It must be getting close to the start of Election Season, because the first of the Chronicle’s local race overviews has been published.
Since winning a seat on the Houston City Council two years ago, Helena Brown has become known for regularly voting “no” on what many would consider routine spending items.
The 36-year-old tea party- inspired political activist says her voting record is a direct product of constituent will in her conservative-leaning District A, home to Spring Branch.
After all, District A was the first to oust a sitting incumbent in the nearly 20 years since the city implemented term limits, in part because Brown’s predecessor, Brenda Stardig, had cast a vote to set up a controversial, voter-approved drainage fee.
And yet, the list of District A candidates on this November’s ballot will be the longest it has been in years.
In addition to Brown and Stardig, 51, who is attempting to win back the seat she lost two years ago, the field includes Amy Peck, 28, district director for state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston; 55-year-old Houston Police Department officer-turned-author and consultant Mike Knox; and 32-year-old Ronald “Ray” Hale, who helps run his family’s residential and commercial security business.
Speaking earlier this month at a well-attended candidate forum hosted by one of the district’s many civic clubs, Knox told attendees, “If your City Council person votes ‘no’ all alone, then your voice is not being heard at City Hall.”
Peck, whose platform includes tighter budget controls, accused Brown of political grandstanding and said her approach has “definitely affected the district because she’s not working with other council members in a way where other council members, in turn, want to help her district.”
Stardig agrees: “We miss out on opportunities because if you don’t work with the administration, you don’t get your projects on the agenda.”
Brown, though, said her approach of “breaking the rubber stamp” has been highly effective, resulting in mutual respect among her council colleagues rather than alienation and loss.
“Those who feel that that’s ineffective are detached from reality because the reality is, if you become a rubber stamp on City Council, why even be there?” she said, pointing out that she votes “no” on up to 20 percent of items on any given agenda. “You’re not there to hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’ or anything like that. You’re there to go and be that representative and that will of the people, and it’s a very blessed opportunity.”
First of all, the claim that Stardig was the first sitting incumbent to be ousted under term limits is incorrect. The late Jean Kelley, elected in 1997 to succeed her husband John, was defeated in 1999 by
Mark Ellis Bert Keller after serving one term. As for this year, I interviewed all five candidates for District A – you can find the interviews here – and I think the voters have some good choices. Mike Knox and Amy Peck are thoughtful and well-informed. Stardig is Stardig, and for what it’s worth I always thought she was a decent Council member. She had issues staying connected to her constituents, but she was always knowledgeable on the issues and made good votes. As for CM Brown, she came across better in her interview than I expected. I admittedly didn’t have very high expectations, but then I also viewed her as more of a caricature than a real person. I don’t agree with her philosophy, and I think her habitual No votes – which she downplayed somewhat in the interview – are pointless and harmful to her own interests, but she clearly believes in what she’s doing, and she makes a better case for herself than I thought she could. A year ago at this time, I’d have bet money that she’d lose re-election. I still think there’s a decent chance she’ll be a one-term Council member, even a non-zero chance she’ll fail to make a runoff. But she has grown as a public official, and can hold her own among some well-qualified opponents. I expected this race to be more entertaining than anything else, but it’s much more serious than I thought it would be, and as such it’s a much more interesting race.