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.

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.

But, in what is perhaps a sign of hope for party activists, Mincberg cooled down enough to attend a meeting with a steering committee member in an attempt to fashion some kind of peace.

Pat Strong, the committee member, says she emerged from her session with Mincberg satisfied that he would allow the executive committee meetings to consider the by-law revisions.

Mincberg says an accord was reached on two of three proposed changes; apparently, he has yet to agree to allow the removal of the word advisory from the by-law definition of the steering committee. But, even if he does grant the steering committee broader powers, no one -- least of all Mincberg himself -- expects him to change.

"Kissing somebody's butt is not my style," Mincberg says. "But I'm pretty good at organizing and I'm pretty aggressive. I'm not apologetic about that. It's allowed me to get a lot of stuff done, both personally and professionally.

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