Clay Dafoe: 'Citizens Communication Day'
Newcomer Dafoe jumps into the fray
After spending a year critiquing our City Council members, political activist Clay Dafoe recently made the leap from City Hall gadfly to contender. With minimal name recognition and even less money, Dafoe's mayoral candidacy is quite a long shot. Still, the University of Texas graduate and tax professional believes his populist message – rescuing city government from the clutches of corporate interests, returning it to the citizens it belongs to – will appeal to many whose political apathy has been swept away by the rise of the Occupy and tea party movements.
Austin Chronicle: What motivates you politically?
Clay Dafoe: When I go to City Council meetings and see lobbyists like [Formula One lawyer] Richard Suttle meeting in person with the mayor, it makes me upset because I realize our city government is not focusing on and prioritizing the needs of our citizens but rather working to be a mechanism for special interests to get whatever out of the city government they wanted. I feel like that puts our citizens at risk.
AC: What's the first thing you'll do if elected?
CD: First, we need to institute a regimen of ending all corporate subsidies and tax rebates. What it does is create an unfair economic playing field. A lot of these deals are never available to small businesses or individuals, and I think returning City Council to being a mechanism for protecting our rights, rather than an arbitrary manager of economic growth, will go a long way toward providing affordability to our citizens.
In addition, I've noticed the way the Council runs meetings, and in a way I feel like they've deliberately tried to make it difficult for citizens to get involved and give public testimony on items. I'd like to see more items be made time-certain on the agenda so people aren't wasting their time at City Hall, and I want to establish a Citizens Communication day, so council members can just sit and dwell on these policies that are really affecting the people.
AC: Was there a moment, a midnight revelation, when you said, "I'm going to stop just speaking at Council meetings and run for mayor"?
CD: Not necessarily a revelation, just an accumulation of these policies going over and over again. One of the issues that really ruffled my feathers was the fact that back in August two individuals [fellow council critics John Bush of Texans for Accountable Government and Ronald "Ronnie Reeferseed" Gjemre, now Dafoe's campaign treasurer] were actually banned from City Hall for one year with criminal trespass warnings for the crime of merely trying to address the City Council on agenda items. I saw firsthand how they're trying to restrict citizen speech in our government. It's an overarching creep in our government that's really terrifying because it takes our citizens' ability to affect policy out of their hands.
Also, we've seen all the waste with such city projects as Water Treatment Plant 4 and the Waller Creek Tunnel project that really don't improve our quality of life and make our citizens foot the bill for projects we should not be undertaking. So there are a lot of issues that got me involved and got me wanting to do more – to go from just knowing about the abuse in our government to actually doing something to change it.
AC: What's your position on a potential Austin Energy rate increase?
CD: I want to halt the electric rate increases. Our council is moving forward with this rate case as if it's an inevitable conclusion. But they're absolutely wrong. If you look at the General Fund transfers this year alone – $105 million siphoned off from our energy company's revenue and given for things that are entirely not energy-related and nonessential – in our budget is wrong. And we have to stop that if we're going to have fiscal solvency in our utilities.
AC: How did you get involved in city politics?
CD: I got involved in City Council about a year ago, testifying on items where I saw exorbitant waste. I got involved through friends telling me everything they were doing. The mismanagement of our parks system, what we saw with the closing of the Pease Park disc golf course really personally affected me as a disc golfer. And I felt like our City Council was not taking real input from our citizens and moving forward with their bureaucratic vision for things that really didn't require that to make our city a better place.
AC: You've criticized the city's position on affordable housing, saying it should be more a matter for the free market to handle. Should city government be involved in the production of affordable housing?
CD: I think we should reduce our commitment to government housing. The reason Austin's becoming unaffordable is all these bailouts are being given to major corporations, like what we've seen with Formula One, and those are the main issues that are pushing our long-term citizens out of the city's core and making Austin an unaffordable place to live. I would reduce gradually our commitment to public housing and believe often it creates a situation where people become dependent on the government dime. Now, we don't want to cut them off right away, but we want to change our policies to be in a position to where we can provide a more affordable Austin, and that starts with ending the bailouts.
AC: You've criticized City Manager Marc Ott's handling of the Occupy Austin protests outside City Hall. If you're elected, would you push for a strong-mayor form of government?
CD: No, I wouldn't push for a change in our system of government in those regards. I just think our council needs to be more proactive in protecting our citizens' rights to gather at City Hall. These are not the city manager's policies; they should be passed in legislation and ordinances by our City Council members. They've completely abdicated their authority by saying, "Well, the city manager's doing it; there's nothing I can affect." These are our elected officials; if we're going to have democratic government, they've got to be responsive to the people, and they have to be held accountable for their actions that violate the Constitution, violate our rights to gather at City Hall, and completely waste the public dollars on overspending on security for Occupy Austin that has really stressed the APD budget.
AC: Be honest: Did you shave your beard and cut your hair to make yourself more palatable to Austin voters, or was the timing just a coincidence?
CD: It was just a coincidence. I've gone through many phases and this was just another change. Hopefully people like it and think it brings out my handsome face.