Willie or Won't He?
Two Opponents Take on Place 6 Incumbent
In places outside of Austin, folks like to ridicule us for the way we elect certain representatives to the City Council. Newcomers to the local process may be unaware that Austin brings into play an unspoken "gentleman's agreement" during council election years, which guarantees at least one Hispanic and one African-American a seat among seven on the dais. Some would argue that Austin is not going to shed itself of this brand of tokenism until the city overhauls its electoral system altogether, be it by single-member districts or a wide-open contest that turns the top vote-getters into automatic winners. But for now, at least, the gentleman's agreement is alive and, uh, squirming in Austin, Texas. Squirming because of the sensitive racial issues that poke up like crocuses every other spring during the contest for Place 6, known in gentleman's parlance as the African-American seat. "Nobody likes to talk about race," says Nelson Linder, one of three candidates running for the seat. "It makes people uncomfortable."
This election year, the point of debate centers on whether incumbent Willie Lewis is truly committed to East Austin's black community, which has yet to reap the benefits of the economic boom taking place across the freeway. Not that Lewis alone could right decades of wrongs; the argument is that Lewis has not aggressively led the charge for the have-nots east of I-35, even though his votes usually come down in the right place. Which is, in part, why Lewis has not one but two opponents challenging his quest for a second term. Both Linder, a 41-year-old independent insurance agent, and Danny Thomas, a 49-year-old police officer and minister, believe that Lewis is neglecting his responsibility to areas east of the freeway, where all three candidates reside.
The race issue in this year's contest is small compared to the battle of '97, when charges of racism were being lobbed at every turn. Lewis, then a 60-year-old political novice, defeated the incumbent, Eric Mitchell, in a stinging upset. Mitchell lashed out, spewing racial epithets in the glare of TV cameras. Lewis, Mitchell steamed, was nothing more than a pawn of the racist white machine that runs local politics. White people were appalled. Many African-Americans were sympathetic. Mitchell ended his term by stripping his City Hall office of all back-up material that would have brought Lewis up to speed on ongoing council business. "He didn't leave anything," Lewis says of his predecessor. "No pens, no paper clips, no stapler -- nothing."
"Nothing but tacky black furniture," adds Lewis' campaign manager, David Terrell.
Fast-forward to 2000, and Lewis' loyalty to the African-American community is again being questioned. Lewis' supporters believe certain segments of the community are angry because of the council member's refusal to play the race card. Lewis shrugs off the charges. He insists he owes his allegiance to all of Austin, not just a part of it. "We're elected by the whole city so I serve the whole city," he says.
Moreover, he defends his record on East Austin matters, pointing to his lead on repairing unsafe railroad crossing in neighborhoods, and fixing those age-old leaks in the roof at the Doris Miller Auditorium on Rosewood Avenue. Lewis' newest project, currently in its jump-start stage, concerns the public-private development of an affordable Traditional Neighborhood District in far Northeast Austin, nestled in with the city's destination parks. "I think we can do something about the housing situation," says Lewis, adding that he's trying to find additional revenue sources for the city's fairly new housing trust fund. Trying to solve the city's traffic problems is a whole other kettle of fish, however. "We need sidewalks, light rail, more people riding the bus. We need all the tools to get the job done," Lewis says. "Doing only one of those things is like a plumber going to do a job with a wrench."
Contrary to what Lewis' critics say, the council member does have a respectable base of African-American supporters, including minority business consultant Carol Hadnot, Capitol Times publisher Charles Miles, former council member Charles Urdy, and Van Johnson, executive director of the East Austin Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit group sponsored by Ebenezer Baptist Church. Johnson, for one, takes issue with Lewis' critics. "Willie Lewis doesn't make great speeches, or come with a lot of hype and propaganda, but his heart absolutely represents the interests of African-Americans. Lewis just doesn't dramatize or publicize what he does for the community."
While Lewis is a 40-year resident of East Austin, where he owns and manages a small portfolio of Section 8 rental properties, there's no getting around the fact that the council member's strongest bloc of supporters lies west of I-35. There, he is still the choice of neighborhood groups and some environmental groups, though his voting record leans more strongly toward neighborhoods. He won the hearts of 78704 residents last year with his vote against the Gotham Condominium project proposed for the south shores of Town Lake. Lately, he's been meeting with Northwest Austin residents who fear the wrath of city regulators who may soon take control of local septic systems, currently under the watch of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. The residents say Lewis is the only council member who feels their pain. "That's because I'm the only council member with a septic system," Lewis declares, and then leans in closer. "See, I don't always do things the way the political wind blows."
