|Paper: Houston Chronicle |
Date: Sat 09/02/2006
Section: Houston & Texas
Page: 1 MetFront
Edition: 4 STAR
Bill King making plans for Houston
Former Kemah mayor is testing water for '09 run
By KRISTEN MACK
Meet Bill King.
If the name sounds familiar but you can't quite place it, here are some reminders: He has made dire predictions of hurricane devastation and has become a top advocate of preparedness. And he's weathered political storms as part of the Texas Southern University board that ousted President Priscilla Slade.
He was mayor of Kemah for four years.
Now he wants to be mayor of Houston.
No, he doesn't plan to challenge Mayor Bill White - who can run one more time under city term limits. King is looking past White to the 2009 election.
Even if it's early to talk about an election three years away, King, 54, an ambitious lawyer, lobbyist and civic leader, wants to be in whatever conversation there is.
The risk is that the buzz will turn negative as critics question his every move. Acts that otherwise might seem selfless, such as his recent spearheading of the Fire Fighters Foundation of Houston, will be dismissed as politically motivated.
"It's unprecedented, and it's a double-edged sword," said political consultant Craig Varoga, a veteran of Houston mayoral campaigns. "The first side is it theoretically clears the field of other people who may be interested in running. But you also leave yourself open to overexposure long before anyone cares about who the next mayor is."
Case in point: White's name did not surface as a contender until about 15 months before he won the 2003 mayoral race.
Innumerable variables, including events and candidates who emerge between now and 2009, will determine what voters want then and whether King fits the bill.
There were people who said Mayor Kathy Whitmire was invincible after 10 years in office, that Houston wasn't ready for a black mayor and that a moderate white businessman who had never held public office before couldn't get elected.
Bob Lanier, Lee Brown and White successfully challenged that conventional wisdom.
The basic issues
King thinks he knows what the issues will be - mobility, crime, flooding, health care and air pollution - and it's safe to say those issues always will have a place on Houston's political agenda.
He's eyeing the seat early because he will be in a position to retire from business in the next couple of years and wants to prepare for his next phase.
"I'll be fixed financially. And I'm not the kind of guy who is going to go fishing or sit on the sailboat," he said. "It's the intersection of an opportunity in my life and a need."
King says he won't make a final decision until 2008.
What he has decided, he says, is to keep his options open. "I want to preserve the opportunity between now and then," he said.
King is the managing partner of Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, a firm that collects delinquent taxes for the city of Houston, Harris County, the Houston Independent School District and other local governmental entities.
Heading the company has given him a vantage for understanding the city and how it operates. For instance, he has helped the city increase the number or foreclosures on delinquent property, which White hopes to use for development of affordable housing.
When King joined the firm nine years ago it had 600 employees nationwide. It's now the biggest tax-collection firm in Texas and has government clients in nine other states from California to Virginia - the Houston firm is the largest.
Association with the firm isn't all positive. Named partners in other parts of the state have been convicted of bribery, though the charges did not involve King or the Houston firm.
"He recognizes he's going to have some baggage," said Rice University political scientist Bob Stein. "You overcome it by starting early and framing the debate. He can say, `I am an experienced manager of government. Here are my credentials.' "
King's career extends back to a dark time in the Texas economy, when thousands of savings and loans collapsed after a real estate and oil boom in the early 1980s turned sour. He started out as a lawyer setting up S&Ls and eventually got into the business himself. He started his own company, Columbia Savings, declared bankruptcy in 1989 and became a vocal critic of the federal government.
King spent a decade proving that he could recover and that his early success wasn't a fluke.
King, born and raised in Kemah, moved back to his hometown in the 1980s to take care of his three young children after he and their mother divorced. He was a single father, who sometimes went from champagne dinners to making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the span of an evening. He has since remarried.
He served two terms on the Kemah City Council and two as mayor. He didn't seek re-election in 2005 and moved back to Houston.
But he still makes his way to Seabrook every weekend during the spring and fall to sail his 45-foot catamaran, "Hard Times."
King has raised his profile in the past few years by speaking out on hurricane preparedness, evacuation and logistical management.
It was during Hurricane Lili in 2002 that King found out Kemah, one of the spots on Galveston Bay most vulnerable to surges, did not have an evacuation plan. It set him on what was then a one-man crusade to keep his coastal Texas neighbors from being hurt or killed by a catastrophic hurricane.
That crusade brought him mostly positive attention. His service on the board of regents for historically black TSU has proved more tumultuous.
As the board's only white member, King had a chance to show he could work with all segments of the community and potentially curry favor with black voters.
Instead he was embroiled in the spending scandal that led regents to fire once-popular university President Priscilla Slade on the grounds that she misspent the school's money to furnish and landscape her house. Slade has been indicted by a Harris County grand jury and awaits trial.
King denies persistent claims that he sought a seat on the board with the sole intention of getting rid of Slade.
The governor's office solicited him to join the board, he said. It was at his first meeting that he learned about Slade's activities.
"How would this be advantageous for any political ambition?" he asked. "This is not the kind of situation you want to be involved in. But the facts were so clear, there was no question about what the right thing to do was."
His latest venture into the public realm is chairing the Fire Fighters Foundation, which aims to raise $500,000 for equipment, training and technology the cash-strapped city can't afford.
An advantage of the campaign is that his name and face will be on more than 100 Clear Channel-donated billboards across the city between now and a fundraising ball Sept. 11.
Although city offices officially are nonpartisan, party-line splits have become more common in recent years. King will have to be careful how he plays the partisanship hand. He has history with both parties, and members of each still claim him as one of their own.
In 1992 he ran for the state Legislature as a Democrat. He often likes to tell the tale of how his "Daddy was a pipe fitter and a union man."
For the past decade King has voted in Republican primaries.
"I've always been independent," he said. "I don't put much stock in political parties. True partisans will want true partisans. A majority of the public expects people to behave nonpartisanly."
Whoever wins in 2009 will have to have some crossover appeal - between political parties and among ethnic groups.
`Testing the waters'
King's chances are bolstered because he is independently wealthy and willing to put up to $1 million of his own money into the race.
King is philosophical about his chances. "If I'm not the mayor of Houston, my life will still be complete," King said, quickly adding, "No other office has the slightest interest to me."
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has known King since the early '80s and says King has always put a lot of thought and preparation into things before making a final move.
"Bill's prototype is to start early, work hard and assess the landscape," Ellis said. "By testing the water, he's astute enough to know if the water is too deep or too hot, he can always decide to take his toe out."