Party Pooper

The Democratic chairman takes a power struggle personally

After the drubbing they took last November, you'd think local Democrats would be getting themselves together before Republicans end up holding every elected office in Harris County.

But if you thought that, you'd be wrong. They're Democrats, after all.
At the center -- or, some say, the root -- of the latest intraparty spat is David Mincberg, the county party chairman. Almost from the moment he was elected chairman in April 1994, Mincberg has been at odds with some influential activists on the party's steering committee, a 38-member advisory board to the chairman.

They say Mincberg refuses to meet with them and has violated party by-laws by canceling a mandatory budget meeting. They also complain that, in the party's darkest hour, Mincberg has shunned the input of such experienced -- some say entrenched -- party hands as Billie Carr.

Mincberg's response hasn't helped matters. He has refused to take a conciliatory role, arguing that a faction of power-hungry activists are trying to take control of the party. Moreover, he seems to be taking the sniping personally, adding weight to grumblings that he is more concerned with his personal image and future political viability.

"It's real clear to anybody with half an eyeball that David Mincberg sees being party chair as being all about David Mincberg," says a local political consultant who spoke on the condition that she remain anonymous. "It's all about David Mincberg in the limelight, about him launching a campaign for whatever it is he's going to run for."

The most persistent conjecture has Mincberg charting a course to the U.S. Senate or House, though he flatly denies harboring such ambition. But Mincberg seems a little concerned these days about his public image. Some speculate that's what prompted the sudden resignation last week of his wife, Cathy, as a Houston school trustee. The announcement came months before the couple and their four children are to move into the new home they are building in Bellaire, which is outside of Cathy Mincberg's trustee district.

Mincberg, for his part, traces his opposition to an effort to chase him off the primary ballot on a technicality in 1994. (He sued to be reinstated, and won.) "It goes back to my election," he says. "I was not the favorite of some of those people. But I was elected, and I have served and have done everything I am supposed to do and more since then."

The rift between Mincberg and the steering committee reached a head in July, when he shut down a mandatory budget meeting of the party's executive committee, which is composed of elected representatives from each precinct in the county. Steering committee members, who prepare and approve agendas for action by the 750-member executive committee, were already angry with Mincberg's failure to meet with them. But this time, they were outraged: without executive committee approval, the party's budget is technically invalid.

"Any LaRouchite can go into court and file a temporary restraining order and shut us down," complains one steering committee member, probably shuddering at the reminder of what happened in 1988, when asleep-at-the-wheel primary voters elected a Lyndon LaRouche disciple as chairman.

Mincberg says he shut down the meeting because not enough people showed up. But steering committee members are convinced he bailed when he caught wind of a few proposed amendments to party by-laws that were to be presented that night. The most substantive would allow the committee to call its own meetings, which are now held at Mincberg's pleasure. It would also remove the advisory label from the description of the steering committee. Both the proposed changes clearly rankle Mincberg.

"This has become a question of their efforts to control the chair and future chairs," Mincberg says. "It's about a group of people not elected in a countywide, open election self-appointing themselves to run the party."

Steering committee members say all they want to do is meet and go to work. But most also admit the changes are a challenge to Mincberg's personal style, which is best illustrated by the weekly, invitation-only breakfasts he began holding last January.

Party activists complain that the Friday morning gatherings do not include enough grassroots party workers. To them, Mincberg spends too much time schmoozing downtown power brokers, hired political guns and others who may or may not be around when the spring primary season arrives.

"This is not a personal thing," says steering committee member Sue Lovell. "This is about following rules and about conducting meetings. And this party is not about your own personal agenda. This is about electing Democrats, and we have a big disagreement about how you go about doing that. You can sit and have breakfast every Friday with 50 people, but it's not going to help you elect Democrats to office."

The level of frustration has brought to the surface any number of transgressions, real and imagined. Bundled together, they are enough to convince some Democrats that their chairman heads the wrong party. Those complaints range from sniping about Mincberg moving to nearly all-white Bellaire to his abandoned attempt to move party headquarters from downtown to a southwest Houston office near his house.

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