Raising a Red Flag
On a Wednesday afternoon in late October, about two weeks before Texas voters went to the polls to re-elect the governor and decide several close statewide races, the numbers somehow got loose.
They were poll numbers, the results of the Texas Poll, the most widely publicized pre-election poll in the state. The survey is carried out by the University of Texas for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain and subscribed to by most of the major daily newspapers and broadcast outlets in the state.
Usually, journalists at subscriber papers get the horse-race numbers a few days early, allowing them time to interview the candidates and prepare their stories about the results, which are held under an "embargo" until a certain day. In this case, the numbers were to be kept quiet until Saturday, October 24.
But Harvey Kronberg, owner and one-man staff of a small political newsletter in Austin, obtained the numbers from a source days before the release date. In fact, he got them hours before some of the poll's subscribing newspapers received their slow-moving faxed copies. Somebody leaked him the goods on Wednesday, October 21, and by 4:50 p.m. he had them posted on his web site, in a section called "Daily Buzz." "They're available to a handful of players deep inside the political process prior to publication," Kronberg says. "We got them and allowed everyone else to know what the insiders know in real time."
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To the horror of the status quo.
At UT's Office of Survey Research, which does the poll, manager O'Neil Provost couldn't believe the stampede that followed Kronberg's posting. "One little newsletter gets this, and boom -- not only does the rest of the media have it, but all the candidates have it," Provost recalls.
Beverly Barnum, the poll's director, says she called newspapers and television stations the day Kronberg posted the numbers and told them the embargo was broken. "It really wasn't fair," Barnum complains, speaking from, of all places, an Internet conference in Atlanta. "We've already made many changes to make sure it doesn't happen again."
The power and influence of a single soul with a computer modem and some vital information became clear to the world last January, when cybergossip Matt Drudge scooped Newsweek on its own story about the Clinton-Lewinsky sex-and-lying scandal.
Kronberg, one of the most unconventional members of the Austin press corps, has taken a page from Drudge and is trying to bring the Internet revolution to the Austin political scene as well.
The 47-year-old Capitol observer, whose family has run Kronberg's Flags and Flagpoles in Houston since 1956, targets campaign handlers, kingmakers, lobbyists, the press and the politicians themselves for his newsletter, The Quorum Report, a twice-a-month political news and analysis sheet he's been writing since 1989.
Looking for a vehicle to relate the more gossipy, perishable items he picks up around town -- the kind of tidbits insiders toss around over drinks at the Austin Club or the Cloakroom -- Kronberg decided last fall to leap into Web journalism.
Although he and everyone else make the inevitable comparisons to Drudge, Kronberg's site is less shrill, less raw and less partisan than Drudge's, and more careful about distinguishing rumor from fact. "The inspiration was part Drudge Report and part TheStreet.com," says Kronberg, who began posting daily items in September. "I like the way TheStreet.com starts in the morning and updates as that day's market evolves. Of course, they have 20,000 subscribers and 12 reporters."
Kronberg has 800 newsletter subscribers, about 1,000 hits a day on his "Daily Buzz" (which he gives away free on the Web at quorumreport.com), and one reporter-editor: Harvey Kronberg.
Beyond that, the affable former street vendor is probably the only member of the Austin press corps who owns a 10-ton, 90-foot boom crane. It's part of a successful flag and flagpole business he and his wife, Michele, run out of their home-office-flagpole graveyard at the edge of the south Austin sprawl.
Kronberg's business background has relegated him to the rank of eternal arriviste among his reporter colleagues. Of the two nonpartisan newsletters in circulation covering state politics, Kronberg's is the perennial number two. Texas Weekly, with about twice the number of subscribers, is number one. It was built by one well-respected journalist, Sam Kinch, who has been covering the Texas Capitol since 1961, and was taken over last year by another, Ross Ramsey, formerly of The Dallas Times Herald and the Houston Chronicle.
"Off the record, Harvey's never been a reporter," says one press colleague, who nevertheless describes him as "extremely smart" and a "perceptive" observer. "As a result, he doesn't have that sort of extra bullshit antenna, or his isn't as highly developed after only doing this for, what?, eight, nine years."
This is the kind of thing you hear from journalists, who like to refer to themselves as professionals, even though anyone who can type is allowed to practice the craft. Kronberg says his motto is "It's better to be wrong than naive." Reconsidering that as perhaps "aggressively ignorant," he amends it to "It's better to be wrong occasionally than naive."
