An ambitious plan to turn Texas into a Democratic bastion has increased scrutiny on newly appointed DNC finance chair Henry Muñoz III, a San Antonio native who critics say built his architectural empire through political cronyism.
Muñoz, 53, was appointed to the DNC in January after bundling more than $500,000 for Obama’s successful reelection and raising $32 million through the Futuro Fund, a Latino pro-Obama group he cofounded with actress Eva Longoria.
Recent Stories in Politics
Now many are watching to see if Muñoz's 2012 success translates into success for Battleground Texas, a Democratic effort led by former Obama campaign official Jeremy Bird to break the GOP’s long-running electoral monopoly in the Lone Star State.
"[Muñoz’s] influence has been local, regional and state, so far as I can see," said local GOP activist George Rodriguez. "But now that he’s going to be [at the DNC], it’s going to be national. And the only reason they have placed him up there is so they can begin pushing to make Texas a blue state."
Muñoz, who declined to comment on the record for this article, is the son of the well-connected labor organizer Henry "The Fox" Muñoz.
He was appointed in 1991 to the Texas transportation commission by an early mentor, then-Texas Democratic Gov. Ann Richards. But his time as a commissioner was cut short by a 1994 audit that linked Muñoz’s aides and other staffers to excessive spending on hotel rooms that went well over per diem, and to insider information allegedly leaked to a Mexican company in return for personal favors.
William G. Burnett, the Texas Department of Transportation official who conducted the audit, told the Washington Free Beacon it was not targeted at Muñoz or his staff, and he was never charged with any wrongdoing. However, Muñoz resigned nevertheless, citing a desire to spend more time with his family.
This would mark the beginning of a familiar pattern through Muñoz’s career: excessive spending and ethically dubious behavior that, while perhaps not illegal, skirted close to the line.
Muñoz has been a top executive at the powerful San Antonio architecture firm Kell Muñoz for decades. He is not a registered architect—a fact that grates on the local architectural community, sources say—but critics say there are no problems with the quality of his work.
The real issue, they claim, is that Muñoz wins bids by keeping local campaign coffers full.
"The firm does good work. There’s no question in the integrity of their job," said San Antonio Republican official Weston Martinez. "What is wanted is an increased transparency, [where] everybody gets a fair shot. I think all of us want that, and I think [Muñoz and his political associates] don’t, because they like working in the shadows."
After Muñoz’s architecture firm won a contract to manage part of a $515 million school district bond, news surfaced that while he was lobbying for the bid he had cut $500 and $1,000 campaign checks to two of the trustees involved in the decision.
That was in addition to Muñoz’s firm’s $10,000 contribution to the trustees’ initial campaign for the bond.
Local media later reported that Muñoz’s bid of $12.5 million was higher than that of his two competitors.
San Antonio was later rocked by a kickback scandal in 2002 that ended with the conviction of architect Luis Cruz, trustees at Alamo Community College, and city council members.
Convicted trustee Robert "Tinker" Garza claimed in an affidavit that Muñoz had also offered to cut a deal with him in exchange for a contract during a meeting at a local restaurant.
Prosecutors did not pursue the charges. A person familiar with Muñoz’s thinking said he had only met Garza "maybe twice, more than a decade ago."
Local Republicans say the charge contained in the affidavit was not an isolated incident.
They cite a tax break deal Muñoz supposedly lobbied for by inviting a city council member on a trip to a Montana resort, and funding for a streetcar project he allegedly won by leveraging his ties to Mayor Julian Castro.
Muñoz took then-councilwoman Debra Guerrero on a ski trip to Telluride, Colo., in 2000. One month later, Guerrero lobbied her colleagues to approve funding for a museum project spearheaded by Muñoz. The money was taken out of a contingency account from Guerrero’s district, which had no geographical ties to the museum.
When Guerrero stepped down from city council a few months later, Muñoz hired her as a publicist for his architecture firm. She was appointed in 2012 to the same school district board that had chosen Muñoz to oversee its $515 million bond.
Muñoz’s projects tend to go over budget. He has butted heads with San Antonio officials over a convention center project that racked up millions in cost overruns.
But the city continues to award his firm contracts.
"If he wins the contract fair and square—great," said Rodriguez, who has routinely raised questions about Muñoz’s political donations and contract awards at city board meetings. "But if he buys it by contributing to somebody or by placing his friends in positions where they can influence the awarding of a contract, that’s wrong."
Rodriguez said his concerns are often ignored by city officials.
"There’s all sorts of smoke but never does anybody uncover the fire," he added. "I think the problem with that, again, is the politics."
Martinez said Muñoz’s controversial dealings are part of a larger corruption problem in the city.
"The only difference between politics in San Antonio and Chicago is that people know about Chicago," he said. "There’s more of a hub here than I think people understand. It’s not some sleepy little cow town."
Muñoz set out to establish a Latino museum of art and culture in San Antonio with some funding assistance from the city in the late 1990s.
As chairman of the museum, Muñoz helped raised $12 million for its opening. The museo finally launched in 2007 with three lavish parties in 72 hours, complete with a 1,000-person grand opening procession and a live concert by Linda Ronstadt.
"Does [Muñoz] know how to host a party? Absolutely," said Ruth Medellin, who served as the director of the Museo Alameda until 2007 and has known Muñoz for 15 years. "Does he have flair? Absolutely, and thank God for that. Because he sees things that nobody else does."
