Parting Shots

Reflecting a solid cross-section of Houston, the crowd of about 2,000 arrived at the Wortham Theater Center to watch Lee P. Brown become the first black mayor of Houston. The swearing-in itself, however, was upstaged minutes earlier, in the hush that followed "The Star-Spangled Banner."

A strong, solitary woman's voice suddenly rose up from the audience rather than the stage. The anonymous woman -- heads turned in efforts to locate her -- began a stately, lilting rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the black national anthem. Before long, many in the crowd had joined in the moving a cappella celebration that was nowhere to be found on the official program:

Let our rejoicing rise,

High as the listening skies.

That rarity -- spontaneous happenings had long been excised from the well-scripted agendas of any remotely political event -- seemed to sweep Brown into office with the most bountiful of promise.

Almost four years after that January 1998 event, another unusual scene was unfolding in the ever-uncertain era of Mayor Brown.

This time, the setting was a party in a private suite on an upper floor of the Four Seasons Hotel. Celebrants buzzed with the nonalcoholic intoxication that comes from somehow dodging a bullet fired at point-blank range.

Most of these participants had been on hand for Brown's inspirational inauguration. On this runoff election day of December 6, 2001, they were being reduced to hope tinged by sheer desperation.

Soon after the polls closed, then-councilman Orlando Sanchez soared to a substantial lead over Brown. So confident was the Sanchez encampment at the Hotel Derek that the crowd -- which included Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt and former sports authority chair Jack Rains -- revved up to celebrate the seemingly inevitable capture of City Hall.

This was a rarity virtually unheard of in local politics: the spectacle of a two-term incumbent mayor on the brink of defeat. That Houston's first black mayor faced a serious challenge at all for his third and final, term-limited run testified to four years of nonstop administrative bungling. Had Brown deliberately set out to inflame voters, he could not have chosen better buttons to push than those labeled chronic water leaks, traffic congestion, botched street repairs and soaring property valuations, coupled with no tax relief.

Sue and Dave Walden, the fund-raising-consultant team dispatched by former mayor Bob Lanier to help Brown get into office in 1997, hosted the Brown party. They and campaign manager Craig Varoga knew it would take an unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort to drag the politically moribund Brown back into office, and they were far from confident that they could pull it off.

Then the ballots started flowing in from the heavily African-American precincts in the far southwest reaches of Houston. The Sanchez margin narrowed, then vanished at the end as Brown edged him out by a paltry 10,000 votes.

"It started raining at 7:30 that evening," Varoga recalls with a chuckle. "If it had started raining at 2:30 in the afternoon, we might not have won."

Mayor Lee Patrick Brown's inner circle reveled in the realization that they had triumphed over not just an opponent with a hefty Republican bankroll but also their own candidate's best efforts at self-destruction on many fronts.

Exhibit A was just outside their hotel suite. Downtown Houston streets remained a maddening maze of uncoordinated construction steeplechases whose configuration changed faster than motorists could figure out routes around them.

In the absence of legalized gambling, Brown's finance department revenue forecasts still provided the most entertaining annual crap shoot in town, shot full of rosy scenarios whose only predictability lay in their errors. At first the overestimates were administrative nuisances. As the economic climate chilled, however, cobbling together the city budget became a yearly political crisis resounding with recriminations between councilmembers and the mayor's staff.

In Brown's first two terms, the city's public works department had become the bureaucratic mirror of an aging, leak-prone water and sewer system. How could anyone take seriously a mayor who couldn't even get a ruptured pipe fixed in a timely fashion?

Still, Brown had won. Some of his backers felt renewed optimism that the mayor had finally learned the lessons of his first four years, that his last term would somehow showcase his administration.

Many on his staff believed he would get rid of what they saw as the weakest link, chief administrative officer Al Haines -- like Brown, an alumnus of Kathy Whitmire's '80s-era administration.

And they hoped he would make a new effort to work with City Council and cease his dependence on the yea-or-nay of his Machiavellian, self-promoting city attorney, Anthony Hall, a former state legislator and councilman.

If the leaden-tongued Brown couldn't communicate a vision of where the city should be going, it was time to find a mouthpiece who could.

Unfortunately, those expectations would prove about as realistic as the city's financial projections.

