As a fanfare of recorded trumpets sounded throughout Jones Hall, an automated platform lifted the matinee performers from the orchestra pit to stage level last week. The red plush seats in the cavernous concert venue were all empty, while the audience munched on crunchy lunch salads at tables set up on the stage.
Rising into view were the four major Houston mayoral candidates for a campaign forum co-hosted by the Downtown Houston and Theater District Associations. Given the hyper-theatrical buildup, the effect was distinctly underwhelming, as if a political Larry, Moe, Curly and Baldie comic routine had replaced a Kenneth Branagh Shakespearean reading on short notice.
Perhaps the edgiest comment of the event was Alley Theatre exec Paul Tetreault's tart admonition to the diners at the beginning to turn off that modern bane of the performing arts, their cell phones. The most surreal was state Representative Sylvester Turner's response to a question about how to deal with the scourge of the well-dressed downtown arts patron -- sidewalk panhandlers.
The candidate suggested that Houston consider establishing a pavilion for the homeless, where street people could sleep and receive medical aid and mental counseling while enjoying their preference for domiciles without walls. Turner did not offer a location for this open-air temple of the transient.
The audience quietly chewed on that one for a moment, much like the television ad where a public relations team brainstorms product incentives like free climbs up Mt. Everest, visualizes frozen corpses along the way, and concludes, "Nah, let's stick with the basic package."
Oddly, considering the importance of the issue to downtown businesses and residents, no one directly queried the candidates on their positions on the Metro rail referendum. If they had, they would have discovered that only one of the four was still undecided.
Councilman Michael Berry opposes the plan, Turner wanted a bigger system but will settle for what's offered, and Bill White is delighted with the compromise he helped design. Afterward, The Insider buttonholed former councilman Orlando Sanchez and found him still tap dancing on the tracks.
Sanchez reported that he'd met with the Metro board and its chairman, Arthur Schechter, as well as agency officials the previous Friday, and "there was some confusion because they showed me two active resolutions So I'm sort of making sure that I have all the data necessary that Metro gets its house in order and gives me all the information."
When Sanchez campaign consultant Dave Walden was asked about the meeting, he had a few corrections to make to his candidate's comments. The get-together was on a Thursday rather than a Friday, no Metro board members were there, and chairman Schechter did not attend either. According to Walden, who was present, the participants included Metro Vice President John Sedlak and the agency chief financial officer, Francis Britton.
The consultant explains that because the resolution voted on by the Metro board had some handwritten addendums, Sanchez wanted to see a final version to make sure the pivotal commitment to continue road and street subsidies for area municipalities was intact.
"I'm getting the sense that Ambassador Schechter has not signed the resolution, so it seems that things are still in flux," comments Sanchez. "And I want to make sure that Metro says without equivocation, 'This is it, this is what we're going to put out.' "
That's news to Metro legal adviser Jonathan Day. He says the Metro board did consider the resolution twice, but took its final vote on August 28. "There is no question or ambiguity about their action," says the attorney. "They called the election." As for Schechter's not signing the resolution, Day explains that a signature is not required to make it valid.
Sanchez's reticence to take a position is understandable. If he opposes any rail, he alienates downtown power brokers who want the nascent Main Street rail connected to the suburbs and the airports. If he gives even a half-hearted endorsement for the transit plan, he drives westside conservatives and rail opponents into the arms of Berry.
Orlando has come close to taking a position in previous forums, telling an audience at Lanier Middle School in late August that if they were prepared to give up their autos and rely on public transit, "perhaps you ought to go vote for the referendum."
Not too many people would vote yes if the choice were really that black and white.
Berry strategist Allen Blakemore likens Sanchez to a rail Hamlet pondering "to be or not to be."
"Despite the fact that everybody else in the city of Houston has made up their minds, some for and some against, Orlando's waiting," quips the consultant. "I can't believe he hasn't taken a position."
Blakemore compares the Metro referendum to other yes-or-no issues the candidates confront, such as the cost-cutting HPD furlough plan. "If you can't answer that, you can't be mayor," he says. "This is a real easy one."
Candidate White says it's long past time for the contenders to spell out their positions.
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"This plan has been in the works since the beginning of the year with a lot of public information. A mayor needs to be decisive and deal with big issues like natural disasters quickly. Leadership is saying what you're for and what you're against."
The corporate CEO is quite willing to accept responsibility for the current transit plan that voters will consider along with his own candidacy.
"[Sanchez] and others would be right in acknowledging I played a major role. Anybody else could have had the opportunity to play that role if they had gotten involved in the details early on."
Stay tuned to see whether Orlando boards Bill's train or joins Berry in tearing up the tracks. Either way, he'll leave a chunk of the electorate behind at the station.