Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Illusionist

We've finally realized what it is we've found subconsciously bothersome about mayoral candidate Peter Brown, and the revelation came via the hand of whichever artful contriver fashioned his plentiful television commercials. What Brown promises is magic, that with a stroke of his drafting pencil he can transform blueprints into reality, without the intercessionary messiness of politics, or the application of political skills (neither of which––politics or political skills––we're fully convinced he possesses).

His truly are some of the most honest political advertisements we've ever seen.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Final Wheeze-Off: The Tie Goes to ... Roy Morales!

Our lightly edited card from the grand finale of mayoral debates, broadcast on Channel 11 Saturday night: We scored it a four-way tie, six-way if you count the two potted plants strategically positioned on-stage, nobody much gained or lost at all (at all), which means the big winner was Roy Morales, the least polished public presence and most un-mayoral looking and sounding of the quartet. But, if anyone was watching (and they probably weren’t), Morales did manage to cleanly and clearly cement his position as the distinct “none of the above” alternative to the other three. And he got on TV! Again! The question for Morales is not of course whether he can miraculously slide into a runoff but how high into the double digits he’ll place (there won’t be a kingmaker role in his future, though, because a sizable percentage of his voters won’t bother to return for an all-liberal Democrat runoff). So let’s see how it went down, by candidate:

Morales: Revealed that as a youngster he had been “beaten up” because, as he put it, “of the color of my skin.” Hmmm. Morales looked to be the second-lightest-complected candidate on the platform, after the overly made-up Annise Parker, so we’re wondering whether he meant other Mexicans were pummeling him because he looked too white, or what. Anyway, Morales obviously has sharpened his elbows since, as evidenced by the clean and relatively cogent poke he threw at Peter Brown over his council vote to assist a development in which his wife is an investor and the digs he took at Gene Locke over his Metro connections and (for instance) his pledge to create a new “flood plain manager” position for the city. Morales was the only one to clearly pledge to oppose extension of benefits to the same-sex partners of city workers (although Brown didn’t seem too enthusiastic over another voter referendum on the matter), a position not to be underestimated as a vote-getter in some limited quarters, and was most forthright in support of the city’s participation in the feds‘ 287(g) (although Parker crisply reiterated her standard no-BS position, the correct position as far as we’re concerned). He also got in a sweet and true plug for making English the dominant language in public schools (which it ain’t, at far too many). Morales’ big problem, aside from the fact that nobody’s given him any money to go on TV, is that he just doesn’t project in person. He did, however, manage to not look like a cute lil’ chipmunk with nut-stuffed cheeks––maybe it was the lighting.

Locke: No longer wants to “dehonkify” the University of Houston, or any other locale, for that matter. “In fact I love honkies ... I love all people, let me make that clear, but especially honkies,” Locke intoned. “Especially honkies who live in Kingwood, Clear Lake, River Oaks, Memorial, and west Houston and have a history of voting Republican. Sometimes I feel like a real crack-corn honky myself, like when I look at all the powerful, influential honkies who have given me money for this campaign, or when I’m up here with these other fine honkies––that includes you, too, Roy, mah honky.” Nah, he didn’t say that, not at all. We actually forgot most of what he said in a response to a panelist’s question about his call to “dehonkify” UH back in his long-past student firebrand days and whether a white candidate, having made a similar past comment about blacks in 1969, would have gotten off as easily as Locke appears to. But Locke basically shrugged it off, good naturedly, and acknowledged that at age 62 he’d learned to “measure my words.” (We know the dehonkifcation thing, if it ever got traction, would hurt Locke out in Kingwood and Clear Lake and so forth, although we personally hold to the LBJ dictum on such matters, pronounced by Johnson when [after being informed that someone or other, possibly a prospective appointee, had a wayward lefty past] he declared that anybody who wasn’t a commie or a fellow traveler back in the 1930s probably wasn’t worth a poo.) Locke’s deft swatting away of the pesky question underscored his real strength as a candidate: He looks and sounds more like a mayor than his opponents. (Yes, yes, this is a whatchamacallit, a phallocentric view, so discount it if you’d so prefer.) He gives off a little of the slick country lawyer––just enough, not too much––and Houstonians of all races and nationalities generally dig that schizz, in small doses. Scored solidly in the debate when he was closest on recalling the city’s current property-tax rate of .63875 and relating that his own tax bill was a “monster” and “in excess of $5000.” Big problem for Locke (aside from the really big one, that being that Anglo Dems who ordinarily could be counted on to back a black candidate are mostly with his two honky opponents) is that he has the least to say of all four––there’s “opportunity” and “diversity” surrounded by little puffs of vague rhetorical smoke––and his campaign seems to consist of retailing promises––or commitments, as he calls them––to all the various outfits that have endorsed him. Just today we read in the Pakistan Chronicle, our sixth- or seventh-favorite southwest Houston weekly publication, of Locke’s endorsement from the 80-20 PAC (Asian-American types) and his pledge to them: “This endorsement is like a contract with you all, to serve your needs and resolve your issues.” Jesus, he’s contracted. That one we didn't make up. (By the way, you know there’s one mighty nuke of a commercial waiting to drop on Locke if he makes it into a runoff––the one about his $640-an-hour fee charged to the Houston-Harris County Sports Authority.)