Now, as the final months elapse on Brown's tenure, City Hall insiders look to the coming regime change with a mixture of relief and regret at what could have been.

Interviews with several administration staff officials, past and present, piece together a picture of a man who undermined the early promise of his administration through an inability to make his own decisions and an over-reliance on subordinates. Staffers sketch out a plotline that Brown abdicated his central role in a strong mayoral system by distributing power to a few people who turned out to be as interested in their own agendas as his.

"In the short term," says one Brown adviser, "the judgment of the voters in the city is going to be harsh. The next mayor is either going to distance himself from the six years of Lee Brown or have to completely dismantle it.

"Ten years from now, when downtown is truly vibrant and rail is operating, some of those historical judgments [on Brown] will probably be tempered," the adviser says, before recalling the dramatic inaugural moment of voices in unison. "But the crowd in that room on January 2, 1998, experienced something that is completely beyond politics. That's how it started, but that's not going to be how it ends."

Anyone who had studied the career of 65-year-old Lee Brown would have known that one thing the mayor will not do is change. A decent, honest man whose professional code begins and ends with a reverence for law and its enforcement, this son of California migrant workers had spent a lifetime being the first African-American executive in a succession of government bureaucracies, with all the built-in hazards that pioneering role brings.

He steadily moved up the career police ladder, from Portland to Atlanta to Houston to New York City. He jumped to president Bill Clinton's cabinet as drug czar, then returned to Houston, teaching at Rice University while positioning himself for a run for mayor.

Along his career path, Brown perfected a deliberate, highly conservative bureaucratic method that glorifies and empowers subordinates with résumés and birth dates as weighty as his own.

"You have to understand how the mayor operates," explains a former staffer. "He is a big believer in institutionalizing process or programs or ideas. He really believes that policy is better administered at the department level.

"Combine that with the fact that he is a huge believer in experience. More than anything else, what drives the mayor is a faith that people who have accomplished a great deal or have great résumés should be deferred to in their expertise."

Staff members and others at City Hall provided candid insight on the condition that their names not be used. One veteran contrasts Brown's modus operandi with that of his predecessor. "Bob Lanier never went into a meeting without knowing more about the subject at hand than anyone else there." Brown goes in prepared to learn the facts from a department head and then act on them.

The mayor's inner circle has comprised successful African-American males of his own generation: retired corporate executive Grover Jackson; political veteran Anthony Hall; Don Hollingsworth, a former Washington, D.C., cop and law enforcement senior staffer; and transit industry consultant Danny Lawson. Each mirrors an element in Brown's own mental makeup.

"There's a side of Brown that really wants to help African-American businesses a lot, and that's Danny," explains a former staffer. "Then there's the innately conservative person, and that's Grover. Part of Brown is real aggressive about big law enforcement initiatives, and that's Hollingsworth. And finally there's a much more calculating guy, and that's Anthony.

"The weird thing is that when the four of them would get together with the mayor, sometimes they didn't get along at all."

District F Councilman Mark Ellis, the leader of the conservative bloc on council, says Brown came to the mayor's office with the mentality of a department director.

"I'm not really big about bureaucrats making decisions and them holding all the responsibility," says Ellis. "But Brown says bureaucrats are great, and that's where we differ. I think they're hardworking people, but the final decision stops with the mayor."

Ellis credits Brown's total inability to play municipal politics with giving conservatives a level playing field at City Hall.

"As far as being a politician, he doesn't get there," comments Ellis wryly. "He's a nice guy that I genuinely like. He's elevated my political status. I've been able to get things done against him because he's a weak politician. Otherwise, if Bob Lanier was in office, nobody would know who I was."

Where Lanier would work with councilmembers to reach compromises and cut deals, explains Ellis, "Brown doesn't do that, so you've got to shove things down his throat. It doesn't seem to bother him that much, though."

Lanier, perhaps the one person most responsible for Brown's election, agrees that his successor "delegates responsibility to some person and then the performance largely depends on the quality of that person." Unfortunately, says Lanier, the quality of Brown's aides in his first two terms "was not as strong in many instances as the staff I was fortunate enough to have."

