Randall Stephens: 'I Can Handle the Job'
Austin Chronicle: Please introduce yourself.
Randall Stephens: My name's Randall Stephens. My childhood was in Northeast Oklahoma, small town of Wagoner. I went into the Air Force after high school, during a post-Vietnam era recession. I decided I'd go ahead and find a trade and get an education. I was interested in spending at least part of my day outdoors, and the aviation trade appealed to me, and some friends of my father told me I'd always have employment.
I entered the Air Force, and trained on aircraft, to be an aircraft mechanic. 1979. Before my 19th birthday, I was working on $100 million airplanes, which today would be closer to $250 million. Worked on C-5 Galaxies and C-141s, and they sent me to Texas for basic training and technical training, at Sheppard Air Force base in Wichita Falls. I spent two months there, right after an F1 tornado had gone through there. I attended a local church that was held in a high school there, and I spent some time helping a guy rebuild his house, got to know the community, and thought Texas might be a good place to be at some point in life. ...
I moved to Dallas and found a lot greater job satisfaction working in a flight-line environment. We had the entire fleet – everything that flew for American Airlines flew through Dallas, so we could do everything we could do there – a very big experience for someone in your 20s. We worked on everything; changed everything but the wings, engine changes, overnight checks, through trips. It's a very fluid environment working at the flight line, as opposed to working in an overhaul environment. American Airlines built an overhaul base nearby, just north of the city of Fort Worth, Alliance Airport. At one point, in 1996, I transferred over there for a while. I took a lead job for an avionics crew, so I was planning job flow, making work assignments, kind of like what I did as a staff sergeant in the Air Force.
I considered that an introduction to big business, in a way. If you think about your life, in a day to day, what you do, I feel like I was blessed with a great opportunity. You learn how to flow a big job from beginning to completion, and make it happen on time. You work with a really diverse, eclectic group of people, in a pretty complex, technical environment. So I'm used to working with just about everybody.
When the Gulf War happened – the first Gulf War, in '91 — and we had people, where I worked, in every country involved in that, in the Middle East and everywhere. Respect is something that you gain from working with people.
AC: What finally brought you to Austin?
RS: My first marriage failed in '91, and we decided to split up. A couple of years later I met my wife. She is a naturalized citizen now; she was visiting from Russia when I met her, in Dallas, and we were introduced. I made my first trip over there after we eloped, and I promised her good friends there that I'd try to help her get into medicine here. So we spent several years in Dallas with her preparing to get her license, her boards, and getting into medical residency. When she was accepted, she was accepted in Beaumont, so we sold the house and moved to Beaumont, and I transferred to Houston.
We spent two years in Beaumont. When UTMB-Galveston [UT Medical Branch] decided to close their medical residency program in Beaumont, they scrambled and found her a third-year position here in Austin. At the time American needed head count here in Austin, and I was able to transfer; everything just worked out for us. That was the spring of 2002.
We bought a house off of Anderson Mill Lane. We're now in Avery Ranch. My commute [Avery Ranch to ABIA] is about as long as you can get in Austin. On the occasions when I do a bicycle commute, I'll get up at 3:45am – or I'll hit the road at 3:45. It's a two-hour commute to get to the airport, a little less. It's about 28 miles. I know all the streets.
AC: Is it safe all the way? Another biker got killed over the weekend on the highway.
RS: Well, these things do happen, life happens, and you can't fear life. In the wee hours of the morning like that, there aren't very many cars on the road. I've ridden down Burnet for miles and not been passed by a car.
AC: What made you decide to run for mayor?
RS: I've had a lot of unique experiences. I think confidence is one thing. I'm at a point in life where – I've had a parallel business life, business experience. I've been an employer – I had several employees in '09 and '10. I had an office on Shoal Creek for my website – we completed development on the website. ...
AC: How long have you done Adbirds?
RS: I launched Adbirds in early '09. It's designed to compete with Craigslist everywhere, around the four pillars of serving people, business, charity, and ecology. To compete with Craigslist, we designed it to include everything and the kitchen sink. You can add video, 10 images (they would only give you four at the time), a better web editor, keyword line, more searchability, generally. And we created two business service levels, kind of like LinkedIn has upgrades – we thought that might be a pretty good model. Value and Unlimited, and Unlimited also has a spreadsheet uploader that nobody else ever designed. We coded it to incorporate a spreadsheet, and put every line in the right position on an ad. Everything is geo-located to the business address, with a map-link, turn by turn instructions ...
We loaded up to the first retailer, and within about a minute they had 1500 ads on. So it's working; let's try it out on Drudge Report and see what happens. We got some metrics, I had some local musicians do a jingle, which is terrific, a big-band sound. We ran two [local radio] campaigns, [53 years old, four am]. So anyway, I found out the hard way that nothing works better than clicks, unless you have a marketing budget like Angie's List.
AC: You sound more like a businessman than a public official. Why did you decide to run for mayor?