Peter Brown: He likes to speak Spanish. He’s passionate about recycling (said so twice, so maybe he’s super-passionate.) Didn’t sound as wheezy and raspy as he does around the council table or has at previous encounters. A nice tan. Looked hale and vigorous, as if he could pass for 65. Status as newly acclaimed poll front-runner certified by panelist's query about whether he’s “buying” support in the black community, theme of a recent Lockean radio ad tailored to African Americans. (Brown avoided answering the question but in the wrong way––he called attention to himself avoiding the question, so we had to strike him down 3-4 points). If he said the noisome word “blueprint” even once, we missed it, so we’re giving back the 3-4 deducted points. Hit back rather forcefully at Locke’s role as “dealmaler” and lawyer to the Sports Authority in structuring the now-stressed debt for our nice sorta-new stadiums. “I was a bad bond deal,” said PB. “When I’m mayor we’re not gonna have any of these, quote, ‘deals.' " (So we guess if Brown had been mayor back in ’97 or ’98 he would have employed his amazing powers of prognostication to foresee the subprime debacle and stand athwart these dealings, which means he’s way overqualified to be a mere big-city mayor.) Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job in masternig the art of being a veritable political Rorschach. Right where you need to be.

Parker: Likes to speak Spanish, too, but can’t reel it semi-trippingly off the tongue like PB (and shouldn’t try). Was way too smiley and squinty and sort of faded into the woodwork for the first half of the encounter. Relegated to a sidebar “response” in the Locke-Brown exchange over PB’s alleged purchase of black support, thus appearing to be reduced to a Morales-like irrelevancy. Rallied in the second half, though, with succinct and substantive (or appearing to be substantive––same thing) spiels on 287(g), air quality, flood control, the city’s use of borrowed money to satisfy pension obligations, etc. Parker’s a pro and managed to get off decent-sounding and thoughtful answers during the limited time allowed––not easy to do, as Morales and Brown proved. However, her "sincere," speaking-from-the-heart closing, recalling the old hard-workin' days in Spring Branch, etc., didn't work for us––sounded forced and tinny and definitely was not a deal-closer. Also lost points when she couldn’t recall how much she’d paid in city property taxes––come on, make a ballpark stab––and probably turned off considerable numbers of conservative voters, if there actually were any watching, with her generally favorable but still-cautious embrace of same-sex-partner benefits (although she has “no current plans” to seek a referendum on the question). We respect this as a heartfelt and honest position, probably honoring a commitment to core supporters and dancing with those that brung ya, touching close to home, etc., but there's something to be said for nuance.

So: We still think it’ll be Locke and Parker in a runoff, with the black vote (and what else?) breaking monolithically for Locke and Parker beating the bushes to get her diehards to the polls, but either of those two and Brown wouldn’t surprise, and in any case it’ll be close, 3-5 points separating the three but Morales doing better than expected (just think if he had the money and polish and telegenic good looks of a Rob Mosbacher––he’d be a cinch for a runoff he’d lose).

