This hyper-congenial county tax assessor-collector has burnished his image with consumer-oriented reforms, while at the same time utilizing the office as an attack arm of the local GOP. Bettencourt has churned out studies criticizing Mayor Lee Brown's tax policies, not so coincidentally the identical position as his political mentor, Harris County Republican Party chair Gary Polland. He's also become a major resource for the party in the current redistricting battle to keep the county Commissioners Court dominated by Republicans through 2010. His weakest performance came in a halfhearted effort to defeat the second referendum to build a downtown basketball arena. Apparently under pressure from downtown interests, Bettencourt conveniently muted his opposition as the arena proposition easily won approval. Don't be surprised if somewhere down the road, he and this year's Best Democrat, Eric Andell, meet head-on in a contest for the county judgeship currently held by Robert Eckels.

'Twas the endlessly quotable Townes Van Zandt who sang the line "No prettier sight than looking back on a town you left behind," and even if that judgment did arrive in a song called, paradoxically, "I'll Be Here in the Morning," the sentiment stands. Your life was waterlogged in the great backwash of '01, the temperature's 104 in your hat, and the West Nile virus is queued up to fill the void left by yellow fever epidemics of yore. Even the staunchest Houston-boosters and stick-it-outers deserve a break every now and then. Get in the car, roll down the windows, crank up the a/c, and head to Austin, for God's sake. The road ahead may be bleak for miles, but that receding skyline in the rearview is an awfully pretty sight.

When tempers flared last summer over an ad hoc day-labor site near Kingwood, one man stepped in to help broker talks between the immigrant workers, aggrieved business owners upset about the massing of men on their property, and Montgomery County sheriff's officials. That man was Benito Juárez, then-coordinator for the Houston Immigration and Refugee Coalition. His efforts contributed toward changing the tone from recrimination to one of constructive problem solving. For years, Juárez has been a fixture at rallies for the rights of immigrants and refugees. The 39-year-old Guatemala native might be found picketing the offices of the INS or fronting marches in Austin and Dallas. He played a key role in getting foreign-born people, including undocumented ones, to participate in the 2000 Census, helping to produce the largest response ever among Houston's immigrant community. This year, Juárez was named outreach specialist for Lee Brown's newly created Mayor's Office of Immigrant & Refugee Affairs. While the position may lower his profile at protests and rallies, Juárez welcomes the potential for greater access to local, state and national officials. "My commitment is for advancing the struggle for the respect of the rights of immigrants and refugees," the soft-spoken Juárez says. "I'm doing it in a different way, but the commitment is the same."
Recently one morning while on our way to work, we were driving along Feagan Street in the West End when we saw what we first thought was a man with a metal detector in the ditch in front of what used to be Zocolo Theater, the alternative outdoor film and art center. As we got closer we saw that the man was wearing plastic goggles, was smoking a big pipe, and had a huge white handlebar mustache. And instead of a metal detector, the man was holding a weed-eater. It was then than we finally recognized former Harris County district attorney Johnny Holmes, who, following his retirement last year, now apparently spends part of his time applying the death penalty to unwanted vegetation.
The view from the Fred Hartmann Bridge is hauntingly beautiful, particularly at sunset. From this graceful perch unfolds a landscape straight out of science fiction, an expanse of petrochemical plants fanning out along the snaking Ship Channel as far as the eye can see. As darkness descends, flares lap at the sky, and little white lights outline the plants' towers, pipelines and processing units like twinkling Christmas lights. The vista conjures images of a metropolis from a different galaxy. Roughly half of the nation's petrochemical industry cleaves to Houston's paved bosom, and no place affords a better view of that industrial might. Out-of-town visitors will be duly amazed at this uniquely Houston panorama. The bridge, which runs along Highway 146 and connects La Porte to Baytown, overlooks Alexander Island, Black Duck Bay and Tabbs Bay, as well as the San Jacinto Monument, our soaring tribute to Texas independence. With its sleek yellow cables and long, tapered roadway, the Fred Hartmann Bridge is itself a lovely site to behold.
Eight days before Christmas, Officer Rhule was driving down the Beltway when he saw two women on the side of the road trying to change their tire. Their jack didn't work, so he took his and changed it for them, but their spare was almost flat. He took them to a nearby Stop N Go and put air in the tire. "But then I got to looking, and two of the four tires were terrible," he says. Plus, the passenger was nine months pregnant and due any day. He has two daughters himself. Rhule says the last thing he wanted the stranded women to worry about was whether the car would get them to the hospital when the baby came, so he took them to Wal-Mart and bought them two new tires. "I paid for them and told them to have a good Christmas and have good luck with the baby," he says. We think this is one of the nicest, kindest acts we've ever heard of, especially since it was the day before the officer's 38th birthday. "They were just good people who were having a tough time," he says. "An expectant mother has got plenty on her mind anyway. I just didn't feel comfortable letting them drive."

During the marathon trial to settle the estate of late Houston millionaire J. Howard Marshall II, Marshall's widow, former topless dancer Anna Nicole Smith, testified, "it's expensive to be me." While that may well be true, the judge in the case eventually ruled against Smith, but we're confident she'll do just fine.
Yes, we know. Wayne's not really a weathercaster. This investigative reporter would rather be chasing down unethical pothole fillers than tracking weather patterns. But when Tropical Storm Allison hit Houston hard, Wayne Dolcefino was there. Before it became virtually impossible not to be up to your waist in water, Wayne searched out the deep spots. Displaying no concern for his physical person, he waded in without even a raincoat. Wayne showed us just how deep the water was that first dark night of Allison. He chased after cars attempting to plow through the water; he pointed out the rooftops of those who had already met their flooded fates; he let a hospital know that an employee was going to be late for work. He investigated, dammit. Of course, Wayne might have been smarter to find out a little more about the water before he went in. A few hours later, reporters began discouraging kids from playing in the filth. And the next day, a decapitated body was discovered floating down Pasadena Highway 225, where Wayne had been reporting the night before.
It looks like a painting, a 12-foot square field of blue, oddly placed on the ceiling of the simple Quaker meeting room. But this painting is alive, deepening in color and drawing you in as the sun sets outside. It's the sky, you realize. Light artist James Turrell has cut an opening in the roof and tapered its boundaries into a knife-edge that subverts depth perception. It feels as if you could reach up and touch the sky, or that the sky has crept down through the opening to touch you. A bird or a cloud or a plane passing overhead simultaneously breaks the illusion and makes it all the more wonderful.
Judging by the interiors of most restaurants, restaurateurs usually don't care deeply about art. Monica Pope is the exception. Her Boulevard Bistrot has art on the plates, on the walls and even in the bathrooms. In fact, the atmosphere of the lavatory was so important to the owner that she commissioned artist Sharon Engelstein to pretty it up with rich floral paintings. Engelstein is no ordinary stall painter. The former Museum of Fine Arts Core fellow has exhibited her work in the Contemporary Arts Museum and in the prestigious Texas Gallery. Now you can catch dinner and an art show all in one building.

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