By Sean Pendergast
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The Houston Rockets have acceded to County Judge Robert Eckels's demands for changes in an agreement between the team and the sports authority. So you'd think the court would be clear for a fast break to a November referendum on the downtown basketball arena. But with time to mount a campaign on the $175 million arena running down, team management may be about to make a crucial turnover.
Rockets CEO George Postolos is urging the corporate backers of the arena, including Enron's Ken Lay and former Reliant Energy chairman Don Jordan, to hire a media consultant for the upcoming campaign. And not just any consultant -- Postolos's pick is one whose primary clients include corporate interests opposing environmental initiatives, and groups supporting casino gambling.
The firm, Winner/Wagner & Mandabach of Encino, California, is known in the consulting trade as an "astroturfer." That's political slang for public relations specialists who excel in ginning up fake grassroots campaigns to oppose popular initiatives or to sugarcoat unpalatable ones. Astroturfers often establish front groups with misleading names, generally with corporate financial backing, then get "members" of those groups to stage public demonstrations and to deluge local media and officials with letters supporting their objectives.
Rockets consultant Bill Miller says Postolos has a high regard for Winner/Wagner, having worked with the firm when he was special assistant to National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern. Postolos is also a close personal friend of firm principal Paul Mandabach. The Rockets want Winner/Wagner to shape the campaign and craft media ads, while Dave Walden, who was chief of staff for former mayor Bob Lanier, manages the campaign nuts and bolts. Walden has not yet agreed to come on board.
The Rockets want to take no chances on their third and likely final attempt for the arena. It lost last November after Republican Party leaders and Aeros hockey team owner Chuck Watson combined forces and dollars in an effective opposition effort.
Winner/Wagner wouldn't come cheap. The firm sought a consulting role in the 1996 baseball stadium campaign, but asked for a budget in the $3 million to $4 million range, well out of the ballpark for referendum supporters.
Postolos wanted to install Winner/ Wagner as consultants in last fall's referendum, but he was opposed by the team assembled by Mayor Lee Brown and other arena backers. Once again, the price tag -- $4 million plus -- was the deal breaker. The campaign was finally run by Craig Varoga, who managed the mayor's election in 1997.
Winner/Wagner's high rates didn't discourage Postolos, who has a rep with local political consultants as a conspicuous consumer, an executive who seems to think political players are like NBA stars -- the higher-priced the better.
Says one area politico: "Postolos is very much an "I want the best' kind of guy, and what he perceives as best is usually not the people in this part of his life, it's the [people in the] last part of his life. He sees this as a national decision, and he wants a national player."
"George is in love with Winner/Wagner," says this source. "He fits the victim profile of people that firm goes after: smart but knowing nothing of street politics. Postolos is fundamentally a decent guy, but so naive he's dangerous."
Postolos did not return an Insider call for comment.
Winner/Wagner's technique, according to several consultants, is to sign on to a campaign as media manager. Then it subcontracts much of the work -- such as advertisement buys and mailings -- to affiliates owned by the firm, with significant commissions along the way. "The markups and profits are just unbelievable," chuckles a consultant familiar with the firm.
If it's chosen, Winner/Wagner's national record will be no laughing matter for Houston environmentalists. The firm worked with Maine lumber companies in 1996 against an initiative opposing clear-cutting. Opponents tagged the firm as "the Darth Vader of environmental referendum politics." The company also has signed up to fight for Colorado mining companies against restrictions on the use of water-polluting cyanide in processing ore. Over the past decade, it has crafted media campaigns for pro-gambling initiatives from California to West Virginia.
The firm did the media blitz for a Pittsburgh sales tax hike to build a sports stadium, a 1997 referendum that went down in defeat. The campaign cost $5.5 million and left proponents $850,000 in debt. A year later, Winner/Wagner signed on a utility-funded effort in Boston to preserve a utility deregulation statute. That provoked charges from community groups that it "was the most anti-environmental public relations firm in the nation."
California's San Bernardino County was another stop for Winner/Wagner in 1996. Landfill operators were battling zoning requirements against opening dumps near drinking-water sources. Winner/Wagner collected $473,000 from landfill interests to craft a campaign on behalf of "The Coalition for Clean Drinking Water."
With that sort of inventive camouflage, don't be surprised if Winner/Wagner produces pro-arena TV ads in Houston this fall on behalf of "The Coalition to Protect Citizen Pocketbooks from Les Alexander."
Meanwhile, Judge Eckels returned from vacation in Florida after a week of vilification in absentia by pro-arena forces. That was highlighted by Houston Chronicle columnist Dale Robertson's over-the-top tirade. Robertson may have won the award as Rockets arena defensive player of the year by implying in a Sunday rant that Eckels was anti-Semitic, racist and a chickenshit to boot (his exact words were "what chickens deposit all over the barnyard") for questioning four aspects of the arena agreement.
The Rockets took a lot of the guff out of Robertson's assault by quickly agreeing to Eckels's objections. And Eckels received praise from a City Hall source for significantly improving the arena deal. He forced the Rockets to drop a non-compete clause that would have kept the Houston Rodeo from replacing the Astrohall with a new facility.
"He made a good call and did the sports authority a favor," says the City Hall source, who would like to see more changes in the agreement. One would eliminate restrictions on the 20 dates that the city is allowed to use the proposed arena. Currently the city can stage only five moneymaking events out of those 20. "Those dates ought to be able to be used any damn way the city wants."
This source would also like to see the relocation clause in the agreement amended to specifically mention the Houston Comets as well as the Rockets. The pact now prevents only the Rockets from moving.
Eckels has no apologies for rocking the arena boat with his concerns.
"There are some who want an arena at any cost and just want a deal," says the judge. "And when you're dealing with a professional sports team, you've got to be willing to say no. And if you have to leave, you have to leave."
While Eckels's political standing may have taken a hit with arena backers, he'll likely strengthen support with his Republican constituency by drawing concessions from the Rockets that Mayor Brown didn't.
Eckels says he'll probably support the amended arena agreement, though he won't commit to campaigning for it. Another key figure, Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt, is still number-crunching the agreement but indicates he too would like to see changes. One involves a clause allowing the Rockets to receive reimbursement for any ticket-tax charge levied against fans in the future.
The new agreement eliminates a proposed ticket tax that provided a rallying point for opponents in the last referendum. Since there will be no such tax, Bettencourt wonders why the clause is in the agreement at all.
Bettencourt is also amused by the repeated assertions by the Rockets, mostly through the Houston Chronicle, that his approval as well as that of Eckels, Watson and NFL team owner Bob McNair is absolutely essential before the deal goes to the voters.
"No one has ever marched into my office or gotten me on the phone and said, "You're absolutely critical to passing this deal,' " says Bettencourt. "The only time I see that is in second- and third-hand media reports, specifically in the Chroniclewithout any sourcing. In reality, it's clearly a [Rockets] negotiation tactic."
A final arena note: For all of you concerned about the fate of Compaq Center if the arena is built, there could be a divine twist in the aging building's fate.
An area nondenominational congregation, Grace Community Church, is negotiating with the city to lease the former Summit for weekend services. Previously Grace Community had been touted as a possible buyer if the city decides to sell. Under the lease arrangement, the ice rink would be preserved for use by the Aeros.
Just call it an icy, dicey Christian kind of deal.
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