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Scooter Khan Is Still a Campaign Finance Scofflaw (We’re Sorry to Report)

Today we received our 10th piece of direct mail––that’s 10, count ‘em––from Khalid Khan, who appears to be spending a sizable amount of somebody’s money to win the seat representing the humble precincts of District F on the Houston City Council, even though he apparently does not reside in the humble district. Just how much he’s spent remains a mystery, because, as we and others have previously reported, Khan did not see fit to list any expenditures for the mailings on the odd campaign finance disclosure filed with the city earlier this month. (He also, as noted here and elsewhere, signed an affidavit attesting that he had not raised or spent more than $20,000, thus relieving himself of the legal duty to file his document electronically, then went on to list $34,000 in contributions on his hand-scribbled report.) By our not-too-precise but close-enough count, at least 6 or 7 of those mailings, and possibly more, fell into our mailbox during the Jul 1-Sept. 24 period covered by the early-October disclosure, and their costs should have been reflected in Sr. Khan’s filing. KK––we previously nicknamed him “Scooter,” for reasons that escape us, but it sounds fitting––did not respond to our humble entreaty for an explanation, but later told the Chronicle
... he filed the affidavit because he was unable to get a password to file his report electronically from the city secretary's office on the day it was due. He said the mailing expenses were not reported because he had not been billed for them yet, although the law requires that expenses be reported when they are incurred.
Yes, it does. Blogger Greg, of the humbly named Greg’s Opinion and another potential council constituent of KK’s, has called Khan’s assertion of non-billing “a flat-out lie” and suggested that if Khan were telling the truth the well-known local direct-mail outfit whose stampage Khan’s mailings bear might be required to file its own disclosure with the city reporting the costs as a coordinated campaign expense on Khan’s behalf.

Since the matter of KK's errant report received attention from the daily newspaper, the candidate has filed an affidavit explaining his professed inability to acquire an electronic password in time and resubmitting the same report he “filed manuly” [sic] earlier this month. In other words, he did not revise his report to disclose his actual spending, even though the law must be pretty clear to him by now.

KK’s latest mailing, by the way, is a doozy––an 11X28’’ accordion foldout whose cover features a mock Texas license plate (with the purple mountains, y’know) and the bizarre text-message imperative “Khan SAYNO2 Crime.”

Yes, Khan, do, and meantime say “yes” to campaign finance law.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Weak, Meaningless Gesture By a Fading Institution Unsure of Its Footing on Today’s “Media Landscape”

As we expected, the city’s leading daily newspaper had difficulty making up its institutional mind on the mayoral race. As we did not expect, the Chronicle resolved its internal confusion by issuing a non-endorsement endorsement Sunday of both Gene Locke and Annise Parker, complete with the candidates’ mug shots artfully arranged in alphabetical order amid the verbiage. The desultory nature of the entire enterprise could be detected in the less-than-vibrant prose (“Locke styles himself a consensus builder and dealmaker”) outlining the reasons for the paper’s dual recommendation (you the voter and resident of the real world will of course be limited to only one choice on Nov. 3), which read as if it could have been cut and pasted from the candidates’ campaign literature. Our first thought was that Peter Brown, by not squandering any of his wife’s inheritance on a series of full-page advertisements in the paper, may have screwed himself out of a coveted triple endorsement.

We have no inside information on the whys and wherefores of the process that led to this public profession of ineffectuality, but we’d wager that the Lockean portion of the double-nod was reached by a 1-0 vote of publisher Smilin’ Jack Sweeney, after a secret hooded ceremony that included a recitation of “The Song of the River,” that timeless bit of Hearstian poesy that wisely reminds us how fruitless it is to even wonder about “the mysteries/That only God may know” (and maybe [maybe] a friendly shoot-the-breeze discussion or two with Bob Lanier). Perhaps other, more earthbound placeholders on the masthead suggested that a full and unabashed nuzzling-up to Locke would be too much of a throwback to Ye Olde Chronicle, the Jones-owned and then Houston Endowment-ed one that was a serious downtown weight-thrower-around, famed for its inside wheelings and dealings, whose editorials, even into city’s the Early Modern Era, virtually seethed with contempt for the city’s first and thus far only female mayor. Perhaps the need to not solely embrace Locke was rendered more acute by the obvious fact that Parker is the better candidate of the entire lot, and we suspect that was borne out in the candidates’ meeting with the editorial board or janitorial staff or whoever supposedly makes these endorsement decisions. (As previously noted, we’re probably going to vote for Parker but are not yet fully in the bag, and in any case we’re not going to set our alarm to be first in line when the polls open.) A factor not to be underestimated in the paper's calculations is the extra pat-itself-on-the-back points it acquires through the dual nod: Look! We've endorsed a gay white woman and a straight black man! It's all about positioning. (You, the real world voter, will be unable to so widely embrace diversity.)

