Austin Strikes Out

Top Ten Political Stories and Moments of 1995

by Louisa C. Brinsmade, Robert Bryce, and Chris Walters

It started out badly enough: slammed at the Lege all spring, a police "riot" in East Austin in February, a federal court ruling against the city in Freeport-McMoRan's favor, and it didn't stop there. The budget season from June through mid-September was ugly, and how. Squabblings in the police association over reorganization efforts led to a "no confidence" vote for Chief Elizabeth Watson, and essential departments that provide for the libraries, streets, and city parks took it on the chin, again.

But in the last few months of the year, it began to look a lot like Christmas, however small the ironies and victories. After all their bullying of Austin, Freeport took a major PR fall over their operations in Indonesia, and their financial connections to the University of Texas -- making a sewer deal with the city for their development over the Barton Springs Watershed now seem unwise, and unpopular. And in the Don't-Believe-the-Hype department, in 1995 taxpayers were finally spared some big ideas that cost big money: $10 million for minor league baseball; $100 million for a new city hall; $30 million for a Palmer Auditorium retrofit; and a sale of the electric utility that provides over 25% of city budget revenues. You can bet most of them will enjoy a reprise in 1996.

Following is a list of our Top Ten political stories and moments from 1995 -- our reporters also shared their top tens in each of their respective columns. You can find Hugh Forrest's list in "Media Clips" on page 18, Roseana Auten's in "AISD Notebook" on page 19, and Robert Bryce's list in "Environs" on page 20.

Let's hope 1996 brings out the best in all of us.

Top Ten Political Stories

1. "Your city is nicer than the rathole I represent, so up yours." It was a tough year for Austin, and for the sanctity of the state's home rule laws. Powerful corporate forces, including Freeport-McMoRan and Gary Bradley, won (bought?) allies among distant legislators who appeared on the floor with numerous Austin-trashing bills. They certainly got their money's worth. Nine of those bills passed this last legislative session, including: SB 1017, which exempts FM Properties and other developments with 1,000 acres or more from Austin's water quality ordinances; SB 1016, which allows water districts to break contracts with the city so they can provide services to FM Properties; SB 1606, which creates seven municipal utility districts, HB 3193, which created a special water district for developer Gary Bradley's Circle C development; and HB 2758, which encourages annexed residents to sue the city for services.

2. Bush gets what he wants. A rookie governor shouldn't be able to expect much at the Texas Legislature, but Governor George W. Bush was able to get his program passed with little difficulty. Is this a benefit of being the son of a former president, or was Bush just lucky? Neither one. Bush got what he wanted because his charges laid the groundwork, and Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and House Speaker Pete Laney wanted it to work.

3. Skin and bone, muscle and blood, Jim Bob and Bill covered with mud. They may have had a beautiful year at the Lege, but by the end of 1995, the tide of public opinion began to turn on Jim Bob Moffett and Freeport-McMoRan -- disgrace and embarrassment plagued the company, both here and abroad. The federal government cancelled Freeport's political risk insurance for their mining operations in Indonesia due to environmental degradation to the area, and controversy over the naming of a University of Texas building after Freeport CEO Moffett led to questions of conflict of interest for UT Chancellor Bill Cunningham, who also served on the company's board. Then "Dollar" Bill jumped off the board. Okay, maybe he didn't jump. Maybe he got a little push. But either way, Cunningham finally decided that his dual role was unworkable. See "Environs" for more Freeport highlights.

4. One-man show. There was no stopping him. 1995 was Austin City Councilmember Eric Mitchell's year, and whether you like him or hate him, he accomplished more in one year than other Place 6 councilmembers did in decades. Time will tell whether his Eastside initiatives are right for the area, but at the very least, Mitchell got his colleagues to accept nearly $18 million in loans from the federal housing department for Eastside redevelopment. $8.8 million will go to create an entertainment center on Rosewood Avenue, and another $9 million is intended for the redevelopment of East 11th and 12th Streets. Meanwhile, approval of CURE, Mitchell's incentive-based plan to encourage downtown redevelopment (a plan with few, if any, detractors) will likely come at this week's councilmeeting.

