THE SWELLS RETURNED TO LA GRIGLIA in mid-August like the proverbial swallows to Capistrano, reclaiming their favorite tables, ordering their favorite off-the-menu items, and table-hopping with their favorite “frenemies.” The high-octane, Italianish restaurant on the border of River Oaks has in recent years become the hangout of Houston’s political establishment, and you could see, two weeks before Labor Day, that its members were already plotting and scheming, jockeying and strategizing, on the subject that would dominate the fall and winter: the November 4 mayoral election and the roles they would play in it.

There was Republican power-broker-in-exile Jack Rains, the big-time supporter of candidate Orlando Sanchez, lunching at his table in the center of the room with state senator Jon Lindsay and warmly greeting Hector Carreño, the political consultant who helped Sanchez come within seven thousand votes of victory two years ago and who’d just quit the campaign of candidate Sylvester Turner over the political equivalent of artistic differences. (Carreño, with his partner, Frank McCune, would soon return to the Sanchez fold.) Rains was also holding forth the day Andrea White, the wife of candidate (and Clinton-era Undersecretary of Energy) Bill White, arrived to lunch with two prominent African American women, Lora Clemmons and Regina Kyles. At any other time this might not have seemed noteworthy, but every politico in town knew White was trying to break Turner’s hold on the monolithic black vote, and polling showed that black women, particularly professional black women at least 35 years old, were most likely to break from the pack.

A few days after that, former mayor Bob Lanier arrived with his wife, Elyse, their daughter, Courtney, and her husband, Christopher Sarofim, and the Sarofims’ toddler, who competed for her grandfather’s attention with assorted muckety-mucks trying to seal his support for a new rail plan. Then the current mayor, Lee Brown, walked in, whisking himself into the private dining room, where he was the guest of honor at a fundraiser for a local black theater group. Brown did not table-hop, and the people in the main dining room seemed to like it that way. Many of them had helped put him in office (Brown was the establishment candidate in 1997 and 2001), but now they were done with him, and he was done with them. The metaphor was, in fact, unavoidable—the outgoing mayor so separate and sequestered from his original backers—but the bitterness directed at and emanating from the Brown regime goes a long way toward explaining the state of Houston today and why the mayor’s race will count for, and cost, so much.

The people who routinely lunch at La Griglia dream of a world-class Houston. They may differ on the definition, and bicker over who gets enriched in the process, but what they want is a city that can hold its own against New York or London or Shanghai. Their ideal Houston is a global nexus of business and culture. For whatever reason—and there are many that have nothing to do with city politics—Houston has not advanced much in that direction during the Brown years. It’s become harder, not easier, to attract corporate and academic stars to the city; no one would take prospective hires through the construction chaos that stretches from downtown to the medical center unless they were trying to drive them away. The mobility issue is indicative of a larger problem: City finances are stretched thin and getting thinner, while the infrastructure continues to deteriorate. These days, political operatives of many stripes brandish poll results that show that 66 percent of the populace feels that the city is “on the wrong track.”

Fairly or unfairly, much of the blame for Houston’s predicament goes to Brown. Despite Houston’s strong-mayor system, he has been, at best, an indifferent leader, a bureaucrat rather than a visionary, whose tenure is sometimes compared to the ill-fated mayoralty of David Dinkins in New York from 1989 to 1993. (Coincidentally or not, Dinkins was that city’s first black mayor too.) There was paltry coordination when corporations like Reliant Energy and Southwestern Bell started tearing up the streets to suit their needs, a fiscal crisis deepened (and deepens still), the city bureaucracy grew (“Everyone has a publicist,” one city lobbyist grouses), and so too did the infighting among the various special interests converging at city hall. The mostly white city council lost no time in showing its opposition to the mayor. Their attitude, as one lobbyist puts it, “started with elements of racism and became justifiable homicide.” When Brown saw the play, he returned in kind. Whereas Lanier and his predecessor, Kathy Whitmire, knew how to keep their friends close and their enemies closer, the Brown administration has been characterized by punishment and retribution, enemies lists and frigid exiles. No one expects that bitterness to dissipate anytime soon. “I wouldn’t be mayor of Houston for a million dollars,” says one Houston political consultant—and he’s working for a mayoral candidate.