Brown's governing style proved defensive in the extreme, like a soldier picking his way through a minefield. Some politicians like to drop bombs. Brown's main concern is to avoid stepping on them. His method inadvertently encourages staffers to compete against one another for influence rather than to work in tandem.

"The mayor is a big believer in creating an unnatural level of tension between senior staff," says one aide frequently caught in the middle. "He's not a big believer in chemistry between staff. Rather, he wants strong-willed people who will have what he calls 'a challenge of ideas.' "

Al Haines agrees that under Brown the staff was allowed "a lot of free play" and adds, "I'll leave it at that."

In a tightly regimented structure like a police department, where the competition can be controlled, such techniques can work. In the chaotic environment of the city bureaucracy, they resulted in decision- making paralysis and cutthroat competition among department heads vying for power.

The process chewed through one chief of staff after another. Brown's press office also became a revolving door, until late in the administration, when veteran Jim Young managed to create some sense of permanence. "I figure I'm safe the rest of the way," cracks Young about the short life span of this administration.

Brown does have legitimate accomplishments to tout as mayor. There's the array of big-ticket projects, including the convention center expansion and hotel, new stadiums to rival those of any city in the world, an expanded Bush Intercontinental Airport and, of course, the groundbreaking light rail line. He also negotiated a pay package that made the Houston Police Department one of the highest-paid forces in the region.

Yet in the public eye he gets little credit for any of it. Meanwhile, antitax activists, angry downtown business owners reeling from the construction chaos, motorists enduring detours, and westside conservatives -- with more than a little racial animus -- demonize him as the "worst mayor in Houston history."

Racism is also a factor in the withering public perception of the mayor, argues former campaign manager Varoga. "At any given time, 35 percent of the people in the city were going to vote against him. If the man had walked on water, he would have been roundly criticized by the third of the electorate who thought he could do no good under any circumstances.

"That is a very difficult position to be in," Varoga says. "It's unfair, it's wrong, but it is the reality."

"He's far from the worst mayor we've ever had," scoffs Lanier. In his analysis, Brown has succeeded on the large issues but been undone by the basic things that people notice.

"He hasn't had the ability to deflect criticism through speaking well," Lanier says. "Somehow or another, he's almost been the opposite of Teflon. To do all those big things and do them well, and then probably what's hurt him most is water leaks and the downtown streets. And both of those were almost micromanagement jobs that just were not done well."

When discussions among aides turn to the continual problems in providing basic municipal services, the blame goes to what some call the "AH factor." That refers to the initials of the two dominant influences within the administration: City Attorney Anthony Hall and chief administrative officer Al Haines.

"The two of them monopolized so much power, and they are not thinkers in wanting to reform city government," one former senior staffer says. "You had a situation where policy got paralyzed and it became very bureaucratic. They were not interested in 'making the trains run.' "

Both trace their beginnings to the '80s of mayor Kathy Whitmire. She recruited Haines, a lanky, 58-year-old Mormon and former Beaumont city manager, to be her chief administrative officer.

After Lanier replaced Whitmire in 1992, Haines clashed over the budget with the new police chief, Sam Nuchia, and was soon on his way to a job with the Greater Houston Partnership. He migrated on to a management position with insurance giant American General.

Haines had virtually no role in the Brown mayoral campaign. The other AH -- Hall, a former political confidant of Whitmire's -- was kept low-profile so Brown could maintain his base of support with Lanier.

The 58-year-old Hall, an articulate, politically savvy Vietnam veteran, had served first as state rep, then as a councilmember. He had close personal ties with Brown from his days as police chief.

After the victory in 1997, Brown surprised staffers by quickly installing Hall and Haines to re-create an old Whitmire-era triumvirate. Senior staffers say Hall won the early battle for the upper hand over Haines, who fell in line with whatever the city attorney pushed.

"There seemed to be almost an Ehrlichman-Haldeman kind of mentality at some point," recalls a former staffer, in reference to the pair of iron-fisted aides who ran the Watergate-era Nixon White House.

"It was a matter of control, and I referred to 'em as Pete and Repete. One would say one thing, and the other would just repeat it. It seems to me they had one story worked out before they ever got to a senior staff meeting, and it was like 'This is what we're going to do.' "

"That isn't true," counters Haines. "We meet, between the two of us, very rarely. Typically, if I have occasion to meet with him, it's on his role as city attorney."