Lewis' tenure at City Hall has not been without some low points, its lowest being a 1998 sexual harrassment complaint filed by a female city employee. His supporters have chosen to forgive and forget the error, but his detractors point to the episode as an example of Lewis' lack of moral fortitude. The complaint, according to the city, was "mutually resolved" by both parties. On a personal level, Lewis can be engaging one moment and churlish the next. He doesn't trust reporters, nor do reporters warm up easily to, as one City Hall insider put it, "Willie's unique style." Indeed, the Willie style can be off-putting, particularly when he is angry over a perceived rebuff of some sort. "One of Willie's failings," a Lewis supporter acknowledges, "is that he takes slights personally."
If Lewis is bothered by the fact that he drew two opponents to his re-election bid, he doesn't let on. He concedes that, even if he were to lose his re-election bid, he would still have his retirement checks to fall back on.
The candidate with the greatest chance of retiring Lewis from the council is Thomas, a 21-year patrol officer with the Austin Police Department and administrative pastor of Eph'phatha Full Gospel Church on Chicon. Many of Thomas' supporters count themselves as part of the anti-Willie faction, which includes former council member Eric Mitchell and former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson.
If not for a past felony conviction in California, Henderson himself would be running for the Place 6 seat. But until he gets his pardon from the California governor, Henderson, a staunch East Austin advocate, is supporting Thomas, whose campaign headquarters is in a Henderson-owned building on East 12th Street. Henderson says the Thomas campaign is paying rent on the property. The two go way back, to Anderson High School where they both played football. "I've known Danny a long time, and he's a good guy," Henderson says. "I know we don't have single-member districts, but you would think that someone on council would see to it that East Austin gets its fair share. Someone with a clear vision. Lewis," Henderson goes on to say, "meddles in everything that comes before council, things he doesn't know anything about. When you think of Beverly Griffith you think of parks, when you think of Gus Garcia, you think of the Hispanic voice, when you think of Bill Spelman, well, let's see, he's the brain, the professor. Then you look at Willie, and you can't figure out what he's for."
Thomas' biggest endorsement so far is from the influential Austin Police Association, which means APA will pick up the tab on campaign signs and the like and provide old-fashioned legwork on Thomas' behalf. Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier also supports Thomas, as the two have been friends for several years. "If I lived in the city, which I don't, I'd vote for Danny Thomas," Frasier says. "He's a very solid person."
Thomas is wisely not betting all of his campaign stakes on East Austin, where he's lived for 44 years. The first-time candidate is drawing on his 21-year experience as an Austin police officer to address issues of citywide trouble spots -- traffic, crime, even eyesores like trash-ridden vacant lots. "I've seen it all," Thomas says knowingly. He is, after all, a rare combination: a cop and a minister. He supports a citizens oversight review board of the police department, as well as increased sensitivity training for police officers.
Thomas, who will take an early retirement if he wins the election, also turns a few heads when he acknowledges that yes, police brutality and racist cops do exist, right here in Austin. But Thomas' main message is that East Austin deserves better -- better housing, better schools, better libraries, better health care. City-funded projects, he says, languish all too long on the drawing board, stalled by one bureaucratic hurdle after another. "You look at the mayor's programs and see how he fast-tracks Smart Growth, and fast-tracks downtown revitalization, and look how long it took Loyola Lane to get fixed," he says, referring to the several years it took for the pothole-ridden East Austin thoroughfare to get repaired, long after voters approved funding for the work.
Thomas could find himself in a runoff with Lewis if Nelson Linder, the third candidate, manages to siphon enough votes. While Linder has the support of such well-known Eastside figures as Nokoa publisher Akwasi Evans and the Rev. Sterling Lands, and the endorsement of the Black Women's Political Caucus, he considers himself very much an outsider. By that he means he doesn't get involved in the rough-and-tumble world of Eastside politics. "There's too much bickering and too many personal attacks," Linder says. "I prefer to negotiate and compromise."
He is, like Thomas, fed up with the city's neglect of the Eastside. "There's a lot of issues not being addressed -- things like social inequity and social service issues. You see a lot of articles written abut this, and the mayor's talking about it, but you don't see any serious efforts being made." Linder says he's the candidate to do more than just make noise about the injustices. "I'm more of a motivator. We have not mobilized our population, and that's caused a lack of confidence in ourselves. I believe that I can motivate and energize people." He credits his upbringing in central Georgia and his U.S. Army experience for his personal successes. "The Army," he says, "taught me discipline, diversity, respect, honor, integrity and determination." From his parents he learned to stand up for himself. "I like to challenge social ideas," he says, noting that one of his political heroes is populist thinker Jim Hightower, the columnist and former Texas agriculture commissioner.
Linder's campaign platform runs the gamut, from supporting ISTEA (the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act), to encouraging, through incentives, more employers to relocate to the inner city, to stamping out environmental racism, and finally, addressing the issue of racial injustice. "But only," his campaign literature warns, "if people of good will and character from across ethnic, economic, political, and social lines are involved in the effort."