Waging a Gentler Campaign for Place 2

Motal De-Clawed

by Mike Clark-Madison

Becky Motal
photograph by Alan Pogue

Becky Motal has a serious image problem. People may think Ronney Reynolds is a tool for developers, Max Nofziger is a flake, and Eric Mitchell is rude, but at least the candidates have their records to point to for justification. Motal has never had the chance to cast a single vote from the dais, but distaste for her, even outside the progressive community, is as deep and rich as for any other candidate on the ballot, and deeply personal, too. Quite simply, from a distance, Motal projects little warmth. And after her unsuccessful run for Place 3 last year, when her campaign leveled a push-poll attack on councilmember Jackie Goodman for a 26-year-old pot bust, some people -- rightly or wrongly -- think Motal is one mean lady.

This bodes ill for Motal's attempt to ensure that Reynolds' vacant seat is occupied by a leader of like mind. But Motal's fast-growing reputation as an Austin political cartoon character is not her supporters' worst nightmare. Gus Garcia is.

One suspects that even if Motal were not the council candidate most likely to be mistaken for a Troll Doll, she would have nary a hope in hell of unseating Garcia, the most popular local elected official in Austin, now and for a long time past. But especially now, as the mayor pro tem runs and runs hard, not just to dispatch another unloved business-backed poseur vying to lead an Austin that no longer exists, but to shatter the reviled "gentlemen's agreement" and prove that the Capital City's vaunted reputation for tolerance is not reserved for Anglos only. (There are two other candidates in the race, Northwest Austin neighborhood leader Laurin Currie and Eastside political operator/activist Joe Gonzales; for more info on them, see the box on p.26.)

It's doubtful that a Garcia victory on May 3 would actually signal an end to the Austin political elite's tradition of shoddily manipulating ethnic allegiances for its own benefit, and the candidate himself seems to know that citizens need more reasons to vote for him than the desire to make a symbolic statement. But the prospect of busting the gentlemen's agreement has bestowed an air of excitement on the Garcia campaign, especially among Garcia's Hispanic supporters, and that's a valuable political asset when you're running for your third term on the council (your seventh in local elected office), and your public image reeks of respectability and sobriety.

From his campaign office tucked away on South First Street -- which, with blue-and-white Gus signs lining the road thicker than spring wildflowers, could be rechristened Gus Garcia Boulevard -- the 62-year-old mayor pro tem himself seems invigorated, proud of his accomplishments in a way that few veteran politicians have the guts to be (witness Reynolds and Max Nofziger running for mayor against their own records), and, shall we say, unrestrained in his feelings about Becky Motal. "For her to go to these forums and say the things she does... she doesn't know what the hell she's talking about," he says.

"She talks about Austin being unaffordable, which is bullshit. You can get a perfectly good house in East Austin for less than $80,000. The police can afford to live here." On the campaign trail, Motal uses the high number of Austin Police Department officers living outside the city -- 50%, she says -- as proof that Austin is beyond their means. It's worth noting that Motal counts the highly politicized and often reactionary Austin Police Association among her handful of key endorsements.

"But the police want to go outside the city like everyone else, where they can take advantage of our services without paying our taxes," Garcia continues. "For the most part, Austin's problem is that more people have gotten poorer, that our tax base is declining, that we haven't been able to make the most of our economic vibrancy. And that's true of most cities. The people who really can't afford to live here are the same people who can't afford to leave."

This is not how Becky Motal has described Austin in her nearly two years of nearly non-stop campaigning for two different seats. "Our children will face an Austin much different from the Austin of their parents," she writes in her canned campaign statement. "Some question if they can remain here.... What questions must we ask ourselves about the Austin of tomorrow? Can our working families afford to live, raise a family and retire here?" (For the record, while Motal attended the Chronicle's endorsement meeting for Place 2, she canceled two scheduled interviews with this reporter and failed to respond to repeated calls).

