?

"Well, are you?" Bell cautiously parried. To have a chance against Brown, Democrat Bell knew he would need money and votes from conservatives, and wanted to make sure he'd have a clear path on the right to run against the mayor. Longtime Republican Sanchez, faced with term limits that would take him off council at the end of the year without a substantial job to fall back on, was a possible roadblock to Bell should he get in the contest.

According to Bell, Sanchez responded with a definite no. The at-large councilman says Sanchez explained there were a number of considerations behind that decision, both personal and political, and that it was not a good time in his life to seek the city's top post.

Sanchez remembers the exchange somewhat differently. He says Bell raised the issue, not him. "But he didn't say, without equivocation, 'Give me your assurance and sign here that you won't run for mayor.' I mean, we can't extract that from anybody."

Good thing, because last week Sanchez seemed on the verge of changing his mind. He initiated discussions about the feasibility of a mayoral campaign with Herb Butrum, the fund-raiser for Rob Mosbacher in his unsuccessful 1999 race against Brown. Sanchez is commissioning a poll to test his political standing and the vulnerabilities of the incumbent.

An Insider reader reports that last weekend a caller conducting a Sanchez poll asked a series of questions concerning Brown's performance. They included, "Knowing that Lee Brown wants to build an expensive light-rail line in downtown Houston, are you more or less inclined to vote for him?" The poll taker then asked several questions that put Sanchez in a favorable light.

"He is seriously considering it," confirms Butrum. "He's talking to a lot of people who have approached him. He very much would like to make the race if it makes sense. I think he'll make his mind up fairly quickly."

Brown political consultant Marc Campos says Sanchez has been more forthcoming, telling some business figures in the Hispanic community he wants their support and money because he's definitely in the race.

If he has made a final decision, the coy, Cuban-born, Corpus Christi-reared Sanchez isn't letting on. While saying it "is a good possibility," the councilman also claims, "I have no plans to announce a candidacy tomorrow, and I have no plans in two weeks."

Sanchez says he'll have to weigh personal considerations. As a single dad, "there are lifestyle changes, who's going to pick up the children from school, help do the homework."

Then there's the question of building a competitive campaign staff, raising enough money to take on Brown's $3 million war chest. And "the biggest one: Do I have the energy to do this?"

As for his previous comment to Bell that he wasn't running, Sanchez now says, "Chris's candidacy has got to stand or fall on its own merits, not on who gets in the race."

Bell's declaration for the mayorship last month did turn up the heat under Sanchez, says a council source.

"He wants to run. He can't stand it sitting on the sidelines watching Chris get out in front of him. But he barely won against a minor candidate the last two times, a minor candidate who spent no money."

Sanchez, then a probation officer, lost the race for council's District C in 1993. Two years later, describing himself as a Republican businessman, he won his current council position by outpolling a large field that included then-political neophyte Bell. He narrowly defeated businessman David Ballard in a runoff. Since then, he has twice defeated Andrew Burks Jr., a little-known educator, by ballot margins of 8 percent and 10 percent.

Sanchez joined council as an outspoken conservative. He toned down the partisan rhetoric after Brown was elected to a second term. In his last campaign he used a "back to basics" theme and lately has peppered the incumbent with complaints, primarily on fire department problems and water and sewer-main breaks.

Sanchez and his former wife, Ashley, divorced several years ago. He has an elementary-school-age daughter, Audrey, whose attendance at the exclusive Awty International School became an issue last year. Sanchez reported on his city financial disclosure form that her $8,000 annual tuition at the school, where he is a board member, was partially paid for by an anonymous donor. Sanchez still insists he has no idea who picked up $2,000 of the school bill. He and his former wife covered the rest. The City Ethics Commission asked Sanchez to explain the gift and then dropped the matter.

Sanchez also figured in the investigation of bid irregularities in the purchase of deluxe leather seats for councilmembers in 1997. He was the first to blow the whistle to the Harris County district attorney and made an issue of it at the council table. One of the four city employees indicted in the matter, Dan Jones, recalls that it was Sanchez himself who pressed for a quick purchase of the luxury chairs because he wanted one for his own office.

"So how did you think they got bought, Orlando?" asked Jones sarcastically. "The chair fairy?"

Charges against Jones eventually were dismissed as lacking substance. In a reminder that everybody at City Hall seems to get recycled into a new role eventually, Jones retired from the city and is now aboard Bell's campaign to develop issues. If Sanchez runs, one of the issues Jones researches against him just might be hypocrisy.

When Mayor Lee Brown recently got unwanted publicity for charging the public for speech lessons, it did not escape notice that Sanchez had spent his own campaign money on the purchase of makeup for his media appearances. During his first run for office, Sanchez was chagrined when a billboard blowup of himself on the Katy Freeway revealed a rather prominent five o'clock shadow. "It makes him look like a goddamn terrorist," groused one supporter.

While Sanchez bills himself as a hardworking, nuts-and-bolts councilman these days, a colleague sees his track record in a different light.

"He can usually be found on the golf course on an afternoon. He doesn't like committee assignments, has only two; doesn't carry issues at the council table and doesn't do the work out in the grass roots, as far as we can see."

Sanchez can be as hard to pin down on controversial issues as he is on his possible mayoral bid. Asked whether he supports the Metro downtown light-rail project -- the one ensnared in litigation filed by Councilmember Rob Todd -- Sanchez paused and seemed evasive.

"That's not an issue that's been before me," he replied. "I haven't really developed a position on that one."

Sanchez did vote for the interlocal agreement between the city and Metro that Todd challenged in court. On the other hand, he defends Todd's right to file the suit, and believes citizens should have a chance to vote on the project. Still, if Metro beats the Todd suit in appellate court, "they have every right to move forward," according to Sanchez.

Mark that down as sort of an "I don't know, yes, no, maybe" answer.

In that conversation with Bell, Sanchez opined that one way to beat Brown would be a major voter registration drive in the Hispanic community. It was there that he picked up enough votes to edge out Ballard in 1995. How well he would do against Brown is an open question.

"I think there are a lot of independent downtown folks who have looked at both the candidates and feel that Orlando presents the best vision for the future of our city," says consultant Butrum. "I think there are a lot of Republicans and Hispanics who are eager and anxious to support him."

Meanwhile, for those of you holding back on mayoral endorsements in hopes that City Controller Sylvia Garcia will decide to challenge Brown, the word from City Hall's top bean counter is hold your fire till you see the whites of their eyes.

"I'm very interested in running for mayor," says Garcia. "And I've told all my friends, supporters, donors and people interested in the city just to wait, and I will be making a decision soon."

If this keeps up, and Brown keeps stumbling, the only news at City Hall may soon be who isn't considering running for mayor.

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