Battle of the Retreads

Whoever said there are no second acts in American life obviously never viewed Houston political life in all its multitudinous wonder.

Take the upcoming special election to replace the irreplaceable (as far as sheer verbal excess) Congresswoman-elect Sheila Jackson Lee on the Houston City Council. Emerging as the candidates most likely to win spots in the runoff expected to result from the January 21 balloting are outgoing state District Judge John Peavy Jr. and lame-duck Harris County District Clerk Katherine Tyra, who both lost elections this year.

They're the only ones among the large pack of contenders who appear to have access to the cash and clout required for the three-week sprint of a campaign that will get fully under way only after everyone shakes off their holiday hangovers on January 2.

Tyra, who lost a bid for the Republican county judge nomination last spring, has fashioned an image as something of willful Steel Magnolia. She is perhaps best known for implementing a tough dress code that prohibited female employees of the district clerk's office from wearing slacks.

Peavy, a Democratic judicial fixture since 1979 with a reputation as a party animal in more ways than one, was an unexpected loser in the GOP landslide that flushed nearly every Democratic jurist on the ballot out of office.

A constellation of political power players, starting with Mayor Bob Lanier, apparently has decided that Lee's seat should continue to be held by an African-American, and Peavy is their candidate of choice. Chairing his campaign finance committee is Kenny Friedman, a partner with the politically wired firm of Mayor Day Caldwell & Keeton and the lawyer entrusted with untying developer Lanier's Gordian knot of debt with the Resolution Trust Corporation. Peavy's chief fundraiser is Sue Walden, the Republican wife of Lanier co-chief of staff Dave Walden and the favored operative of big feet like Vinson & Elkins lawyer-lobbyist Joe B. Allen, the Greater Houston Association's Jim Edmonds and Metro chairman Billy Burge.

Austin-based video crafter Mark McKinnon also has signed on with Peavy. McKinnon's the man who outfitted wheeler-dealer Lanier with a more accessible "Gramps" image that helped him to victory in the 1991 mayoral contest. Of course, McKinnon's also the guy who dressed Bob "Schwarzenegger" Krueger in leather and shades during his doomed U.S. Senate bid. But nobody's politically perfect, are they?

Peavy raked in the bucks at a fundraiser staged this week at Burge's mansion in River Oaks. Making a guest appearance was County Commissioner El Franco Lee, whose reputation for maintaining a finely tuned political machine was dented somewhat this year when Sheila Jackson Lee unseated U.S. Representative Craig Washington, a longtime ally of the county commissioner.

Adding to the strange mix of flavors in the Peavy stew is departing Republican County Judge Jon Lindsay, who's lent his name to the judge's steering committee, and operative Cynthia Miller, who managed Democrat Vince Ryan's unsuccessful bid to replace Lindsay and is working as Peavy's campaign coordinator.

A brief struggle over the Hispanic end of the Peavy operation ensued between operative Marc Campos and his former associates, Betti Maldonado and Lisa Hernandez. It ended when finance chairman Friedman, who's the lawyer for the Houston Port Commission, weighed in favor of Hernandez and Maldonado, a Lanier-appointed port commissioner (is this an incestuous town politically, or what?).

Tyra, meanwhile, has hired Allen Blakemore, who worked in a successful if uneasy liaison with Sue Walden on behalf of Robert Eckels in his county judge race against Tyra and Ryan. Blakemore had earlier agreed to represent accountant-lawyer Hap May in the council race, and boldly predicted that the winner of the special election would be white and from the westside. Tyra actually has her roots in the southeast side, but has connections with those important Republican women's groups around the city. May bailed out after Tyra entered the fray, opening the way for Blakemore to take on his new client.

Blakemore says May is now endorsing Tyra, who has the support of the Houston Contractors Association, a wellspring for campaign dollars. Tyra also is likely to win the support of the Christian right by default, since it's doubtful even downtown gold can persuade folks like arch-conservative Steven Hotze to back a black Democrat like Peavy.

Despite his massive campaign strike force, Peavy has serious and accumulating image problems. He and other incumbent family court judges have been the target of protesters who've been camped outside the Family Law Center for almost two years, and it's likely some of the allegations the protesters have raised concerning the judges will surface in the City Council race.

Blakemore expects Tyra -- who heretofore hasn't evinced much interest in the charges of the family court activists -- to utilize their protest to her benefit in her council campaign.

"He's a defeated, discredited family court judge who has had people protesting outside his office for two years," Blakemore says of Peavy, "because he's part of a corrupt system that the voters thoroughly rejected."

Peavy already has had to contend with a steady flow of negative material about him being pumped out by Phrogge Simons and other family court protesters. It was Simons who alerted the media to Peavy's failure to pay 47 parking tickets totaling $1,400. Peavy, who has since made good on the tickets, countered by blaming the bad publicity on Tyra's daughter, who works in the city's Municipal Courts system (and who denies having tipped the media).

A transcript of the judge's 1990 trial for driving while intoxicated won't help his image, either. Peavy was acquitted by a visiting judge, but while taking the stand in his defense he offered a rather quaint explanation of his refusal to blow on a breathalyzer.

When the prosecutor asked the judge why he didn't take the inhalant test after his auto collided with another vehicle in September 1989, Peavy replied: "Well, being a lawyer and a judge ... I know that sometimes that things get confused. And I didn't want to subject myself, you know, to that ... just like babies sometimes at the hospital get mixed up, I didn't want that to happen to me."

Peavy did fail the field tests for sobriety, including walking heel-to-toe for nine steps, which he explained away thusly: "Let's say I'm not a very agile person."

Peavy also testified that even though he had told his wife he was going to a political reception, he actually worked alone in his court until 10 p.m., then went to Ruggles Grill on Westheimer to dine alone. He said he spent 90 minutes at Ruggles, had one glass of champagne, which he paid for with cash, and left cold sober. After the accident, the first person Peavy summoned to the scene was the late Dr. John Coleman, a partner with the judge in a city-granted ice cream concession at Hobby Airport (the judge has promised to sell his interest in the operation if he wins the council seat).

The DWI charge against Peavy has been expunged from county records, a not unusual measure for a defendant who has been acquitted and whose attorney moves to have charges stricken from the record. But the charge came to light, anyway, because a transcript of Peavy's trial is preserved in a civil lawsuit filed by the couple in the car with which the judge's Mercedes collided at the intersection of Highway 288 and South MacGregor.

Both parties claimed the other had run a red light. The couple sued for damages; the case was capped with a confidential out-of-court settlement.

Peavy, who remains on the bench through the month, did not return calls for comment. Campaign coordinator Cynthia Miller says the judge did not take the breathalyzer because he didn't believe he was intoxicated, but she added that other citizens shouldn't take his "switched at birth" explanation as a recommendation from the judge to avoid the breathalyzer.

"He pretty much stands by his action at that time not to take the test," Miller says, "and it's not any sort of big policy statement.

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Tim Fleck
Contact: Tim Fleck