Mayor Bob Lanier is going all out to convince voters to retain the Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program for city contractors, which is being put to a referendum on the November 4 ballot. But a behind-the-scenes struggle over food concessions at Bush Intercontinental Airport could be playing right into the hands of Republican activist Edward Blum and others who are trying to kill Lanier's affirmative action program. If, that is, the public ever learns the full details.
Three groups have fielded competing proposals for concessions at Terminals A and B and the Leland In-ternational building, as well as two bars in Terminal C -- a prize said to be worth $200 million over the next ten years.
Two of the groups are headed by national firms that already hold city airport concessions: CA One, a Buffalo, New York-based subsidiary of Delaware North that provides food services at Hobby Airport, and Maryland-based Host Marriott Services, the current holder of the Bush Intercontinental concessions. Both groups include high-profile African-American participants, with those on the Marriott team seeming to possess more expertise in the political realm than in running restaurants and bars.
The third bidder is a group composed of four Houston families of varying ethnic backgrounds that have decades of experience in restaurant management. That consortium has accused the city's Aviation Department of designing the selection process to favor the Marriott proposal.
The CA One venture is represented by Kenny Friedman, the lawyer who oversees Lanier's blind trust, and includes African-American investor Gerald Wilson and his partner, Kirbyjon Caldwell, the influential minister of the Windsor Village Methodist Church. Wilson and Caldwell run an MWDBE company that provides concession management services at Hobby.
The Marriott team reportedly includes Melody Ellis, a former HISD board member and the sister of state Senator Rodney Ellis; lawyer Anthony Hall, an ex-councilman and former Metro chairman; and Zinetta Burney, a lawyer and former UH regent.
That lineup could not be verified with the city, since the Lanier administration was refusing to release any information on the bidders late last week. But if it's true, it would seem to confirm the contention of Blum and other critics that the city's MWDBE program favors political insiders at the expense of qualified entrepreneurs.
In addition to Hall, Burney and Melody Ellis's participation, Rodney Ellis has been widely rumored to have an interest in the popcorn vending portion of the Marriott proposal. The senator played phone tag with The Insider last week and was ultimately unavailable for comment. He did, however, leave us a recorded message in which he declared, "I do not eat popcorn, I do not eat peanuts, and I do not sell cigarettes."
That doesn't tell us whether the health-conscious lawmaker has any plans to sell popcorn at the airport, or how his sister got involved with Marriott. Rodney Ellis already has two businesses certified as MWDBEs by the city: Apex Securities and Apex Advisors.
Burney, whose law firm is a MWDBE subcontractor collecting delinquent taxes for the city, declined to elaborate on her role in the Marriott bid and suggested that it isn't information the public is entitled to know. The lawyer did say that she has been interested in getting into the food service business for years, and she rejected the suggestion that she and others had been added to the Marriott team to grease Council's acceptance of the corporation's bid.
Burney is a prominent supporter of Councilman Jew Don Boney, and her daughter was the treasurer for Boney's 1995 campaign. Boney is a member of the City Council's aviation committee. That committee will consider a recommendation on the proposals from the Aviation Department before forwarding its own recommendation to the full Council.
The third group in the fray, Four Families of Houston Inc., consists of members of the Pappas, Molina and James clans of restaurateurs (the Jameses are African-Americans who run La Trelle's Management Corporation), and Harlon Brooks of Harlon's Barbecue. Also on the team are Irma Galvan of Irma's, the downtown eatery in the vicinity of the coming Ballpark at Union Station, Darryl King, who operates an airport fried-chicken concession, and Tri La of the Kim Son restaurants. (Brooks and La are also listed as participants in the CA One bid, which may constitute a clever hedging of bets.)
Four Families is not without its own political heft, having hired consultant Bill Miller of Austin, a Lanier administration favorite, to lobby Council and work the media on behalf of its proposal.
In a letter Miller hand-delivered to councilmembers late last week, Four Families president W.A. James Jr. warned that the Aviation Department's selection process was rigged in favor of Marriott and contended that three national food-service companies declined to bid because they felt Marriott had a lock on the concessions.
James cited several "anomalies" in the process, including no requirement that the bidders prove that they can actually perform as claimed in their proposals. He also pointed out that the department's selection committee is composed of employees of outgoing Aviation Director Paul Gaines, who, according to James, is "retiring in two months to become a worldwide consultant to companies which perform precisely the type of service his staff is approving."
