Down-home Drudge

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

The phone rings frequently, with Kronberg fielding calls on flagpoles--"Well, the aluminum has a higher wind load capacity."--and politics--"Got any scoop?"

The state government buys flags from him, but Kronberg insists ethical conflicts don't arise. More frequently, he's criticized for taking speaking fees from groups whose issues he covers--such as apartment associations or doctors.

"Steve Wolens [the state representative from Oak Cliff and husband of Dallas City Councilwoman Laura Miller] thinks that's completely unethical," Kronberg says, mentioning someone he's known since youth summer camp. "I don't see any problem with it. My biases are well-known."

In search of items on a day in late November, Kronberg works the phone, pages through about 30 faxed press releases, lunches with two lobbyists at the Chili Parlor, and snoops around the near-empty Capitol. On the way there, he sneaks his car past one "Do Not Enter" sign while giving a running disparagement of a new Austin traffic plan that tries keeping cars out of downtown--just where Kronberg wants to go.

The day's scramble is capped off with exactly two martinis at a corner table in the dark-paneled Austin Club--a members-only club favored by lobbyists. Kronberg says he's the only journalist who's a member.

Here, in the low light and smoke, shop talk reigns. A young GOP campaign aide (who by Kronberg's ground rules can't be identified by name) laments that his new lobbying venture isn't attracting enough business. Savvy lobbying outfits that once touted their Democratic credentials have been good at changing their spots in the current Republican era.

Another talks of the heavy friction between Gov. George W. Bush's campaign staff and Lt. Gov-elect Perry's. "They ran that one ad with the Bush family, but it isn't as if they ran as a team," someone notes.

The city's political side is in transition, gearing up for the start of the legislative session next month, and everyone, including Kronberg, is in a predictive mood.

"Bush wants a vanilla session," he says. "He wants to put some of the budget surplus into a property-tax cut, do something on reading, declare victory, and go run for president.

"It's Clinton's strategy: Don't propose any big things. But nature abhors a vacuum, and there are other things going on. He has a Republican lieutenant governor who ran with heavy support from the social right and the tort-reform right, and those aren't on Bush's agenda. Then you have a speaker of the House [Democrat Pete Laney] who survived a massive hunt to go after his base of support, and that onslaught was funded by the guys in Perry's back room. There are some pretty strong undercurrents."

Like other ambitious journalists in Austin, Kronberg would love to be the person out-of-state journalists tap for insights on Bush, who is suddenly national Republican chic. It's the press strain of Potomac fever.

And for this reason, he's posted on his Web site some rather involved analyses of how Bush performed in 1997, when he attempted and failed at reforming the state's property-tax code.

"This was Bush's bold move. People want their leaders to take risks, and this was his. It was a test of his legislative prowess, and he blew it."

The conventional wisdom is that the business lobby killed property-tax reform in the Senate because the plan that emerged shifted taxes to business.

In Kronberg's analysis, Bush failed because he didn't rally support among those who would benefit from the reform plan and didn't even identify in advance who would be the losers. "He argued there were no new taxes in the net sense, but there were a bunch of people who had to pay taxes who didn't have to pay them before."

Proposed new taxes on sole proprietorships and partnerships amounted to income taxes--the deadly third rail of Texas politics, Kronberg says. "You didn't hear anything in the last election about Democrats being tax-and-spend, because the only person who supported an income tax in the last session was George Bush. I don't think Steve Forbes [a likely rival for the GOP presidential nomination] is gonna let that go."

The next day Kronberg has a couple of routine items on his site--more appointments among the new officeholders--and he begins to think about gearing down for the holidays.

"The thing that bugs me about the Drudge Report is he would get in the middle of a story and then go for long stretches without posting anything," says Kronberg. "He'll put up, 'I'm in the field.'

"That's the problem," he says of the Internet, where a six-hour-old item is perceived as stale. "Once you create it, you have to keep feeding it.

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