What exactly is meant by "No hostages beyond this point" is hard to discern. That message, posted on the inside of several doors in such fine establishments as Keagans State Jail in downtown Houston, greets anyone about to exit the jail and enter the lobby where visitors must turn in their IDs and be dressed in proper attire to walk through the doors. In fact, the words grace two doors, one right after another, so which point exactly, are the signs referring to? Perhaps the second sign is there in case you missed the first one. But who could miss such a warning, which implies that "Negotiating beyond this point will not work -- everyone will be shot."

Performance artist Dr. Alkebu Motapa, legal name Carl Austin, is a dreadlocked dervish who paints, chants and talks up a storm at City Council and anywhere else people will listen. His rhetoric, a mixture of Rastafarian theology and civil rights-era jargon, is not always welcome. When Motapa took to calling a staffer at the Cultural Arts Council to complain about not getting an arts grant, CACCH officials called HPD. Although the investigation was quickly closed, it gave Motapa another subject for his speechmaking: police persecution.

Tropical Storm Allison annihilated the county's justice system, crippling the criminal courts building for months and mauling the Family Courts Center as well. In the ensuing mayhem, even judges sometimes didn't know where their temporary courts, salvaged files or trial settings would turn up. But the news media had to know. And that's where public information officer Fred King proved invaluable. King was perhaps the only media relations person to rush to press, publishing a special flood edition of the district clerk's Hearsay newsletter, giving the office's 500-plus employees updates. He aided District Clerk Charles Bacarisse on the contingency plans and fielded blizzards of questions from baffled reporters. Even in the best of times, the clerk's office -- it processes roughly 100,000 cases annually, ranging from civil suits to felony and misdemeanor charges -- looms as a mysterious labyrinth. King is a master translator into understandable terms. Local public entities regularly insulate themselves with PR people, and more and more seem to be the alter egos of the glib Ken-and-Barbie glamour types that first invaded local television. They may ooze with charm and offer ample sound bites, but know nothing about the real information within their own agencies. Credit Bacarisse (himself a former White House communications staffer) for landing a media pro with proven credibility.
Mayor Lee Brown chief of staff Jordy Tollett got his start under mayor Jim McConn and has been accumulating titles and turf ever since. He's head of the city convention center and entertainment facility complex, the president of the convention and visitors bureau, and currently the little drummer boy who sets the pace for Brown's staff. Tollett was once a lightning rod for controversy when he took city clients on the public dime to savor the heady atmosphere of the topless Rick's Cabaret. He survived that episode, and the only misstep he's made recently occurred when he slipped at a pool party and cracked several ribs. Tollett, a nightlife aficionado, can now be found on many evenings schmoozing at Downing Street with buddy Dave Walden, this year's best lobbyist.
This former First Court appellate justice and TV court-show host narrowly lost his post last November, but the defeat did nothing to dim Andell's luster as one of the most promising figures in the local party. He carried Harris County, did well in traditionally Republican precincts, and is primed to be a major party standard-bearer the next go-round. A bit of a gadfly and socialite, Andell is a world-class schmoozer and works a crowd with the best of them. Republican leaders ardently wooed Andell to switch parties and keep his bench, a maneuver executed by fellow appellate jurist Murry Cohen. "I wouldn't have my integrity," explains Andell of his decision to stay a Democrat. With Harris County's changing demographics pointing the way to a political resurgence for the Democrats, Andell's loyalty could pay off handsomely in the not-too-distant future.

This preeminent Houston political power couple is in the middle of a slow-motion divorce proceeding, possibly because their business affairs are impossible to untangle. Between them they represent just about anything that could be considered establishment in Houston. Sue raised money for mayor Bob Lanier, handles incumbent Lee Brown's finances, and lobbies for energy giant Enron. Dave, a former chief of staff for County Judge Jon Lindsay and mayor Lanier, helped martial the stadium and arena forces in recent victorious referenda, and represents the Houston Astros and the new Houston Texans professional football team. His most innovative position: domestic relations adviser to Lanier's adopted daughter, Courtney Lanier, when she was drawn into a nasty divorce proceeding between hubbie-to-be, Chris Sarofim, and his ex-wife, Valerie. Naturally, Courtney came out of it all smelling like a rose and worth multimillions.
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.

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