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What the Tide Brought In

Political unknown Steve Mansfield won a seat on the highest court of Texas criminal jurisprudence last week the same way he fished for dates in personal ads he placed in the Greensheet: with a self-confident pitch, a shoestring budget and a lot of double talk.

The Houston lawyer now says he never had any expectation of winning and launched his statewide campaign simply to garner name recognition that would help him attract future legal clients. But in the wake of the statewide Republican tide that swept Democratic judges off their benches en masse, he's now preparing to move to Austin to don the black robe of a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for a six-year term and an annual $95,000 salary.

Mansfield has almost no experience in the practice of criminal law. But he does have some unusual life experiences -- especially for a Republican -- including a youthful bust for dope possession, a fine that he paid for practicing law in Florida without a license and, more recently, a severe beating he suffered at the hands of an irate ex-girlfriend he had met through the personals.

Mansfield admits that such information "probably would have been a death blow to the campaign" had it surfaced in advance of the November 8 election. Most of it didn't, so instead Mansfield's been taking greeting calls from his future colleagues on the appellate court and looking forward to his grand new career.

"Yes, I am," says Mansfield. "It's an extremely important responsibility. I intend to be the hardest working, most aboveboard member of the court. And because all I've gone through, I realize I'm going into the court with a fairly heavy burden of proof and I intend to live up with it, by being, I guess you could say, purer than Caesar's wife."

Portia might object to the comparison. In a pre-election issue, Texas Lawyer labeled Mansfield a "stealth" candidate for claiming extensive criminal court experience when almost all his legal work has been as in-house counsel for insurance companies. He didn't even pass the Texas bar exam until less than two years ago. Mansfield also claimed to be a native-born Texan, when he was actually born in Brookline, Massachusetts, Democrat Michael Dukakis' stomping grounds. But what's another fib, anyway?

When the dark-haired, crinkly eyed rugby enthusiast gets caught in a lie, he slides into an almost endearing aw-shucks, Huckleberry Finn-posture. "I regret that some mistakes were made, and I did apologize and took the heat," Mansfield says

of his misstatements to the media. "I'm a big boy."
Standing in his front doorway of his southwest Houston home -- clad in an Oilers T-shirt, red jogging shorts and sneakers -- that's exactly what the 42-year-old judge-elect looks like. He'd like to invite a reporter in, Mansfield says apologetically, but an enraged Pomeranian chewing the mangled blinds over the living room windows doesn't seem to care for visitors. There's a spiffy blue Mercedes in the garage, but otherwise the one-story brick house and yard look derelict, no doubt the result of the owner's inattention in the months he spent campaigning across the state. "I've learned, much to my chagrin," he continues, "that when you run for public office, anything you've ever done, no matter how trivial, is going to come out."

For example: four years ago Mansfield wrote a woman who had answered his Greensheet ad, telling her he was "in excellent condition, have brown/black hair and deep blue eyes; I believe you'll like what you see. To answer a question that is on your mind, I have dated seriously a black lady before, namely the person who died."

"That woman's not dead," laughs the woman who answered the ad and, for a while, became Mansfield's girlfriend. She adds a snort of contempt for emphasis, then recalls that Mansfield also claimed to be a former pro football player -- an experience his slight physique belies at first glance.

"You guys are going to find he lies," she says. "Lies a lot. Anything he says, you can pretty much bank is not the truth." The woman, who asked that her name not be revealed, says she is a psychology student now engaged to be married to a man she met after her relationship with Mansfield broke up in 1992. By her account, she answered the personals letter from Mansfield "on a dare from my cousin" and later moved into his house.

Mansfield once again turns sheepish when asked about what seems to be just one more in a series of untruths. "Oh, that was puffery," he says of the talk about a dead woman. "It never happened." So why write it? "Oh, I don't know. That was four years ago. I don't know why I said it. I think it's kind of weird that personal letters like this are actually coming out like this. I think it's bush-league. But I'm not going to defend anything about it. It's not relevant."

 

Yet five minutes later he's confiding that "sometime we should sit down and talk about this. It makes the Texas Lawyer stuff seem like a walk in the park."

What does add some relevancy to the romance is that the woman from the personals later severely beat Mansfield in the culminating event of their two-year relationship. "She is 6 feet tall and strong," he says. "She beat me so badly my arms were bruised and I had a black eye. After that I said, 'Who needs this?' She thought I was seeing other women. But with rugby, studying for the bar, and her, when did I have time?"

Mansfield's former girlfriend says she blew up when she found out he was seeing other women on the side after she had moved into his house on Beechnut. She also groused that the frugal Mansfield would only take her to dollar movies and once-a-week trips to Barnacle's for seafood, the only food he eats. She claims one of those sideline girlfriends called her and spilled the beans on Mansfield's infidelities, and then Mansfield's ex-wife chimed in from Exeter, New Hampshire, with claims he is a compulsive liar who has not kept up his child support.

"At this point I'm so frustrated with him I attacked him," the woman acknowledges, adding that she'd do it all over again. "I tried to kill him. I beat him up. In the heat of this kind of grief and anger, when I first hit him it felt so good. I hit him on the left side of the head and ear, and hit him hard enough to break my hand. He's yelling and screaming. He kept antagonizing me, so finally he got the ass-whippin' he was after."

