For many, many, many years, the anchor desk at KTRK/Channel 13 was a Mount Rushmore of never-changing faces. And we're not referring to the Botox-caused immobility of the stars' faces. Gina Gaston finally broke into the Ancient Anchors Club five years ago, and she's since grown into a steady and commanding presence on the desk. The California native initially came to Houston in 1992 but left seven years later to go big-time. (Or semi-big-time, at least -- it was MSNBC.) And then she came back to shake up the Channel 13 dinosaur set. Unfortunately, she might not be around for long: She's married to former Rocket Mario Elie, who's regularly rumored to be getting an NBA head-coaching job. Who knows -- if Jeff Van Gundy leads the Rockets to another crappy season before Elie signs on elsewhere, maybe things will work out for everybody. (Except for Van Gundy, of course.)
In a city where much of the TV news talent tends to cycle through quickly, it's a relief to have someone who can tell Bellaire from Baytown. Channel 13's Cynthia Cisneros has the city in her bones -- she grew up in South Houston, worked summers at AstroWorld and graduated from the University of Houston. She's been at KTRK for 17 years, covering hurricanes, murders, the Enron trial and a little of bit of everything else, all in a no-nonsense style that doesn't back away from competing hard. Who can forget when she made her way into the jailhouse to snatch the first interview with Clara Harris -- the Parking Lot Killer -- even though Harris had promised an exclusive to another channel? Cisneros has the usual awards that journalists tend to get, especially in TV, but it's not the hardware that makes her shine. What does it is knowing she's excelling in the city she calls home.
With the advent of TiVo and various other DVRs that give us the ability to fast-forward through the most annoying aspect of TV -- commercials -- there's still one ad we actually take the time to view. Hilton Furniture's commercials are so insanely funny, bizarre and somehow endearing that you can't help but watch. You find yourself saying, "Ooh! I wonder if this is a new one!" before realizing you're actually talking about a furniture store commercial. But whether Matthew Hilton's having his kids chain-saw the prices off of beds or using enough flying camera zooms to qualify as a kung fu movie, we love his pitches. And that's a fact, Jack!
For a dozen years now, Houston readers -- gay and straight -- have been entertained and informed by the glossy monthly magazine OutSmart. Beyond the great Q&As with celebrities who are coming to town and meaty listings for folks unfamiliar with Montrose (or those who still think the city's gay world begins and ends in Montrose), there's plenty of other good stuff. Political columnists from the left and right anchor coverage of local pols and issues that are consistently thorough and fair. City Controller Annise Parker has a column dealing with everything from municipal issues to the trials she and her partner went through to adopt a child. Some of the mag's best features have explored the city's gay past. OutSmart is a crisp, well-designed must-read for the Inner Loop and beyond.
T.H. Rogers Elementary School
It's not often you go to a middle-school graduation and see a student who's finally moving on after 18 years and see that student get applauded as if it were a real accomplishment. But that's the beauty of HISD's T.H. Rogers school. Former district superintendent Billy Reagan, an Asia buff, says he experienced "satori" -- what he calls a type of "mental orgasm" -- when the idea for Rogers hit him in the '70s. (When you're talking with Billy Reagan, you don't really want the image of any kind of orgasm coming to mind, but that's another matter.) Ordered to mainstream mentally and physically handicapped kids, he decided to put them in a magnet school with talented and gifted students. The two populations don't just get along great, they're learning things they might otherwise never experience. The impaired kids can attend the school until they're 21; the Vanguard students go from kindergarten through eighth grade. The curriculum for those K-8 students is tough, but some of the best lessons are learned in the hallways and cafeteria.
Technically speaking, Sim Lake isn't a criminal court judge, since he sits on the federal bench and hears both criminal and civil cases. But this year he heard the biggest white-collar-crime case to hit Houston since the Allen brothers started the ball rolling with real estate fraud. We mean, of course, the trials of Enron co-defendants Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling. Lake came from the world of defending giant corporations; but he's not been unsympathetic to government prosecutors. That balance helped ensure a fair trial, but what was more impressive was how Lake stuck to his well-known habit of never deviating from an excruciatingly planned schedule. With all the world watching, with scrums of high-priced lawyers eager to give speeches, Lake kept the complex trial moving with a minimum of fuss. What could have become a circus, or a marathon taking a year instead of four months, became a lesson on how to run a courtroom.
Mark Lanier is an ordained minister in the Church of Christ, but he's also a God-given pain in the ass to pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. Lanier is a leading lawyer among the legions who are suing Merck over the arthritis drug Vioxx, and he was the first one out of the gate with a big, big victory: a $253 million verdict in Brazoria County last year. The boyish attorney insists he's doing the Lord's work winning his sizable victories, although those who hate plaintiff's attorneys think of him as a master of junk science and a whiz at actively recruiting perfect clients. To his clients, he's a hardworking, caring advocate who pierces through all the delays, traps and tricks that corporate lawyers specialize in. Lanier is also famous for the annual Christmas parties he hosts on his large spread north of town: Entertainment for the 8,000 or so guests includes performers such as the Dixie Chicks and Barry Manilow, and a narrow-gauge train that can hold 100 passengers. (But no liquor is served, much to the chagrin of those people reduced to surreptitious nips from contraband flasks.)
What can you say about a lawyer who's a Kinky Friedman supporter but whose most prominent client is Tom DeLay? How about: Tom DeLay sure knows who to hire when he gets indicted. Attorney Dick DeGuerin has amassed a truly eclectic clientele, including David Koresh, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Robert Durst. DeGuerin not only won an acquittal for Durst -- which ain't easy when you're representing a cross-dressing New Yorker who dismembered his neighbor and dropped the body parts in Galveston Bay -- but he also managed to get Durst the most lenient probation terms possible. (The probation is for minor stuff.) "Bob is just a normal parolee now," DeGuerin told the Houston Chronicle after getting Durst sprung from a detention center in May. Now, "normal" might not be the word we would have used, but then we don't have DeGuerin's track record of mesmerizing Texas juries.
Good civil judges tend to stay under the radar until they get a headline-making case. During that low-profile time, however, they can make life awful for an awful lot of people. Sometimes they do it through rulings that are either baffling or tend to favor one side (usually, since this is Houston, big bidness) over the other. More often, they do it in pettier ways: by being a prima donna with staff or the public; taking weeks to issue simple rulings that would move a case along; or keeping bankers' hours and showing up unprepared. Tracy Christopher of the 295th District Court is at the other end of the spectrum. Members of the Houston Bar Association consistently rank her among the top jurists -- 70 percent of the attorneys polled rated her "outstanding" in the most recent survey -- and it's because she knows how to run a tight courtroom that gives a respectful hearing to both sides. Even if it is under the radar most of the time.
If the word "bureaucrat" refers to paper-pushers, then Charles Bacarisse -- who deals with all the paper generated by judges and lawyers working in 74 courts -- is a bureaucrat of the first rank. But he's trying hard to change that. Bacarisse is leading the effort to make the district court system as paperless as possible, gently nudging the sometimes hidebound members of the legal world into accepting the wonders of the Computer Age. He's also opened up many of his office's public services to the Web; it now takes only a few clicks to reschedule your jury duty. And anyone who can take even some of the pain out of jury duty definitely deserves recognition.

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