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.

That raises another interesting question: all things being equal, should we feel better about helping Drayton McLane cut his losses than we did about padding Bud Adams' bottom line? At least the Oilers' owner had a fan base with which to leverage his demands. Conversely, McLane's plaint that the Astros would stop hemorrhaging cash if he had a new stadium is disingenuous, at best. Baseball is the least popular major-league sport in town, a distant third behind football and the Rockets among local fans, according to the Chronicle's recent poll.

But McLane anticipates that once he raises the cost of everything associated with attending a baseball game, he'll need only 5,000 more spectators per game to reverse his negative cash flow.

From a taxpayer's standpoint, however, one really needn't look back beyond this season to understand how speculative the stadium proposal really is. Months before Opening Day, McLane proclaimed that the Astros absolutely needed 30,000 paying spectators at every home game this season. A desperate season-ticket campaign called "Step Up to the Plate" that was engineered by many of the same corporate interests now driving the stadium proposal failed miserably. By September, in the thick of a pennant race, the Astros still couldn't attract much more than their season-long average of 25,000 per game.

The only thing that distinguishes Drayton McLane from Bud Adams is a more palatable personality, which, when you get right down to it, isn't a good enough reason to build the Astros a new stadium. Besides, McLane hardly had the city's sports fans in mind in 1994, when he refused to support a downtown stadium for the Oilers. Ostensibly, he was worried that the loss of the football team would hurt the Astrodome, which he operates. No such concerns burden the Astros' owner today. In fact, though the Dome has now lost its second-ranking tenant, McLane could care less about its viability.

Should Prop One pass, the county has agreed to buy out the remaining 27 years of McLane's management lease for $15 million, and will waive his $1 million annual rent while the new stadium is built. The county will also pick up some $1.5 million in Dome renovations that were McLane's responsibility.

Down one professional sports franchise, though, the city's business interests and elected officials are willing to forgive an awful lot of Drayton McLane. Take the question of who's responsible for paying back bond buyers should tax revenues generated by the stadium be insufficient to cover debt service.

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels believes he can sell the construction bonds without promising that the county's general fund revenues would be available in the event of default. You don't need to consult an investment banker to know that's an assumption Eckels has no business making. Just look back two years, when Adams was trying to sell his stadium proposal. No less an authority than Vinson & Elkins attorney Bob Randolph, who has performed extensive bond work for the city, said that county taxpayers would indeed have the "moral obligation" to guarantee the bondholders' investment in an Oilers stadium. (That admission -- front-page news -- had to be a painful one for Randolph: he was on the Oilers' payroll as outside legal counsel at the time.)

For the Astros and Drayton McLane, however, stadium backers are prepared to act now and answer questions later. Unfortunately for them, Lanier's stare-down with Adams imbued voters with a healthy skepticism. You can bet that before they make the leap of faith required to punch the "yes" hole on November 5, most of them will want an answer to the question: "What's in it for me?"

It's McClung's job to figure out the right response, something he failed to do recently on the proposed HISD bond issue. That's important because, just as he did as the chief consultant to the School House Committee, McClung has to light on something that will sink in with two philosophically opposed constituencies: conservative Anglo suburbanites and Hispanic and African-American inner-city dwellers.

Before the HISD referendum, the pro-bond committee determined that its best chance for winning rested with inner-city and minority voters, whose children make up the overwhelming majority of the district's students. Accordingly, McClung concentrated the committee's $200,000 campaign inside the Loop.

With a fraction of the funds available to McClung, opposition gadfly Barry Klein found an appreciative audience among older, wealthier voters. If that constituency couldn't be convinced that more money would improve the schools and quality of education within HISD, it's quite likely they won't agree -- or much care -- that construction of a new stadium will resurrect downtown.

Klein has also come out against the stadium proposal, albeit with a little less bombast than radio personality Dan Patrick. Klein and Patrick will find a lot of like-minded folks among those who helped defeat the $390 million school bond issue. And an even deeper anti-stadium fervor can be detected among HISD supporters -- particularly the "soccer moms" who, disheartened by the bond issue defeat and faced with the continued inattention to their children's schools, are incredulous that anyone would think a tax-subsidized ballpark is a worthy priority.

Indeed, there are no shortage of incentives to vote against Proposition One.
In Kingwood, residents angry over the city's attempt to annex their affluent enclave have vowed to oppose any issue important to Houston proper. Other homeowners in the outlying areas -- who aren't opposed to an occasional visit downtown and who'll likely have the disposable income to cover the anticipated hike in the price of everything from tickets to hot dogs -- are suspicious of the subsidization of pro sports.

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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