One evening in early September, George Greanias dropped in on a meeting of the Harris County Democratic Women's Club in north Houston.
Only a dozen or so people, including a few men, had waded out into a thundering monsoon to hear author Ann Crawford recount the history of women in Texas politics. Crisp and dry in a navy-blue suit, white shirt and checkered tie, Greanias entered through a rear door and quietly took a seat in the back row.
As he did, Crawford's history lesson meandered past the political activism of the 1960s to the post-Watergate era, which she described thusly: "Texas -- where men are men and women are mayors."
The last time that was true in Houston, George Greanias made a decision that changed the trajectory of his political career. The year was 1991, the mayor was Kathy Whitmire, violent crime had caused near-panic among the citizenry and the city's general fund was some $50 million in the hole. Greanias, the second-term city controller and former District C councilman, was among those considering a run that November against Whitmire, who had held the office for almost a decade.
In what now seems like the implausible twist of a third-rate novel, Greanias was promised the support and financial backing of one Bob Lanier, a real-estate developer who was determined to ruin Whitmire politically after she forced his resignation as chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Lanier and Greanias took a series of meetings together and agreed that
the next mayor of Houston would need to re-examine the city's spending habits.
The rest, as they say, is history: In a change of heart that confirmed his image as indecisive and perpetually conflicted, Greanias opted not to challenge Whitmire. After some prodding from his wealthy friends, Lanier entered the race and, flush with $3 million in contributions from the movers, shakers and good ol' boys forsaken by Whitmire, went on to beat state Representative Sylvester Turner in a runoff.
Now, six years later, after unleashing an orgy of tax dollars on neighborhoods, parks and law enforcement, Bob Lanier is probably the most popular mayor the city of Houston has ever seen.
As for George Greanias, his final two terms as controller, he admits, "were hell." Over the course of those four years, his brief alliance with Lanier devolved into a running confrontation over the mayor's short-term financial schemes, such as the annual transfer of roughly $55 million from Metro to the general fund and the restructuring of the city's bond debt.
Depending on who you consult, Greanias's willingness to take on Lanier was either highly principled or utterly foolish. The mayor took every critique personally. He ridiculed and bullied Greanias until the term-limited controller trundled off to private life in January 1996, saddled with the unfortunate persona of a stuffy, pinched-face bearer of bad tidings who, at the end of the day, lacked the political will to carry on.
All this should be just so much old news, and certainly of no great import one month before the November 4 election to pick Lanier's successor.
But as of June 11, when Greanias announced he was joining the race, it marked a significant moment in the first mayoral campaign in 24 years in which an incumbent is not among the candidates. Since that day, Lanier -- who has all but publicly declared that he supports former police chief Lee P. Brown's bid to become the city's first African-American mayor -- has assumed the unusual responsibility of telling everyone within earshot why George Greanias must be stopped. To elect George Greanias would be to reject Bob Lanier, at least according to Bob Lanier.
Lanier insists that he is not endorsing any candidate in the race to replace him. But his reasons for coming out against Greanias's bid seem clear enough. As controller, Greanias was vocal in his opposition to most of Lanier's fiscal maneuvers, particularly the decimation of Metro's $600 million reserve. If elected mayor, Greanias promises to "stop the bleeding" and allow the transit agency to once again start socking away cash for a commuter rail project.
With the approach of a new administration, rail is once again an acceptable topic of discussion, though Lanier still won't abide the notion that some day it may not be feasible to run even more freeway lanes through Houston. Over time, each of the candidates -- while careful not to make any commitments -- has at least paid lip service to the notion of exploring rail as a transportation alternative.
But Greanias, for better or worse, has been unequivocal.
"For 20 years we've been fooling around on this issue, and we've gotten no closer to a solution," he says. "I'm not going to consider it, I'm not going to study it, I'm not going to explore it. I'm going to go about the business of getting it done."
Admittedly, this is a position on which Greanias could not possibly equivocate and maintain credibility. The question that follows, of course, is how he'd pay for his two proposed pilot projects: a commuter rail line along the Katy Freeway and a light rail system between downtown and the Medical Center -- and still maintain the current level of city services.
Greanias's standard response on that point is to note that the Metro subsidy only accounts for 5 percent of the city's overall budget, and "if I can't reprogram 5 percent of the budget, I shouldn't be elected."
