Hard Sell

That credibility gap may be too wide for Proposition One backers to traverse

The ironic thing about political consultants is that while they're hired to find out what turns voters on or off about a particular person or idea, they themselves don't get out much.

Take Dan McClung, who's currently tasked with delivering the "yes" vote for Harris County Citizens for Proposition One, official boosters of next month's referendum on the county's $450 million plan to build a new downtown ballpark and renovate the Astrodome.

A month ago, a Chronicle poll showed that voters favoring Proposition One trailed those opposed by 5 percentage points. Since then, McClung's "tracking" of the measure has identified support that, as he put it last week, "boggles up and down."

At this point, that's more than enough for McClung to describe Proposition One's chances as "in the doable zone," which is about as good as it gets three weeks from Election Day. Yet the outcome of the November 5 vote could be much worse than even the most pessimistic backer of Prop One is prepared to consider. McClung's bloodless data, gathered largely through phone polling of targeted voters, will continue to indicate a close vote, and it may, at some point, show that supporters outnumber opponents.

To reach that point, however, McClung's clients will have to consider more than whether or not people simply want a new stadium. They will have to address the larger credibility gap that exists between the "Vote Yes" team's self-righteous enthusiasm and the actual buzz on the street.

Ask yourself these questions: how many people do you know who aren't hesitant about the use of public money to finance the proposal? How many of your friends and acquaintances believe, or even care that, a new stadium will resuscitate the heart of the city? And how many folks in your circle support the idea of buying Drayton McLane a new ballpark, just to keep him from taking his baseball team someplace else?

Part of the problem faced by stadium proponents is the way in which important public issues are played out these days. There's nothing inherently offensive about a new sports facility or, notwithstanding the demonization of pro team owners, sports in general. Most people, whether they're Astros fans or not, can appreciate what both major league baseball and a spanking new stadium can contribute to their community.

What is offensive to many people is the hypocrisy and assault of empty logic to which they're being subjected. Houstonians have long been hearing how their elected officials value fiscal responsibility and abhor special interests. Yet the stadium debate is being driven by vacuous sentiments from an elite cadre of big businessmen who have yet to convince voters that their out-front support of a new stadium isn't wholly connected to their corporate or personal concerns.

In that light, even Austin adman Mark McKinnon's first pro-Prop One television commercial, a 30-second spot featuring Mayor Bob Lanier ("No property tax, no general sales tax, teams must sign 30-year leases") will have only slightly more impact than if it had been delivered by Leona Helmsley.

"I think it's a good play," Lanier says gently at the conclusion of his commercial. Other than his brief TV pitch, however, the mayor has tried to distance himself from the stadium proposition, pointing out -- as he did to City Council last week -- that it's a county issue.

Compare that to his highly public rejection of Bud Adams' request for a new football stadium two years ago. Lanier went so far as to take his ferocious indignation to Washington, where he emerged from the 1995 U.S. Conference of Mayors as something of a folk hero. In the oft-manic discussion over the migration of sports franchises from one town to another, Lanier was celebrated by the national media as unusually rational, even courageous. He even helped organize an eight-mayor committee that would explore ways to keep team owners from exercising their power to blow town.

In retrospect, though, Lanier's stand against Adams and the Oilers seems to have been just one more of his ceaseless bids for national recognition and respect. By attacking the issue in the context of a universal crisis, the mayor would have us believe that the widespread caricature of Adams as a fat, greedy man with no appreciation for fan loyalty had no bearing on his conclusion that any benefit professional sports might bestow upon a city shouldn't come at the expense of taxpayers.

There is little, however, that separates Drayton McLane's demand for a new stadium from Adams'. Both owners proposed similar financing schemes, a combination of private investment and incremental tax subsidies. Adams wanted $195 million; McLane's new ballpark will require $180 million. But Adams offered to put up $50 million of his own money, while McLane's share, $37 million over 30 years, comes with no risk attached: he'll recoup that by selling the naming rights to the stadium, which could go for as high as $50 million. McLane also gets to keep every penny of the millions of dollars in ticket, parking and concession revenues generated by the stadium every year. Imagine the vilified Bud having the gall to even ask for that.

In contrast to Adams, McLane is being sold to us as the atypical owner, a civic-minded man who's just doing what he must to keep the Astros in Houston. In fact, much like Adams did two years ago, McLane has been holding a gun to our collective head since last winter, when he made it known that, because the Astros had been losing an average of about $20 million a year, he was thinking of selling out to Virginia businessman Bill Collins, who would relocate the team to the D.C. suburbs.

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