An early colleague of Brown's says Hall quickly gained the trust of Brown. "At the end of the day he was the mayor's primary adviser on every situation. Al was smart enough to realize very quickly that you can't beat Anthony. So many times I thought, 'One of the two of them has to go.' "

"The mayor recognizes he is not the most politically astute guy," another staffer says. "He believes that Anthony is the guy to talk to on anything political and gives him a huge amount of deference."

Hall's influence became pervasive in almost every aspect of the administration. "In reality he knew more, and from his perspective we had absolutely nothing to offer," a staffer says. "There's nothing I was going to say that Anthony would ever believe unless he already believed it."

"Anthony is brilliant," concedes conservative Councilman Bert Keller. "You don't know he's pulling the strings he's pulling. He's invisible."

However, his dual roles -- providing legal advice to the city while providing political advice to Brown -- created major problems, some say. Keller cites the politically tailored legal opinions Hall churned out that allowed Brown to reverse an embarrassing property tax rollback at the hands of conservatives.

"He beats us every time at that," says Keller. "We can't get enough time to get our own legal advice or our own attack organized. He divides and conquers us easily on those issues."

Brown's biggest critic on council, Councilman Bruce Tatro, charges that Hall simply provided a legal fig leaf for whatever he and the mayor decided to do. "Whatever you need, you can get out of the legal department," Tatro says.

One example was the showdown between Brown and Sylvia Garcia, the new county commissioner who had been an ally of Brown's when she was elected city controller in 1997.

As controller, Garcia planned to continue performance reviews of city departments, a practice started by predecessor George Greanias. Several of Brown's new staff thought it would help create a working alliance between the city's top two elected officials. "She can do these performance reviews and say, 'We have to cut X, Y and Z,' and all you have to do is point and blame her," a mayor's aide told Brown. And meanwhile you'll be saving the city money."

"I remember the first time the mayor called me about an audit," says Garcia. She advised him to "just embrace it and say this did not happen under your watch. We'll do the audits, and you'll take every step necessary for it not to happen again."

Instead, Hall adamantly opposed the reviews, ultimately issuing a legal opinion against them, followed by Brown's blunt order for department heads to refuse to cooperate with Garcia.

"He took a very straight position that this is a strong mayor form of government and we're going to see just how strong it is," remembers Garcia. "The whole performance audit fight was based on Anthony Hall's legal opinion and nothing more. He's the one who fought it the most."

Haines agrees with that assessment. "I do remember very clearly I was moving forward to deal with the controller in that capacity. But I had to defer to [Anthony's] role as city attorney, and he basically said, 'No, that's a constitutional right of the mayor.' "

Hall did not reply to a request for an interview.

For his part, Haines comes in for harsh criticism for overseeing a string of city financial forecasts that turned out to be too optimistic and required spending shuffles later to balance the city budget.

"I don't mind someone having revenue projections that are low, but every year?" asks Councilman Ellis. "Al keeps doing it over and over."

"They govern by confusion and inaction," Garcia says. She claims that often Haines would present financial figures different from those of his own finance department head. "They put enough stuff out there to confuse the councilmembers and make them afraid of doing X or B, and in the end they do whatever they want to…It was always a game of semantics, to the point people would be confused and didn't know what was really out there."

Haines's role in the administration became a running joke among the senior staff.

"We laughed about Al being the bad student who was always being chewed over by the mayor in the senior staff meetings," one staffer says. "We were all sure he was going to get canned, and now he's outlasted everybody."

Brown told political advisers he would replace Haines after the last election. But once the heat was off, Haines remained. "It was symptomatic of the ultimate problem: The mayor cannot make tough decisions," one adviser says. That source says Hall came to the rescue of his counterpart, switching in mid-2000 from wanting him fired to having him retained.

In general, Brown was squeamish about firing anyone. "The mayor believes that if you don't get it done today you'll get it done tomorrow," says a former senior staffer. "He believes in people and that they will do the right thing, and quite often that doesn't work out."

Brown also believed -- wrongly, according to staffers -- that Haines's background with the Greater Houston Partnership provided useful cover with the downtown business community, which would react negatively if he were replaced.