But Lanier seems to believe the former controller's plan is a hellbound train. Accordingly, he has belabored his personal animosity for Greanias in almost apocalyptic terms. At a recent fundraiser for the upcoming $545 million bond referendum, the mayor warned a group of municipal contractors that Greanias would wreak havoc on the city by cutting basic services and pulling cops off the street.
The mayor's minions have been broadcasting the same assumptions. In August, Doug Williams, Lanier's deputy assistant for housing and urban revitalization, warned a group of people studying redevelopment plans for the Fourth Ward and Midtown areas that Greanias would dismantle Lanier's popular Neighborhoods to Standard and Parks to Standard programs.
In an apparent effort to stop the flow of contributions to the Greanias campaign, Lanier and members of his inner circle have gone so far as to contact some of the former controller's supporters. Among those who have been leaned on the hardest are attorneys, engineers and contractors, particularly those who do lots of business with the city. Though none of those subjected to such tactics will discuss it for the record, it's clear they believe the Lanier administration is threatening to withhold professional service contracts as punishment for supporting Greanias.
"I think there's a certain segment that believes that they have ongoing business at City Hall, and it would not be politically correct to go jump on George's campaign," observes a consultant with a long history in the city's mayoral politics.
Raising money has indeed been a struggle for Greanias. Otherwise, he's countered Lanier's invisible hand by ignoring it. In fact, Greanias starts off his standard stump speech by recognizing how the city has changed for the better under Bob Lanier.
"This is a great time to be running for mayor," he says. "The economy is good, and there is a renewed interest in the community unlike anything I've seen in my 14 years of public office. I want to continue the good things the current administration is doing."
Considering the source, that is an extraordinary admission. Yet as improbable as such praise for Lanier may sound, it's obviously genuine. The fact is, George Greanias is taking advantage of the opportunity this election year to be a gushing optimist.
Which, when you get right down to it, may be his single best weapon against the vindictiveness of Bob Lanier.
No one would have blamed him if, after almost two years of relative peace and tranquillity as a private citizen, Greanias had chosen to stay away from city politics.
His final term gave the controller good cause to be cynical, as it seemed that just doing his job became more difficult than it had ever been before. After he stopped paying a black-owned city contracting firm for not performing any work, a group of African-American community leaders that included Jew Don Boney and the Reverend Bill Lawson denounced Greanias for playing "plantation politics." After he did the same a few months later to a white-owned firm run by a friend of Bob Lanier's, he was berated by the mayor and sued for defamation of character by the contractor.
Finally, at the end of the most difficult year of his political career, Greanias suffered the indignity of watching Lloyd Kelley elected to succeed him as the city's chief financial officer. As a councilman, Kelley had been a critic of Lanier's, too, but the consummate resume builder did an about-face in exchange for support from the mayor and his backers in the controller's race.
Out of elected office for the first time in 14 years, Greanias went back to his teaching post at Rice University and thought about forming a think tank to explore ways to make local government more responsive.
Meanwhile, his successor all but abandoned the controller's traditional role as city government's fiscal watchdog, and Lanier dedicated his final term to launching a string of publicly subsidized downtown redevelopment projects that will forever be linked to his administration.
It probably wouldn't have mattered if Greanias had remained controller. Given the city's buoyant mood, for which any number of civic boosters readily credit Bob Lanier, resistance would have been futile. But does anyone doubt George Greanias would have demanded more justification for taxpayers' $180 million subsidy of Drayton McLane's new ballpark?
In the last six years, his reluctance to hop to and get with the program has cut both ways for Greanias. His fans see his deliberative style as responsible leadership. His critics see it as a lack of will -- and that is precisely what frightens certain people about the prospect of him becoming mayor.
"Most people don't understand it, but people who deal with government, it's not that they always want a 'yes,' " points out one local businessman involved in a downtown project. "Just give me a fucking answer. Just tell me yes or no. There's no such thing with Greanias. You could do 30 deals in a row with him, where you did everything you said you'd do, and on the 31st, you call him at 4 o'clock in the afternoon and say, 'George, we only got two hours and we've got to do this and this and this.' And he goes, 'Well, send me something on it, and I'll get back to you.' He makes people that want to rely on government very uncomfortable."
