Hard Sell

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

McClung, however, knows something about gathering consensus. He did it to help Kathy Whitmire get elected mayor five times in a row, and his work as Lanier's campaign strategist has helped the mayor maintain a broad popularity.

To reach minority voters, stadium backers will emphasize the jobs and economic vitality a massive construction project downtown supposedly will bring to the inner city. That assumption worked nine years ago during the successful campaign to build the George R. Brown Convention Center. Trouble is, once construction of the facility was complete, the jobs disappeared, and the east side of downtown has remained a mostly barren landscape.

McClung, who did not work on that campaign, says minorities weren't sold a bill of goods with the George R. Brown, but that a convention center "just wasn't quite enough" to fulfill the promise. Things might have turned out differently, he suggests, if the convention center hotel that Wayne Duddlesten is set to build had come along years ago.

McClung has been meeting with black and Hispanic elected officials, who have historically been reluctant to oppose anything styled as a "jobs" referendum. But the enthusiasm minority leaders lend to a get-out-the-vote campaign could be tempered somewhat by the volatile debate over annexation. In the past few weeks, the fear that an influx of 50,000 white suburbanites from Kingwood will blunt the impact of minority voters has become a central theme of the issue.

To the degree that the city applies a heavy-handed approach (which has offended many a Kingwood resident) to convince blacks and Hispanics to go along with Lanier's annexation strategy, support for the stadium could suffer -- if not on November 5, then at the legislative session that begins in January.

Harris County's minority representatives in Austin can afford to bide their time. If sufficiently compelled by a nasty annexation fight, they could exact their revenge by refusing to authorize the tax subsidies needed to finance the stadium construction. Adding further potential intrigue is the fact that the November 5 referendum is non-binding -- meaning that even if voters reject Proposition One, state lawmakers could attempt to legalize the necessary spending of tax dollars to build a stadium.

That might explain the uninspired PR effort put forth to date by the Harris County Citizens for Proposition One. The sales pitch seems to consist solely of exhortations to show a little civic pride, for crying out loud. Meanwhile, McClung is oddly unencumbered with compelling information with which to sell the stadium proposal. A few slick television commercials do not a campaign make, especially when the most salient point -- "It's not just about sports .... It's about the future of our community" -- rings so hollow when lined up next to the other "facts" being trotted out about the proposal.

Stadium backers have been saying it since Day One, but many people are not convinced that their property taxes won't someday be tapped for some as-yet unknown purpose. And the assertion that McLane is paying his "fair share" assumes we all agree on what that should be. Moreover, given that the language of Proposition One is alarmingly vague, it seems presumptuous to think voters will connect the well-being of themselves or their community to support for a new ballpark.

Unlike his employers, McClung seems attuned to the below-radar objections the stadium backers have to overcome. He knows baseball's image problems are dissipating, but that it's happening very slowly. He understands that for every faithful Astros fan, there are 50 people too busy, too poor or too disinterested to ever consider attending a game. And he knows that many people want to revitalize downtown Houston, but that many more have written off that possibility.

Sometimes, there's only a fine line that separates those who support an issue and those who oppose it. Perhaps it would help the stadium backers' cause to acknowledge a few of the troubling aspects of their proposal. But it seems the Harris County Citizens for Proposition One are way out in left field on this one.

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