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Tovo's Triumph

Place 3 winner pledges to look out 'for the public interest, not special interest'

By Amy Smith, Fri., June 24, 2011

Kathie Tovo and supporters celebrate her council victory at Scholz Garten.
Kathie Tovo and supporters celebrate her council victory at Scholz Garten.
Photo by John Anderson

On the day before the June 18 run-off, the energy inside Kathie Tovo's campaign headquarters at 31st and Lamar was undeniably confident. The campaign – a grassroots effort pitting neighborhood and education advocate Tovo against a business-backed incumbent with a deep war chest – was nailing down final details on the fieldwork and phone banking needed to close the deal on election day.

Inside a small office, Tovo's political strategists – campaign manager Mark Yznaga and consultant David Butts – polished off their ThunderCloud sandwiches and offered their assessments of what had been a grueling, nasty contest. "I think we have won the race," Butts said. "The other side did a very good job – a very good job – of getting out votes, of turning out some new voters. And if there's anything that will make the race interesting, it will be that fact; otherwise, we would see Kathie winning over 60 percent of the vote."

As it turned out, Tovo settled for 56% to defeat Council Member Randi Shade, one month after beating the incumbent in the general election. Shade's last council meeting is Thursday, June 23, and a key vote is scheduled on the city's possible endorsement of Formula One (see "Formula One Deal on the Bubble"), a proposal that Tovo turned into a political flash point that helped shine more light on a highly complex financing scheme. "I think the campaign had a role in bringing it in front of the public, and I really appreciate the fact that Kathie wanted to talk about that," Yznaga said. The city's initial willingness to buy into a financial agreement that few people understood was but one example of how business has been done at City Hall for many years, he said. Tovo "basically said: 'There's a problem at City Hall. We have to fix it.'"

Some of those problems were rooted in philosophical differences and personality clashes on and off the dais. The forced public release of hundreds of council members' emails before the May municipal election laid bare many of these conflicts, with Shade, Mayor Lee Leffingwell, and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez (and, to a limited extent, Chris Riley) often aligned on one side, and Sheryl Cole, Laura Morrison, and Bill Spel­man on the other. The Leffingwell-Martinez-Shade triumvirate believed Morrison was too closely aligned with neighborhood associations. During one executive session, Morrison and Spelman texted each other to complain that Shade was playing word games on her cell phone during the meeting.

Shade's emails criticizing other council members and community activists were regarded as the most damaging to her political career, particularly because she was running for re-election with support from developers and lobbyists, who could usually rely on her to vote in their favor. Shade's reorganized run-off campaign carried strong whiffs of big lobby and Republican influence. She hired Lynda Rife, a skilled crisis-management and outreach consultant who is also on contract with the city on the construction of the controversial Water Treatment Plant No. 4. Tovo said she would have voted against the narrowly approved plant, but has vowed to protect the city's economic interests while looking for ways to trim costs. Countering Tovo's opposition to WTP4, Shade put out heavily rotated TV ads with video footage of local wildfires, warning that Tovo would leave the city "dry and dangerous" without a facility to treat water. She also hired GOP pollster Mike Baselice and tea party activist Luke Sheffield to help rustle up votes.

When the early voting numbers showed Tovo with a 10-percentage-point lead over Shade, it was fairly apparent that the first-time candidate had clinched the race. By 7:45pm, the Tovo victory party was already well under way in a crowded room at Scholz Garten. Council Members Cole and Spelman were on hand to help Tovo celebrate. Morrison would have been there, too, but was out of town attending a memorial service for her father. Former Council Member Jennifer Kim, whom Shade defeated for the Place 3 seat, was also on hand, along with Paul Saldaña, consultant and aide to former council member and former Mayor Gus Garcia.

For the most part, the crowd was dominated by neighborhood, environmental, and civil rights activists, some of whom Shade had ridiculed in private emails. One target of Shade's scorn – Robin Rather – was especially jubilant. "One of the best quotes I've been hearing tonight is, 'This proves that Austin can't be bought,'" she said. "The values that made the city great are still valued in the 21st century. ... Neighborhoods are still valued, the environment is still valued, and decency is still valued. Randi did not run a campaign that was worthy of Austin."

In her victory remarks, Tovo thanked Shade for her time on council and said it was time to move beyond the contentiousness of the campaign with positive action. "We have sent a resounding message that the people of Austin want to see a change of direction at City Hall." Touching on key themes of her campaign – affordability, schools, and smart growth vs. growth at any cost – Tovo said she wants to help create a city government that "really looks out for the public interest, not special interest."

Cole, who had spent part of the day riding with Tovo and Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder in the Juneteenth parade, said she believes the council members will be able to put their differences behind them as they plow into the budget-making process. "I'm confident that we will work together for the betterment of the city – the city that we all love."

Spelman, on the other hand, said most of the repair work will need to start with the special interests who viewed Tovo as a threat to their livelihoods. "It doesn't have to be complicated," he said. "I do expect that we'll spend a lot more time asking questions and being more thoughtful than we've been in the past few years."

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