As a Mormon official, Haines spends 25 to 30 hours a week in his role as a stake president administering to a congregation of more 5,000 members. Despite that background, a former staffer says his style is far from saintly.

"He takes advantage of the persona that he's somehow above it all, but he is one of the most calculating guys I've ever met. He has this tendency to pretend he's your friend, and then go after you in very backdoor ways. His manner is so aw-shucks, and he uses his religion as a shield, sort of a 'How can you question my integrity?' "

Ultimately, Commissioner Garcia says, the mayor's own hands-off management style is at the root of his problem. As new officeholders, they planned monthly meetings to discuss city finances. After about three months, Brown told her he "didn't want to meet anymore." She says it would "take us months just to get an appointment" for a discussion with him about specific matters like bond financing.

"I don't think anyone controlled the mayor," Garcia concludes. "I think the mayor was so detached that he wasn't around enough to be manipulated."

Others attributed his troubles to inaction. "The mayor is an extremely smart person -- he gets it. But he doesn't act on it." According to this source, Brown would have made a great judge, but he didn't fit in a political role.

"A judicial temperament is not what ultimately works in a big-city mayor's office, because you have to act, and you have to communicate."

With few exceptions, those are the two qualities that have been conspicuously absent from City Hall for almost six years.

Al Haines picks through his plate of bun at a Midtown Vietnamese eatery while trying to explain how the Brown administration let downtown redevelopment turn into a political as well as physical disaster.

"The problem with downtown streets was it was not a singular event or a singular group," comments the official in management-speak. "It was multiagency and the management of it never really took hold until a year and a half ago."

Translation: The mayor simply never considered the matter a priority until it blew up in his face.

"The reality was there had not been an assumption of oversight or responsibility for coordinating all of these activities that were going on. Each agency was sort of on its own and the city had a lesser role."

As the election approached and the public outrage over traffic snarls intensified, Haines says, the mayor told him, "I want you to take responsibility for this." A firing might have been more merciful.

Haines organized a task force of agencies engaged in downtown construction and conducted weekly meetings to try to minimize traffic disruption. The group worked on reducing lane closures, delaying some projects and revamping the Metro line project to open some intersections along Main.

Slowly, a new downtown is emerging from the rubble, but Brown's image will not be so easily restored.

"It was a terrible time," admits Haines. "The damage had really already been done. What we had to do was go in and work through it as aggressively as we could. I figured it would take about a year to start to turn the corner, and I think we have. Are we out of the woods yet? No, but I think it's a lot better."

So is Baghdad, now that the bombing's over.

As Brown's loyal chief administrative officer, Haines cannot answer the obvious question: Why did the administration wait until it faced a mobility crisis downtown before exercising leadership?

On the issue of budget mismanagement, Haines argues that the city's looming 4 percent deficit looks good compared to those ballooning at the state and federal levels.

"I don't think the issue here is the fact that we missed the mark. You do the best you can based on what you have 14 to 18 months out, and you try to manage it."

As the lunch ends, Haines shares an observation distilled from his service: No matter who's in office, government will always spend all available revenue. Lanier became mayor in 1992 and solved a $50 million deficit by tapping into then-flush Metro coffers and refinancing city debt.

The next mayor after Brown, suggests Haines, will have to make painful financial decisions. The Metro cash cow was long ago cut into steak.

It's a crunch that Haines likely will not face. Asked whether he plans to offer his services to a fourth Houston mayor next year, he simply shakes his head and murmurs, "I'm tired."

If Haines is like most other folks at City Hall, Lee Brown has just worn him down.

A twitch of irritation flickers across the broad face of Houston's mayor. Relaxing behind his meticulously ordered desk in his third-floor office at City Hall, Lee Brown is in the midst of recounting how his three terms in office have been shaped by five guiding principles.

Ticking them off on long fingers from the pinkie forward, a strangely delicate mannerism for such a big guy, he has enumerated "neighborhoods" and "opportunities for young people," and still has transportation and infrastructure, economic development and international trade to drone his way through.

His glowing rhetoric about repairing the city's infrastructure didn't quite jibe with the reality of downtown Houston, a fact even Brown has to acknowledge.