Meanwhile, the paper complemented its dual endorsement with a new Zogby poll confirming our previous prescient estimation of non-endorsee Brown’s mischief-wreaking potential (by the way, and apropos of nothing in particular, but outside of his commercials Brown has the public presence of a piece of rusty barb wire, doesn’t he?). While we suspect Brown may have reached his 52-week high, the Zogby numbers were in no way good news for double endorsees Parker and Locke. We were amused by the canned ham served up to the paper by somebody named Kim Devlin, a “senior adviser” to Locke (does he have “junior” advisers, too?), who opined that poll frontunner Brown is “learning an expensive lesson that Houstonians cannot be bought and leadership is more than just writing a check.” Well, as our coozan George Will has been known to exclaim upon awakening on the carpet after a long night of whiskey and Hank Jr.

Of these matters we shall soon say more, as sure as the mad river flows into the peaceful sea.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

M.J. Khan Shows It’s Better to Give Than Receive, At Least When It Comes to One Particular Donor

We noticed the largest expense our man on City Council, M. J. Khan, recently reported for his apparently not-too-happenin’ campaign for city controller was a $10,000 payment listed as “refund for contribution” (we think that should have been contributions, plural) to Mr. Haroon Shaikh on Aug. 16. That’s the day after the Chronicle revealed (or at least that’s where we first saw it) that Shaikh had resigned from the Houston-Harris County Sports Authority “amid questions,” as they say, over his apparent ownership of the local Foxx Video chain, which appeared to be sexually oriented businesses but were operating in the city without the required SOB permits (we’re mildly nonplussed when reminded that some consumers still go to the “video store” for their porn, which must be like keeping a rotary-dial phone at your house*).

That’s gratitude for you, huh? It was only two years that CPA Shaikh played host to a gala re-election fund-raising banquet for Councilman Khan at the “elegantly decorated Grand Ballroom of the Westin Galleria Hotel,” as this report on the Muslim Media Network described it, which featured none other than Mayor Bill White and which met the fund-raising “target of $250,000 for the night.” White roused the crowd––contrary to vicious rumor, many attendees did not doze off on their desert plates––by wheezing about the city’s “embracing diversity” through Khan’s election to council (BTW, its there anything you can do with or to diversity, individually or collectively, other than "embracing" it?) and saying that he
.. admired the support Councilman has received from his supporters and his family, especially from his wife, as M. J. preferred to be full-time councilperson as compared to others, which means leaving early in the morning and returning home everyday well past 9:00PM.
... which possibly led some in the crowd to wonder whether the mayor was referring to the
953-square-foot unit in the townhouse complex inside the city on Wilcrest where Khan is registered to vote, or the 10,000-square-foot mansion in the municipality of Piney Point listed under his wife's name. (In either case, 9 p.m. isn't that late, is it?)

In the interest of full transparency we must disclose here that we have no preference in the race for city controller; in fact, we don’t really care who’s elected city controller, as long as that individual doesn’t embezzle taxpayer funds––or at least isn’t caught on tape by the FBI doing it––and speaks passably good English. We most likely won’t be voting for Khan, however, as we’ve already voted for him two and possibly three times for city council and haven’t gotten a whole lot in return. We may flip a coin between the other two, or do something really drastic and follow the Chronicle’s recommendation.

As for Khan’s abrupt return of what he apparently believes is tainted money, consider us unimpressed. From a mere fiscal standpoint it appears that the would-be controller could use the dough, since the financial wellsprings of his campaign seem to have shriveled to fellow affiliates of the local Indo-Paki community (he did have a substantial amount of cash on hand as of last week, but most of it appears to have been carried over from his council campaign stash). More importantly, what does this say about his loyalty? We fully expect to soon see one of those big ugly plywood signs fastened to a fence out in the wilds of Wilcrest, proclaiming, “M.J. Khan: He Doesn’t Dance with Those That Brung 'im.

