The rhythmic chant "Go, John, Go" rolled through the Mesa Grill on the Katy Freeway as state Representative John Culberson broke the news to a wall-to-wall crowd last week: Opponent Peter Wareing had just called to concede defeat in the District 7 congressional race. Back at the Westin Galleria ballroom, Wareing's supporters finished dining and drinking at a first-class buffet and bar, then headed home to contemplate just how little $3.5 million buys these days at the ballot box.
Culberson not only had outrun River Oaks businessman Wareing's Mercedes-Benz of a campaign with a budget rent-a-car, but also had survived the best efforts of westside religious conservative organizer Dr. Steven Hotze, who had endorsed Wareing.
The de facto successor to the retiring Bill Archer routed Wareing 60-40 in a race the Houston Chronicle had headlined as a dead heat only days before. In the process, the winner may have finally reassembled the pieces of a county party split by the long-running feud between social conservatives headed by Hotze and the self-described "traditional Republicans" led by former party chair Betsy Lake.
"I've been fighting for this for ten years," Lake exulted as the returns poured in on Election Night. During her tenure as chair, Lake refused to make the divisive issues of abortion and gay rights a litmus test of ideological purity for GOP candidates.
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"If we all work together, we can elect the best person," she vowed. "That's going to be one of my goals: keep all of us working together, which is what we should have been doing instead of squabbling with each other."
Meanwhile, Wareing's attempt to run as a staunch right-to-life conservative while subtly encouraging backdoor Democratic support had a literal and symbolic meltdown. The Atlanta-based One Call phone bank erroneously spewed late-night, election-eve recorded phone pitches by Democrat Paul Hobby, a close personal friend of Wareing's, directed at thousands of Democratic households in the congressional district. Hobby can be a charming conversationalist, but not on the phone after midnight. Hobby spent the next day fielding complaints from voters who'd lost their beauty sleep. And Wareing was forced to issue an apology and admit he'd recruited a high-profile Democrat to help his faltering election bid.
Lake limited her role in this election to licking stamps, stuffing envelopes and providing advice for Culberson, who finessed the abortion issue while cultivating a coalition of supporters who ranged from conservative westside ministers to pro-choice GOP women. The Culberson coalition was the kind of "big tent" effort Republicans love to talk about but seldom manage to pull off on Election Day.
In addition to celebrating the victory of their candidate, Lake and others cheered the defeat of Hotze's vote-delivery machine. Over the past decade, it had wielded immense power in low-turnout Republican primaries. This time around, not only did the Hotze stamp of approval fail to sway district voters, it could not even deliver a victory for conservative judicial candidate Joe Maida against Bush appointee Martha Hill Jamison. She had switched parties two years ago, and held onto the 164th bench by a margin of 53 percent to Maida's 47.
Hotze had bombarded his and his brother Rick's home-precinct households with pre-election automated telephone messages with the good doctor's own voice endorsing Wareing, Maida and others. The results were less than impressive. In Steven's Precinct 234 in Tanglewood, Jamison easily outpolled Maida 496 to 356. In brother Rick's neighboring Precinct 303, Maida did even worse, losing to Jamison 554 to 339. Wareing managed to win both affluent precincts by comfortable margins, although he was trounced in other suburban stretches of west Houston where Hotze's influence has traditionally been strongest.
God may be alive and well on the west side, but is Hotze dead?
"Dr. Hotze has lost a lot of his credibility," opines old foe Lake. "I think now candidates realize they don't have to have his support to win. We've proven it."
In refusing to ask for Hotze's support before the election (see Insider, "Kissing Off a Kingmaker," April 6), Culberson may have effectively broken the kingmaker's spell.
According to Culberson organizational director Merle Carlson, Culberson wanted to show Hotze "that we had a very delicate coalition of people put together, and we intended to hold that together through the election."
Carlson accompanied Culberson to a showdown visit with Hotze at his home before the runoff vote. She says the activist missed a chance to salvage his dwindling influence.
"I felt that when we were talking to Hotze that John offered more to Hotze than Hotze offered to John," recalls Carlson. "That John would give him credibility that he didn't deserve."
Hotze spokesman Allen Blakemore counters that reports of his client's demise are premature.
"Steve feels like he had a great night," says Blakemore blissfully. He notes that 70 percent of the candidates Hotze endorsed won. Maida did have a slight edge in the early voting, where Hotze's influence is strongest, even though he lost to Jamison on Election Day. Blakemore attributed Jamison's victory to her superior campaign bankroll, although the money edge didn't salvage Wareing's gilded effort.
