When Will They Learn?

Brown and supporters, including Sylvia Garcia, react as Fort Bend County returns arrive.
Tim Fleck

The party really rocked at the chic Derek Hotel on the West Loop around nine Saturday night. The stage was awash with local Republicans, from those high-fiving GOP glimmer twins, county chair Gary Polland and protégé Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt to Jack Rains, the red-faced, blustery former sports authority chair. Together with the sardine-canned crowd, they happily acted out the fantasy that Councilman Orlando Sanchez was rolling toward a mayoral victory and City Hall was finally within their grasp.

Meanwhile, over at the George R. Brown Convention Center, Mayor Lee Brown's supporters cooked on low heat. In the nearby Four Seasons Hotel, a gathering of Brown insiders, including consultant Dan McClung, state Senators John Whitmire and Mario Gallegos, and Metro chief Shirley DeLibero, looked over the early returns and liked what they saw. The race was close, with Brown and Sanchez swapping the lead with every update from the Harris County clerk's office.

Lurking like submerged suburban electoral icebergs beyond the horizon were the returns from the overwhelmingly African-American middle-class neighborhoods of Fort Bend County, where Brown held a 6,000-vote wild card. Those returns wouldn't come floating in for another few hours, so the Sanchez crowd could make merry a little while longer.

Still, it was all entirely predictable, and was in fact foreseen by University of Houston political scientist Dr. Richard Murray the night before. Murray had crunched the early vote turnout for the runoff by precinct, and then overlaid those totals against the actual ballots for candidates in the November 6 first round.

His prognosis: Sanchez and Brown would split the early vote, Sanchez would take a small mid-evening lead, and Brown would surge back on the basis of those Fort Bend boxes to win by 4,000 to 6,000 votes. As it turned out, the winning margin was more than 10,000.

The Brown campaign's massive effort to get out the vote in black neighborhoods -- spearheaded by 134 "flush team" sound vans -- had boosted African-American turnout and padded his victory margin.

For the second time in four years, a national GOP effort had poured millions of dollars into a media campaign for a party standard-bearer in Houston, this time Sanchez and previously Rob Mosbacher. Riding the endorsements of President George W. Bush, former president George and wife Barbara, and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sanchez duplicated the Mosbacher campaign's strategy of flaunting rather than playing down party affiliation. His Spanish surname and the accumulated negative charisma of Brown made the race closer, but in the end the verdict was the same.

By raising the threat of a GOP takeover at City Hall, Sanchez had done what two terms of Brown couldn't: energize Democratic supporters and unify such unlikely allies as Controller Sylvia Garcia, state Representative Ron Wilson and Brown's council opponent Chris Bell. The unusually passionate Brown celebration early Sunday morning was as much about the defeat of the GOP as it was the victory of the mayor.

Elephants are supposed to have long memories. So why do Houston Republicans keep repeating the mistake of running for citywide office on party credentials in a city with a Democratic majority?

The Insider re-ceived eight ex-pensive multicolor mailers at his Heights address in the week before the election, all promoting Sanchez by playing up his conservative ideology. One featured a cover photo of Brown with former president Bill Clinton and ex-VP and presidential candidate Al Gore. It displayed the headline "People are known by the company they keep." Inside, the copy attacked Brown for his "left-wing agenda."

Brown may have two left thumbs, but labeling the career policeman a left-wing extremist only flies in the hothouse fantasies of the far Republican right.

You'd think the Sanchez campaigners would have noticed that Gore outpolled Bush in Houston precincts. Yet like a cocky, undersized basketball team, the Republicans tried once again to strut their stuff down the middle of the court -- and got it swatted back in their teeth.

There is another way to play this game, and GOP strategists weary of pump-priming millions into advertising and consultants for losing campaigns don't have to look far to find it. On the same night Sanchez went down, at-large City Council candidate Michael Berry coasted to an easy win.

Berry, a Republican lawyer-realtor, moved into Houston from West University a scant year before the election. He used an entirely different campaign formula from Sanchez. Instead of playing up ideology, he muted it to the point of refusing to say how he'd vote on the heated issue of insurance benefits for domestic partners of city employees. Berry may be every bit as conservative as Sanchez, but he had the brains to disguise those views.

Instead of relying on the Polland road show, he used a multipartisan approach. Berry hired Republican consultant Denis Calabrese to line up his ducks in conservative camps, while paying a raft of black operatives to work their churches and communities. To gays he was a sensitive guy. To conservatives, he was a married, hard-nosed lawyer and businessman. Opponent Claudia Williamson got all the Democratic and inner-city endorsements in the runoff and didn't come close.

Relaxing in the Brown suite after the outcome became obvious, Councilman Bell reflected on the unsuccessful attempt to bring Republicans into his nonpartisan mayoral campaign. After his third-place primary finish, Bell endorsed Brown and worked hard for his re-election.

Bell's early mayoral challenge was predicated on the idea that Brown was vulnerable, a judgment that he feels has been validated by Saturday's close vote. Since Sanchez made the runoff largely on his conservative appeal, he was unable to broaden his base any further.

Had Bell faced Brown in the runoff, Bell says, the Republicans would have been just one of several constituencies in his coalition. While that would likely have cost him the millions of GOP dollars and high-profile endorsements that Sanchez cornered, Bell believes the campaign would have been stronger without them.

"Because of the tenor of the campaign I ran," explains Bell, "I don't think it would have changed in the runoff. The message was not really Democratic or Republican."

Bell says Republicans really thought they could win by combining a partisan pitch to their own ranks with the added votes of Hispanics, who would support Sanchez out of ethnic pride even if they didn't agree with his politics.

The problem with that strategy in 2001 is that Hispanics are not yet ripe as a decisive voting bloc because too few are registered to vote. By the time that Latino vote does come of age, Democrats hope up-and-comers like Controller Garcia and Councilwoman-elect Carol Alvarado will be there to provide Hispanic voters a mayoral candidate whose political beliefs are as simpatico as their surnames.

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