City Councilman Bert Keller has never quite managed to cut the figure of a typical conservative Houston politician. Early in his District G tenure, he ran his SUV into a parked truck following a drinking spree at a topless bar and fled the scene to sleep it off. He surrendered the next day and pleaded guilty to DWI. Then Rob Todd, a fellow conservative councilman at the time, ran off with Keller's then-wife, making him an object of cuckold sympathy among the country club blue-hair set.
Ever the iconoclast, engineer Keller is shaking up things again with a string of unorthodox tactics and positions on issues in his race for City Council At-large Position 4. That's the seat mayoral hopeful Michael Berry abandoned for a short-lived run for mayor, before he targeted another council position. Keller faces opposition in his race from Democratic National Committee member Sue Lovell, attorney Ronald Green and activist Thomas Zermeno.
Last week, Keller chose a mayoral forum sponsored by an African-American sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, to make a surprising declaration: "Ask Mayor [Lee] Brown who he's voting for in this race. I want you to vote for who Mayor Brown is voting for in this race."
The comment provoked a buzz among his audience. The clear implication was that the lame duck Mayoral Master of Downtown Disaster, whose name is political poison among Keller's Republican support base, was endorsing Bert. That Keller would brag about it was equally unexpected.
Keller proceeded with a puzzling bit of rhetoric. "My problems in my personal life have been opportunities to get closer to God. My problems in council have been opportunities for us to exceed [sic] on your behalf." Characterizing titty bars, booze and wayward spouses as a way to snuggle up to the Big G is an original campaign pitch.
Keller's comments immediately set off speculation that his recent flip-flop on a conservative effort to roll back the property tax rate had bought Brown's support, admittedly a purchase of highly questionable value. After introducing an amendment that would have required an even bigger tax rollback than the one pushed by Berry, Keller switched on the final vote to help kill the effort. His change of heart came after a morning meeting with Brown.
The mayor told City Hall reporters later that he hadn't decided when or whom he would endorse in the municipal elections.
For his part, Keller -- under interrogation by KSEV radio talk show host Jon Matthews -- denied that he had ever claimed the mayor's support.
"I have a good relationship with Mayor Brown," Keller later explained to The Insider. "We're personally friends and I wasn't going to respond to the garbage that was being talked about as far as me putting T-shirts on winos and drug addicts in the Third Ward. I said, 'You know what, I'm not going to go there. You call Mayor Brown and ask him who he's voting for.' "
Asked whether he would have said the same thing to an audience in his westside District G, Keller replied, "District G hasn't asked me." On the question he posed at the sorority forum, the candidate's line is now "I'd be surprised if he didn't say Bert Keller, but I don't know the answer."
Keller's opponents immediately jumped on the fact that the candidate, when he's in predominantly Anglo campaign venues, has been uniformly hypercritical of the mayor's administration.
"I find it very interesting that the only place that Bert Keller will say something like that is over in the black community," says Green. "He definitely wants to cut into the black vote and he's attempting, obviously, to go after my base." The African-American lawyer notes that the following morning at a mostly white church, Keller was back to bashing Brown.
"My first thought was he had traded away his vote to cut taxes for Mayor Brown's support," says Lovell. "The bottom line is that Bert just lies to please people."
Lovell cites Keller's statement made during a forum on a public access channel as confirmation of his chameleonlike tendency to change colors with the political background.
Lovell had chided Keller for claiming he supported affirmative action. She produced signed screening pledges by the councilman to the Harris County Republican Party in which he opposed the city's affirmative action program, supported a property tax rollback, and rolled up a perfect conservative rating when running for re-election in 2001.
"I'm flattered that Sue wants to go all the way back to when I was a candidate," responds Keller, pointing out that he never voted against affirmative action while in office. The second screening pledge came after he served one term on council.
He then explained that "when you fill out these questionnaires and you're sitting in the seat of a councilmember, you know how hard it is to go against [former GOP county chair] Gary Polland and say that 'I'm going to vote for affirmative action' when they show you one of those? It's tough to do that, and that's an important thing for people to recognize."
When the quote was read back to him, Keller claimed, "Naw, I didn't say that on that show." When Keller was informed that The Insider had just watched the videotape and transcribed the statement, the candidate shifted gears.
"As a city councilman, I have supported and actually improved affirmative action at the city of Houston 100 percent of the time."
Green says the idea of taking positions just to please a particular audience is the opposite of leadership. "Everything I have said on one side of town, I'll say it on the other. I'm not going to pander to any particular crowd."
Lovell agrees. "You have to be honest with people in what you campaign on, and what you say on the campaign trail needs to be the same as when you represent them on council."
Those aren't the only Keller tactics drawing fire. Green says he was stunned when angry supporters called him. They pointed out that Keller's endorsement list on his official Web site annotated the names by race -- Hispanics and blacks were designated by (Hisp) and (AA). Whites and Asians escaped categorization in the listing, which was not foolproof.
The Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell, an African-American minister and businessman, slipped through without a designation, as did former councilwoman Gracie Saenz, a Latina lawyer. The Web site entry was clearly not ready for prime time, because the name Lewis Brazelton was followed by a note: "Need to check spelling -- different on both invites."
"I've been involved in campaigns and politics for 25 years, and I have never, ever seen racial designations on campaign literature," says Sue Lovell. "Again, it goes back to targeting your message and what you're going to say according to what ethnic group they have put you in."
Asked about the list, Keller declared, "That never was on there." When told that The Insider was reading off a computer printout supplied by the Green campaign, he continued to insist that "we never had some list on my Web site that had all of that kind of stuff. It never was on there. I've never seen a list of mine with any connotations on the side of it, period."
Keller says everything put on the Web site requires his personal approval. The councilman accused the Green campaign of fabricating the image.
Attorney Green reacted with amazement. He says that when he became aware of the Keller list, he called Caldwell and Kevin Hoffman, two of his supporters. He says they called the Keller campaign and had their names removed from the list.
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"It is a lie," says Green of Keller's accusation. "It's indicative of him being caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and now he's trying to back out of it. In the law there's a thing called res ipsa loquitur, which means 'the thing speaks for itself.' "
Keller certainly has a way with words. In his appearance before the Houston Chronicle editorial board, which later endorsed him in the race, he explained how cracking down on traffic violators could raise money for the cash-strapped city.
"Did you know, just the last six months $30 million has gone out the door in municipal courts? Why don't we get together and say, 'You know what, let's have a non-dismissal.' It sure worked with the DWIs. Those guys came flying in under the gun and it surely will get their attention with all types of warrants."
Well, on that one he should know.