Motal's often-expressed concern with the young and working folk is noble, and seems at least somewhat genuine, but by now one might expect these selfsame working folk to be supporting her in droves, and the reality appears far different. Other than the Police Association, every other local labor endorsement has gone to Garcia, as have all the neighborhood groups, Hispanic and African-American community organizations, and both this paper and the Statesman, the latter despite much insulting derogation of Garcia's record on council. ("They wouldn't have written that if I were running for Place 5," Garcia asserts.) On her side, Motal has such noted friends of populism as the builders and realtors, Take Back Austin -- failed instigators of last year's attempt to install a conservative majority on the council -- and Citizens to Protect Private Property Rights.

Legitimate constituents these may be, but Motal's campaign argument that she, and not the entrenched Garcia, is a voice of down-to-earth common sense for the common man has found embarrassingly few takers. In a similar vein, though Motal's list of "important questions" continues with "Will our air, water and land be further degraded by wrong-headed development or ill-conceived resource management?" not a single environmental activist, let alone organization, has evinced a hint of support for the LCRA financial manager, who likes to style herself "an environmental leader."

As for her other claim to leadership legitimacy -- her success at holding a Very Important Position and managing Millions of Dollars for a Major Local Organization, the river authority -- the news that David Weeks and Mimi Correa, her 1996 campaign consultants, were suing her as a deadbeat, with ample documentation to prove it, kinda took the wind out of her assertions of financial expertise. (Motal's position is that Weeks and Correa were not authorized to make the expenditures they did.) On top of that, now that the fate of the electric utility is a major issue, Motal's employment with LCRA has become a bit of a liability, with the Statesman pointing to the apparent conflict of interest as grounds for not endorsing her. As she did in 1996, Motal has continued to assert that the job of councilmember should be part-time and that she intends to keep her present employment.

Gus Garcia
photograph by Alan Pogue

Even Motal's backing among the builder/developer crowd is weaker than it could be, or than it once was, back when she had money and a fighting chance of dethroning Goodman. For proof, take a spin through Garcia's contributors' list, and be surprised to find names like former Chamber of Commerce presidents and development über-boosters Pike Powers and Ron Kessler, or West Austin social heavyweights D.J. and Jane Sibley, or even Place 5 council candidate Manuel Zuniga, Motal's erstwhile compatriot on last year's Take Back Austin (TBA) slate.

The ever-widening gap between Becky Motal's message and her true place in Austin politics, and the resulting diminution of her once-respectable political fortunes, is somewhat sad to watch, but it's perhaps inevitable given that her campaign has itself become a lesson in the law of diminishing returns. When Motal was first thrust into the spotlight as part of TBA's well-funded, ideologically rigorous, and aggressive attempt to bounce the hated liberals from the council, she was a real contender -- her issues and questions were relevant, voter anger at the status quo was manifest, and her opponent was clearly vulnerable.

Yet she still lost, and while she declared her intent to run for Place 2 this year before the ink on the 1996 returns had dried, it became clear within days that this time she'd be on her own, without the massed forces of the real-estate lobby behind her, and that her only hope of winning was the lack of a credible opponent. And then came Garcia. While her dedication to her core message is perhaps commendable, the notion that Motal could run the same campaign she did last year, only with far less money and against an opponent with none of Goodman's weaknesses, frankly defies logic.

Besides the general Gus-wuz-there tone of her campaign -- the idea that, despite the fact that voters last year seemed to disagree, the council is still widely hated, and Gus should be held responsible -- Motal has tried to nail Garcia on the few potential chinks in his armor. These chinks include Garcia's switched vote against widening the Lamar Bridge, his participation in the Austin Transportation Study and concomitant support for the always-unpopular Capital Metro, and his assertion three years ago, after winning re-election without the distraction of even a fringe candidate, that he wouldn't run again.

