The Education of Max Nofziger

From Flower to Power

by Mike Clark-Madison

In the far northwestern corner of Ohio, nearest to Detroit, amidst hamlets like Assumption and Defiance, West Unity and Liberty Center, lie the bottomlands of the Maumee and Tiffin rivers, known cheerfully as the Black Swamp, and adjoining them the town of Archbold, whose high-school valedictorian in 1965 was one Michael Nofziger. He is fond of talking about the Black Swamp. "My ancestors settled in Ohio in 1834 and moved to the Swamp, which everyone else avoided, and turned it into some of the most productive farmland in the Midwest. My dad is still draining the swamp five generations later. So, I have to take the long view. My people were Mennonites, who came here from Switzerland to escape persecution there, and then spent 150 years battling the elements. I consider myself a survivor."

Fair enough. Rightly or not, we haven't always attached such virtues as endurance, stability, and foresight to Max Nofziger, the very poster child of No Place but Austin, the professional flower-seller and office-seeker with the sparse professional wardrobe, who stopped being a joke candidate only when Austin politics stopped being a laughing matter. But facts is facts. The 47-year-old Nofziger is now the dean of the Austin City Council, having served twice as long as any of his colleagues, and during his tenure local politics have turned inside out, upside down, and backwards.

Consider: How long ago was it that Jorge Carrasco was city manager? A mighty long time. Eons have passed since Frank Cooksey graced the middle of the dais, or since John Trevino held down its flank. Even PUD Night, from which SOS sprang, seems part of a different generation. But Max remembers. Hence, his long view. "When I came on to council, the economy had just gone to shit," he recalls. "Our tax base had dropped 25% in two years and was in a real free-fall. We had to cut $25 million in the middle of the year, and then another $32 million out of the next budget... It's gratifying to see the economy strong now, [but] I'm the only councilmember who understands how drastic the cuts were that we made, and that we haven't caught up in key areas. Now is the time to catch up. There is no free lunch."

So Max is ready to raise your taxes, taking advantage of the heat being thrown off the local economy. Such positions are not currently in vogue, even among the Austin left, which has been reincarnated as a parsimonious golem with Brigid Shea and Bob Larson as its two heads. But then, that's the weird thing about today's Max Nofziger. It's not surprising that he's been around so long; he is popular and likeable, picks his battles wisely, and more often than not gets the job done.

What is strange is the sense that time has passed Max Nofziger by. The economic bust changed him - by his own admission, he is more serious now, though he claims he has always been more serious than we thought. (He says it was Peck Young, in his quest to demonize Max on his candidates' behalf, who made him into a hippie.) But the bust changed Austin more, and everything that defines today's political scene - from SOS to the unlikely Slusher coalition, downtown renewal and slow-growth sentiment, the collapse of the Eastside left and the ascent of Eric Mitchell - would not have been possible or even conceivable if the landscape hadn't been altered, if our comfort within the cozy oligarchy of local politics had not been rudely shattered, if our patience with the ill-conceived ideas of an ill-equipped local government had not snapped.

In the post-bust era, as Nofziger puts it, "there's no incentive for camaraderie... We have the latitude to stir things up for no reason." Having been bitten hard in the ass by arrogant and speculative real estate deals, folks who would have watched complacently as Jim Bob Moffett rolled out sod are instead leading an angry mob. Business interests that, a decade ago, would have placed a value on the goodwill of friendly neighbors have now gotten hungry and forgotten their manners. "Consensus" has become "the C-word" - when Bruce Todd utters it, he seems not only insincere but laughably fatuous. Don't you get it? This is war.

And Max Nofziger is, by his own description, "not a bomb-thrower," which would be fine except that his public demands it, especially now, especially with his persona, amenable as it is to the progressive identity at a time when all good lefties are girded for revolution. Max does not care to give press conferences. Max seems equally annoyed at the grandstand plays of both Shea and Mitchell. Max likes Camille Barnett a lot. All of which makes Max, arguably the most effective councilmember, seem like a bit player on today's political stage.

When asked about his major successes in office, Max starts ticking off things so commonplace they hardly seem of enough import to cross the desk of a councilmember, at least compared to his colleagues' drive to reinvent Austin. Citywide recycling. Getting Capital Metro to drop its fares. Ending the squabbles over funding through the Arts Commission. Getting the Sixth Street sidewalk project done during the rainiest year in Austin history. Shepherding downtown renewal along through a host of tiny little measures, like the sidewalk-cafe ordinance, instead of through grand public-funded spectacle. What about water quality, when for two years Max was the only city official who could say "non-degradation"? Nofziger sees triumph not in stoking a great populist environmental movement - though he knows, and acts like he knows, how central he was to the SOS fight - but in helping to educate the citizens. "I remember when I didn't know what an aquifer was," he says. "And now every third-grader knows. That's a very important part of my job."

