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An evening with Ben Barnes at Boys & Girls Club event

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360
3. Joe Thompson and Emma Barker-Perez

One of the supreme luxuries of this job is prime placement at the table.

Last week at the Black & White Gala for Boys and Girls Clubs of the Austin Area, that special access translated into an evening right next to power broker and former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, whose inside connections go back to the days of President Lyndon Baines Johnson and have only grown more pervasive since then.

I can't imagine what that much time at his entertaining elbow would have cost me, were I a consulting client of the Ben Barnes Group. For us, however, it's just for fun. Over the years, Barnes and I have kidded about a distant, essentially fictional kinship. After all, we are both redheads, though Barnes has held onto more of his.

We talked about his current projects — details gleaned at social functions are typically off the record — including a deepened port for Staten Island (the widening of the Panama Canal will require East Coast port improvements in order to take the bigger ships from Asia); about the race for the Republican nomination (no surprises here); the theater of Texas politics; and how Austin is growing up, almost against its will.

Sometimes our chat was interrupted by worthy distractions. The Four Seasons Hotel dinner, for instance, produced some winners on a simple Western theme: chorizo and mac, boneless stuffed quail, a simple medallion of perfectly cooked beef.

And then there were testimonials from current and former club kids whose lives were saved by the group that provides comprehensive options for young people with few other choices.

More importantly, the dinner netted more than $200,000 for the area clubs. Of that, almost $100,000 came from the "paddles up" pledging part of the evening, thanks to a timely promise from one backer to match any $5,000 pledge. During the live auction, a week at the Barnes Teton Springs getaway brought in $10,000. That would be the vacation home for the other Barnes.

The Austin area nonprofit, under the leadership of Mark Kiester, has rapidly expanded to 17 clubs serving 10,000 kids a year with a $3.4 million budget.

According to my calculations, that works out to about $340 a year per kid kept out of trouble. A bargain by any estimate, especially when you consider the alternatives.