The Alameda was Muñoz’s most ambitious project, combining his love of art and Latino culture with his talent for deal making. National players had stepped up to support the museum: the Ford Foundation, AT&T, and the Smithsonian all pitched in. And, for a moment after its launch, it looked like a shining success.
As Muñoz said during a 2009 speech to the Philosophical Society of Texas about the Alameda, "I say it’s the second time that Mexicans have pitched a tent at the Alamo and won."
But the Museo Alameda now sits abandoned on the corner of Market Square, a hulking pink contemporary building with canary trim. The yellow paint is thinning in some spots. Vines twist their way up one side of the building, brushing the edge of the roof.
The windows have been dark since the museum closed last September, after years of money woes, a $450,000 bailout from the city council, and an embarrassing audit.
"Where did it go wrong? I can’t give you that answer," said Medellin. "When I left the Alameda [in 2007] … we had plenty of money in the bank. It was financially healthy. I don’t even know."
Muñoz gave up his chairmanship of the museum in 2009, but the financial problems began during his tenure, according to a city audit. Muñoz’s successor, Rolando Pablos, did not respond to requests for comment.
"Muñoz wasted large sums on furniture and lavish parties, according to sources close to the museum. He put ill-equipped people in key staff positions and grew bored when budgets were discussed," wrote San Antonio Express-News columnist Gilbert Garcia. "Ultimately, one of the most galling aspects of the Museo story was the way local elected officials—many of whom owed Muñoz big favors for his fundraising largesse—gave him a pass."
Local art journalist Ben Judson reported in 2007 that Alameda staff were asked to clean up after Muñoz’s personal parties, including political fundraisers for Hillary Clinton, and do landscape work at his house.
"As far of [Muñoz] taking advantage of the system, I can assure you he wouldn’t want to be on the front of the newspaper with that," said Medellin. "He can afford to take care of his own landscaping."
Judson said Muñoz is known for his charisma and great taste in art, but his reputation in the local art community has suffered because of the mismanagement at the Alameda.
"Everybody that I talk to kind of rolls their eyes and knows that he’s corrupt," said Judson. "Most people I talk to now just don’t like him because it’s like he doesn’t care about the integrity of the project."
San Antonio officials are reluctant to discuss the Alameda. Felix Padron, the director of the Office of Arts and Culture who conducted the museum audit, did not respond to multiple requests for interviews.
According to a staffer, Padron has forbidden the office from discussing the museum publicly.
"He’s the only one who is authorized to talk about it. Because if people start talking about it, it gets all messed up again," said the staffer.
Councilman Diego Bernal, whose district is home to the Alameda, also declined interviews. The museum building has been bought by Texas A&M, which is reportedly considering it for a community art space.
Muñoz continues to dabble in the world of art museums despite his previous failure. In 2009, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) appointed Muñoz to the commission for the proposed American Museum for the American Latino in Washington, D.C.
The project is ongoing.
Muñoz’s history of overspending and failed projects may make him seem like an odd fit for DNC finance chair. However, critics and allies alike say Muñoz’s knowledge of the Texas landscape and political and fundraising connections across the state will make him particularly valuable in his role at the DNC.
When former Obama campaign official Jeremy Bird launched Battleground Texas, he held the party at the St. Anthony Hotel in San Antonio. National Democratic donors have pledged to raise $10 million for the effort.
While Battleground Texas is technically independent from the DNC, Muñoz has been one of its early supporters.
"This needs to be an effort that’s driven by Texans," Muñoz said in a recent interview with the Huffington Post. "And I believe that it’s important for us to change our attitude, to actually believe that Texas can be a battleground state. In fact, we’ve begun to refer to this effort as ‘Battleground Texas.’"
Statistics give the GOP reason to worry. A recent analysis of voter trends by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News found Democrats would catch up with Republicans in the state by 2024, based on current population and electoral participation trends—largely due to the growing Hispanic population, which leans heavily Democratic.
"You’ve got south and west Texas, it’s already going blue," said long-time GOP San Antonio city council staffer Mario Hune. "[Republicans] don’t see this whole sea-change. … This whole ‘Turn Texas Blue’ thing … it’s gonna start in San Antonio.
Art Martinez de Vara, the Republican mayor of San Antonio suburb Von Ormy, said the state GOP is still trying to figure out how to counter the effort.
"[Battleground Texas is] going to be effective to a certain degree," he said. "The Republican Party of Texas is just starting to rhetorically now understand that they need a change, but they’re completely clueless on how to do it. They don’t rally the resources that are necessary."
Political strategists say Muñoz as DNC finance chair will be able to steer national money toward the campaign.
"San Antonio would be a natural place for [Democrats] to start. It’s probably the most Democratic of any of our big cities," said Texas-based GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. "The fact that you combine Henry Muñoz, plus the Castro twins, plus there’s some natural constituencies in San Antonio, would make it the best choice for them."
Some say Muñoz’s DNC appointment will help elevate rising political stars Julian and Joaquin Castro ahead of a potential statewide, or even national, candidacy.
"I can’t look at that [appointment] and say that won’t pay dividends for [San Antonio Mayor] Julian Castro," said Mackowiak.
Martinez also noted Muñoz’s close relationship with Castro and wondered whether his role at the DNC would be "a fullback, lead blocking for the mayor."
Until recently, Mayor Castro and his brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D., Texas), have avoided the ethics controversies that have dogged Muñoz’s career.
However, that changed earlier this month, when the San Antonio Express-News revealed the mayor failed to disclose payment information about his out-of-state trips.
"They have [stayed out of trouble]," said Martinez. "But that’s because you have the Henry Muñozes of the world doing what they do."