RS: Because I love the community. I'm at a point in life where this business isn't taking that much of my time. It's not profitable, it's not that big of a deal, I'm trying to do some charity things with it. I'm at a point where I can actually take a pension within 18 months from the airline, and I don't want to be there. Thirty-five years, I've been working on heavy jets. It's a kid's job – it's fun, it's good, it pays well. There are a lot of good reasons to stay, but for the fact that I want to do more things in life.
There are other things to do in aviation. I could take retirement, take the pension and go to work elsewhere, and just pad the retirement. I've thought about going to a military contractor, I've got a security clearance, but I'm not really happy with what some of what's happening outside the country, some of the things those folks are having to do. I'd rather stay home.
AC: So being mayor seemed like a good alternative?
RS: Yes. I thought about running for City Council. I thought about doing District 6, but I liked one of the candidates. A friend of mine's an activist over in Southeast Austin; we met working on one of the campaigns last time around. She asked, "Have you met Matt Stillwell?" I met him, I voted for him for state representative – he lost in that district two years ago. I met him for coffee, found out he's going to run in that district, so I said, "Well, Matt, I'm not going to run against you. I like you, and I'm going to support your campaign."
I still want to be active in something. I have kind of a global look, but I also have a local look. I care about things that are happening, and so it's a good time for me to do something. So I thought, "Well hell, I'll run for mayor." I like to go out to the range sometimes and shoot guns. I'm not going to run around town with an AR-15 strapped to me, I'm not fond of that concept. But I'm also not going to get the city involved in a legal dispute over gun rights. And I have a fear that one of the candidates might, based on some things that are out on YouTube. Mr. [Council Member Mike] Martinez spoke at the state house [at the Capitol, making a reference to a potential gun ban] after the Sandy Hook thing.
I don't dislike him personally, it's just a different viewpoint. But I'm very risk-averse, that's my business nature. I don't want to get the city involved in litigation over national issues like that. I winced a little bit – even though I don't agree with everything Arizona does – when they didn't want to do business with Arizona.
AC: You've described yourself as a "Blue Dog Democrat." What does that mean to you?
RS: In the past, I've voted for Republicans and I've voted for Democrats. It depends on the race. I've voted for a lot of Libertarians when I've had to hold my nose too much. I voted for Ron Paul – probably one of the few times I've donated a C-note to a campaign. That was in '08. I signed up to be a precinct captain as a Republican in '08, where I used to live, and I was a Ron Paul supporter.
Some of the things that are going on, in the national scene – I don't like this fight over gay rights, I don't think that's something the states ought to be involved in. I've worked with so many gay people, I have no homophobia whatsoever. I just think it's a ridiculous thing, and the Republicans play too much emphasis on it, because they're trying to appeal too much to the pulpit, I think. I'm very much in favor of the separation of church and state – that's the libertarian in me. But there's a lot of libertarian in liberals too. A lot of my Democrat friends agree with those viewpoints.
I'm pretty much a moderate on a lot of things.
AC: How does that translate for you into city politics?
RS: The city – transportation's very important to all of us. I'm as green as a gourd – this thing that I designed [the website], if it got big, the bigger it got, the greener it gets, because everything's the shortest distance; we even have a fuel-cost calculator. That's at my core, is saving energy. I'm not in the climate-change crowd, or a believer that it was all man-made. I'm not about that at all. But I do know that everybody likes a clean glass of water, we like to breathe clean air, and we want an environment that isn't toxic. So, let's try to find a way to change the way people shop, and find things closer to home. That means shopping at local businesses, which is very good for the economy.
I like the AIBA [Austin Independent Business Association] crowd, I like that whole thing. I do a lot of business networking ... – to see what works, and what doesn't.
Austin has a very strong buy-local mentality, a lot of terrific restaurants and such. I know a lot of restaurant owners, one of them told me, he tried to put in a second location, over on Far West [Greg over at New World Deli], he was talking about some issues they had with permitting. I've heard a lot of people complain about issues with city permitting. Another restaurant, over by my house, Avery Ranch, they did a major expansion, it took him about six months to get it done. A beautiful job, and I asked him how it worked with the city, and he said he didn't have a bit of trouble. "I had a good contractor, everything was planned very well, and it was executed very well, and the guy came in at the right time, and it was all very good."
So I'm thinking, maybe some computer-based training for folks in that situation might be good. We have a great Small Business Development Center at the city, and they do real good work. I'm an idea guy.
AC: You had some thoughts on the urban rail plan – that you think it's a good idea, but might need some changes.
RS: A train needs to go somewhere ... that dotted line, that goes out to the airport from Grove, that ought to be a rail that goes out to the airport over the road. Not stopping traffic. ...
At the reveal, I recalled hearing about the "rail to Mueller." You drive 28 miles, you get a lot of talk radio both ways. People are asking why they want to take the rail to Mueller, the old airport. I hadn't heard about it in a while – kept hearing about Highland – and then at the reveal it dawned on me – all they'd really done is change the talking point. When I saw the presentation, I realized it's still going up there, now it's to ACC-Highland station. ...
