Down-home Drudge

Harvey Kronberg, the Avis of Austin political reporters, tries harder with Web gossip

On November 19, for instance, he reported that insiders close to Lt. Gov.-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 in January, 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 of ads--presumably using money from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chaired by U.S. Rep. 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 therefore critical players.

But instant news has its much-debated hazards. Speed often kills the truth.
On election night, Kronberg posted that Republican state Rep. 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 pretty 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 elect roughly 40 members of the current Legislature, 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' 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."

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