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Houston goes to the polls First, the mayor’s race By Gabrielle Cosgriff Houston Houston Mayor Jim McConn made a startling admission last May. With his image badly damaged by a Las Vegas gambling scandal and by a federal grand jury’s indictment of a key staffer and subpoena of other city staff, councilmen, and records, McConn said he would not undertake an “unwinnable” campaign for re-election. He did undertake the campaign, though, and his vulnerability was evident. McConn was forced into a run-off and, with all the money and power available to an incumbent, he took only 55 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, he was re-elected to a second two-year term. Why? The answer may lie in Richard Nixon’s famous insight: “People’s memories are very short.” Last summer’s gas crunch \(remember from heaven for McConn. Our attention was diverted from the mess at city hall to the scramble for gas. By October, the gas crisis had evaporated, at least temporarily, and we could drive Houston’s freeways without looking out for green flags. That gave us time to read the ubiquitous billboards: “We already have a good mayorJim McConn.” The heavy reliance on voter amnesia made for a campaign based on generalities rather than issues. Impro0 ing the quality of life was far and away the most popular campaign theme. In other American cities that might imply an interest in the quality of the environment or something, but in Houston it meant fixing the potholes. As McConn also said last May, “Unless the potholes are fixed come November, there’ll be somebody new in that chair.” Well, November came and went and the potholes are still here and so is Jim McConn. Jack Woods, a local political commentator, explains it this way: “You know why a dog has fleas? It’s for the same reason that politicians leave potholes in the streets. A dog has fleas to keep his mind off being a dog. Politicians leave potholes in the streets to keep people’s minds off of all the corruption and stealing that’s going on. . . .” Which brings us to The Dark Cloud Over City Hall. Last January, McConn went to Las Vegas and lost $3,200 playing blackjack and shooting craps. He called then-city purchasing agent Jack Key, who arranged a $6,000 loan to 10 DECEMBER 14, 1979 repay the mayor’s gambling debts. McConn still insists he does not know to whom he owes the $6,000 or if it has been repaid. Key was indicted in April on charges of bribery, extortion, and kickbacks, including thousands of dollars extorted from city contractors. McConn said it was just a coincidence that the day Key arranged his $6,000 loan was ‘the same day Key allegedly tried to extort $6,000 from a Houston businessman. In April, the grand jury subpoenaed McConn’s campaign records. In May, it asked for the records of his special fund for entertainment expenses. In. June, city council members Larry McKaskle, Frank Mann, and Frank Mancuso denied there was anything illegal about $1,000 gifts each had received from firefighters. In July, the grand jury summoned top mayoral executive assistant Gene Gatlin before it in a continuing investigation of city contracts, kickbacks, and political contributions to council members. In September, the six council members who hadn’t yet testified appeared. In October U.S. attorney Tony Canales suspended the calling of witnesses until after the election. On election day, McConn failed to win a majority of the votes. His 42 percent share forced him into a run-off with four-year council member Louis Macey, one of eight opponents he managed to pick up. It was not an impressive showing by an incumbent mayor with two years’ worth of free publicity, almost half a million dollars in a campaign chest, and the backing of the downtown business establishment. The inconclusive outcome on November 6 is directly attributable to the candidacy of Leonel Castillo, former controller of the city of Houston and, more recently, head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Castillo, who resigned this post and entered the mayor’s race less than two months before the election, garnered about 23 percent of the vote. Castillo is held in high esteem by Houstonians, particularly the liberal community. “‘Leonel is the only intelligent, capable, foresighted, scrupulously honest of the major candidates for mayor,”said State Rep.Lance Lalor, who won a new city council seat last month. And Billie Carr, the godmother of Texas liberals, called Castillo “the only progressive in the race.” But Castillo’s problems were legionover and above the obvious ones that any progressive Mexican-American candidate would expect to face. Some liberals thought his bid for office was premature, that his two-year absence from Houston had hurt him. They felt he was trying to go it alone, seldom asking for or taking the advice of political friends who encouraged him to seek a city council post this time around. But more decisive than the hedging by some liberals on the only liberal candidate was the lack of support from minority leaders for the only minority candidate. It is a fact of political life in Houston that black support is crucial to winning the mayor’s seat. Fred Hofheinz had it when he won in 1975. Jim McConn had it when he won his first term in 1977. And he had it again this year, for several reasons. “Black folks, in part, want to back a winner and they didn’t think Castillo could win,” says Varee Shields, editor of Houston’s black newspaper, Forward Times. The Black Organization for Leadership and Development endorsed McConn, as it had in 1977. And he rewarded BOLD with city contracts channeled through the community development administration. “Jim McConn will get more black votes than he deserves,” predicted Carr before the general election. .Nobody wants to talk about it, but racism on the part of black leadership was also a factor in Castillo’s defeat. U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland, who heads the newly formed National Black-Hispanic Coalition, admits to feeling frustrated with this situation. “There are some serious problems,” he conceded. “There is racism. No question about it. No question about it.” Most important, though, was the disproportionate size of Jim McConn’s campaign chest. Up to the general election, he raised $405,000, compared to Macey’s $209,000 and Castillo’s $82,000. McConn would clearly be the frontrunner in the general election, no matter what, and the lively and expensive advertising campaign run by unabashed conservative Republican Macey boosted him past Castillo and into the run-off. With Halloween-colored billboards and television ads set to the William Tell Overture to emphasize Macey’s image as the city council’s Lone Ranger, the media men brought Macey from the 6 percent vote share projected in a September poll to the 30-plus percent he got on November 6. 4,4 MeAdo ,41nomekrifivoom. ,,,v,,a64.0.0011*