Houston mayor wins re-election for third term, fending off challenge from city councilman

Sunday, December 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HOUSTON (AP) _ Mayor Lee Brown held off City Councilman Orlando Sanchez in a tight race Saturday to win re-election to a third term and derail Sanchez's bid to become Houston's first Hispanic mayor.

With 100 percent of the precincts counted, Brown had 165,865 votes, or 52 percent, to Sanchez's 155,164, or 48 percent.

Overwhelming support for Brown in several late-reporting and predominantly black Fort Bend County precincts put the incumbent over the top after the two candidates to lead the nation's fourth-largest city swapped the vote advantage repeatedly throughout the evening Saturday.

``Let me commend Orlando for running a very tough campaign,'' Brown said in a victory speech. ``I know he loves Houston and I hope he'll continue to work with us to make sure we will have one city with one future.

``We have built ... We have refurbished,'' Brown said, reflecting on his previous two terms. ``Most important to me, we have offered hope to those who are less fortunate than we are. That's what we're all about. So the next two years, we will work hard, we will work smart and most important we will work together. We will greet any conflict and challenge with courage and commitment.''

``They have counted up the votes and we've fallen a little short,'' Sanchez said. ``We want to congratulate Mayor Brown for a well-run, hard-fought campaign. Tomorrow we all wake up, we're all Houstonians, we're working together.

``I hope our message resonates,'' he added.

Brown, a Democrat and Houston's first black mayor, had characterized Cuban-born Sanchez as inexperienced, unreliable and a political extremist who shouldn't be trusted to lead the city.

Brown, 64, cited his four years in office, his tenure as police chief in Atlanta, New York City and Houston and his stint as drug czar under President Clinton as reasons why he should be re-elected.

Republican Sanchez, 44, criticized Brown for fire department staffing shortages, deteriorating streets and warned of an impending financial crisis, saying he could better set priorities and spend city money more wisely.

While officially a nonpartisan race, the national political parties threw muscle and money behind their respective candidates.

Brown received assistance from the Democratic National Committee, including telephone messages to voters from former President Bill Clinton. Sanchez got the backing of top GOP figures, including President Bush and his father, along with New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Sanchez did better than expected in the Nov. 6 election by finishing a close second to Brown in a six-man field. Because no one took at least 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers meet in Saturday's runoff.

Since then, Brown has conducted the most negative citywide campaign in decades.

Brown questioned whether Sanchez really graduated cum laude in political science from the University of Houston, as he claimed. The grades backed Sanchez.

Brown complained that Sanchez missed budget meetings. Sanchez said that he was not on a council budget committee and was not required to attend.

This week the Brown campaign distributed Sanchez's five-page 1992 performance evaluation as a probation officer. Sanchez was rated as unsatisfactory in his work hours and as needing improvement in interest in his job and attendance.

``If you look at my opponent's experience in terms of managing anything, it's zero,'' Brown said.

Sanchez, who said he would make public safety his top priority and work to unclog construction-mangled streets, said Brown's campaign tactics ``threatened to tear the fabric of our community.''

``He has pitted nationality against nationality, ethnic group against ethnic group, racial group against racial group'' Sanchez said. ``That doesn't serve our community.''

Race had become an issue in the election in Houston, where Hispanics account for more than a third of the city's 1.95 million residents and blacks make up 25 percent.

State election inspectors were monitoring several precincts Saturday after some voters in predominantly black and Democratic precincts said they feared possible intimidation by Sanchez-hired poll watchers.

``It's not about race,'' Brown said. ``It really is the tale of two men who want to take our city in different directions. I stand for progress. He wants to take us back.''