Point Austin: The Way of the Strayhorn
There goes Carole, wandering off the range again
Unless Mike Levy finally decides to jump in and start raising lots of sand, "Carole" (as she prefers this go-round, apparently having jettisoned "Grandma" in order to pitch to a younger demographic) is likely to provide the most entertainment on this year's mayoral campaign trail. CKS was at it again last week, in a "slash the budget" presser aimed at demonstrating she's a finance whiz who knows where to find (all together now!) the "waste and fraud" that's overloading the city budget. She reiterated her phantom "$137 million deficit" that's based on using an "all funds" number – including revenue-generating departments like Austin Energy – instead of a "general funds" budget number that must by law be balanced (hence the current wage and hiring freeze at City Hall). The Chronicle's Wells Dunbar has already punctured this nonsense in "City Hall Hustle" (Jan. 16), and his conclusion bears repeating: "But for anyone – much less the former state comptroller – to stoke fears about a $137 million shortfall in the midst of dire financial times is ignorant at best and irresponsible at worst."
Strayhorn's scattershot recklessness is in keeping with her lifelong habit of briskly campaigning on whatever the current political market will bear. And if her Gatling-gun pronouncements are inconsistent, who can listen fast enough to notice? Earlier this month at her kickoff presser, in virtually a single breath she first excoriated high city budgets and then complained that cops and firefighters can't afford to live in the city. Since public safety is by far the city's single greatest expense, does she propose to simultaneously cut police salaries and raise them?
Perhaps, at that point, Strayhorn thought she still had a shot at endorsements from the cop and firefighter unions, since gone by default to Lee Leffingwell. No matter: Strayhorn's persistent method, like an anti-missile system, is to sling confetti in the air and hope the voters are sufficiently distracted not to notice her contradictions. She pulled a characteristic stunt in her gubernatorial run, piling up nearly empty petition boxes in order to pretend she had more support than she did. Her early "lead" in mayoral fundraising is similarly likely to disappear.
Keep Your Eye on the Pea
It was odd enough that Strayhorn chose to hold her budget photo op in Northwest Hills, where the foreclosure tumbrils haven't exactly been rolling of late. She was backed up by humble homeowner Bradley Bengtson, a businessman who said his property taxes had tripled in 14 years – not only on his $411,000 homestead but on the four rental properties he owns (including a couple in Hyde Park), with a total appraised value for the five of $1.24 million (and that's presuming his holdings are only in Travis County).
I don't begrudge Bengtson his real estate (he told the Statesman that the rental properties don't currently yield "much" profit). But he's certainly aware that recent tax increases have been largely a consequence of rises in value (presumably good for an investor), not city rates (which in recent years have mostly been lowered by City Council), and that in any case, the city accounts for less than 20% of the property-tax bite. Some 75% goes to the Austin Independent School District and Travis County, and AISD's 55% is almost entirely a consequence of the state's refusal to adequately support public schools. If Bengtson doesn't know that, former Comptroller Strayhorn certainly does – and blasting the city with bad numbers and worse aim is, to coin a phrase, irresponsible at best.
Even setting aside all these awkward details, what on earth gave Strayhorn the notion that the Bengtsons, God bless them, are financially representative of "hardworking Austin families" who Strayhorn claims are finding the city budget to be an unbearable burden? To stage her budget dog-and-pony show on these numbers and in this setting reflects her current tone deafness about Austin and Austinites, confirmed by her 13.7% Travis Co. vote in that ill-fated 2006 governor's race.
You Must Remember This
Maybe I'm jumping the gun. Carole's been beating the bushes for weeks, Leffingwell's barely gotten started, and there's plenty of time for him and the others to find ways to fall on their faces. Brewster McCracken seems to be working up to something like that, having spent the last month running away from positions – mass transit, home energy conservation, climate action, rail election – that he has been boyishly enthusiastic about on the dais. If Levy does enter the race, along with the couple of odd-men-out already jockeying for the Jennifer Gale Memorial Vote, the May 9 tally may become all about getting into the run-off.
Maybe Carole's got some secret strategy to upend the Austin electoral universe. But in addition to getting beyond her ham-handed opening salvos, like Men in Black agents J and K, she's going to need a magic Neuralyzer to make voters forget a great many alien apparitions: her finger-in-the-wind political loyalties; her permanent campaigns for whatever office seems to be available; her advocacy for the South Texas Nuclear Project, aka "the bottomless money pit"; her craven use of the state's scandalous mistreatment of foster children for her own political advancement (if you need a reminder on that one, see Jordan Smith's stunning "Campfire Horror Story," Nov. 21, 2008).
The list, alas, goes on. Strayhorn certainly has reason to be proud of her early political work, especially as an education advocate (AISD and Austin Community College) and as a woman who broke considerable political ground in Texas. But as happens to far too many public officials, once she became a permanent candidate, her sense of purpose and direction became increasingly blurry and uncertain with each succeeding campaign. From the looks of it thus far, she's likely to discover Austin's a very different town from the one where the mayor was once known as Carole Keeton McClellan.