"Sounds like Garcia's `flip-flops' aren't confined to the council dais," Motal wrote to the Statesman in response to the daily's backhanded endorsement of Gus. "This [the comment about running again] is what he told your reporter, and he is breaking this pledge, too. Given this, what current campaign promises can you ensure us he will keep?" (It's questionable what power this charge is supposed to have, since Garcia's speculations about running this time around for either Place 2 or for mayor have been quite public, and likewise reported in the both the daily and the Chronicle, for several years.)

Garcia has a simple response to Motal's charges of waffling: Yes, and so what? "I reserve the right to change my mind," he says. "I know it pisses some people off, but they've seen me for six years and the polls still say I have a high approval rating. When we get more information in, and I realize that I was wrong, I change my mind. And I do so without apologies. That's what happened with the Lamar Bridge -- the more I looked at it, the more I realized it was a bad idea." Garcia says he dropped his support for the proposal after opponents to the plan showed him that widening the bridge without widening the streets would do nothing to alleviate traffic problems.

Garcia also points to his switched position on the SCIP II housing development. Despite an earlier promise not to, he voted to expand the project -- earning the assessment from leaders of the Guadalupe neighborhood that "We will never trust Gus Garcia again."

"I paid for that, and I'm willing to do that in the open and in front of everyone, so I'm different from the traditional politician. And as soon as we have a new mayor, I'll publicly change my mind about the camping ban," Garcia declares. (Garcia plans on repealing the ban, which he says has been ineffective, even though he originally voted to implement it.) "We have new information and we now know it isn't working like we thought it would," he continues. "What's wrong with evaluating yourself and deciding on better solutions?"

Garcia claims that, in Motal's attempts to land a punch, she has at times strayed from the truth. "She's been talking at forums about how the voters approved widening the Lamar Bridge, which isn't true. Can you imagine Austin voters agreeing to spend $10 million to widen one bridge, without even widening the road on either side? It never would happen." The funding for the Lamar Bridge would have come from a giant voter-approved bond package of early-Eighties vintage -- "back when people here were crazy," Garcia says -- for generic street and bridge improvements, with no specific mention of the bridge. Another misfired Motal charge accused Garcia of voting to sell the electric utility, when in fact he did exactly the opposite -- calling for a study that specifically excluded the possibility of a sale.

Given Motal's already demonstrated ability to shoot herself in the foot, it's not surprising that she has become less visible as the campaign has progressed, steering toward friendly venues like buppie Republican poster boy John Doggett's radio talk show. But even this has not done her much good, since -- despite her campaign call for the council to stop focusing on "single issues and hidden agendas" -- her embrace by the local GOP has called attention to her own moral-conservative beliefs, including opposition to abortion in general and to the city's funding in particular of abortions for poor women, along with support for school prayer and opposition to AISD's attempt to protect gay youth from discrimination, all well and publicly documented.

Surprisingly, and perhaps to both Goodman and Garcia's credit, Motal's alliances with the Radical Right have attracted very little attention during her campaigns, though progressive gadfly Scott Henson -- on his much-seen "Hall of Shame" webpage (http://www.onr.com/user/blackdog) detailing the foibles of Motal, Zuniga, Reynolds, and Eric Mitchell -- labels her a "classic `stealth' candidate," planted by the religious right to take over the council via subterfuge. If this is indeed the plan, it's not working very well, probably because Motal's clumsy and guileless campaigns have merely made her seem duplicitous. "Extremism is a vice," she writes in her campaign statement, inverting Barry Goldwater with a call for tolerance and free thought and an attack on "the uncompromising smugness fostered by activists from the left and the right." Yet she has not been all that stealthy about courting extremist activists on the right. Go figure.

And so it goes, with Garcia shooting for a place in history and Motal headed toward a seemingly inevitable date with destiny. "I talk about life running in cycles," Motal writes, "but Austin government is going in circles." As has happened a mite too often in Motal's brief political career, her analytical acumen seems mixed up -- it's her opponent who's riding the crest of a new life cycle, and her own campaign that's going round and round and heading nowhere fast.