"Some of the criticism's legitimate because we have had a mess downtown," admits the mayor. "But I don't know a way, unless my critics can tell me, to rebuild a street without tearing it up. I think the critical thing is we've done in four years what it normally takes ten or 12 years to do."

Brown then goes on to tout the task force that "meets every week to coordinate it." He doesn't mention that the task force was formed only after the construction fiasco had reached crisis proportions.

"It's kind of like remodeling your home while you're still living in it," observes the mayor lightly. "It's inconvenient, but when it's finished you'll like it."

Brown also refuses to touch on the issue of his over-reliance on his administration's twin towers, Haines and Hall. Told that many current and former members of his administration are mystified by the fact that Haines is still on board after all the budget miscues, the mayor offers a half-smile.

"No. 1, he must be doing what I ask him to do, or he wouldn't be kept around," says Brown. "If I was dissatisfied I'd make a change. I'm the one who is ultimately accountable to make sure things get done in this city, and if I felt things were not getting done I'd make a change. I think that speaks for itself."

It does, but the message says clearly that Lee Brown values loyalty and obedience above performance.

To those who say he can't make tough decisions, Brown cites what may be his administration's signal achievement: the construction of light rail.

"I don't know of any world-class city that doesn't have a rail system," says Brown. "Houston has to have one. My vision is this is just the beginning, that there will also be commuter rail to bring people in and out of the city, particularly considering that our population will double in the next two decades."

The mayor, subordinates say, believes his previous government experience is not given the respect it is due by voters or the media.

"I've run more complex organizations than this city," says Brown dismissively, in response to a question about the well-documented problems with his staff turnover and infighting.

"I have been the police commissioner of New York City, with almost twice as many employees as I have now and bigger than the city of Houston's budget. I worked as a cabinet member with a $14 billion budget.

"I've been successful at every job I've had, so I come into this job with a wealth of experience, managing people, complex organizations. That experience has served this city well, which is evident by the outcome."

As for the projected budget shortfalls, he says Houston has done better than other public entities in coping with the tough economic times. "I don't think anyone could have projected it," says Brown of the drop in sales tax revenue that created the current budget crunch.

"I've looked at it very carefully. If it was just Houston, then I'd be much more concerned than I am, because it's also Dallas and Austin and San Antonio, the school district, every place that relies on sales tax."

Brown's police background has made him more sensitive to the problems at the Houston crime lab than some of his administration's other difficulties.

"I want to find out why it happened, and what needs to be done to keep it from ever happening again," declares the mayor. He remembers how he once proudly gave visitors from other cities tours of the lab when he was police chief and is "very disappointed it's in such disarray." Brown says he'll wait for the results of outside investigators to determine if there is any culpability on the part of HPD Chief C.O. Bradford for the lab's problems.

Brown has a number of loose strings left to tie up before leaving office, not the least of which is balancing a final budget that's sure to be a political battle with council in an election year. But he's already looking beyond to a quieter time, when he expects to teach at a Houston-area university and turn his attention to writing a textbook on his beloved "neighborhood-oriented policing" technique, which he pioneered in Houston in the '80s.

University environments "give you the ability to sit back and think and write," says the mayor. He's considering joining Sam Houston State University's criminal justice department.

"I don't intend to run for anything else," he says flatly. "I do intend to be here, and I do intend to be involved in the life of this city."

His name may never be on a ballot again, but after six years of refusing to recognize the essential role of politics at City Hall, Brown seems downright eager to get involved in the upcoming municipal election.

"I intend to take a position in every race that comes up," declares the mayor, who was never so enthusiastic about his own campaigns. "Not right now, but at the right time I'll take a position."

At the top of the hit list is the councilman Brown calls Dr. No: Bruce Tatro, who is running for city controller.

"It all starts with Tatro," says Brown of his problems with council. "He spends his time trying to be the naysayer of what goes on in this administration."

He's already ruled out two of the four current mayoral candidates.

"I can't support Orlando, because he's not qualified to run, and I can't support Michael Berry, because he's not qualified to run. It would have been better if he had just taken the time to learn his way around City Hall before he decided to run for mayor."

It does not seem to have even crossed the mayor's mind that after the last six years, his endorsement just might not be the most valuable political commodity in town come November.

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