Kronberg may be self-taught, but his insights on the state elections in November proved better than your average pundit's. He nailed the GOP sweep. He also broke a few juicy items on his "Daily Buzz," pre- and post-election.
On November 19, for instance, he reported that insiders close to Lieutenant Governor-elect Rick Perry were "assessing" the amounts lobbyists were expected to give at Perry's post-election fundraisers. The so-called "late train" fundraisers are standard procedure in the dollar-driven political process, but Kronberg reported that lobbyists were being asked to pony up unheard-of amounts such as $50,000 and $100,000 for Perry. The money, Kronberg says, is needed to pay off a hefty loan made to Perry by San Antonio medical products millionaire Jim Leininger, who favors school vouchers and various aspects of the right's social agenda. Kronberg predicts that the loan should show up this month, when the next round of campaign disclosure reports is due.
Two weeks later, the Houston Chronicle came up with much the same story.
Picking on the other party, Kronberg reported that the Texas Democratic Party ran $200,000 worth of ads, presumably using money from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chaired by U.S. Representative Martin Frost, D-Dallas, to attack Frost's Republican opponent. Those ads would be illegal if they were controlled by Frost, much as the Clinton Administration is said to have controlled National Democratic Party ads in 1996.
Frost's office referred the Dallas Observer to an Austin-based DCCC consultant, who says the state party did Frost no special favors. "They spent money in all the competitive races, including Martin's. They weren't gonna turn their backs on him just because he heads the DCCC and was targeted by the Republicans ... You know Harvey's a Republican."
A lot of the items Kronberg posts are pure inside baseball and a lot duller for the average reader, the kind of stuff that only a Texas political junkie can appreciate. But who's not returning whose phone calls, or word on who's been appointed to some obscure staff post, is the coin of the realm to his subscribers.
"These personal relationships are key elements in how it works, which is all fascinating gossip," says Forrest Roan, a lobbyist whose firm, Roan and Autrey, does a lot of work for the insurance industry. "Perception is one of the really important factors in politics. Information is the lodestone. It's important to have information that is accurate and have it as quickly as you can."
For the first time, Internet publication was a factor in the fall campaigns, several consultants say. "The news cycles were diminished," says Kelly Fero, who handled press for Comptroller John Sharp's bid for lieutenant governor. "There were on-line sites like the AP news wire. You could check and respond to it, or correct it. We could go to three or four updates before a single paper pulled it down and published."
A site such as Kronberg's hits a more specialized audience. Fero calls them "barbers" because they talk to other influential people and shape political discussion. The many lobbyists and trade-association officials among Kronberg's subscribers are also campaign donors and are therefore critical players.
But instant news has its much-debated hazards. Speed often kills the truth.
On election night, Kronberg posted that Republican state Representative Tom Craddick from Midland had set up in Austin's Four Seasons Hotel and was about to announce his candidacy for speaker of the Texas House. Despite their sweep of statewide races, Republicans fell short of seizing the House majority, so the bid never materialized. The day after the election, Craddick told Kronberg that his information was completely untrue, a rumor rather than a story. Kronberg says now he cannot prove whether the item was true or false.
Such is the trouble with "real-time" self-edited journalism.
"Matt Drudge opened new frontiers for everybody," says Louis Dubose, editor of the Texas Observer. As a reporter who keeps in close touch with the major players, he says Kronberg just might be the guy to make it work.
Then again, without an editor to say, "Hey, let's stop for a second and think this through," Kronberg "might really fuck it up big-time," he adds. "That makes it all the more dangerous ... and fun."
Bryan Eppstein, a Fort Worth-based political consultant who boasts of having helped roughly 40 members of the current Legislature gain office, says Kronberg had made mistakes "and strove hard to correct them."
"In newspapers they make errors, and it takes them 72 hours to make a correction. Harvey corrects his the same day. It's like what CNN did to the networks -- the cycles are compressed."
The first time computer consultant Peter Steinhardt met Kronberg, it was 1974. They were both twentysomethings trying to make a buck at a Houston flea market. Kronberg was at a booth selling a pile of khaki pants. Steinhardt was on foot hawking Mexican huaraches.