Moreover, Greanias at times has been motivated by a transparent political expediency. Some supporters privately questioned his courage and commitment after he chose not to run against Lanier in 1995, and were upset that he did not continue a more public role after leaving office.
Greanias did question the wisdom of using tax dollars for the Ballpark at Union Square in an op-ed piece published in the Chronicle last year. He did not, however, take an official position against the stadium until later, when polls suggested his opinion on the issue was safely shared by half the county's voters. (The stadium proposition barely passed with 51 percent of the vote.)
But no one disputes that Greanias is honest. And smart. And well-versed on public policy issues. Nonetheless, the sum of these qualities has never added up to a winning personality. In the past, Greanias's reputation for high-mindedness, and his "smartest kid in the class" persona, has been off-putting.
So Greanias's performance at candidate forums and elsewhere the past few months has been a surprise. While never exactly jovial or carefree, he has balanced his serious demeanor with patience and a confident amiability that, like his quick, dry wit, was rarely on display when he was controller. As if to nurture this new humility, Greanias has been stumping like an unknown -- which may be the case, now that he is no longer simply a frustrated man with news no one wants to hear.
"Because I was controller for eight years, and the last four, because of Lanier constantly attacking me, were so contentious, there is an image issue," he admits. "The candidate forums have been helpful to get a more rounded picture of who I am, which is considerably different than the lingering image people have from TV and news stories.
"Once people have gotten over the traditional model of how they think about me, I can make progress with my arguments about why I'm the best qualified. I'm pleased if people walk away from the forums saying, 'Well, I really know you better than I did.' "
It's not easy running for mayor in Bob Lanier's shadow. As in other large cities across the country, crime is down and the economy is booming, yet Houston seems especially flush at this particular moment in history. People are working and seem to get along with each other just fine. They can afford to worry about how long they're sitting in traffic, a rather minor annoyance when compared to murder and layoffs. According to Elyse Lanier, even the weather's not as bad as we thought.
To fill the void created by the absence of worrisome issues, the candidates who would succeed Lanier are fanning the rhetorical equivalent of a warm tropical breeze.
There are Lee Brown's and Helen Huey's constant declarations of love for, as the District A councilwoman puts it, "this great city we call Houston." Rob Mosbacher's "good head for business" is matched only by his "warm heart for Houston." And Councilwoman Gracie Saenz's call for a "new generation of leadership" is like a slice of key lime pie, topped with words that are as sweet and light as meringue.
Even Greanias can get a little mushy, but he's usually too busy being earnest to be bothered. On the stump, his words come fast and hard in an effort to cram ideas and information into a short amount of time. And while some voters want and expect a certain sentimentality from their politicians, Greanias prefers to deliver a steady stream of thoughts on policy and the role of government.
Not that Greanias doesn't reach for the hearts of voters, in his own way. But rather than offer platitudes about the wonders of the city, he promises to engage more everyday people in government.
That's in stark contrast to Lanier's aggressive, bottom-line oriented style, which usually precludes much public discussion.
Despite his many years in elected office, Greanias has somehow avoided the level of cynicism required to possess such fear of public opposition, and he has held on to his faith. This idealism dates back at least to 1965, a time when many of his contemporaries began actively opposing their government over the Vietnam War. As he observed the unprecedented, often violent rift developing in society, Greanias kept his distance, and refused to respond emotionally.
"Those active in protest, either in extremist groups or as demonstrators ... have failed to select a course which would offer hope for the adoption of their beliefs," Greanias wrote in an essay entitled "On Supporting the Government" when he was a 17-year-old high school senior in Decatur, Illinois.
"Just as those who protest must remember that the government can have only one policy, that of the majority, those who would silence the demonstrators must realize that dissent is the anthem of democracy."
Imagine such an analysis from Lanier, whose governing principles evolved from a pragmatic approach to making money. Accordingly, the mayor usually hashes out policy with a close cadre of like-minded white men who seem to pop up everywhere.
The most ubiquitous of those is Billy Burge, a longtime friend of Lanier's who chaired the fundraising operation that gathered $3 million for the mayor's first campaign in 1991. Lanier then appointed Burge chairman of Metro, where he was key to carrying out the mayor's desire to kill a proposed light-rail concept approved by voters in 1988, as well as assisting the administration's subsequent plundering of the transit agency's reserves for police and infrastructure needs.