*Except for truckers who need something to watch on those long hauls.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Who Is Khalid Khan, And why Does He Keep Sending Me These Slick Mailings That He’s NOT Reporting on His Campaign Finance Disclosure?

Yeah: As of Saturday past the postman (or woman––we no longer have a “regular” postal carrier, apparently) has dropped into our mailbox eight (ocho) professionally produced mailings touting the many and variegated wonders of Khalid Khan, candidate for the District F city council seat being vacated by the non-related and term-limited M. J. Khan, who seeks greater glory and a larger paycheck as city controller. That’s more direct mail than we’ve received even from media-mad mayoral candidate Peter Brown. In fact, that’s more mail than we’ve received from all candidates for all city offices, combined, in the current campaign season.

But, as also noted this very day by Greg of Greg’s Opinion, another of the large stable of handsome and talented bloggers who call District F home, Khalid Khan appears not to list any expenditures for printing and postage on the campaign finance report he was was required to submit to the city last week. According to our still-decent but not wholly infallible memory, all but one and possibly two of these mailings arrived before Sept. 24, the cutoff date for reporting on city candidates‘ most recent disclosures. And some landed in our box before Aug. 26, the day that Khan for some reason listed as the starting date for his report (the concluding date is Oct. 24, suggesting KK possesses powers of prognostication that would be invaluable in an elected official, or market analyst), although the latest report required of fund-raising and spending candidates was supposed to cover the July 1-Sept. 24 period.

Khan’s report is a a masterwork in other aspects: He signed an affidavit attesting that he had not received or spent over $20,000, thus allowing him to avoid filing his disclosure electronically, then blithely went on to list a total of $34,010 in contributions (all of KK’s donors appear to be fellow Muslims, which does not faze us in the least, but we’re sure this baleful lack of diversity could be bothersome to some of Our Town’s leading Diversicrats, who of course avoid genuinely diverse areas such Alief or Sharpstown when they’re out and about celebrating their own hearty embrace of diversity). Among the $5,939 in expenses Khan listed for his fanciful reporting period were payments for photography, a Web site, voter data and signage, but nothing to the direct-mail company whose presorted postage-paid stamp his mailings bear. Interestingly––sort of––the address listed for Khan’s designated treasurer, one Ray Cunningham, is the same as that of Khan’s travel agency.

One of Khan’s mailings––they all highlight his 6-point “crime prevention plan”––laughably claims he’s “restoring integrity to District F.” That suggests Mr. Khan possesses not only a sense of humor but a certain sense of noblesse, since, as Greg, titular impresario of Greg’s Opinion, points out, KK doesn’t exactly reside in District F. We had noticed that in his mailings Khan has artfully skirted the issue of residency–-if we remember correctly, it arose four two years back when KK pressed an unsuccessful challenge against incumbent non-resident Councilman M.J. Khan–-by declaring that he’s “proud to call Houston home” and “has made District F his home for business for 22 years.” (Robert Kane, another candidate in the District F race, says he’s filed a complaint with the city’s Ethics Committee challenging whether Khan and two other opponents, Joe Chow and Al Hoang, meet the residency requirement to run for the office. While residency is a legally squishy issue and difficult to enforce [although it really shouldn’t be], Kane has compiled cross-checked documentation suggesting that maybe they shouldn’t be on the ballot.)

Yes, we know: Khalid Khan probably has a better chance of dunking a basketball from a standing position that being elected to the city council, but his blatant disregard of the rules is bothersome, rules being for everyone and all that business. Somebody oughta do something about it ...

