Friday, October 19, 2001 Volume 67, Issue 42



Insults are highlight of final mayoral debate

By Ken Fountain
Daily Cougar Staff

In a contest marked by one-liners, verbal gaffes and shrill backbiting, the three major candidates in the Houston mayoral race met face-to-face in the third and last of their televised debates Thursday night.

The contentiousness got off to a quick start when Channel 13 reporter Art Rascone asked Republican City Councilman Orlando Sanchez about Democratic Mayor Lee P. Brown's announcement Wednesday of a new $16 million plan to increase the ranks of the Houston Fire Department after being publicly upbraided at a killed firefighter's funeral by his widow.

"For years I have been talking about public safety as a council member," UH graduate Sanchez said. He accused Brown and fellow councilman Jew Don Boney of "rather rudely" turning down requests for help from the fire department and other emergency services.

He called Brown's announcement of the new plan "a very self-serving, despicable, cynical act on a day that we were burying one of our heroes."

City Councilman Chris Bell countered that "unfortunately, all Councilman Sanchez has been doing is talking about it." He said Sanchez had been absent during several meetings in 2000 when a proposal for increasing HFD personnel was being discussed.

Bell said Sanchez had never articulated any solutions to the problems that "he is always complaining about." He added that he himself had made several recommendations, including instituting a citywide hiring freeze to free up funding that could be used for safety issues.

Brown said that, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the East Coast, he ordered Houston Fire Chief Chris Connealy to develop a plan to increase the number of firefighters. He said of attending the fireman's funeral, "I was deeply touched by the grief, and I told (Connealy), expedite the plan, give it to me today."

Panelist Helen Jenkins, a faculty member at the South Texas College of Law (where the event was held), asked about the newly approved Environmental Protection Agency five-year plan to improve the air quality of the Southeast Texas region.

"Will you be able to control the industrial districts, and can you get the job done on time?" she asked the candidates.

"We need to stop making air quality a contest between the city of Houston and Los Angeles, to see who has the worst air," Bell said. "That's a contest we don't want to compete in."

Air quality is increasingly becoming a "quality of life issue" individuals and large employers think about before moving to a city, Bell said. He said Houstonians had to be willing to make sacrifices in order to achieve a turn-around in air quality.

Brown touted the five-year plan, and said that the city would be able to meet its mandates by its deadline.

A heated exchange concerned the Nov. 6 ballot's Proposition 2, which if passed would get rid of the city's ordinance allowing for health benefits for the same-sex partners of city employees.

Bell reiterated his opposition to the proposition, using the trademark wit he honed when worked as a radio station news reporter.

"We don't decide who gets health care benefits in the city of Houston based upon morality. If we did, some of my colleagues probably wouldn't qualify," he quipped.

Brown, long known for his less-than-commanding speaking skills, mistakenly said that he supported the proposition, when he in fact supports the ordinance it would rescind.

"I just don't believe the city of Houston should be in the business of discrimination," he said.

Sanchez quickly picked up on Brown's gaffe, saying "I'm interested to hear the mayor supporting Proposition 2. I am as well." He repeated earlier statements that as someone who immigrated to the United States as a child, "no one is more attuned to discrimination than myself."

He added that he felt the issue was one of "priorities" -- that is, the funds that would be used to provide the benefits would be more wisely spent on emergency services.

The candidates also sparred over two propositions that deal with the future of light rail in Houston. Proposition 1, which both Brown and Bell support, would require the city to hold a referendum on future extensions of the Metropolitan Transit Authority Main Street line.

Sanchez said this was merely a "restatement" of the current law, and voiced his approval of Proposition 3, which would allow for a city referendum on whether the Main Street line should be completed or torn up.

Following the grilling from the three panelists, the candidates were allowed to ask questions of their opponents. The questions were designed chiefly to find chinks in their records and resilience in the glare of the television lights.

Sanchez hammered at the budgetary abilities of Brown, whom he said entered office four years ago inheriting a surplus, but who has not offered a balanced budget since.

Bell also got in a few digs at the incumbent, saying that an FBI report stated that Houston is "the most dangerous city in Texas."

Brown, who was at this point becoming increasingly flustered, then made what would probably be the most remembered remark of the evening, if not for reasons he might like.

Lauding his own 40-plus-year career in law enforcement and other public safety roles, including a stint as "drug czar" under former President Bill Clinton, Brown said, "I'm not sure that either one of my opponents has ever had any experience in public safety. With all due respect, how can you lecture me on public safety, when the closest you've come to a crime is in the comfort of your living room, drinking beer and watching television?"

With Bell looking flabbergasted, the audience broke into nervous laughter, prompting moderator Dave Ward to ask for silence.

But Brown may have redeemed himself at the very end, when Ward asked the television audience to participate in an online poll asking the question, "Who won?" Brown, who according to polls holds a comfortable lead, cockily raised his hand.

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