Gaines, through an Aviation Department spokesman, declined to comment on James's letter.
Councilman Joe Roach, who heads the Council's aviation committee, says he is barred from receiving detailed information on the players and the proposals until the Aviation Department releases its recommendation.
"I've heard allegations that a cooked deal is in process. I've also heard allegations about the MWDBE component," says Roach. "Rest assured my committee will take all the time necessary to thoroughly hash out and thrash out all the proposals. It's too important to the city and the airport."
The Aviation Department was scheduled to make its recommendation to Roach's committee on November 19. But late last week, in response to the concerns raised by James, Lanier suspended the Aviation Department's review of the bids and ordered three of his staffers to determine if there have been irregularities in the process.
Whatever the outcome of that review, it seems likely that the inside details of the airport concession proposals won't be fully revealed until after the November 4 referendum on the MWDBE program -- no doubt much to the relief of the Lanier administration.
Keys to the Jail
Meanwhile, two other teams of plugged-in political players are vying to build the new downtown county jail that Commissioners Court will vote on in the coming months.
That contest pits Sports Authority member and Lanier associate Billy Burge's Ayrshire Corporation against Richard Everett's Century Development. One of the participants in Everett's venture is investor Ned Holmes, a county representative on the Port Commission.
The contract is worth approximately $65 million for the winner. Everett says that because the bidding between Century and Ayrshire has been so fierce, lower-than-expected costs will allow county planners to add features to the building. Those changes required the two finalists to rebid the contract, he says.
Although neither's outfit has previously built a jail, both Burge and Everett say that other members of their respective teams have extensive experience. Burge does acknowledge that politics has a way of figuring into county contracts, but he claims that's not the case for the proposed new jail.
"You might build an ol' office building that might fall down, and that might be okay," says Burge, who definitely is the best wisecracker in the competition. "But a jail thing ... if you have 3,000 prisoners loose on the street, you're in real trouble."
Partners for Life
For students of the historically convoluted relationships between the Houston Chronicle and the politicians it endorses, the new compendium of Lyndon Johnson's secretly recorded White House tapes is definitely worth a thumb-through.
Taking Charge, edited with commentary by historian Michael Beschloss, includes the transcript of a January 2, 1964, conversation between LBJ and Houston construction magnate George Brown, a long-time backer of Johnson. At the time, Brown and Chronicle president John Jones were plotting the merger of National Bank of Commerce and Texas National Bank and trying to avoid pesky anti-trust questions from Attorney General Bobby Kennedy's Justice Department. With Johnson newly installed as the leader of the free world in the wake of JFK's assassination, the pair were counting on their fellow Texan to muzzle the Justice Department and let the merger proceed.
Johnson decided to be helpful, but in return he insisted on a written pledge from Jones that the Chronicle would support him for the remainder of his presidency. With Johnson's tape recorder rolling, Brown promised to get with insurance tycoon Gus Wortham on the matter.
"But you be damned sure that you and Gus have that Chronicle, and you get me that letter and I'll be sure that I send that over," said Johnson, promising to ram the merger through the Controller of the Currency.
"We'll override the whole goddamn outfit," he bragged. "And they'll do it, to hold their own jobs."
Six days later, Johnson called Jones to thank him for his letter of support and deliver the news that the bank merger had been approved, thus creating Texas Commerce Bank.
"John, much obliged for your letter -- that thing was signed this morning," LBJ announced.
"Thank you very much, Mr. President," said Jones.
Just to make sure Jones understood the significance of the transaction, Johnson closed by saying, "Give my love to your wife, and from here on out, we're partners."
Replied Jones, "Thank you. Sure are."
Yeah, there was a time when an endorsement from the Chronicle was really worth something.
Brown's Bad Hasid Trip
Whenever Lee Brown is asked about the way he handled the Crown Heights disturbance as New York City's police commissioner, he dismisses the issue as simply "New York politics" and says it's irrelevant to Houston's mayoral race.
Unfortunately for Brown, others aren't willing to let the Crown Heights episode be so easily dismissed. One of the ex-drug czar's most vocal critics is even considering a 12,000-mile pilgrimage to Houston before the mayor's race is settled to make sure it becomes an issue for Brown.