Then there's Michael Stevens, a real-estate developer like Burge and the mayor, who was also a member of Lanier's 1991 fundraising team. In 1996, Lanier named Stevens as his unpaid special assistant for housing and inner-city revitalization, a position that currently makes Stevens one of the most powerful figures in the city. Stevens controls millions of dollars in federal, state and local community development grants from his office on Dairy Ashford, about 20 minutes from City Hall.
Not surprisingly, Lanier appointed Stevens and Burge to the Harris CountyHouston Sports Authority, the new body charged with ensuring construction of the downtown ballpark and other facilities. Not surprisingly, Stevens, as head of the authority's finance committee, and Burge, who heads its construction committee, are the real powers of the 13-member authority, while the county-appointed chairman, lawyer Jack Rains, functions more as an affable public frontman. Not surprisingly, the authority has been criticized for holding its initial committee meetings in private, and has discussed appointing Brown & Root as general construction contractor on the project without soliciting competitive bids.
To Greanias, Lanier's almost exclusive reliance on a small, insular group of lieutenants reflects a basic distrust of democracy.
"Increasingly in this city, decisions are made in smaller and smaller circles, with a smaller and smaller vision behind them," Greanias said one recent evening at a private gathering of supporters. "I do not want to be a mayor who tells people what to do."
Some people believe, however, that had this philosophy been applied to, say, the Ballpark at Union Square, the Astros might already be on their way out of town. But Greanias, who as mayor will be able to make changes to the sports authority's board, says the group is provoking the animosity of the public, whose support of sports facilities, he believes, is waning.
"There is still a huge amount of skepticism about the worthwhile nature of these projects, and those who are in charge of making it happen can't ignore that sentiment," Greanias says. "The sports authority has an enormous potential to develop a reputation as a closed, hermetically sealed, isolated but very powerful agency. I don't think that's the reputation they want, and it's not the reputation that's going to help them get anything done."
Greanias also says he would have handled differently the debate over the language of the ballot initiative that will determine the future of the city's affirmative action program for women- and minority-owned contractors. The initiative was placed on the November ballot by Republican activist Ed Blum and his allies, who have threatened to sue if the city goes ahead with plans to change the wording of the group's proposed ballot language.
Greanias claims that the clumsy handling of the affirmative-action referendum and the stadium project have created "sidebar issues" that undermine the integrity of the city's leadership.
"My reaction to what's going on at City Hall right now is that it's a lack of trust in the community and an effort to manipulate the community," he says. "And it could very well backfire in terms of the referendum. I understand [Lanier's] frustration with the ballot language. I'm not terribly thrilled about it, either. But the mayor has got to assume that this community is one of good will, and if he goes out and explains why, even if there are flaws in the program, you still need something to level the playing field, I think the majority of the community will respond."
Right now, Lanier seems desperate to make sure the community does not respond to the "Greanias for Houston" mayoral campaign. Ironically, his harsh condemnations of a future Greanias administration recall the controller's doomsday proclamations on the mayor's creative financing policies. And Greanias's chances haven't been enhanced by Lanier's apparent desire to see an African-American succeed him as mayor.
In addition to Lanier's behind-the-scenes support for Brown's campaign, the candidate's message is massaged daily, if not hourly, by the same team of operatives that helped engineer Lanier's victory six years ago -- Burge, fundraiser Sue Walden, consultants Dan McClung, Craig Varoga and Bill Miller, and Lanier's top aide, Dave Walden.
Brown's success is clearly being built upon his willingness to toe the Lanier administration's line on everything from transportation to mortgage-assistance programs. He calls press conferences only to deliver day-old bread baked by Lanier and repackaged for consumption by his handlers. Moreover, the mayor's support of Brown ignores recent local history. In 1991, Lanier capitalized on the public's fear of violent crime and tried to blame Whitmire, whose police chief during most of her ten years in office was Lee P. Brown. The former chief's neighborhood-oriented policing -- a concept he claims to have invented -- was unpopular among the rank and file of the department, and was dismantled by Lanier's chief, Sam Nuchia.
At least one former Brown supporter suggests Lanier's recent claim that Greanias would cut funding for the 1,300 police officers his administration added to the force lacks credibility.