Monday, October 05, 2009

Locke’s Entanglements Finally Get Some Scrutiny ... (UPDATED To Note $$ from Dynamo Owners)

One of the unexplored issues of the Houston’s mayoral race––probably the great publicly unexplored issue, but that’s just our subjective and possibly unschooled opinion––is Gene Locke’s partnership in a wide-tentacled law firm that has had a close and highly lucrative relationship with many of the large public taxing authorities of Harris County, including the city of Houston. We’ve been around for a while and we can’t remember anyone with those sort of very stark entanglements previously standing for mayor without getting a serious scrub-down by the media. Come to think of it, we can’t remember anyone with those sort of very stark entanglements previously standing for mayor, period. The general lack of interest in the subject by the media has been puzzling, but into the breach has barreled Texas Watchdog, from the emerging non-profit public-service (and therefore, unfortunately, not widely noticed by the general populace) corner of the journalism food chain, with a report exploring Locke’s partnership at Andrews Kurth and the firm’s work as legal counsel for the Houston-Harris County Sports Authority, which was charged with building the fine professional sports venues we all enjoy and now apparently does some other stuff we’re not quite clear on. Texas Watchdog raises some solidly documented questions about Locke’s continued relationship with the Sports Authority, where he is said to have stepped down as general counsel when he announced his candidacy in April. The report does not mention that since declaring his candidacy Locke has made a rather forthright commitment to seeing a new stadium is built to accommodate the wealthy California-based owners of the Houston Dynamo, a project that presumably would fall under the purview of the Sports Authority, thus providing that entity with a pretext for its continued existence while bringing additional business to Andrews Kurth. (To be fair, odds are the soccer stadium is going to be built whoever gets elected mayor. Still ... )

In a follow-up blog posting, Texas Watchdog’s Steve Miller quoted what he described as Locke’s “boilerplate response” to questions the Web publication submitted for its story of last week:
When I am mayor every decision I make will be based solely on what is best for Houstonians. I am proud of the broad coalition of support I enjoy in this race, but when I am elected my only debt will be to the city of Houston.
Was that the entirety of his response? Not to be gratuitously crude, but that's some weak-ass shit, as the kids say.

Miller goes on to add
The city has some formidable power with regard to the authority, in that it appoints board members that shape its direction — which, in turn, affects taxpayers when a situation such as the possible use of public money to cover a bond-related shortfall arises. The story is a blue-skyer that we feel should be out there, akin to the items anyone should take into account before making a big decision. In this case, the voters can now add this to the list of “what ifs” before they make their final choice on Nov. 3.
Hear, hear. And there’s more to it than that: What exactly is Locke’s financial arrangement with Andrews Kurth as of this moment (a question we believe that only Locke can answer, although if we're not mistaken all candidates for city office are supposed to have filed some general personal financial disclosure that covers the previous calendar year). And what would be his relationship with the firm if he’s elected mayor? (We presume he’d sever all relations, but we shouldn’t be too presumptuous.) Under a Locke mayoralty, would Andrews Kurth continue as general counsel to the Sports and Metropolitan Transit authorities, over whose boards the mayor, by virtue of his appointments, has, as Texas Watchdog put it, formidable power? Would Andrews Kurth act as counsel for city of Houston bond issues? And finally, would Locke plan to return to the firm after he’s done being mayor?

These questions should have been pitched at Locke months ago, but they’re clearly fair game now in light of the candidate’s TV ad, wherein Locke is identified as a “businessman” who “helped revitalize our downtown communities, creating thousands of god-paying jobs,” a claim accompanied by video of Metro’s rail line and Minute Maid Park. You can ignore the fact that neither of these projects is what you would call a triumph of free enterprise, or even what you would ordinarily call "business," and you can look the other way from the dubious assertion that these and other projects have created “thousands of good-paying jobs” (must be the magical “multiplier effect”). But it’s hard to get past the cold fact that Gene Locke is a lawyer, not a businessman, and what he “creates” is billable hours.

As you were, and carry on.

ADDENDUM: For what it's worth, Locke's latest campaign finance disclosure lists a $3,000 donation from California billionaire Phillip F. Anschutz of Anschutz Entertainment Group, 50-percent owner of the Dynamo and would-be promoter of the now-canceled but once-upcoming Michael Jackson tour. Locke reported receiving another $2,500 from Dynamo co-owner Brener Sports & Entertainment of Beverly Hills (the corporate PAC, we assume, although it's not listed as such) and $2,000 more from Brener-associated Oscar De La Hoya, a "self-employed boxer" from Los Angeles (and one of our favorite fighters of the past couple of decades) who has been reported to have some ownership interest in the local major-league soccer franchise. We know these are wholly meaningless and random acts of generosity and that all of these California-based parties are simply interested in enabling GOOD GOVERNMENT in Houston, Texas.