5. Sealed with a kick -- Cedar Avenue. Ira and Charmaine Bedford's Valentine's Day party certainly didn't turn out to be the traditional neighborhood celebration it was known to be: Austin police responded to Ira Bedford's 911 call regarding a gang member with a gun spotted outside the party, and by the time the evening ended, a virtual police "riot" occurred, with 68 police officers closing off the street and using mace and cattle prods on party goers and neighbors. The incident led to an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, and the creation of a neighborhood/police relations task force to deal with racial tensions in the area.

6. The future of hotdog vending as we know it was at stake. The baseball emergency lasted longer than the actual season -- from February through October of this year, the prospect of minor league baseball held Austinites hostage, while it held the council in thrall. After approving $10 million in public funds as "certificates of obligation" which meant the public could not vote on it, the council got the spanking it deserved from former councilmember Bob Larson's Safe Austin From Extravagance (SAFE) coalition, which demanded, and got, a public vote on the funds. The bonds failed by a two-to-one margin.

7. Changing of the Guard(s).

A man called Bruce. He rode into office on a fence, and he rides out on a cloud of ambiguity. Mayor Bruce Todd announced last fall that he will not seek re-election. Almost immediately, City Hall lived up to its lead-happy reputation as rumors, to the effect that Todd will leave office early, fly like Congress Avenue bats at sundown.

Maxed Out. Signaling the end of an era, former streetside flower salesman and senior Councilmember Max Nofziger revealed that he will not seek a third reelection in 1996. Signs of exhaustion were evident throughout the year. Without warning, he disappeared from at least one council meeting without telling his stunned colleagues. And during at least two other meetings, he threw in the white towel, simply leaving the dais or the meeting when initiatives that he opposed were on the brink of passage. The question remains: Does Nofziger have enough left in him to run for mayor in 1997, or even 2000?

8. Changing the guard, continued. Editor Maggie Balough out, Rich Oppel in; Publisher Roger Kintzel out, Michael Laosa in. The paper's coverage, especially on the Freeport-McMoRan/UT connection and the mining company's operations in Indonesia, is finally getting up to speed on the news. Sheer coincidence? Maybe -- the only conspiracy we can find is that Cox is trying to make the Austin American-Statesman a better paper. Go ahead -- we dare you.

9. The Lobbyist Full Employment Act. Did someone say utility sale? Was it George Christian? Okay, that's a cheap shot, but the mayor's father-in-law is one of dozens of lobbyists queueing up for a chance to convince the city council that it should sell the electric utility. No election is scheduled yet, but look for a shocking vote in 1996.

10. Shootout at Media Gulch. Never, never start a publicity war with a cool hand like Police Chief Elizabeth Watson unless you really know what you're doing. Watson, who studied at the Camille Barnett school of image manipulation, endured a few days of ugly press in August when the Austin Police Association loudly gave her a vote of no confidence. But she took the heat and turned the situation around, aided by a few veteran officers who resigned from the association. The no-confidence vote was revealed as a budget-season gambit in a few adroit strokes, and the Association's credibility went down in flames at dizzying speed.

Top Ten Political Moments

1. Austin's own Deion Sanders. Debates haven't been this lively since Ross Perot ran for president. At a work session this summer, Councilmember Eric Mitchell levelled a "Screw You!" at colleague Max Nofziger for criticizing Mitchell's proposed Eastside entertainment center. The trash talk continued at a housing subcommittee meeting a few weeks later, when Mitchell made the same emphatic point to an East Austin neighborhood group protesting a proposed housing development.

2. And when I'm dictator, it won't... Attorney General Dan Morales, miffed that the Chronicle ran a cover story on changes in his administration that indicate pandering to the property rights movement, told attendees at a property rights conference hosted by the conservative coalition Stewards of the Range in August that the cover art illustration, of Morales as a lap dog, was not to his liking. "That sort of stuff ought not be occurring," he said from the podium.

