There's something about municipal races in the Houston area that cannot abide the acrid smell of partisanship. The latest example occurred in the affluent southwest bedroom township of West University Place several weeks ago, when a mayoral candidate and council hopeful endorsed by Republican forces crashed and burned.
Incumbent West U Mayor Linda Lewis pulled in nearly twice the votes of lawyer Rich Langenstein -- 1,576 to 842. Debbie Ellis, loosely linked with Langenstein, came in dead last in the seven-candidate field for an at-large council seat. She drew only 918 votes.
Both Langenstein and Ellis were backed by GOP consultant Allen Blakemore, also a West U resident. Langenstein had the endorsements of Harris County Republican chairman Gary Polland and GOP state Representative Kyle Janek, who also backed Ellis. Polland's Harris County Republican Campaign Fund paid for a mailer endorsing Langenstein. All of it was to no avail.
Langenstein is close to George Boehme, a GOP businessman and West U mayoral candidate two years ago, before he withdrew after questions were raised about his previous involvement in a vote fraud incident in Dallas. Boehme and Langenstein pushed a pay raise referendum for the West U police department in November. It also got Janek's endorsement. And it also lost.
Boehme recently threw his bucks behind a start-up newspaper, the West University Examiner, which published two issues before the latest election. For "product development," he recruited the resilient Beverly Denver, whose West U Journal sank in a legal maelstrom last year (see The Insider, by Tim Fleck, December 21). Although the Examiner did not endorse candidates, some readers detected a bias in favor of Langenstein's candidacy.
Village News publisher Kathy Ballanfant cannot remember a previous partisan attempt to influence elections in West U. She recalls a similar GOP push in Bellaire on behalf of a slate of candidates several years ago. Former congressman and hyperconservative Steve Stockman even trucked in supporters to work the Bellaire polls, but the results mirrored those in West U.
Candidates touting community- service credentials beat those with ideological credentials every time. It's just the nature of suburban politics, says Ballanfant.
"There's a long tradition in West University of not letting your partisan affiliation influence what happens," says the publisher. "If you have committed your volunteer time in Little League and the city and various other things, it doesn't matter what political party you're in. And I think people were actually offended that there was an attempt to change that."
Democratic Harris County chairwoman Sue Schechter has lived in West U for 18 years and was Janek's predecessor as the area state rep. She says there was a good reason why she never endorsed municipal candidates: "I really respected the constituents there and thought they were very educated voters." Besides, Schechter adds with a laugh, "my opinions weren't going to sway anybody one way or another."
As for Republicans wanting to win the mayorship of West U, Schechter can't imagine why they would covet it. "Unless it's just sort of like a farm team," she says. "That's the only thing I can think of."
Lewis, a former two-term councilwoman and one-term mayor of West U, has voted in GOP primaries but calls herself an independent "Republicrat." She was taken by surprise when a Polland-crafted brochure endorsing her opponent hit area mailboxes in the campaign's closing stages.
"That's pretty strong," says Lewis of the GOP intrusion into the race. "One's political history really should have nothing to do with serving as mayor of West U or any other municipality."
The inability of partisan endorsements to sway the West U electorate brings to mind the lavishly funded but losing Houston mayoral run of West U émigré Rob Mosbacher against Lee Brown in 1997. Against a candidate with a negative charisma factor, Mosbacher's strong Republican associations doomed him in a city that is so Democratic that Al Gore outpolled George W. Bush last November. All the evidence indicates that you can be a Republican and run for mayor of Houston, but you can't win by making an issue of it.
This year Councilman Orlando Sanchez runs for mayor with the up-front support of Polland and other Republicans. The current field includes incumbent Brown, a Democrat who campaigned as "The Mayor for All of Houston," and Councilman Chris Bell, another Democrat who is courting Republicans in a nonpartisan fashion. Seemingly oblivious to the dangers of the GOP label, Sanchez let Polland front his mayoral announcement in southwest Houston.
Brown political consultant Craig Varoga can't disguise his delight at the campaign prospects this fall. He says Sanchez is jumping directly into the partisan trap that helped defeat Mosbacher, a much more credible civic leader.
"People don't have to agree with him all the time," Varoga says of Mosbacher, "but he served the community well in nonpolitical ways." Mosbacher has been a key player on business and public education task forces for the Greater Houston Partnership. By contrast, Varoga labels Sanchez a hard-core partisan with none of the redeeming values of Mosbacher.
"With Sanchez, [partisanship] is a hammer with twice the force," explains Varoga. The consultant piloted Brown's first mayoral victory and Bob Lanier's triumph in 1991. "His sort of strident partisan rhetoric is not effective with swing voters, but equally important, Houston is a Democratic city. It's not a sound strategy on either basis."
Bob Stein, a political scientist and social sciences dean at Rice, figures Sanchez's own limitations force him into a partisan strategy.
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"He doesn't have a viable base," says Stein. "Never built up a constituency, though he's been an at-large official. It's hard to run as a Hispanic when you're the Republican candidate. And look at what he's done as a legislator in government. He's basically been opposed to everything."
Running on party identification in city races flies directly in the face of two facts of American political life. One is the old saw that there is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage, keep the streets clean, arrest the crooks, etc. The other is a recent trend of voter dissatisfaction with two-party politics.
"They think it is fractious, uncivil, lacks comity," says Stein. "When candidates make those kinds of appeals, not only do voters reject them but they regard it as negative campaigning."
A suggestion to Sanchez: If you want to do more than guarantee Lee Brown's re-election, try peeling Gary Polland off your forehead.