When the judge is the son of the county sheriff, it's safe to say that criminal defense lawyers aren't going to have the most optimistic feelings heading into court. But 338th District Judge Brock Thomas, son of Tommy, has dispelled any doubts about whether he can be a fair arbiter behind the bench, quickly establishing a reputation for evenhandedness. At 34, he became the youngest Harris County criminal judge when he was appointed three years ago. This year he handled the potentially explosive Quanell X with aplomb and won high honors in the annual State Bar of Texas poll ranking judges. The sheriff's son and former prosecutor has been a pleasant surprise and addition to the county judiciary.
It's a cliche that politicians who are so eager to send other folks off to war sit safely behind their desks. Not Rick Noriega. He was sworn in for another term as state rep this January -- not in Austin, but in a wooden barracks building outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. Lieutenant Colonel Noriega was on active duty training the Afghan army. It's true the state legislature doesn't have much to say about sending troops overseas, but it's still home to more than its share of platitude-spouting pols who don't have to back up their glib patriotism. Even from Kabul, Noriega continued his good legislative work though his wife, Melissa, who temporarily filled his seat and was named "Freshman of the Year" by the legislature's Democratic caucus.
Readers' choice: Bill White
Those of us who weren't living in Houston when Tropical Storm Allison paid a visit seem to have missed out on the kind of bonding experience only tragedy can create. But thanks to TNT ("We Know Drama"), everyone got a chance to see how the courageous doctors at Memorial Hermann Hospital saved hundreds of lives in the titular timeframe. Or sort of, anyway. For one thing, filming in Vancouver kind of slaughters any semblance of verisimilitude -- there ain't no mountains surrounding the Med Center. But who cares when you have none other than Kris Kristofferson, JoBeth Williams and Rick(y) Schroder representing the hospital's crackerjack staff? Okay, so the general consensus was that the movie kinda sucked, but did TNT make any other movies this year about the heroic efforts of doctors in any other cities? Was anyone watching a movie about a leaky faucet in Des Moines? Hell, no! We're sure at least 100 people watched 14 Hours, and folks, you simply can't buy that kind of publicity.
The talent level among Houston television's anchor desks has dropped precipitously in recent years, thanks to vapid newcomers and fading veterans. One longtimer has maintained his A-game, though: Channel 2's Bill Balleza. Thoroughly familiar with our town (you won't catch him mispronouncing "Kuykendahl"), Balleza also tries, as much as possible, to tone down the hype machine that is KPRC. He doesn't always succeed, but even among the whizzing "Big Story!" graphics and live (but meaningless) police chases, the ex-marine manages to maintain the utmost dignity and gravitas in today's TV-news environment.
Readers' choice: Dominique Sachse
While they definitely aren't the sexiest staff of journalists, and they don't have the eye-popping graphics and whiz-bang of the other stations, the veteran tried-and-true hands of KTRK consistently produce the best local newscasts overall. Staffed with a combination of virtual Houston landmarks that have been at the station longer than some of their competitors have been alive (Ed Brandon, Bob Allen, Doug Brown and Elma Barrera all started in the mid-'70s), along with capable newer faces, KTRK presents the news efficiently and succinctly, with no fuss and a strong local bent. The sometimes clownish antics of Don Nelson and Marvin "Slime in the Ice Machine" Zindler even have a kind of bizarre folksy charm. And rock-solid Dave Ward (who's been at the station since 1966) is the closest thing Houston has to Walter Cronkite. And that's the way it is.
Readers' choice: KPRC/Channel 2
When your own station's Web site singles out your "off-beat delivery," you know they're not talking about the recipient of a bachelor's of broadcasting degree. That's exactly what we like about the quirky Scotty Kilmer, the car-care expert who hosts the twice-weekly taped segments. But it's during his Saturday-morning live appearance answering viewer calls that the Guru of Gaskets really shines. As disembodied voices attempt to imitate the sounds of their cars' various ailments ("Scotty, it goes wrrr-wrrr-wrrr-ch-chunka chunka! What do I do?") Kilmer is fast with his simple, direct answers and explanations, all delivered with flailing hands, darting eyes, odd voice modulation and not-meant-to-be-funny pronouncements ("Check your dipstick, it might be foamy"). After he gave instructions during one recent segment about how to start a flooded car, the befuddled caller asked, "So, it has something to do with the spark plug?" That's right, lady. And bonus fashion points to Scotty for wearing the gold-stud earring.
We know, we know...This one took these same honors last year. But let's face it: It's gotten even better since then, and most of our rail stops suck. With the exception of a couple downtown, they're purely functional affairs -- if they're not slap-bang in the middle of a parking prairie like Smith Lands and Bell Street, they're facing the ass end of a park (Hermann/Rice) or a hospital (Museum District). In most of these places, you can't buy as much as a newspaper, so forget about a drink or a meal. Not so at Ensemble/HCC. There, you can shop for antiques, eat at T'afia and the Breakfast Klub (and soon enough, Tacos Au Go-Go) and drink and be merry at any of several bars, including the Continental Club and the Big Top Lounge, both of which feature excellent live bands. Or you can take in a play at the Ensemble Theatre, the city's premier African-American playhouse. Now you can buy new and used records and novelties at Sig's Lagoon too, and on weekends you can pick up an organic eggplant or two at the farmers' market. And what's more, you can do all of that without going all the way downtown.
George Russell is a colorful blend of genius and crazy. He founded his own religious group, the Universal Ethician Church, as a sanctuary for those fed up with the hypocrisy or greed they've experienced in mainstream organized religions. And he also created the state's only "green" cemetery, where folks are buried sans embalming and, preferably, sans coffin. The only coffins allowed are biodegradable; i.e., wood or cardboard. The spot is located among hundreds of acres of lush wilderness abutting Lake Livingston, a short jaunt from Huntsville. Russell owns the property, which he calls the Holy Trinity Wilderness Cathedral. And while a utility company up there says he's deliberately and illegally burying bodies in its right-of-way, Russell says his intentions are noble. Do yourself a favor and check out the Web site ASAP. It looks so cool, you'll actually be excited about kicking the bucket.
Tired of telling your out-of-town friends and family that Houston is an international city? Then show them on this driving tour. Drive west on Richmond from Loop 610 to Hillcroft. Hang a left and show them all the halal Chinese restaurants, Persian kebab shops, Latino hip-hop clubs, Indo-Pakistani curry houses, Arabic hookah bars, Indian sari boutiques and travel agencies prominently displaying their deals on flights to Lahore, Cairo, Mumbai, Calcutta and Delhi along Hillcroft's Asian miracle mile. Then hang a right on Bellaire and take them through that Vietnamese/Chinese strip that extends seemingly a third of the way to San Antonio. Show them the old apartment complexes that have been redone as professional buildings, the street signs in Mandarin, the dim sum palaces, the karaoke bars and pho houses without number. Chances are, you won't hear too many cowboy cracks after all that.
Readers' choice: Kemah
Local Republicans are a pretty predictable lot -- they're against everything, and they're against it loudly and insistently. Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt is right with them when it comes to being anti, whether it's light rail or the latest property-tax scheme. But instead of frothing at the mouth and trying to outshout everyone, Bettencourt takes another route: He calmly produces reams of paper factually backing up his opinions. You may not agree with those opinions, but you can discuss them with Bettencourt without feeling you've been harassed and insulted. Bettencourt isn't exactly loaded with charisma -- what tax assessor-collector is? -- but if Houston ever decided it wanted a politician who steps back from the circus atmosphere, Bettencourt would be a wise choice.
Readers' choice: Tom DeLay

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