3. Barrientos gets Top Ten. Texas Monthly selected Austin's Senator, Gonzalo Barrientos, as one of the state's
10 worst legislators. Barrientos, who filibustered twice in an attempt to prevent Austin-bashing bills from passing, was skewered by the magazine for a session-long pouting snit. Well, pout or no pout, he's our senator, dammit. For better, or worse. So let's all pout with him.

4. Bullock and Austin. Austin hired a fleet of lobbyists to protect its interests during the last session of the Legislature. But apparently, the message didn't get through to irascible Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. When asked if he had met with Austin's chief lobbyist, John Hrncir, the Senate's chief curmudgeon replied, "never heard of him."

5. Maybe he'd care if we were paying him. If only the City of Austin had gotten him first. Attorney to the powerful, Roy Minton, was hired by South Texas (Nuclear) Project (STP) manager Houston Lighting & Power to fight the mismanagement lawsuit brought by the City of Austin, a 16% STP partner. In an unprecedented move, Minton called for depositions from local anti-nuclear activists, to link the views of those activists to the city administration's motives for the suit. During a break in the hearing at which Minton was arguing the necessity for such unorthodox testimony, Minton leaned toward an HL&P colleague and stated loud enough for the gallery to hear: "I don't care about their first amendment rights -- I'm going to depose those people!"

6. Not if you count the Irish. What would politics be without sweeping generalizations? That question might be better asked of Gus Garcia, who at a council meeting this spring blamed poor health in the Hispanic community on his presumption that "Hispanics drink too much." Garcia's compadre, Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, a spokesman for a beer distributorship, did not respond.

7. A college graduate would know how to punch out a photographer. Lena Guerrero, the Railroad Commissioner and Ann Richards protegé who resigned in disgrace after it emerged that she falsified her academic credentials, is manifesting a feisty style in her new role as statehouse lobbyist. At a hearing near the end of the 1995 Legislative session, she ordered photographer Alan Pogue not to take her picture. When he said he already had, Guerrero grabbed his camera, and threatened to call Capitol security and say Pogue was assaulting her. After a brief struggle, during which Pogue regained control of his camera, the combatants went their separate ways. Pogue related the anecdote to the Texas Observer, giving Guerrero a strong dose of bad publicity. Hoisted by her own petard again.

8. The Freeport Seven. Richard Nixon had an enemies list. So, apparently, does Freeport-McMoRan, which in early December sent threatening letters to two Chronicle reporters, two activists, and three UT professors. Where are John Mitchell and John Dean when you need them?

9. Forget a Skilled Workforce, We Want Lord & Taylor! While Austin's microchip companies have been complaining for the last several years that Austin lacks skilled workers for their new plants, the Chamber of Commerce focused on more important matters, as indicated in their announcement in the spring of 1995 that their top priority of the year was getting Centermark Properties the $60 million in public funds they wanted for their downtown mall project. If Kerry Tate, the new Chamber president coming on board in '96, wants suggestions on priorities, we've got one: How about economic health, not for out-of-town corporations, but for Austin residents?

10. Premature exultation for Samsung. Behaving like a teenager having a back seat epiphany, Mayor Todd, the Statesman, local TV newscasters, and the Chamber of Commerce all went ape in mid-summer when South Korean electronics giant Samsung suggested they had decided to locate a factory in Southeast Austin instead of in Portland, Oregon. It turned out that Samsung was only playing footsy. Although the firm has since "committed" to the Austin location, as of December, nothing definite was in place. "We need to put the champagne on ice a little while longer," Congressional Rep. Lloyd Doggett conceded after the September press conference was cancelled. Then it was reported that Samsung's chief, along with seven other Korean corporate heads, was indicted on bribery charges in South Korea. It might be a good idea to take that champagne bottle back to the store. n

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