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Can Houston Councilmember Helena Brown Tell Ted Cruz’s Future?

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Helena Brown

Over the past few weeks, Ted Cruz has inflamed the national imagination with either presidential or revenge fantasies, depending on whom you ask and whether they work at NASA. But with the shutdown over (for now) and the Republican Party’s approval numbers hovering just above syphilis, political insiders who have a real problem living in the moment are wondering what’s next for Cruz. The infant-faced freshman senator has five years of job security left, which is probably more than some folks at NASA. But then Cruz will have to reapply for his position, and it’s anyone’s guess what his résumé will say under “Objective:”.

After all, it’s one thing to campaign on “NO.” It’s another to govern on it. But Helena Brown could have told Cruz that.

Remember Helena Brown? The freshman Houston city councilmember from District A rode from obscurity to (sort of) glory two years ago on a dry heave of tea party support, defeating the incumbent, Brenda Stardig, who’d had the audacity to vote for a drainage fee in her flood-prone district. Brown quickly made a name for herself not by accomplishing anything but by opposing things, often alone and to no effect. (Read the full Observer feature on her exploits here.)

During her first six months in office, Brown voiced the solitary “no” vote on the 16-person council more than 200 times, often for projects in other members’ districts. You can imagine how popular this made her. And she used these “no” moments to speechify, turning a vote against energy-efficient buildings into a stand for American sovereignty, and a vote against birth control for low-income women into an endorsement of teaching the Bible in schools. She also practiced one-woman obstructionism, often using parliamentary procedures to delay city business other members considered routine and necessary.

Sound familiar?

But while Cruz has years to learn whether this shtick delights voters as much in practice as it does in theory, Brown is about to find out. Houston’s municipal elections are November 5th and early voting starts Monday. All city councilmembers are up for reelection, but only Brown’s seat is considered at risk, and the ousted Brenda Stardig is back for a rematch. A third candidate is expected to force a runoff between Stardig and Brown, whose last showdown was also a runoff—with eight percent turnout.

The question, then, is whether District A likes what it got.

After all, Brown’s performance was no sneak attack. She ran on a simplistic government-bad, free-market-good platform and that’s how she governed. Brown accomplished little for her district and also had several small-time debacles during her first year: high staff turnover, accusations of altered time cards, and a bizarre, city-funded trip to Korea. But she never wavered in her opposition to the things she felt needed opposing, however little good it did. On Wednesday, for example, after failing in her solo bid to decrease the property tax rate, she abandoned the council meeting saying she needed to attend to constituent concerns elsewhere.

After Brown’s election in 2011, Houston blogger Charles Kuffner wondered presciently, “It will be interesting to see how CM-Elect Helena Brown reconciles her professed political beliefs with the sort of things that constituents tend to expect to get done.”

In a visit with the Houston Chronicle editorial board a year ago, outgoing U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison made a similar observation about Cruz. She warned that he was “going to have to choose early between being loyal to Jim DeMint and Mike Lee and the needs of the people of Texas.”

That dichotomy makes sense in the old world, where the government was considered a necessary evil instead of just evil. But in the new world, no such reconciliation may be necessary. If professing beliefs is what Brown’s base wanted—representing her constituency ideologically, rather than in negotiations over potholes and playgrounds—they got it. Cruz, too, has delivered what he promised, which was to stand up to Washington.

So will District A keep Brown? Ted Cruz might want to watch and find out.

Emily DePrang joined The Texas Observer in 2011 as a staff writer covering criminal justice and public health. Before that, she was nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. Before that, she was a waitress. She's also appeared in The Atlantic, Salon.com, and VICE. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has won some things, including the Public Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists (2012), the National Health Journalism Fellowship from USC Annenberg (2013), and a nomination for a National Magazine Award in Reporting (2014). She still sometimes thinks about waitressing.

  • Nicholas D.

    This article secures my vote for Brown. The more ways a council member can PREVENT the spending (and collecting) of public money, the better. My only expectation is that they keep basic, necessary city services functioning effectively (police, fire, sanitation, and roads). We don’t need any new programs or public solutions to private problems.

  • johncoby

    The article forgot to quote another blogger: “Hopefully the current Council Clown, Helena Brown, will lose her seat in a runoff with Brenda Stardig (R) (The R stands for Reasonable). This will leave District A with responsible representation and a hole to fill on City Council.” :)

  • Leroi

    Watch out Ted Cruz. Helena Brown lost her runoff.