It's Joe B.'s World

Joe B. Allen is relaxing, his thick torso reclining in his swivel chair, his dress-shoed feet propped on his desk. It's his favorite position for rumination, and, perhaps not coincidentally, the posture favored by Mayor Bob Lanier when he's at ease and holding forth in his office. If Allen were really letting his hair down he'd be puffing a fine cigar, but that's no longer allowed in the smoke-free environs of Vinson & Elkins, Houston's second-largest law firm. Even political kingmakers must make some bows to the times.

Allen has just gotten off the phone after helping avert a potential embarrassment at his alma mater, Baylor Law School. It seems someone there had the not-so-bright idea to have Attorney General Janet Reno address the annual Law Day banquet. As president of the law school alumni association, Allen suggested to planners that Reno, after the Branch Davidian firestorm that resulted from her order to send in the tanks, might not be the most appropriate choice to give a speech in Waco.

"They asked me who could I get [on short order], and I said, 'Who do you want?'" Allen relates with the assurance of someone who could -- and did -- hastily land the decidedly less incendiary Kay Bailey Hutchison as the keynoter.

Joe B.'s been dialing a lot of people's numbers these days, and taking plenty of calls on his end. It was Allen who herded together the downtown players and other money interests whose support helped usher Robert Eckels in as the new county judge. He's the guiding force behind former judge John Peavy in his runoff against Katherine Tyra for a vacant seat on the Houston City Council. Already, he's fielding inquiries from would-be candidates trying to line up financing for runs at the Council seats that will be open in the November election. And when Allen tells you it's way too early to start thinking about the shape of city government after Lanier, that just means he wants to have it all laid in concrete before anyone else gets there.

According to Lanier, who's given every indication he intends to seek a third two-year term this year, Allen is indeed already envisioning a City Hall apres Bob. "He's told me in the last week or so," says the mayor, "that he would like to get together with me and talk about what would happen at City Hall after I left; that he thought a lot of progress had been made in certain areas and how we should go about institutionalizing those changes."

Margaret Menger Wilson, who managed Kathy Whitmire's last two campaigns for mayor, isn't surprised that Allen's laying the groundwork for the post-Lanier world.

"Joe B. couldn't exist without Bob," she says, "and that's the critical thing, which of course explains why Joe B. is absolutely going to spend some energy in the next few months attempting to determine what the best way is to continue that influence long after Bob is gone."

Since he was named treasurer of Vinson & Elkins' potent political action committee in 1987, Allen has risen from the law firm's low-media-profile MUD man, as in municipal utility district, to become perhaps the most powerful figure in Houston's public life who doesn't hold an elective office. When Lanier's feud with Mayor Kathy Whitmire spilled over into the electoral arena in 1991, Joe B. was waiting for Bob at the gate. Since then the pair has grown so close that it's sometimes hard to tell where Bob leaves off and Joe B. begins.

Although he's shorter than the 6-foot-4-inch Lanier, the 51-year-old Allen projects the same imposing physicality as the 69-year-old mayor. And like Lanier, whose chuckling digressions are the distinguishing feature of both his public and private speech, Allen has his own signature verbal tic: when he warms to a subject and gets rolling, he'll drop in a peremptory "All right?" or "Okay?" every 20 seconds or so, depending on his persuasive intent. It's a hypnotic habit that lulls the listener into a continual state of nodding agreement: "Uh huh. Uh huh. Uh huh...."

Allen's comfortable but not lavishly appointed office is one cell in the Vinson & Elkins honeycomb in the First City Tower. The most curious feature there, other than that flamboyant bronze nude of Neptune on his desk, is a copy of Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, placed for effect on the top of the bookshelf nearest the yellowing, sun-bleached mahogany door. The small tome is signed by one Walter Mischer, the retired developer and investor who used to hold Allen's position of kingmaker without portfolio.

Like Lanier, Allen seems a throwback to a era long predating political correctness, when Jesse Jones, the city's ultimate power dealer, ran the world out of the fabled Suite 8F at the Lamar Hotel and future kingmakers like Mischer ran errands and relayed orders to the frontmen who passed for the politicians of the day.

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Tim Fleck
Contact: Tim Fleck