By Chris Lane
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Straight Outta West U
With the prospect of a wide-open Houston mayoral race set to begin just after the New Year, an unlikely candidate is stirring in the WASPy environs of West University Place: Rob Mosbacher, a 45-year-old independent oilman, lawyer and term-limits activist who's been busy chatting up his chances with local political operatives and players.
One development fueling Mosbacher's interest is the growing belief that the move to force a referendum on a rollback of the city's term-limits ordinance is now dead, and that Mayor Bob Lanier will indeed be leaving office as scheduled on January 2, 1998.
"My impression is that [an overturning of term limits] is not going to happen," says Mosbacher, who attributes that belief to "what I pick up from a variety of sources."
That's news to quicken the pulses of an unannounced bevy of other would-be Lanier successors, the most certain of whom are Rice professor and former police chief Lee Brown and term-limited Councilwoman Helen Huey.
Mosbacher apparently would have the blessing of his father, Robert Mosbacher, if he makes the race. An attendee at last week's reception to promote literacy at George and Barbara Bush's Tanglewood home sidled up close enough to the elder Mosbacher to hear him muse aloud on his son's political ambitions.
"The kid's run for a bunch of stuff," the former Bush commerce secretary reportedly remarked. "I tell him next time, he better run for something he can win." According to our eavesdropper, Mosbacher senior also claimed the idea of the younger Mosbacher mounting a mayoral bid had been run by some of Lanier's aides, "and the response was enthusiastic."
Rob Mosbacher, who as a Republican has conducted unsuccessful campaigns for U.S. senator and lieutenant governor, confirms he's seriously looking at making the race, a decision that would require his family (he and his wife have three children) to abandon their 12-year residence in West U and move into Houston.
"I'm giving it serious consideration, but I won't make a decision for a couple of weeks," says Mosbacher, who points out that he would not have time to meet the six-month residency requirement for mayoral candidates should Lanier take a position in the Clinton administration in the next few months. But, as with talk of a possible fourth term for the mayor, a Lanier move to D.C. seems to be a receding possibility.
Mosbacher's not the only potential aspirant who's operating under the belief that there will be no challenge to the city's term limits ordinance before Lanier leaves office. It's the same assumption that has state Senator John Whitmire talking up his mayoral prospects to anyone who will listen.
But unlike Whitmire, an inner-city Democrat, Mosbacher has no direct experience in grassroots Houston politics. His primary focus has been national and state politics, starting with a staff position and later campaign post for former U.S. Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee. In 1984, Mosbacher made a low-fueled GOP primary run for the Senate seat eventually won by Phil Gramm -- an effort that "started slowly and lost momentum," laughs one associate from that campaign. Mosbacher's 1990 bid for lieutenant governor against Bob Bullock was more credible, but got caught in the implosion of GOP gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams, who dragged Rob down with him.
According to Mosbacher, over the last six months a wide spectrum of Houstonians have encouraged him to consider getting into the mayoral race. He's declining to discuss specific city issues -- he took a pass, for instance, when we quizzed him on the annexation of Kingwood -- but he is on record supporting the downtown baseball stadium proposal.
"Until I decide I'm going to get in this thing for sure and spend the time I want to spend studying these things, I don't want to get into specific questions," he says. "It's premature."
Mosbacher is currently working with his father in repositioning their company, Mosbacher Energy, from domestic oil and gas exploration and production to an international operation focusing on power generation. A factor in Mosbacher's decision to run will be whether he can step out of day-to-day responsibility for the company's operations. Robert Mosbacher currently is devoting about 50 percent of his time to the company.
Mosbacher agrees with his father's concerns about entering a race he can win and says he'd have to have "at least a 50-50 chance" before he'd wade into municipal politics.
"It's important for anyone who has run before to pick their next race very carefully with an eye toward winning," he says. "Running and losing is great for character building, but I've had all the character building I need."
"He's a close, dear friend of mine whose judgment I respect," says Mosbacher. Others in the Mosbacher inner circle include Austin consultant and former Post reporter Mark Sanders and longtime family advisor Herb Butrum.
In establishing himself as a viable candidate, Mosbacher will have to answer one troublesome question: Can a white Republican from a bedroom community get to first base in a nonpartisan citywide contest with a large minority vote?