"This guy comes walking down the aisle yelling, 'Get your dead cow right here! Get your dead cow!' " Kronberg recalls. "Twenty-five years later, he's my computer guru."
At Steinhardt's urging, Kronberg, a 1972 University of Texas graduate, moved back to Austin after the flea market gig and took a job one rung above slacker. He was a belt-buckle vendor on 23rd Street, the campus's main drag. From there, he began hiring crews and branching the buckle business out to Renaissance fairs.
A naturally garrulous and jocular sort, "His booth was always the center of politics at the fairs," says Steinhardt, who got into the computer business about 13 years ago. "Harvey is the kind of guy who you can put in a room of strangers and he'll come out knowing everybody."
The belt-buckle business grew and then crashed, leaving behind only a few traces that are now paperweights on Kronberg's desk, holding down press releases such as the one he wrote for the Harris County Organized Crime Control Unit's 1982 convention on motorcycle-gang crime. "I got stiffed by the cops on that one," Kronberg says with a laugh.
By the mid 1980s, Kronberg had accepted a long-standing invitation to join his family's Houston flag and flagpole business. He opened an Austin office, Austin Flag and Flagpole, which thrived for a few years then suffered badly in the 1986 oil and real estate bust. "We used to say the only new customers who walked in the door to buy a flag already were past due with the other two companies," he recalls.
"The years 1986 to 1989 were grindingly hard years. It was very depressing. Then this thing with the newsletter happened."
The Quorum Report, begun in 1981 as a newsletter on Texas politics and government, had gone through several editors and owners by 1989. Cathy and David Mincberg, a politically active couple in Houston, bought it out of bankruptcy and hired a new editor.
Kronberg, a history buff with aspirations to write, knew the couple and offered to write a few freelance stories. When their new editor quit, they turned to Kronberg.
"If he had any journalism experience, we didn't know about it," says David Mincberg, who was a friend of Kronberg's at Bellaire High School. "I knew him as a star on the high school debating team. I knew he had the ability to write and think and meet an intellectual challenge." Besides that, they had no other candidates and were kind of desperate. "Amazingly, he jumped right in," says Mincberg, a former chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party.
Kronberg, who continued to manage the flag business, admits to making his share of beginner's mistakes. At the outset, he was hardly taken seriously by other members of the press.
"It's a cliquish bunch," says Kim Ross, a lobbyist with the Texas Medical Association. "They didn't consider him a reporter."
"My first session, they were arguing over worker's comp," says Kronberg, referring to a bitter battle over whether the state's trial lawyers would continue to play a major role in the awarding of money to workers injured on the job. "I was kind of a Ralph Nader consumer type, and I lost my virginity in about a day. I immediately found out the personal-injury lawyers and the consumer activists were on the same page but not particularly allies. Everybody was trying to write on behalf of consumers and trial lawyers, and I realized nobody was writing on behalf of business and from a business perspective. I realized I could do that and have a unique cachet."
For good or bad, Kronberg has stayed true to that approach and has ended up with a wide range of sources in the lobby. He dogs stories the lobby has on its legislative agenda, even if they aren't particularly sexy to the general public. His strength, say more than one politico, is as an analyst.
"The lobby will be honest with Harvey. They trust him," says Forrest Roan, who has been an Austin lobbyist for 23 years. "Mistrust of the lobby is a press phenomenon."
Of course, Kronberg's approach isn't to everyone's taste. "It's insightful for members of the business committee," says Dubose, at the left-leaning Texas Observer, of Kronberg's regular output. "It includes some good information at times, but I see it as gray and kind of conventional."
As journalists go, Kronberg is hardly that. Sure, he looks the type. Middle-aged in sport shirt and khakis. Glasses. A tad thick in the middle. Chatty. A self-described computer nerd. Yet his south Austin office compound is out past the XXX Megaplex and stereo supply barn, right next to a lot called Barrel City, where a few derelict boats and a pile of plastic barrels poke out from the weeds. "We're in Bubbaville here," he says, looking out over the live oaks that grace his acre of semirural Texas splendor.
Everywhere one looks there's the red-white-and-blue of Lone Stars and Old Glories and the flag business.
At his visitor's insistence, he wanders over to his boom crane: a National Crane Corp. Series 6 diesel-powered brute. Kronberg, who's donned a pair of leather gloves and is putting the machine through its paces, yells over the rumble: "It's the ultimate boy toy."
