The Usual Suspect(s)

If you haven't seen Mayor Bob Lanier or Alvin resident Nolan Ryan proclaiming their support for a new ballpark for the Astros, or heard the 30-second vote-yes radio spots, or read one of the recurring full-page Chronicle ads recruiting pro-stadium volunteers, or seen the Proposition One Mobile Headquarters tooling about town, you may soon be the butt of a bad Helen Keller joke. The blitz is on, and despite the persistent efforts of talk radio's Dan Patrick and Barry "Citizen No" Klein, the forces supporting Prop One are drowning out the opposition.

Such a comprehensive campaign, especially one pulled together on such short notice, surely has a coordinator to hire the help and maintain communication between the right and left hands. But locating that man behind the curtain turns out to be an oddly tricky business. "It's much more of a city project now than a county project," acknowledges County Judge Robert Eckels of Prop One's centerpiece, the downtown baseball stadium. Lanier spokeswoman Barbara Mandel says no, the county is the lead horse. "It's their facility," she notes.

Enron chairman Ken Lay has put himself on the frontline, but he's too busy orchestrating the energy giant's global takeover to spend his time managing the campaign. The same is true for his proxy, Enron president Richard Kinder, who has done more of the nuts-and-bolts negotiating on behalf of Lay and his still-unnamed group of investors, the Houston Sports Facilities Partnership.

The fourth significant player, Astros owner Drayton McLane, has too much of a vested interest in the outcome to take the campaign's helm. Besides, after months of clumsy threats and bogus deadlines, trusting McLane with the task of winning over public sentiment would be like employing a snake to calm a den of mice.

Though no one is taking responsibility, the neon arrow points to $92,500-a-year mayoral aide Dave Walden, who, after a short stint with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, returned to Lanier's employ earlier this year to work primarily on sports and stadium issues. The characters running the show, for example, all have close ties to Lanier and/or Walden. Austin consultant Mark McKinnon, who is crafting the advertising spots, worked on Lanier's three mayoral campaigns and is perhaps the mayor's most trusted media adviser.

Dan McClung, who ran phone banks and otherwise turned out voters for Lanier in his 1991 runoff against Sylvester Turner, heads the get-out-the-vote operation. The media consulting firm of Sandler & Innocenzi, which Walden employed on behalf of ex-boss Jon Lindsay, is buying the ad time. And Dave's wife Sue, who heads the Harris County Citizens for Proposition One office and is raising the money for the campaign, was chief fundraiser for Lanier's 1991 victory and has worked closely with the mayor since. McClung, Sandler & Innocenzi and Sue Walden are all housed at 55 Waugh, a building owned by Port Commission chairman Ned Holmes, the treasurer for Citizens for Proposition One.

Dave Walden denies masterminding the campaign, saying vaguely that it's actually a collaborative effort among several key strategists. "I think it's a three- or four-headed monster," he says, referring to several of the Lanier-associated operatives. So whose idea was hiring that particular crew? "I don't know exactly," he replies, "though I think it might have originated with me."

As for his own role, Walden says that he's a mere disseminator of information who reviews the messages being beamed to the public for accuracy. "I've got the right and the obligation to make sure the information is factual," he says.

If that sounds a tad defensive, it's because Walden knows that spending city tax dollars to push a particular election result is likely a violation of the state penal code, which forbids the misuse of government personnel and resources. While it's perfectly legitimate to issue fact sheets and explain Lanier's position that passage of the proposition would be good for Houston, actual campaigning on its behalf is another matter. If a city employee had worked a phone bank or put together an ad, Walden says, "I don't think that would be right."

Despite Walden's denials, someone in the city's employ has been careless about crossing over that somewhat fuzzy line. When news of Patrick's recent appearance before the Greenspoint Chamber of Commerce reached City Hall, according to a member of the chamber's executive board, someone from the mayor's office called chamber director Heather Montgomery and demanded equal time. When Montgomery initially declined, the board member says, "They went bonkers." Despite mixed feelings, the board later agreed to allow a representative from the pro-Prop One group to speak alongside Patrick.

Montgomery would not return phone calls to name the mayoral hireling who made the call. Walden says it wasn't him -- maybe it was somebody from the county. Besides, he says, the Greenspoint chamber probably wanted someone to balance Patrick. "I absolutely think they were looking for somebody to come up there and speak for the 'pro' side," he says.

The city has also hired former radio sports reporter Chris Begala at $3,500 a month to do some of its "informational" work. Begala, brother of McKinnon partner and former Clinton strategist Paul Begala, says he's just there to answer questions, not promote the yes side. "I am not saying vote for or against Proposition One," he says. "I'm doing facts and information."

But in an early radio debate on KTRH-AM, Begala came across as considerably more than neutral, so much so that listener Maryanne Young, who was a top aide to former controller George Greanias, called Begala to see about a job working to pass the proposal. Begala left her an encouraging message, though Young never heard anything more. "I certainly wouldn't have been calling if I wanted to help with the opposition," Young says.

There's more than circumstantial evidence tying the city to the campaign, however. Asked who was running the show, a number of people who've dealt with the campaign point to the figure generally understood to be coordinating the vote-yes group -- Dave Walden. Asked if Walden was in fact in charge, for example, Vinson & Elkins attorney John Watson, who is helping represent the Houston Sports Facilities Partnership's interests, said simply, "Yes, that's right."

To shed some light on the question, the Press requested a copy of Walden's appointment calendar for the past few months. But the request was for naught, because Walden says he doesn't maintain such a calendar, but instead keeps virtually all the details of his many meetings in his head. Occasionally he writes a date or place or time on a scrap of paper, he says, but he always throws them away.

Assistant city attorney Tracy Calabrese, who handled the Open Records request, says she was surprised by Walden's elephant-like memory. "I said, 'I think you're the only person I've ever heard of who does that.'

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