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Politics is the subtext of much of what goes on at Houston City Hall, but rarely is the musk of rutting municipal wheeler-dealers so overwhelming as at last week's council meeting. Just about everybody who's anybody on Bagby Street came out for two distinct plotlines: the first shot in a tussle over lucrative Hobby Airport food and retail concessions, and the end game of a behind-the-scenes fight for a pivotal seat on the Houston Port Commission.
Shortly after Mayor Lee Brown took office in 1998, dueling legions of high-powered lobbyists and politically connected vendors waged what became known as the Food Fight for concessions at Bush Intercontinental Airport. The bruising contest came complete with television attack ads and political consultants. It eventually resulted in a victory by a joint venture organized by New York-based CA One over an alliance of local restaurant clans dubbed Four Families.
More than just business competition, the Food Fight tested the new mayor's control of City Council against its conservative bloc. Brown had backed CA One, and its triumph also was a win for the administration.
This time around for Food Fight II, the Hobby Airport goodies are divided into two contracts. A five-year concession contract covers news, gifts and specialty retail estimated to be worth $76.7 million in sales. A ten-year deal, for the much more lucrative food and beverage concessions, could bring in a quarter-billion dollars' worth of business.
Four years may have passed, but the names of the major players remain the same. Contenders include presidential spiritual adviser the Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell. He and partner Gerald Wilson are on teams bidding for both contracts: They're allied with CA One on the food and drink side, while joining with Hudson Joint Venture for the retail deal.
The minister was on the CA One team in 1998, and also was previously involved with concessions at Hobby Airport. Whether thanks to divine guidance, political intercession or simply the merits of the bids, both of Caldwell's teams got the nod from city aviation officials. City Council must now vote to approve the selections.
Although Caldwell is a longtime businessman and investor in addition to pastoring Windsor Village United Methodist Church, he and Wilson are still certified in the city's affirmative action program. Their participation gave CA One an overwhelming 60 percent minority participation rating. Other bidders groused that Caldwell and Wilson should have graduated out of the program long ago. Caldwell was out of town and unavailable for comment.
"I think it's a fair criticism of the affirmative action program," says Councilman Gabriel Vasquez, who chairs the council's aviation committee. "Have they graduated the organizations and businesses that they were supposed to or not? I think this opens and raises a tremendous number of questions, and I hope the administration is ready to deal with it."
John DeLeon, city affirmative action and contract compliance director, explains that thus far the federal government has not set restrictions on the maximum net worth of minority bidders for airport concessions. Those bidders for construction contracts cannot have a net worth above $750,000 (excluding homes and businesses).
DeLeon expects limits to be set at $2.5 million when guidelines are issued on minority concessionaires.
As in 1998, rival Four Families is an alliance of some of the better-known restaurateur clans in Houston, including Chris Pappas (Pappas and Pappasito's), Ricardo Molina (Molina's) and Gigi Huang (Hunan's). With an eye to politics, the team has added Grover Jackson, a member of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority and close friend of Mayor Brown's. Interestingly, although he is African-American, Jackson chose not to seek minority status.
For the retail sales, state Representative Garnet Coleman is part of another team called Paradies that is pursuing the contract. Coleman, according to one participant, would be in line to own and operate a newsstand-gift shop with a potential to be one of the contract's bigger cash cows.
CA One's lobbyist is Dave Walden, former mayoral chief of staff to Bob Lanier. The day before aviation director Rick Vacarannounced that he was recommending CA One for the food contract, Walden proclaimed the deal signed, sealed and delivered.
"You are not going to see the kind of fight that developed last time happen this time," predicts Walden. "We won't get every councilmember's vote, but we'll win by more than eight."
As for the opposition, Walden is unimpressed. "Four Families lost one of their families from last time, Kim Son. They've apparently found themselves a substitute family," he sniped, referring to the addition of Huang and defection of Kim Son to CA One. "Four Families is kind of like the Mormons," chuckled the lobbyist. "Whoever comes along can be the next wife."
Last week, director Vacar admitted under council questioning that the contract selection committee had favored Four Families in the first vote. In subsequent ballots, CA One came out on top. Several of the committee judges had wildly divergent scores. That prompted a source within Four Families to question whether something similar to the rigged judging at the Winter Olympics skating competition wasn't at work here.