Down-home Drudge

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

The belt-buckle business grew and then crashed, leaving behind only a few traces that are now paperweights holding down press releases on Kronberg's desk. Like the one custom-made 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 of a business that counts on new apartments, new housing developments, and new commercial buildings for the majority of its business.

"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. Kathy and David Mincberg, a politically active couple in Houston, bought it out of bankruptcy and had hired a new editor.

Kronberg, a history buff with writerly aspirations, 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 in Houston. "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," say 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--for good or bad--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, and his strength, says more than one politico, is as an analyst.

"The lobby will be honest with Harvey. They trust him," says 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 sports shirt and khakis. Glasses. A tad thick in the middle. Chatty. A self-described computer nerd. Yet his 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 Lt. Gov. 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.

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