As he leads his guest back to the office, which sits about 20 feet from the house, he comments offhandedly, "There are about eight major manufacturers of flags, and they make more Texas flags than the rest of the states combined."
Kronberg spends much of the morning in his back office. In one room are statehouse photos of Kronberg with various pols. The one of which he's most fond is of Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, signed to "probably the Capital's most astute observer and he still calls me a friend." In another room are flagpole parts: hardware called trucks (the thing that houses the pulley) and lanyards and a flagpole that once hung over the Capitol. "It's a real cheap one," Kronberg says.
The phone rings frequently, with Kronberg fielding calls on flagpoles -- "Well, the aluminum has a higher wind load capacity" -- and politics -- "Got any scoop?"
The state government buys flags from him, but Kronberg insists ethical conflicts don't arise. More frequently, he's criticized for taking speaking fees from groups whose issues he covers, such as apartment associations or doctors.
"Steve Wolens [the state representative from Oak Cliff and husband of Dallas City Councilwoman Laura Miller] thinks that's completely unethical," Kronberg says. "I don't see any problem with it. My biases are well known."
In search of items on a day in late November, Kronberg works the phone, pages through about 30 faxed press releases, lunches with two lobbyists at the Chili Parlor and snoops around the near-empty Capitol. On the way there, he sneaks his car past one "Do Not Enter" sign while giving a running disparagement of a new Austin traffic plan that tries to keep cars out of downtown.
The day's scramble is capped off with exactly two martinis at a corner table in the dark-paneled Austin Club, a members-only club favored by lobbyists. Kronberg says he's the only journalist who's a member.
Here, in the low light and smoke, shop talk reigns. A young GOP campaign aide (who by Kronberg's ground rules can't be identified by name) laments that his new lobbying venture isn't attracting enough business. Savvy lobbying outfits that once touted their Democratic credentials have been good at changing their spots in the current Republican era.
Another talks of the heavy friction between Governor George W. Bush's campaign staff and Lieutenant Governor-elect Perry's. "They ran that one ad with the Bush family, but it isn't as if they ran as a team," someone notes.
The city's political side is in transition, gearing up for the start of the legislative session, and everyone, including Kronberg, is in a predictive mood.
"Bush wants a vanilla session," he says. "He wants to put some of the budget surplus into a property-tax cut, do something on reading, declare victory, and go run for president.
"It's Clinton's strategy: Don't propose any big things. But nature abhors a vacuum, and there are other things going on. He has a Republican lieutenant governor who ran with heavy support from the social right and the tort-reform right, and those aren't on Bush's agenda. Then you have a speaker of the House [Democrat Pete Laney] who survived a massive hunt to go after his base of support, and that onslaught was funded by the guys in Perry's back room. There are some pretty strong undercurrents."
Like other ambitious journalists in Austin, Kronberg would love to be the person out-of-state journalists tap for insights on Bush, who is suddenly national Republican chic. It's the press strain of Potomac fever.
"This was Bush's bold move. People want their leaders to take risks, and this was his. It was a test of his legislative prowess, and he blew it."
The conventional wisdom is that the business lobby killed property-tax reform in the Senate because the plan that emerged shifted taxes to business.
In Kronberg's analysis, Bush failed because he didn't rally support among those who would benefit from the reform plan and didn't even identify in advance who would be the losers. "He argued there were no new taxes in the net sense, but there were a bunch of people who had to pay taxes who didn't have to pay them before."
Proposed new taxes on sole proprietorships and partnerships amounted to income taxes, the deadly third rail of Texas politics, Kronberg says. "You didn't hear anything in the last election about Democrats being tax-and-spend because the only person who supported an income tax in the last session was George Bush. I don't think Steve Forbes [a likely rival for the GOP presidential nomination] is gonna let that go."
The next day Kronberg has a couple of routine items on his site -- more appointments among the new officeholders -- and he begins to think about gearing down for the holidays.
"The thing that bugs me about the Drudge Report is he would get in the middle of a story and then go for long stretches without posting anything," says Kronberg. "He'll put up, 'I'm in the field.'
"That's the problem," he says of the Internet, where a six-hour-old item is perceived as stale. "Once you create it, you have to keep feeding it.
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