Party Pooper

The Democratic chairman takes a power struggle personally

Mincberg's defenders say the problem just might be a matter of style. "Mincberg just doesn't do a good job of kissing people's ass," says Marc Campos, a political consultant. "People feel that there are people he's not paying enough attention to, and they raise hell. Frankly I'd rather have people bashing Newt Gingrich on affirmative action than people bashing David Mincberg."

But Mincberg has clearly offended party activists. Some are still peeved at him for doing nothing to prevent Linda Motheral, who was appointed to a family court judgeship by then-governor Ann Richards, from quitting the party to become a Republican.

"That kind of stuff concerns me," says Lovell. "If you're not going to try and keep people in the party, you're going to have a hard time recruiting."

And almost all of Mincberg's critics say he's in hot water in the black community. Earlier this year he announced that the party was out of money and would need to lay off a staff worker. The steering committee proposed that Mincberg let go Tim Douglass, the party's executive director. Mincberg ignored the suggestion, and instead laid off longtime receptionist Liz Woods, the only African-American employed at party headquarters.

Mincberg says that, unlike Douglass, Woods refused his offer to pay her $100 a week out of his own pocket until an April fundraiser could replenish the party's coffers. But many Democratic activists, especially in the black community, were upset -- particularly when, following the fundraiser, Mincberg hired a white woman as the new receptionist.

To many, that move was illustrative of Mincberg's greatest sin, which is that he is out of touch with rank-and-file Democrats. His critics say he hardly improves matters by his vigorous courting of prominent blacks such as Justice of the Peace Al Green and businessman Howard Jefferson, who many consider to be of no help in recruiting black voters.

It all adds up to no shortage of bile being excreted at Mincberg's expense. And the search for somebody who can take the party chairmanship away from him in next spring's primary already is under way.

"If it were a vote of party activists, he would not win," says one steering committee member. "And I don't think the people he is reaching out to and the folks he's running with are necessarily going to be of help to him in the primary. All the fun and all the sex and all the races are going to be on the other ticket. There's nothing exciting about the Democratic primary that's going to bring those people over."

David Mincberg is sitting in the glass-enclosed conference room of his Flagship Properties. It's 8:30 a.m., and he's been up for some time now, having exercised, eaten and slipped into a wool-blend suit while the morning shadows were still long.

One thing Mincberg's critics say about him is noticeable immediately: image is important. On one wall are framed glamour shots of two or three of his more prestigious apartment complexes, clearly representing the best of the 11,000 units he says have been built by Flagship. Across the room, among a collection of personal mementos, sits the 1990 Mickey Leland Humanitarian Award, presented to Mincberg by the NAACP.

In the middle, both literally and figuratively, is Mincberg. On the one hand, symbols of the liberal ideal, like the Leland award, allow Mincberg to scatter self-congratulatory lines around like pocket lint. On the other is Flagship, which under Mincberg is very much a family-run business and has become one of Houston's largest developers of multifamily housing projects. But just as Mincberg's autocratic style has rankled Democratic activists, so have his aggressive dealings at Flagship put him at odds with fellow businessmen.

Mincberg is now trying to settle a potentially nasty lawsuit filed against Flagship by the Bomasada Group, the partner with Mincberg in a joint venture to build a luxury apartment complex in Albuquerque. Bomasada claims that Mincberg forced the venture to employ FPC Construction, a Flagship-owned company, to build the complex. Then, the suit claims, when FPC began racking up expenses beyond those budgeted, an estimated $1.3 million in cost overruns, Mincberg refused to let his partners inspect the books -- which, Bomasada contends, would also show that Mincberg funneled assets from the joint venture to another Flagship project.

Mincberg denies any wrongdoing and says there have been no cost overruns on the project, which is still under construction. "I did not seek them out, they came to me and asked me to be the developer and the builder," he says.

A July 4 fire at Camino Real suggested there might be others involved with the project who are angry. The blaze destroyed five unoccupied buildings, causing at least $5 million in damage. Arson investigators quickly ruled that the fire was of suspicious origin, though Mincberg says that "as far as I know" they later determined the blaze was an accident. (Albuquerque fire officials did not return phone calls.)

Mincberg is obviously uncomfortable talking about his troubles in Albuquerque, and he seems anxious to know where details of the lawsuit, which is a matter of public record, first surfaced. Sources say he became angry with a party activist last week, accusing her of leaking information about the lawsuit in an attempt to sully his reputation.

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