The Insider

Straight Outta West U
With the prospect of a wide-open Houston mayoral race set to begin just after the New Year, an unlikely candidate is stirring in the WASPy environs of West University Place: Rob Mosbacher, a 45-year-old independent oilman, lawyer and term-limits activist who's been busy chatting up his chances with local political operatives and players.

One development fueling Mosbacher's interest is the growing belief that the move to force a referendum on a rollback of the city's term-limits ordinance is now dead, and that Mayor Bob Lanier will indeed be leaving office as scheduled on January 2, 1998.

"My impression is that [an overturning of term limits] is not going to happen," says Mosbacher, who attributes that belief to "what I pick up from a variety of sources."

That's news to quicken the pulses of an unannounced bevy of other would-be Lanier successors, the most certain of whom are Rice professor and former police chief Lee Brown and term-limited Councilwoman Helen Huey.

Mosbacher apparently would have the blessing of his father, Robert Mosbacher, if he makes the race. An attendee at last week's reception to promote literacy at George and Barbara Bush's Tanglewood home sidled up close enough to the elder Mosbacher to hear him muse aloud on his son's political ambitions.

"The kid's run for a bunch of stuff," the former Bush commerce secretary reportedly remarked. "I tell him next time, he better run for something he can win." According to our eavesdropper, Mosbacher senior also claimed the idea of the younger Mosbacher mounting a mayoral bid had been run by some of Lanier's aides, "and the response was enthusiastic."

Rob Mosbacher, who as a Republican has conducted unsuccessful campaigns for U.S. senator and lieutenant governor, confirms he's seriously looking at making the race, a decision that would require his family (he and his wife have three children) to abandon their 12-year residence in West U and move into Houston.

"I'm giving it serious consideration, but I won't make a decision for a couple of weeks," says Mosbacher, who points out that he would not have time to meet the six-month residency requirement for mayoral candidates should Lanier take a position in the Clinton administration in the next few months. But, as with talk of a possible fourth term for the mayor, a Lanier move to D.C. seems to be a receding possibility.

Mosbacher's not the only potential aspirant who's operating under the belief that there will be no challenge to the city's term limits ordinance before Lanier leaves office. It's the same assumption that has state Senator John Whitmire talking up his mayoral prospects to anyone who will listen.

But unlike Whitmire, an inner-city Democrat, Mosbacher has no direct experience in grassroots Houston politics. His primary focus has been national and state politics, starting with a staff position and later campaign post for former U.S. Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee. In 1984, Mosbacher made a low-fueled GOP primary run for the Senate seat eventually won by Phil Gramm -- an effort that "started slowly and lost momentum," laughs one associate from that campaign. Mosbacher's 1990 bid for lieutenant governor against Bob Bullock was more credible, but got caught in the implosion of GOP gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams, who dragged Rob down with him.

According to Mosbacher, over the last six months a wide spectrum of Houstonians have encouraged him to consider getting into the mayoral race. He's declining to discuss specific city issues -- he took a pass, for instance, when we quizzed him on the annexation of Kingwood -- but he is on record supporting the downtown baseball stadium proposal.

"Until I decide I'm going to get in this thing for sure and spend the time I want to spend studying these things, I don't want to get into specific questions," he says. "It's premature."

Mosbacher is currently working with his father in repositioning their company, Mosbacher Energy, from domestic oil and gas exploration and production to an international operation focusing on power generation. A factor in Mosbacher's decision to run will be whether he can step out of day-to-day responsibility for the company's operations. Robert Mosbacher currently is devoting about 50 percent of his time to the company.

Mosbacher agrees with his father's concerns about entering a race he can win and says he'd have to have "at least a 50-50 chance" before he'd wade into municipal politics.

"It's important for anyone who has run before to pick their next race very carefully with an eye toward winning," he says. "Running and losing is great for character building, but I've had all the character building I need."

If he does launch a candidacy, Mosbacher expects D.C.-based consultant Mike Murphy to run his campaign. Murphy was part of the team fired by Bob Dole as his presidential bid soured this fall.

"He's a close, dear friend of mine whose judgment I respect," says Mosbacher. Others in the Mosbacher inner circle include Austin consultant and former Post reporter Mark Sanders and longtime family advisor Herb Butrum.

In establishing himself as a viable candidate, Mosbacher will have to answer one troublesome question: Can a white Republican from a bedroom community get to first base in a nonpartisan citywide contest with a large minority vote?

"I think someone of my background could run and win," argues Mosbacher. "It's not a partisan election, and though I'm clearly identified as a Republican, I've spent the last 16 years since I've been back here from Washington working on issues that have no partisanship to them whatsoever."

Any attempt to characterize him as a conservative Republican, Mosbacher avers, "would not be fair, would not be an accurate reflection of what I've been doing. I don't think that's the perception of me and would not be if I ran a campaign."

Mosbacher's current residency also raises concerns among some fellow Republicans who would normally be expected to welcome one of their own from the west side into the race. County Commissioner Steve Radack, who has repeatedly touted District Attorney Johnny Holmes as a potential candidate (Holmes shows no interest, although the thought of him sitting at the Council horseshoe and routinely insulting councilmembers leaves us almost giddy), is one such skeptic.

"I personally like Rob, but I think it's ridiculous to try, after living in West University for over a decade, to suddenly jump up and say you want to be mayor of Houston. I don't think that will play with the public at all," says Radack.

"On the face of it he's a viable candidate with an ability to raise money," adds the director of a downtown PAC. "But it's too soon to tell what the dimensions of this race are, 'cause you can't figure out who all's in it." This source has a list of 17 potential candidates, including four city officials with GOP credentials: Councilmembers Huey, Joe Roach and Orlando Sanchez and Controller Lloyd Kelley.

On the other hand, Mosbacher could bring some much-needed musical talent to City Hall to replace Bob Lanier's fondness for piano sing-alongs. Mosbacher is the drummer for his own rock group, Midlife Crisis and the Hot Flashes, an aggregation of lawyers and doctors who play occasional society and charity engagements. According to Chronicle gossipist Maxine Mesinger, the band even performed at an Austin gig for Governor George W. Bush and wife Laura, but were told they couldn't bill the female backup singers as the "Hot Flashes" for the affair. "I guess the name was too hot for Austin to handle," sniffed the ever outre Mad Max.

Maybe so, but in Houston politics, such a small off-color touch might add leavening to Mosbacher's white bread image.

A Real Midlife Crisis
When last we checked in with her, former port commissioner Betti Maldonado was busily bashing the Chronicle into retracting its description of her as the centerpiece of the FBI's City Hall sting. That distinction, as Maldonado rightfully pointed out, belongs to former councilman Ben Reyes. But not even the FBI or a City Hall scandal can keep an old media hand down for long. With her political consulting career on hold while the investigation plays out, Maldonado tells us she's back in the news biz as a freelance social columnist for the Spanish-language daily El Dia. The paper, which has covered the federal probe of alleged illegal payoffs at City Hall, now has a prime inside source in Maldonado.

"In my KPFT-Pacifica days I was a reporter for the only Spanish-language program nationally transmitted from NPR," recalls Betti. "Then for 12 years I hosted and produced a television program on Channel 8, so I'm going back to my roots."

Maldonado says she attracted the interest of El Dia editors "because they saw me at all the events." Her brother Juan will handle her society photo assignments on occasion.

Of course, come the new year Betti might find herself better suited for the courts beat. Wait and see.

Call The Insider by dialing 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax), or e-mail him at

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