These conditions may explain why candidates in this particular race are described as “crazy” or “messianic.” In the words ofHouston Press political reporter Tim Fleck, “It’s a flawed field.” Though all the candidates have some experience in government and private business, they also have racial, ethnic, or political baggage that could scare voters looking for someone to unite rather than divide the community. There is, for starters, 32-year-old Republican city councilman Michael Berry, who has been described as the Eddie Haskell of Houston politics: He’s young, inexperienced (he’s been on the council for only one term), and obsequious enough to collect an impromptu endorsement from Continental Airlines’ CEO, Gordon Bethune. Berry’s support comes almost entirely from the far right. Then there’s former councilman Sanchez, the Cuban American Republican who has the support of many Hispanics and most Republicans, the same coalition that almost propelled him to victory in 2001. The question today is whether Sanchez, a lackluster councilman, was a genuine phenom that year—uniting Hispanic voters as never before—or whether the votes for him were actually votes against Brown.

On the Democratic side (in what is still officially a nonpartisan race), there’s Turner, an eight-term state legislator who is working hard to hold on to his core of black voters and is also trying to erase the taint of his 1991 race against Lanier. (Turner was ahead in the polls until just before the runoff, when Channel 13 ran a series of stories that cast aspersions on Turner’s personal and business dealings. Turner filed a libel suit against the station that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that the information used against him was false and defamatory but that the reporter had not acted maliciously, so Turner could not collect damages.) And then there’s White, who, before his Clinton-administration gig, was the state party chairman; he now heads a multimillion-dollar oil-and-gas conglomerate called the Wedge Group. White is a Democratic insider and a player in the city’s wealthiest circles (“If you told him you were having a black-tie dinner for the Society to Recycle Underwear, he’d buy a table,” says a consultant), but he’s relatively unknown otherwise. He has more money than anyone else in the race but has had to spend it to introduce himself to the vast majority of Houstonians. (He’s shooting for the Bob Lanier sensible-white-guy slot.)

As for conventional issues—taxes, growth, services, and so forth—there really aren’t any. Mobility and the perennial Houston electoral bugaboo, rail, is in the news, but the candidates, as of early September, were only halfhearted about them. Turner’s Web site had “Coming Soon” stamped over his position papers on rail, Berry’s featured a Houston Chronicle story with his stand on reducing drive times highlighted in yellow, and Sanchez’s had nothing on the mobility topic at all. Only White, the wonk, had a comprehensible plan available to voters. Hence, the real issues are race, ethnicity, and partisanship.

In that regard, there is an enormous amount at stake. If the Republicans want to maintain their hold on the country, they have to win the support of Hispanics, the fastest-growing population segment. Word is that GOP strategists want a Hispanic to parade about in the 2004 elections, and the mayor of Houston would be nice. (“Washington has offered its assistance as often as we need it,” a Republican political consultant says.) At the same time, Harris County Democrats are intent on maintaining the city’s Democratic majority and recall—happily—that the Republicans’ big push last time around backfired. (George and Barbara Bush appeared woodenly in a commercial for Sanchez.) “It was the Republicans coming in and telling us who our mayor should be, and it was Not the Black Guy,” says one political analyst.

Simultaneously, demographics are changing everything. In 1979 Houston’s voting electorate was 75 percent white, 15 percent black, and 2 percent Hispanic. In 2001 it was 49 percent white, 32 percent black, and 12 percent Hispanic. If ever there was a case for coalition-building, this is it. In fact, if White wins, he instantly becomes a national figure—a white man who can win the confidence of minorities. The same is true for Sanchez, who becomes the Republicans’ Great Brown Hope. Meanwhile, if Turner or Sanchez loses, he’s probably toast, because he will have failed twice to unite the city.

So, for the next few months, Houston will be a testing ground for national themes and trends. “This is Spain before the Second World War,” says Bob Stein, a political scientist and dean of Rice University’s social sciences school. More than $5.4 million was raised by July 15, more money than was spent on the entire 2001 general election. The dirty tricks started early too: the whisper campaign about assorted sexual orientations and proclivities, the Web site falsely linking one candidate to international terrorists, the street people paid to hold neatly lettered signs denouncing another contender during rush hour. The Republicans have been busily branding White as a liberal but not Turner because, as a moderate, White poses the greater threat to Sanchez. (Turner, the real liberal in the race, has been the beneficiary of at least one Republican fundraiser already.) Various powers have ordered Berry out of the race because he could cut into Sanchez’s Republican support and throw the election to White. So far, Sanchez is the front-runner, despite strife within his campaign, with White and Turner battling for the chance to join him in the runoff. (The ongoing insanity in Austin has hurt Turner.) More than ever, this is a race that will be won by the smallest of margins, where the victor discovers and exploits new population segments—successful black women, for example, or rich people who like other rich people regardless of party affiliation—before the next guy.

“If it’s Orlando versus Sylvester, it’s a mud bath,” a consultant predicts.

At the very least, it’s a long way from world-class.