Like his mentor, former state rep Paul Colbert, Hochberg has developed a reputation in Austin as a master legislative technician, focusing on the explosive public school finance issue. He's also a tough political survivor who was forced by Republican-controlled redistricting to move out of District 132 into the more GOP-friendly 137. Fellow Houston Dems Debra Danburg and Ken Yarbrough did not survive redistricting as the GOP took control of the state House for the first time since reconstruction. Hochberg easily won over GOP opponent Dionne Roberts, who blundered by issuing campaign materials attacking him on personal issues. While Democratic colleagues including Sylvester Turner and Ron Wilson stayed in Austin, Hochberg was a ringleader in the flight of the "Killer Ds" to Ardmore, Oklahoma, which effectively stymied a congressional redistricting plan in the regular legislative session. If the Dems had more savvy suburban operators like Hochberg, they might never have lost the House to begin with.
Whenever a political stew is brewing involving Houston's left and right wings, expect to find the hand of this West University-based swami stirring the pot. Along with his wife and fund-raising partner, Elizabeth, Allen Blakemore is a force in next fall's supposedly nonpartisan Houston municipal races. He's strategizing for first-term councilman Michael Berry in an increasingly bitter guerrilla war against former councilman Orlando Sanchez for the hearts and votes of conservative Republicans. Blakemore has a built-in advantage there, having served for years as the Sancho Panza for westside political kingmaker Dr. Steven Hotze. He's also coordinating the strategy of area conservatives to win a majority on the 15-member council in November. When Democrats mounted a full-court press last year in an attempt to crack the GOP stranglehold on Harris County judgeships, Blakemore joked that the Democratic county chairperson Sue Schechter "may be liable for deceptive trade practices," adding, "She is going to lead these poor souls to slaughter, and it's going to end up being a cruel joke." After the Dem judicial slate and the vaunted statewide "Dream Team" crashed and burned, and Schechter resigned, only Blakemore was still standing to savor the joke.
What do you do if you're an ambitious young Hispanic politico who has run afoul of the traditional Democratic powers that be in the Latino community? District H City Councilman Gabe Vasquez's solution was to change playing fields. Earlier this year, he jumped to the Republican Party. Hispanic officials have prospered in the Texas GOP in recent years, mostly through appointments to plum posts like Texas secretary of state. With Republicans in control of both the White House and the statehouse, it's only a matter of time till Vasquez receives a job summons from on high.

Veteran campaign consultant and lobbyist Bill Miller, of the Austin-based Hillco Partners, has represented a lot of tough clients, one of the more demanding being Les Alexander. The Houston Rockets owner is legendary for trying to exploit every angle of a deal, and he pushed the envelope this spring by trying to maintain control of the food and beverage concessions at the new downtown arena -- in violation of a campaign promise that minority enterprises would receive 30 percent of the arena's operating revenues. Miller did what he could to control the damage, and helped design a strategy of utilizing local minority politicians, including state Senator Rodney Ellis and state Representative Sylvester Turner, to push the Rockets' case. Under pressure from a lawsuit, Alexander finally saw the light and cut a deal with local civil rights groups to end the controversy. Miller also represented Four Families in its upset victory at Houston City Council in the hotly contested "Food Fight" for Hobby Airport concessions. In the process, he whipped last year's best lobbyist, Dave Walden, to earn the 2003 crown.

After Mayor Lee Brown took office in 1998, he deposed veteran public works chief Jimmie Schindewolf and ushered in an era of anarchy in the city department that fixes streets and sewers and is most visible to voters. After several directors turned out to be duds, a desperate Brown called in Vanden Bosch, a former Army Corps of Engineers disciplinarian and veteran of the Kathy Whitmire administration. Vanden Bosch finally restored order out of the chaos, but not before the image of leaky water mains and mishandled downtown street construction had permanently tarnished the image of Brown's administration. Thanks to this bureaucrat, we'll never know how much worse it could have been.

It takes a reporter to think like a reporter, and this former KTRH police beater has put his four years of news experience to invaluable use. The 39-year-old Cannon draws top reviews from current police and crime watchdogs for unfailing courtesy and prompt processing of information requests. He understands the different deadline demands of print, radio and television. He offers suggestions on how to find information. He'll even put up with the weird and imponderable question. One of his favorites involved a police car caught in high water. The reporter wanted to know the exact amount it would cost taxpayers to repair the vehicle. "You get so many requests where the reporter just wants you to do the story for them," says Cannon, who with his experience is quite capable of doing just that. Cannon is a welcome change from years past, when some HPD information officers were regarded more as speed bumps on the information highway.

River Oaks accountant Bob Martin may make his living balancing other folks' books and tax accounts, but he has the soul of a reporter, albeit a conservative one. He hangs around KSEV radio and maintains a wide circle of media pals. He also may be the only person in Houston who has developed a time schedule to record all local TV news broadcasts every evening. Martin makes regular appearances on KHOU as a talking head on accounting themes, and feeds reporters a weekly stream of suggestions for stories. In the current mayoral cycle Martin is backing Michael Berry, and is not shy about recommending media strategy to the first-term councilman.

Veteran land broker and appraiser Tom Bazan first got involved in the municipal arena when he launched a lead paint detection business and fought city contractors who were all too eager to ram through deals without completing proper inspections. From there he ventured onto Houston's transit battlefield -- first producing a Web site that urged the recall of city appointees to the Metro Transit Authority Board, and then e-mailing a sometimes daily antirail bulletin to a list of government officials (mostly Republicans) and media members. He was among the first to call attention to Metro's growing financial problems resulting from slumping sales tax receipts. While some folks have complained about receiving his unauthorized e-mails, Bazan claims innocence, noting that some of his willing recipients often forward the messages on to others. It just goes to show how one man's spam is another's exercise in free speech.

When the Colombia-born Clara Suarez Harris ran her luxury car over husband David at the Nassau Bay Hilton last summer, she stepped from an innocuous life as one-half of a prosperous dentist couple with young twin boys into national tabloid legend as "The Mercedes-Benz Murderess." Although videotapes were never too clear on exactly how many times Clara rolled the Mercedes over David, the jury never bought her claims that it was all a big accident and she was really trying to smash her car into the vehicle of David's mistress, Gail Bridges. The panel did find she acted in "sudden passion," which translated to a maximum 20-year sentence with at least ten years to be served without possibility of parole. If fellow best baddie Andy Fastow has given his Southampton neighborhood unlikely infamy, Clara has joined bathwater baby killer Andrea Yates in the burgeoning category of "Madwomen of Clear Lake."
Texas has the nation's busiest executioner's chamber, and Harris County sends more convicted murderers to Huntsville's gurney than any other. Fighting this state-sanctioned killing machine are a handful of idealistic lawyers and the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of legal representation afforded to poor Texans charged with a capital crime or sentenced to death. The Defender Service became the main safety net for indigent inmates seven years ago after the federal government pulled the plug on funding for a system of legal resource centers that served the same purpose. In addition to representing defendants, the group, headed by University of Houston Law Center graduate Jim Marcus, churns out studies documenting how innocent people are being pulled into capital punishment's widening maw. "We are running full tilt at the edge of a cliff, the execution of the innocent," concludes a recent survey titled "Lethal Indifference." The study also notes that although two out of three capital cases nationwide are overturned for error, since 1995 the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals has reversed only eight of 270 decisions, the lowest reversal rate in the nation. That's about as underdog as it gets.

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