Robinson is one of four councilmembers considering a race for city controller.
Robinson is one of four councilmembers considering a race for city controller.
Deron Neblett

Trading Places

With the campaign for November's general election heating up, several indicators point to a New Year's departure from City Hall by City Controller Sylvia Garcia. And that in turn is heating up speculation about who might be her interim replacement -- assuming she beats Republican Johnny Isbell and moves into the office of Precinct Two County Commissioner at the County Administration Building.

Among those interested in gaining the council appointment and stepping into Garcia's shoes, if only for a year, are a former city councilman and a controversial investment banker who was fired and is now an unpaid volunteer at City Hall. Even though the interim controller would probably have to pledge not to seek election to the job in 2003, presumed controller hopeful Carroll Robinson has also indicated he wants to be considered for the appointment. Robinson will have to leave his at-large council position at the end of next year because of term limits.

Politicos are perusing the available tea leaves on the commissioner's race. They include a poll by Garcia's camp, a detailed precinct analysis by a University of Houston political scientist, and the intensifying governor's race that is expected to boost Hispanic voter turnout in Harris County. In each instance, the factors seem to be weighted in Democrat Garcia's direction over former Pasadena mayor Isbell.

A recent poll conducted for the Garcia campaign by Californian Paul Maslin of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates showed Garcia with a "good lead, not a certain win," according to Campaign Strategies' Dan McClung, a Garcia consultant. Her margin in the sampling of 400 respondents, according to sources who've seen the poll, is slightly over 10 percent. Maslin specializes in polling for Hispanic candidates and is also working for Tony Sanchez's gubernatorial campaign.

According to the sampling, two-thirds of voters know Garcia well enough to rate her with a three-to-one favorable-to-unfavorable ratio. Isbell has fewer voters who know him, fewer who like him, but roughly the same number of unfavorables as Garcia.

Garcia drew a 48 percent approval rate for her performance as Houston city controller, while 37 percent said they didn't know enough to answer. Isbell got 36 percent to approve his work as Pasadena mayor, while 52 percent didn't know him enough to answer.

Although this is Maslin's first poll conducted on the race, it confirms Garcia's appeal, says McClung. "The district is mildly Democratic but will be very pro for a Hispanic woman Democrat."

Dr. Richard Murray, the UH Center for Public Policy director, came to a similar conclusion after selecting three past races for comparison and then sifting through the 308 voting boxes of the commissioner's district to estimate turnout and results.

Murray considered Garcia's 1996 race against Mike Fleming for County Attorney, as well as the 2000 election totals for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore and appeals court candidate Eric Andell, another Democrat. Although Garcia lost to Fleming countywide, she carried the boxes that comprise Precinct Two by 8 percent.

For 2002, the political scientist says he made "what I consider pretty conservative assumptions: no big change in registration; that the Spanish surname count will not go up much; and Johnny Isbell will run considerably better in Pasadena and Deer Park than Mike Fleming did in 1996."

The projected result is a 52-48 percent Garcia win: 80,976 to 74,802.

"If she runs a bad campaign or he does particularly well, he could get her below that 50 percent level and win the race," notes Murray. "But if she runs a good campaign and things keep moving as I see it more favorably to Democrats locally than Republicans, I think she'll get 56 or 57 percent of the vote."

Murray says the increase in Hispanic votes is magnified by a continuing flow of Anglos out of Precinct Two. He points to box 278 in Pasadena, long nicknamed "the doctor's precinct" for its concentration of affluent professionals.

"Hispanic professionals have been moving in while Republicans are moving out," explains Murray. He predicts Garcia will not get a majority in box 278 but will get a significant number of votes from the newcomers "because she does extremely well with that group."

A key Isbell supporter, Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, thinks the pollsters are underestimating one key factor.

"What doesn't play well for Miss Garcia is that a large part of Precinct Two, the residents, absolutely hate and despise the City of Houston," says Radack, who himself represents a large swath of west Houston. "I know that in many of those small towns in the precinct, Johnny has received key support from even Democrat councilmembers."

Radack credits Isbell with a good reputation in the smaller municipalities, while Garcia has none at all. "When all the dust settles," predicts the commissioner, "some people, particularly the pollsters, are going to be amazed at how good Johnny is going to do."

Still, judging by the hum over the interim controller appointment, a lot of politicos are already awarding Garcia the win. Councilman Mark Ellis, the leader of the Republican bloc at City Hall, says the pressure is intensifying from hopefuls for the interim appointment, including Councilman Robinson.

"Carroll came to me and grabbed me in the hallway and said, 'Hey, if I pledge that I won't run for controller, would you consider nominating me for the interim controller?' I said, 'Carroll, you and about 15 other people.' There's a ton of people that are going to be out there, and we'll just have to evaluate that."

Robinson and at-large Councilwoman Annise Parker have indicated they want to run for a full term as controller in 2003. District Councilmembers Bruce Tatro and Gabe Vasquez are also possibilities. Although Robinson confirms his conversation with Ellis, he now says he "wouldn't want the job without the opportunity to run" for a full term.

Robinson's political consultant Bethel Nathan says a recent poll indicates that Robinson would easily make a runoff for controller, as he did in his losing bid against Chris Bell in the Democratic primary for the 25th Congressional District. Whether he could win a runoff is an open question.

One of the more intriguing names being tossed out for interim controller is Barry Smitherman, a Bank One executive who was fired earlier this year. Smitherman had earned the ire of Mayor Lee Brown by getting a little too chummy with Ellis and other City Council conservatives -- and for co-authoring an op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle with several of them. After Smitherman lost his job, Ellis and fellow Councilman Bert Keller retaliated against Bank One by stalling city financing deals that involved that company.

Smitherman is returning to Houston with his family and purchasing a home in Clear Lake where his wife has relatives. He's been using Ellis's council office as a pied à terre while giving free financial advice.

Ellis says that after the brouhaha that led to Smitherman's firing, the city's official financial advisers stopped returning his calls. "So I thought Barry would be a great resource when it comes to financial issues, and I was going to hire him as a special assistant. We called over and talked to the human resources department, and they said it's a lot easier if you just let him be a volunteer."

Ellis figures Smitherman would be a natural as interim controller, except that he's also expressed interest in running for election to the job. Smitherman was unavailable for comment.

Smitherman's high profile and financial watchdog role for Ellis might make him too radioactive for the interim post. Others touted for the appointment include former councilman and tax collection attorney Vince Ryan, retired Fulbright and Jaworski attorney Oliver Pennington and current Chief Deputy City Controller Judy Johnson. Her familiarity with the operation would ensure a smooth transition until a new controller takes office.

"In discussions with members of council I've indicated I'd be interested in that interim appointment, with a commitment not to run for any city office," says Ryan. He is effectively term-limited from another council seat, but not the controller or mayor's position. "I miss public service," the attorney admits. "When I was on City Council the current city budget process was something I initiated."

Of course, there's nothing other than scout's honor to prevent an appointed controller from changing his or her mind later and letting supporters "draft" the interim to run for the job. The appointment might just prove to be the closest thing to a lie detector test to determine whether ambition trumps truthfulness at City Hall.


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