Somewhere, Frank Capra is smiling, but in 1995, Mr. Deeds would get run out of town. It is not idle speculation to think that Max Nofziger is on the short end of his career in Austin politics. The rumors are thick that he won't run for a fourth term next spring, supported by his relinquishing the mayor pro tem post; by the anemic state of his campaign bank account (about 5% of Shea's war chest); and by the departure of Esther Matthews, Max's former landlady, then campaign manager, then longtime council aide, for other city employment. Nofziger concedes that it may be time for him to do something else with his life, adding that "it's more than just a question of whether I want to serve another term. If there are things I need to do, I may need to do them soon."

Nevertheless, Max is quite cocky when queried about his chances for term number four, his last under the new term-limits provisions of the charter, if he chooses to run. "I don't need to spend money to build name ID; I'd have to be out-spent four- or five-to-one for an opponent to win," he says, adding that he's had no difficulty raising the $10,000 allotted to him in off-years by Shea's campaign finance ordinance. "I got 52,000 votes in my last race; that's third on the all-time list, and number one for a white male." (Sally Shipman and John Trevino are the leaders.) "I think I have quite a base from which to run another campaign." Said campaign, though, might turn out to be for mayor in 1997 or even 2000 - "I'm excited about the new millennium; I like the idea of being mayor going into it. Those of us on board get to set the tone for the next 1000 years."

Should Max Nofziger return to civilian life, if such ever really happens to ex-councilmembers, he probably won't be selling flowers on the street. The thought of Max as a consultant seems sort of gruesome, but he'd come a lot cheaper than, say, Jerry Trimble of Keyser/Marston, the downtown-renewal hired-gun who is Nofziger's bête noire, and probably do a better job. "Downtown renewal is happening; it may not be on the scale that the Chamber of Commerce would like, but it's Austin. When Jackie and Brigid were elected, that was help on the environmental issues, so I could turn my attention elsewhere, and downtown is what I'd always wanted to work on."

Typically, while others with a downtown focus - from former Mayor Lee Cooke to former city housing guru Gene Watkins - went for the grand scheme to which they could apply their scent, Max instead body-blocked the boosters and their wet dreams of downtown shopping malls. "If I choose not to run, revitalization will continue," he says. "The question is whether the five councilmembers who hired a consultant with an eye on bringing in subsidized major retail can be comfortable with that momentum. So far, they haven't tried to depose me (as head of the Downtown Subcommittee, which he brought back to life) because I hold a divergent view."

As nice as it might be for Max to out-place Trimble, he could instead enter into a dance with the Austin Swing, for whose ballpark he is fervently pumping. How, exactly, does a tax-subsidized stadium differ from a tax-subsidized shopping mall, one might ask? Because, Max feels, it'll work. "I have confidence that a stadium/music venue will succeed on both counts," he says, alluding to the team's potential (presuming they don't suck) for bringing in fans from throughout Central Texas, and to the desperate need - at least among local concert promoters - for a mid-sized outdoor shed in which to drop Triple-A roadshows.

But must the city come to the aid of the entertainment industry - which is all baseball is, just another roadshow - in this manner, especially when burgs throughout the land have come to regret the loss of their maidenhood to caddish sports moguls? (Voters in Seattle are being asked to pony up nearly $300 million to keep their unloved Mariners.) "I've come to appreciate the importance of institutions, of building things that last," Nofziger says. "If the team is here for 20 or 30 years, it'll impact people's lives, and the development of the Colorado River Park will impact that many more. It builds on the essence of Austin, instead of importing retail or high-tech companies from Portland."

Such may be true, but right now Max looks like a tax-and-spend profligate at a time when basic services are withering. Yet he wears the mantle proudly. "There are some who think keeping taxes down is the only measure of fiscal responsibility," he says. "But if we let our assets waste, that's not being responsible. Eric Mitchell voted against a $700,000 expenditure for the fire department; now public safety has become his number one priority. If he didn't have the balls to vote for $700,000, where is he going to find the balls to spend $30 million?"

Tough talk from such a nice guy, one whose infrequent fits of public passion qualify as some of the decade's most memorable political moments (his challenge to the Air Force to close Bergstrom, his keelhauling of Todd during the Camille Barnett meltdown). Maybe he's better prepared for Nineties politics than he seems. "I don't think the squabbling is especially constructive, but... I think Austinites have come to expect politics as sport," he says. "There are people in town who make their living by being dissatisfied. But at least it gets people into local politics." n

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