In any event, the days when Hotze could command $10,000 contributions from candidates for his political action committee, Conservative Republicans of Harris County, have likely come to an end. At least for those political hopefuls who, unlike Peter Wareing, do not have money to burn.
Forgive Them, Lord, For They Know Not What They Say
Harris County-Houston Sports Authority trustee Diana Ruhtenberg stunned a women's business group luncheon nearly a month ago by using the term "Jew them down" -- not once, but twice -- in describing how the authority got a cheaper price for Enron Field. Her speech had been designed to improve the authority's community relations.
Local Jewish leaders are still seething, but the focus is less on the Philippines-born Ruhtenberg's slur, for which she later apologized, and more on comments made in her defense at a City Council meeting.
Attorney Richard Schechter spoke at Council on April 4, calling for Ruhtenberg's ouster as a city appointee to the Sports Authority. Schechter, husband of county Democratic Party Chair Sue Schechter, passed out a letter from her GOP counterpart, Gary Polland, who is also Jewish, making similar points.
In response, Mayor Pro Tem Jew Don Boney likened Ruhtenberg's insensitivity on minority issues to Polland's political stance.
"While I'm concerned about what people say, I'm also concerned by what they do," said Boney, who is black. "I've not heard [Polland] say things that are hurtful to the constituency that I was born into, but he sure has done a lot of things that I think are devastating to our community."
Boney called for forgiveness for Ruhtenberg. "If we were like some of the Pharisees were, and exacted compensation for all of the wrongs and evils and injustice that all of us face, we would be blind, toothless and scarred as human beings in society for the rest of human civilization." Boney's comments, comparing Ruhtenberg's critics to a biblical Jewish sect noted for following the written law, struck some listeners as a rather odd way to calm troubled waters.
Boney later flippantly explained that he didn't know Ruhtenberg. "I don't have, as they say politically, a dog in this hunt, and I hope that's not a slur against animal lovers and dog lovers," he said. One can hardly imagine him using that tone discussing slurs against an African-American.
Boney's comments were trumped by Ruhtenberg's fellow Sports Authority trustee, the Reverend C.L. Jackson, a black who described "Jew down" as a common phrase. "I had used it regularly until I used it in the presence of someone who asked me not to never use it again," Jackson informed Council.
Jackson opened his Pleasant Grove Baptist Church to a male-only assemblage for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in 1994. Farrakhan has often been accused of making anti-Semitic statements in his speeches.
Sports Authority Chair Billy Burge also gave Council his take on Ruhtenberg's speech. Ruhtenberg had supposedly apologized effusively shortly after her remarks, and cried later while talking to Burge on the phone. Burge melodramatically declared, "Here's a lady who came to this country with a dollar in her purse -- first generation. She's what America's all about."
That account is contradicted by at least one witness, Arlene Novik, who was sitting at Ruhtenberg's table when she gave the speech. Novik says Ruhtenberg made the offensive remark, and then repeated it when an audience member exclaimed, "What did you say?!" According to Novik, Ruhtenberg issued a perfunctory "I'm sorry" only when a member of the audience muttered, "That's a noun, not a verb." She returned to her table, and later left, seeming upbeat and definitely not in tears.
Burge explained to Council that Ruhtenberg has poor English skills, including describing ticket scalpers as "scalpels." "I heard that she was portrayed as this poor little immigrant woman," says Novik. "That's absolutely, incredibly inaccurate. She was definitely, totally comfortable in English."
Ruhtenberg hardly fits in the boat-person category. Her Sports Authority biography lists her as the great granddaughter of General Mariano Trias, who was the first Philippine Republic's vice president. And she's a graduate of the prestigious University of the Philippines. She is currently a vice president of investments for the Pennsylvania-based Lockwood Financial Services.
The Council meeting comments convinced Schechter that the need for public education on the issue of racial and religious slurs is greater than he thought before Ruhtenberg's comments came to light.
"I felt [Boney] was endorsing a double standard, one standard for certain minorities but a lesser standard of protection for others," Schechter says. "This was a surprise to me, because I thought he was a strong supporter of equal rights for all."
Boney did seem to have some other people's rights on his mind that day, namely his own.
"Some of us will be going to the grand jury soon," he declared, somehow linking the Ruhtenberg incident with his own acceptance of a Christmas gift of gold-plated dinnerware from a city contractor. (Grand jurors later cleared him and other councilmembers of alleged violations of state laws in taking the gifts.)
"Some of us are going to be trying to hope everyone understands this was an error and mistake," continued Boney, "and not an attempt to corrupt the process of city government."
Get the feeling the Easter spirit of forgiveness arrived at City Hall a little early this year?
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