The Austin Chronicle

City Campaign Season Opens

By Michael King, March 27, 2012, 6:00pm, Newsdesk

The table couldn't have been much longer for the City Council candidates – mayoral, Place 2, Place 5, and Place 6 -- at today's forum sponsored by the Real Estate Council of Austin., the Coats, Rose law firm, and others. Luckily, a couple members of the Place 5 posse chasing Bill Spelman didn't show, leaving only four challengers and the incumbent in that slot.

Forums might not be cheaper by the dozen, but they're certainly faster – moderator Judy Maggio informed the company that candidates would be allowed only 45 seconds for most answers. RECA's is the first big campaign event of the cycle, building up for the May 12 election, although a handful of groups have begun holding endorsement sessions, with plenty more to come.

RECA and its co-sponsoring orgs do not formally endorse at this event, but follow the forum with a "straw poll" tallied as the hundreds of guests (filling a Four Seasons hotel ballroom) depart. This round's tally held only a couple of surprises, but one fairly sizable: Place 5 challenger Dom Chavez outpolled Spelman 46% to 35% (a result prefigured in broad applause for a couple of Chavez's fairly innocuous statements about making City Hall more "accountable" and "business-minded").

In the mayor's race, incumbent Lee Leffingwell predictably outpolled former council member Brigid Shea, although the margin (91%-5%) was surprisingly overwhelming, with Shea barely outpolling novice candidate Clay Dafoe (4%). Place 2 incumbent Mike Martinez garnered 81% to challenger Laura Pressley's 19%, and incumbent Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole was at 90% to challenger Shaun Ireland. Repeat: the poll has no force (RECA host Clarke Heidrick sardonically reminded audience members not to confuse the poll with the real May 12 vote), although it will fuel speculation already buzzing around town that with so many opponents, Spelman likely faces at least a runoff. (The entire straw poll results are available on the RECA web site, where you can also find the candidates' responses to the RECA questionnaire.)

Other highlights: of the Place 5 battle royal, Chavez and entrepreneur Tina Cannon look most likely to give Spelman trouble. Chavez has been politically active in various conservative causes for quite a while, and took an aggressive stance today on "government accountability" and cutting costs; and Cannon appears to have mastered policy-speak – "we need to grow sensibly and responsibly … with a multi-modal transportation system" – a basic necessity on the campaign trail. (Cannon garnered 18%, third place in the straw poll, "Bo" Prudente 1%, and the others invisible.) Spelman was also assigned a failing microphone, and was a little abrupt with his answers on questions like Cannon's, have lawsuits filed against the Council effectively undermined its fiduciary duty? Said Spelman, "The right thing to do is still the right thing to do. … Let them sue us."

There was also some tension in the mayoral exchanges. Leffingwell asked Shea how much money she had made in consulting contracts on city projects since she left the council in 1996. "Less than the mayor makes," she responded, estimating "about $40,000 a year." In turn, she asked Leffingwell if he supported her proposed campaign finance reforms, radically limiting contribution bundling and requiring full disclosure from anyone with city contracts. The mayor said that while disclosure is most important, he couldn't respond specifically on her reforms without more information. "As for bundling," Leffingwell said, "all that is, is a person who already supports you asks his friends also to support you."

Leffingwell used a question from Dafoe concerning corporate incentives to argue that incentive deals done during his tenure have all been "cash-positive, performance-based, and providing good jobs" for the city, and hit back specifically on Shea's campaign charge against the fee waivers provided to Congress Ave. Marriott hotel. "Anybody that says [the hotel] was coming here anyway," Leffingwell added, "doesn't know what they're talking about."

Later, in response to an audience question about excessive regulation potentially hurting local business, Shea raised an issue that may become more important as the race goes on: what she described as "the incredibly ill-advised bio-mass plant" (i.e., Austin Energy's 2008 deal to buy $2.3 billion in power derived from the burning of Northeast Texas waste wood). That was a unanimous but rushed and uneasy vote from Council, and Shea's implication was that it and the whole question of "fuel charges" cannot be ignored in analyzing AE's current rate predicament and the Council's ongoing attempts to come up with a solution.

Any unanswered questions? Every single candidate talked about "affordability," but NewsDesk didn't see or hear any magic wands in the policy prescriptions offered from the group. Maybe the wands are being used as bookmarks in those questionnaires.

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