The Chron checks in on City Council member Carol Alvarado, who is still wielding considerable influence with Mayor White despite having stepped down from the Mayor Pro Tem position.
Despite a cloud of uncertainty about an ongoing investigation by local prosecutors and the negative news about her employees taking unauthorized bonuses, Alvarado still has more access to White than her council colleagues.
She’s the only member with an open invitation to attend his thrice-weekly senior staff meetings, and Alvarado remains a regular on the mayor’s weekend bicycle rides through city neighborhoods.
He also lets her spearhead complicated issues, such as studying a tougher ban on workplace smoking, responding to a grass-roots effort to change a police immigration policy or modernizing the city’s campaign-finance disclosure system.
And she’s still performing many of the historical duties assigned to the mayor pro tem. She advises the mayor, helping advance his agenda. She also works with his staff to gauge the moods of council members on emerging issues.
It’s not unusual for White to delegate tasks to council members despite Houston’s strong-mayor system, which allows his administration to set the agenda. He wants consensus. He gets that by letting members, even those who don’t side with him politically, handle high-profile issues they care about.
Councilwoman Toni Lawrence has led efforts to enact new neighborhood-protection ordinances. Councilman Adrian Garcia has held hearings on a tougher juvenile curfew. And Councilman Michael Berry has been a champion of White’s mandatory freeway-towing program, known as Safe Clear.
Yet Alvarado’s role is unique.
“Carol is the only one that I think he’s going to ask to figure out if there’s votes on something, even if that’s not her issue, because he trusts her,” said Berry, who took over the administrative duties in the Office of Mayor Pro Tem when Alvarado stepped down. “In some ways, she is an extension of the administration.”
Alvarado also acknowledged some tension between her and White, especially as speculation swirled before she stepped aside as mayor pro tem while Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal investigates the bonuses and probes other city files for possible wrongdoing.
Publicly and professionally, though, the relationship seems back to normal.
“There’s no doubt that there was a management lapse in the mayor pro tem office, and she’s accepted responsibility for that,” said White, who regularly chats with Alvarado during council meetings. “But she also is extremely hardworking and knowledgeable about government.”
Alvarado’s removal from the office was said to be temporary, pending Rosenthal’s investigation, which could drag on for many months.
He said last week that he hopes to finish the probe into the four employees’s actions “shortly.” As for the status of any probe into the activities of Alvarado or other city officials, Rosenthal wouldn’t comment.
Who knows what Rosenthal will do. He’s got a pretty spotty record in high-profile prosecutions of city officials, so indictments, of whoever, are not the last word by any stretch. Looking at the timeline in the story sidebar, it’s been over five months since a search warrant was executed in Alvarado’s office (the story says March 6; I have a blog entry about computers being seized from her district office on March 17). I don’t know how soon “shortly” is, but it’s gotta be getting close by now.
She wants to stay in public life and would prefer elected office, though some political analysts have said the scandal – or any future allegations by prosecutors – might complicate her efforts to seek a citywide post.
“Realistically, I think she may well have a successful political future in elected office, but I think it’s going to be very difficult to run citywide,” said Richard Murray, director of the University of Houston’s Center for Public Policy, who taught Alvarado years ago.
Others think she still can get back on the political fast track.
“If she’s able to rehabilitate herself politically, and I think she can, you’re talking about somebody who could be a formidable mayoral candidate,” said Jon Taylor, who chairs the political science department at the University of St. Thomas.
Maybe, I dunno. Let’s see what Rosenthal does first. For what it’s worth, I think Alvarado would have a decent shot at State Sen. Mario Gallegos in a contested primary in 2008. She’s one of several rumored possibilities for that seat. As I said before, I’m not going to use too much brainpower on 2008 until 2006 is in the rearview mirror.
Alvarado said she hopes people judge her by her accomplishments, political experience and the vigor with which she has represented her constituents, not by a single scandal.
“We’re all human. We all learn from our mistakes,” she said. “From this, I will be a better public servant.”