I've been all over the world, and I know that cities that work – livable cities, the size of Austin that are expected to grow, that function – have to have these attributes, and they work because they have these multimodal transportation systems. So for us to be a city that functions 50 to 75 years from now, we have to have these things. Back when the automobile was new, I heard that the tire companies bought up all the streetcar lines – I don't know how accurate that is. But things do change, and as we become more densely populated, moving more into urban centers again, then we have to have these. ... But I said, you already have an ACC stop – it's called the Highland stop and it's on the Red Line. You can save these four or five miles of rail, and punch that thing through to the airport, and go to the real airport instead of Mueller. ...
The rail as they've planned it goes right by this new Innovation District, which I think is a great idea. Now I'm starting to look at it in a different light. That ID is a very good thing to have – it's very well thought out, it's going to be very transformative in how concepts go through the lab, get their financing, and go into production here at home rather than products going to California and losing maybe a vaccine or a medicine that's maybe going to be a billion-dollar product could be developed and produced right here in Austin, Texas. I'm with that program. Having that new attribute going past that Innovation District will help bring the best of the world's talent who want to live in Austin, in that area.
But still we have to – I told them at the reveal – to sell this program, to people who live on the periphery in Austin, you're also going to have a program that improves through-put on our commuter freeways. You have to find some way to get these lights eliminated on Ed Bluestein – I know they're planning on it, with the toll road – 360 and other places, 290. Those projects need to be under way and get done within a few years.
And I know that's the state highway system, but Austin, this is also the state capital. I think we could lean hard on the state, and say we carry the burden of a lot of your footprint here in Austin. The city streets carry a lot of fleet vehicles from the state.
AC: Of course, TxDOT is out of money themselves.
RS: They might be, and this comes back to what's influencing our political system.
AC: Campaign donors are limited to $350 in Austin; it's not a whole lot of money to run a citywide campaign.
RS: I'll have to take the Obama approach, and hope for the five-dollar donor and hope we get more than the other guy. Some people take donations from outside the city limits, that's not my constituent. Granted, people out in Lakeway and Cedar Park also drive on our streets and identify with some of our transportation problems. On the local level, and the national level, you have bundlers. You also have ads that are paid for by PACs, that are influenced by big money. I also have friends in some organizations who say the mayor has sold out to heavy real estate interests.
Actually, I have kind of the same viewpoint [as the mayor]; I think we need to develop these things. I don't think the real estate community should fear anything I'm going to do, I'm going to be very pro-business. I know that for capital to be attracted to this area, they have to see there's going to be a return on investment. If the money isn't good, the money's going to go somewhere else. If you over-tax it, or don't develop, it's going someplace else, because somebody is going to grow their economy.
AC: Another common campaign discussion is affordability, especially rising housing prices and consequent rising property taxes. What's your approach to that problem?
RS: We're a victim of our own success. I'm sure there's a limited number of things we can do. The most noise I hear about affordability – there's your student population and such, and young couples – I hear a lot of talk about East Austin, I hear the word "gentrification" all the time, used by politicians that have been in office a long time, while it's been growing, when permits have been let, and single families moved out and redevelopment has occurred.
I'm not totally against redevelopment, but I think you could, if you had the political will, get the permitting people to restrict the footprint of the new development. And if you have a single-family, two-bedroom, one-bath, it ought to be a single-family, two-bedroom, one-bath to replace it. Or at least the same size, single story.
AC: Wouldn't that simply drive up the price of that piece of ground?
RS: Well, it probably would, but maybe it would keep Grandma from getting priced out of the neighborhood for a while. I don't know; but if you put up a two-story next to it, a McMansion, then prices are going to go up. I know they're going up around Mr. Martinez's house.
AC: What would you say to people who might say you're trying to start at the top [running for mayor], when you've not been particularly politically involved at the city?
RS: Other than the Toll Party effort, about 10 years ago. I went out and got signatures on petitions. It was an effort to get the city, the people, to support an early election to remove the mayor. It's about the only way we have initiative and referendum in Texas, at the local level. But it was a training ground. It was the first time I'd ever been involved in anything; it was fun, I enjoyed it, and got to know a lot of people that were active, had been active in Austin politics for a long time.
I feel I'm bold enough, I'm confident enough in my abilities to deal with people. I don't think I have a bunch of enemies. Thank God, I've never been sued, I've never stepped on anybody's toes that badly. I actually walked away from a chance – I could have sued somebody and probably won. Walking away from a fight is always the best thing to do, if you can do it.
AC: So you believe you're ready to be mayor.
RS: I believe I can handle the job, I really do. I believe I could bring my problem-solving capabilities, my analytical, my thought processes, my ideas, to the table. It comes to a table of 10 plus 1 now. Everything that comes to the table needs approval before it gets gaveled on to the next level and becomes an action item, and then a program. I think this 10-1 is going to be good for Austin.
Mr. Leffingwell made a comment, or words to the effect, that he didn't envy the next mayor. It's going to be different. I've met quite a few of the people who are going to be candidates for district positions. There's quite a bit of talent out there, and the public will ultimately pick who they want in there, and I haven't met anybody who I didn't think we could work together on projects.
I've met the other mayoral candidates; I think they're all fine people. Austin has a lot of talent to pick from. I love this community as much as anybody; it's where I want to spend the rest of my days. It's a terrific place to live, by choice.