In the worst of ways, Talmadge Heflin looked unbeatable: Endorsed by the Houston Chronicle, he'd logged seemingly as many years in the Texas House of Representatives as Palpatine had commanded the Galactic Empire, and the flab in his double chin was exceeded only by the corporate flab in his war chest. Democratic challenger Hubert Vo commanded a fraction of the funds -- and of the English language. Vo had been a refugee from Vietnam-turned-bootstrapping convenience store clerk; a busboy, phone book proofreader and machinist; and a scrappy small-business man-cum-Alief strip mall magnate -- but never a politician. No matter: As the Houston Press predicted, Vo won based on sheer hard work and a sense that Alief needed someone who was in touch with its evolving Asian community. He became the first Vietnamese-American elected to the Texas House, and he proved that democracy can still win in America, even in gerrymandered Texas.
Okay, this is technically cheating, since Barry Scheck is based out of NYC, but screw it: Scheck's Innocence Project helped get two wrongly convicted Texans out of prison last year. One of them was George Rodriguez, a Houston man who served 17 years for allegedly raping a 14-year-old girl. (Since other prisoners consider child-rapists the lowest of the low, we can only wonder what prison was like for him.) Rodriguez was convicted in part by HPD's crime lab magicians -- you know, the guys who admitted to falsifying evidence and lying on the stand. This is the same HPD that tripped over 250 boxes of misplaced evidence two years ago, some of which pertain to capital cases. But Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal opposed a moratorium on such cases. He told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee in January that he can sleep well at night. Scheck was the sole voice of reason in addressing the committee. Sitting between the two dudes he helped free, he told the committee that, you know, maybe there should be, like, some oversight and accountability and stuff. You know, just an idea. And then we're sure he got the fuck out of Texas.

Best Place to Get Screwed, Blued and Tattooed

Surf Shack

Taste is all in the mouth here in the land of "Beers, Babes and Waves." Nearly naked women on carpeted pedestals along with massive drink specials are the main attractions for the backward-ball-cap crowd, but the thing that really makes the Surf Shack unique is the presence on the premises of Nice Guy Tattoos, poised with needles at the ready to desecrate the living flesh of any patron possessing the required cash and blood alcohol level. It's a night you won't soon forget, at least not without painful corrective surgery.
There's not a Houstonian alive who doesn't know this human oddity's name and freakish visage. To a Houston transplant, the first Zindler sighting is one of those occasions where you question reality, the existence of a fair and merciful God, and your eyesight. Could that dude really look like that? Was he in The Dark Crystal? What's going on behind those outrageous blue shades? Does he have eyeballs? Is he really that tan? Does he smell like formaldehyde? You're frozen, watching this refugee from Ripley's help a little old lady from Pasadena get free denture cream or something. And then, before you know it, it happens: the crude graphics signaling something this 82-year-old shrieking banshee calls "The Big S." "What did they have? All together, gang: SLIME IN THE ICE MACHINE!" After all these years, it's still the best thing on television, and we can only hope Zindler's into cryogenics, because we want his re-(re-?)animated corpse delivering these reports forever.
Readers' choice: Marvin Zindler
For too many years, Houston school superintendents have depended on spin to save them from problems. Abelardo Saavedra, finishing his first year in the position at HISD, has shown a welcome ability to deal with controversy rather than just duck it. He addressed persistent stories about widespread cheating on standardized tests at some schools and created an office of inspector general to investigate future complaints. Even more shocking, he's de-emphasizing those tests as much as possible, trying to steer HISD away from the philosophy of "teaching the test and nothing else." He's toughened seventh-grade English classes, made pre-K available for all eligible kids and reorganized the district's hardened bureaucracy. He's had some missteps -- trying to privatize three black high schools and proposing what critics called cuts in math and science requirements -- but he's out there trying things. And the school board doesn't always approve, which makes for more entertainment, and better government, at what used to be rubber-stamp meetings.
Our award for best civil attorney usually goes to some swashbuckling plaintiffs' lawyer who's racked up a big win. But let us now praise one who toils in a megafirm, defending public-minded corporate giants against all-but-frivolous suits (as defense lawyers would put it). Jim Sales has done a lot of that in his 45-year legal career, but he's done a lot more: He's been a longtime leader in the fight to get big-firm lawyers to do more pro bono work, and he spearheaded the drive to get the State Bar to provide help to attorneys experiencing substance abuse. He's now a main force behind the Texas Access to Justice Commission, which helps provide legal representation in civil cases to people who can't afford it. The legal profession in Texas is a lot better off because of Jim Sales.
Say what you will about George W. Bush's term as governor, one thing that can't be argued is that he broke apart the good-ol'-boy network that previous Republican govs habitually used to fill judicial vacancies. One of the minority attorneys he named was Levi Benton, a previously little-known lawyer who was nominated in 1999. Benton has stayed out of the limelight for the most part since then but has won a reputation as a courteous, well-prepared judge who's ready to listen to both sides. He's not the flashiest guy on the bench, but neither side of a case comes out of his courtroom feeling like they got screwed. Well, not too much, anyway -- no one who loses a court case ever thinks they got a fair hearing.
With a name that's somehow both unassuming and boastful at the same time, The Brazosport Facts sets itself a high bar. And the feisty paper usually lives up to its moniker, providing colorful, comprehensive coverage of Brazoria County. It's not afraid of taking on polluters or the state agencies who don't police them, which can be a rare philosophy in smaller towns dominated by industries. And the staple of community papers -- maybe too thorough coverage of local sports, schools and society -- is presented in a lively way that appeals to more people than just those whose names show up in the stories.
Tabbing Rusty Hardin as Houston's best criminal defense lawyer is like naming Lance Armstrong as Best Bicyclist from Texas -- it's not exactly a groundbreaking pick. But Hardin proved again this year why he remains the name that should be on the speed-dial of every athlete or deep-pocketed Houstonian who might ever conceivably get into trouble. After a ton of bad pretrial publicity -- the kind that comes when it's discovered a city icon has fathered 14 kids by nine women -- he won an acquittal on child-molestation charges for former Houston Rocket Calvin Murphy. And Hardin's only notable loss in his criminal defense career, the conviction of Arthur Andersen for its part in Enron, was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court this year. It was another big year in a long string of them for Hardin.
As an amorphous blob of dishonestly named subdivisions, Houston offers drivers few signposts, greetings or markers of real meaning. One exception is the Law Office of Tim Hootman, which is as geographically appropriate as it is bizarre. Drivers exiting Interstate 45 at Pease for downtown will see, in front of his lot, a metal sculpture of a fat, busty lady, painted orange, with thick hair of blue wire. Behind her ample breasts, Hootman's office comprises three brightly painted railroad cars. They are surrounded by a fence of welded train wheels. A rusty tower in the courtyard, with a star at the top, is built entirely from railroad spikes. Veteran Houstonians might recognize the tableau as a recreation of the city's logo, which shows a star and a locomotive. The busty lady rounds it out: hooting trains, Hootman, hooters; Houston, well said.

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