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
"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
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.