Later, the woman says, she called the police and had them escort her to Mansfield's home to recover furnishings she owned. "At the end of the relationship he decided he was going to keep my things. That just wasn't going to go," she recalls. "I called the police and asked them to go in with me for his protection. The reason I didn't kill him was I thought, 'I'll just go to jail and he'll just be dead. He won't suffer.'"

Mansfield's final letter to the woman has a decidedly different tone than the first. "Upon advice of counsel I hereby demand that you cease immediately entering onto my property and that you return the garage door opener," he wrote. "Second, I demand that you cease your assaults upon me and your extortion and extortion attempts."

Despite that unpleasant experience, Mansfield didn't swear off the personals. "My feeling is that the personals are a very fine way of meeting people," he explains. "Unfortunately I had one bad apple ... that did necessitate my getting the police involved. I have not heard from the individual since but obviously she has a memory. But that's fine. That's no problem. I've won!"

But according to the ex-girlfriend, the feud isn't over. She's determined to let Texans know that Mansfield isn't fit to sit on the Court of Criminal Appeals.

"I'm on my way," she vows. "I'm sure he knows by now, he's had people tell him, 'She's coming for you, she's coming for you.' He is too dangerous to be allowed to have a powerful position like that."

While Mansfield also wrote to the prospective paramour at the beginning of their affair that he had never smoked or done any drugs, as it turns out that wasn't quite true, either. He was arrested for marijuana possession back in the 1970s and charged with possession with intent to distribute. "I was a junior in college," he explains. "I got popped at Logan Airport with a joint, and they just simply dismissed the charges. Maybe the evidence was bad."

Although Mansfield says the case was dismissed, he displays unexpected candor by admitting he was indeed carrying marijuana. "Yeah, I won't deny it. I was like many other college kids in the early '70s. I did try it. And let me tell you one thing. Since college I have not smoked, inhaled, exhaled or been around it."

Mansfield moved to Houston in 1982 after several unsuccessful races for Congress in New Hampshire (which he conveniently omitted from his campaign resume, according to Texas Lawyer.) By then he had married, fathered three children and been divorced. During a brief sojourn in Jacksonville, he was hit with a state charge for doing legal work without passing the Florida bar. Mansfield says he "did a favor for a friend and got a citation for UPL [practicing law without a license.] At the time I was getting ready to move back to Houston. So I handled it over the phone with the state attorney there and paid a $100 fine."

 

While all of the above events don't disqualify Mansfield from serving on the court, they might give the conservative family-values leadership of the Texas Republican Party pause to contemplate exactly who they helped elect to the judiciary. And Mansfield will certainly be held up as a prime example by reformers who think it's time to change the way we pick our judges in Texas.

In the meantime, Mansfield is preparing to go to Austin to spend a day in the court "getting familiar with the procedures, how the paperwork flows, and all that." He's confident he can handle the work. "I am a National Merit Scholar and I got good grades in school, and have a pretty good specialty in tax law, which is one of the most complicated areas of law."

But as a member of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, he won't be ruling on tax law. Instead, he'll be one of nine judges on the state court of last resort for the appeals of criminal cases, one that automatically reviews all death-penalty sentences in Texas.

In arguing that he's actually qualified for the post, Mansfield claims to find precedents on the U.S. Supreme Court, a much different jurisdictional animal than the statewide appeals court. "Just like when Hugo Black was put on the court, as well as Clarence Thomas, neither of them had any criminal experience to speak of," Mansfield says, "and I think both of them are doing a good job. I can do the work and am looking forward to the work, and doing whatever it takes, whatever hours are necessary to doing the work, and doing it properly."

Hugo Black, of course, has long been dead.
Mansfield's victory over incumbent Democrat Charles Campbell certainly proves that in Texas judicial races, anything is possible during a partisan landslide. He spent approximately $7,000, not counting the $3,000 filing fee, for a statewide campaign when other candidates for the Texas Supreme Court, the civil version of the Court of Criminal Appeals, poured a total of more than $7 million into their campaigns.

"I have no advertising at all, TV radio or print," he says. "I ran off about 50,000 push cards, which I think ran me altogether about $1,500. And the rest of it, frankly, was on gas and Motel 6's. I put in 53,000 miles campaigning around the state. I visited 90 counties, every city in the state over 100,000 at least once, and many multiple times, including El Paso. So basically it was rental cars, gas, motel bills. That's what I spent my money on."

Despite that effort, it's unlikely that more than a few voters still knew anything at all about Mansfield when they went to the polls, other than noticing his Anglo-Saxon surname and party affiliation. But he, naturally, rejects the notion that he's just flotsam swept into high office in the Republican tide.

"I don't know what impact the Republican sweep had, because, remember, Kay Bailey Hutchison had 62 percent, George W. [Bush] had 55 percent, but right below them was [Democrat] Bob Bullock with 62 percent and Dan Morales [with 54 percent]. One of the first things I'm going to do is get a printout of all my votes in the various counties in the state. I'm a statistics junkie. I'd like to see how I did in the various counties 'cause then I can correlate it with where I spent the most time and how I did."

Meantime, Austin-area women interested in this electoral phenomenon might want to start scanning the personals for a notice modeled on Mansfield's Greensheet posting:

"Divorced white male appeals court judge, former pro football player, wants to meet nice black lady. You should be 26-32, enjoy seafood and romantic good times with a guy who will reciprocate well. Call me.


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