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.
Caldwell is shaping up as Houston's answer to Martha Stewart: Kirbyjon does gifts! Kirbyjon does food! Kirbyjon does God and George W. Bush!
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 Vacar announced 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.
Four Families lobbyist Bill Miller of Austin-based HillCo Partners questions whether the process is being manipulated.
"Historically, when you look at governments that bid things, and then they don't like the results and want to choose somebody else, they go ahead and reconfigure the process," says Miller. "That's the way it works. It has nothing to do with merit. It has everything to do with politics."
He claims that some of the CA One members tried to change horses in midstream after that first vote. "All the people on the CA One team were calling us trying to get in our deal. What does that tell you about how things looked?"
According to the lobbyist, Four Families will appeal to council for a fair decision.
"In the first Food Fight, we did media advertising and so forth," explains the lobbyist. This time around, "We made our best case, we won the deal, and if we get poured out we get poured out. It's a vote of conscience by the council, and we're going to make our case, which is convincing and persuasive."
CA One's Walden counters that the first vote did not take into account the amount of rent to be paid to the city. He claims CA One would provide the city with substantially more annual revenue than its rival.
"Seven million dollars don't lie," says Walden. "You can say the score should have been this or that, but let them deny that they are $7 million light on the rent. They don't talk about that."
The fight now shifts to the council aviation committee, headed by Vasquez. He has scheduled two meetings to examine the process involved in the recommendations on both Hobby contracts. Vasquez so far is less than impressed by the Brown administration's handling of the deals.
"It does not have the appearance of fairness and objectivity," says Vasquez. Aviation director Vacar "seemed very, very defensive and at times evasive," he says. "There needs to be some transparency, and that just didn't seem to be there."
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Far more transparent was the power play last week that installed attorney Janiece Longoria in the port commissioner's office promptly vacated by attorney Vidal Martinez. Developer and former port commission chair Ned Holmes, the godfather of the current Houston political scene, sat on the front row next to Longoria when council considered the appointment. Martinez sat alone several rows back.
Holmes, whose fund-raising support has helped a number of councilmembers, wasn't subtle in turning the screws on his protégés. He worked the officials by cell phone as the morning wore on, talking and making eye contact at the same time. Members on both sides kept hustling out Addie Wiseman -- one of the potential swing votes -- for intense lobbying in the hallway behind council chambers. You could almost hear the verbal rubber hoses smacking away.
By the end, to no one's surprise, Longoria took the appointment 9-6, with Wiseman and perennial council weather vane Carroll Robinson deserting Martinez. Score another close one for the Godfather.
Holmes holds no public office and has ruled out a race for mayor in 2003. But after watching the silver-haired power broker take such obvious enjoyment in pulling the strings at City Hall, you can't help but wonder whether he'll really be able to stay out of the fray once the race starts heating up.