That would be Australian lawyer Norman Rosenbaum, the brother of the 29-year-old Hasidic scholar who was stabbed to death at the outset of the four days of civil unrest in August 1991. Rosenbaum blames Brown for failing to immediately crack down on rioters in the Brooklyn neighborhood.
"Lee Brown still refuses today, six years later, to face up to not only what his responsibilities were at the time, but what the failings were," Rosenbaum said from Melbourne in a long-distance conversation with The Insider.
Brown, opines Rosenbaum, "is not fit to hold any public office, let alone the mayor of a city the size of Houston. I don't think this guy is competent to collect change from parking meters."
Rosenbaum's late brother Yankel was on a history graduate scholarship from the University of Melbourne when the Crown Heights riot erupted after a car in a motorcade escorting a Hasidic religious leader struck two black children, killing one. At the time, Jewish residents of the neighborhood complained of lax police protection, and a report prepared two years later by New York Criminal Justice Director Richard Girgenti blamed Brown and his top assistants for a "vacuum of leadership" in moving to quell the unrest.
Brown, of course, has taken issue with Girgenti's conclusions, and he's also warned that anyone invoking Crown Heights in the mayor's race would be trodding on "sacred ground" between the city's blacks and Jews, early allies in African-Americans' civil rights struggles.
You might say that Norman Rosenbaum isn't impressed by that argument.
"This is the great crock of all time to say it has to do with black-Jewish relations," says the lawyer. "For him to have the audacity to raise it and play the race card is a negative reflection on the type of person he is and the cheap type of politics he will resort to, as opposed to facing up to what the truth is."
Brown's campaign passed on the opportunity to respond to Rosenbaum, no doubt hoping he stays a hemisphere away until the election is over.
Houstonians generally yawned or politely applauded last year when City Council voted to rename Houston Intercontinental Airport in honor of part-time resident George Bush. But not everyone views the former president as such a deserving fellow: Up at the University of Toronto, a sizable portion of the faculty is steamed by the school's decision to bestow an honorary doctorate on Bush next month.
A letter signed by 105 professors declares Bush to be "an inappropriate candidate for such an honor." It cites illegal actions taken by the CIA when Bush was its director, the World Court's condemnation of the mining of Nicaraguan harbors when Bush was Ronald Reagan's vice president and the invasion of Panama when Bush ran the White House.
"I feel the university honorary degree committee really didn't take into account the very negative aspects of Bush's record," says English professor David Galbraith, one of the organizers of the effort to stop Bush from getting his degree. "The typical reaction [here] when you tell people Bush is getting an honorary degree is either laughter or shock and horror."
One of Bush's defenders on the Canadian campus is political scientist Jean Smith, who has written a book about the Bush years and sees nothing wrong with the university laying an honorary sheepskin on the ex-prez. He described the protest to a Canadian TV reporter as "picking flyshit out of black pepper."
Bush, meanwhile, has confirmed that he'll be in Toronto on November 19 to accept the honor, according to a university spokeswoman. Galbraith says he and his allies are still trying to convince the university's administration to retract Bush's welcome mat and haven't decided whether to stage "a dignified protest" at the awards convocation. It would be the first faculty demonstration at the school since 1965, when 200 professors protested the awarding of a degree to then-U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson just as the Vietnam War was heating up.
Harris County Democrats usually manage to stage entertaining contests for their county chairmanship, what with followers of Lyndon LaRouche and a convicted murderer being among the past winners or contenders. And next year's election for the job promises a certain entertainment value, if not quite the colorful cast of years past.
Former state lawmaker Sue Schechter, who has been laboring for free as the party's executive director under Chairman David Mincberg, has quit and plans to seek Mincberg's post in the March primary election.
Schechter and several other volunteers jumped ship several weeks back, says one Democratic operative, after tiring of doing all the grunt work for the party office while Mincberg got all the credit. Schechter confirms she will run for the chairmanship and says she will try to raise $50,000 for the effort.
For now, she's muting any criticism of her former boss.
"I think that David is a great statesman for the party," purred Schechter, alluding to Mincberg's alleged penchant for grandstanding on the backs of others. "But I just think the party needs trench work."
Let The Insider know everything the folks in power don't want him to know by calling (713) 624-1483 or (713) 624-1496 (fax), or by e-mailing him at Insider@houstonpress.com.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.