"It's kind of disingenuous for Lanier to make that argument when Brown shut down the damn police academy," he said. "Lanier blames it on Whitmire, but not once did Brown protest. And now the candidate he's supporting is the architect of Whitmire's crime program?"
And what of Brown's support from people like Burge, as well as the many Brown contributors who toil in the real estate and construction industries? As white male businessmen who thrived during the boom years of suburban expansion, they would seem to have no particular affection for a minority candidate in the mold of a traditional urban liberal.
"Lanier is a control freak," notes a west Houston businessman who says he is undecided about Brown but would like to see an African-American elected mayor. "There's a feeling out there, and perception in politics is reality, that if Brown gets elected he's going to be more interested in going to the National Conference of Mayors conventions and stuff like that, and he has no particular interest in infrastructure and public works and that Lanier is going to continue to have his way there."
On the other hand, Greanias plans a major overhaul of the public works department, including the elimination of what he calls the city's "in-house construction company," which administers the Metro-funded infrastructure work. That prospect has prompted Lanier to point out Greanias's plans to curtail the Metro transfer to the contractors, engineers and architects that have been kept extremely busy over the last six years.
Yet it's unclear how that effort is panning out. The Houston Contractors Association PAC, which gave substantially to Lanier's three mayoral campaigns, has made the unusual decision not to endorse anyone in the upcoming general election. That may change in a runoff, says D'Ann Mattox, HCA's executive director. But right now, she says, the PAC is hopelessly split, and has contributed a token $1,000 to each major candidate.
But two prominent members of the HCA, including past president David Bearden, have joined Greanias's money-raising team and last month held a fundraiser for the candidate at a local restaurant, which drew a modest crowd but was probably as close to found money as anything Greanias will collect for his race. Those present were edgy about even discussing their support of Greanias and stressed that they did not want to be quoted by name, fearing that whatever city work is still in the Lanier administration's pipeline will mysteriously dry up for their firms.
However, Bearden thanked his colleagues who came to the fundraiser in words that captured perfectly their fears, as well as their hopes, for a Greanias administration.
"I think we all know there is a bully pulpit at City Hall right now, and we all feel a little uncomfortable going against that," he said. "But we all know George is a man of honesty and integrity. We may not always agree with him politically, but we know we'll always know where he's coming from."
Most polls, private and otherwise, suggest that Brown, by virtue of his lock on the black vote, will finish first in the November 4 election, but will fall far short of the majority needed for an out-and-out victory.
That leaves the other candidates scraping for a spot in a runoff with Brown, and that campaign within the campaign seems to have come down to Greanias versus Mosbacher. Polls show the two in a virtual dead heat, and they have slowly begun to take each other on at the candidate forums and debates.
But if Greanias edges past Mosbacher, and can then best Brown in a runoff -- which many people believe he can -- he'll first have to continue fending off Bob Lanier. So far, Greanias has not directly criticized the mayor, and says he has no plans to start. He's also making a considerable effort to portray his proposals and policy differences with Lanier in a positive light.
But there are, of course, times when what we see and hear from George Greanias is what we've come to expect of George Greanias.
At the sparsely attended meeting of the Harris County Democratic Women's Club in September, Greanias found himself in a discussion on the upcoming $545 million bond issue with Tom Kennedy, a former news- paper reporter who is now working for the Lanier administration as a planning department spokesperson.
Kennedy was there that night to gather support for the bond issue, which Lanier is counting on in order to give the next administration enough cash to continue basic infrastructure improvements. But Kennedy, who put together a light-handed pitch -- a top ten list of reasons to vote in favor of the bond referendum -- was forced to engage the only candidate to question how the bond proceeds will actually be spent.
Greanias listened patiently to Kennedy's presentation, then posed a series of hard-hitting questions that, alas, the Lanier minion could not answer.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"I feel sure there will be enough details available for people to make a good decision," Kennedy answered.
"When?! November 3?" Greanias asked, referring to the day before the election.
"I don't know," Kennedy replied.
"You know," said Greanias, "you'd be doing us all a favor by getting it done, so we candidates can talk about it with voters."
A few weeks later, after careful study, George Greanias added his endorsement of Bob Lanier's bond issue.