All in the Family
Elizabeth, Bruce & George: Love, Austin Style
Questions that really propel her into spin-control mode are those regarding conflict of interest and her family. But try as she might to deflect attention, consumer watchdogs and the local media can't seem to drop it. Her husband, Mayor Bruce Todd, after all, is energetically pushing to sell Austin's utility, while her father, Texas' pre-eminent Democratic political advisor George Christian, has for the last decade been representing a company waiting in line to buy it. "I have this vision that people think [George Christian, Todd, and I] sit around the dining room table thinking about privatization," notes an exasperated Elizabeth Christian. "My dad and my husband are scrupulous about not talking about... anything that poses either one of them a problem. Both of them -- they are like two peas in a pod."
Something else both men share is their love for Christian, a powerful political force in her own right. In the 18 months since her move back to Austin in 1994, Christian has taken the city by storm, first as the campaign manager for Todd's tough, but successful, re-election bid, then, after a secret campaign courtship with the candidate, as the mayor's new bride. After her masterful handling of the PR campaign to pass $370 million in Austin Independent School District (AISD) school bonds among a tax-hating public in last April's special election, council-watchers and politicos began to suspect that Christian was not your average First Lady.
"In the past, Austin's First Ladies have been a rather genteel lot who really kept a low profile," notes veteran political fundraiser Alfred Stanley, a longtime friend of Todd's who worked with Christian on both the mayoral and AISD bond campaigns. "We've never had a Mrs. Mayor who has been as active and committed. Elizabeth has no time for the whole `parties and tea' routine. She's in the trenches working in politics."
Once Christian relents to an interview, she becomes a gracious host. A blonde with icy blue eyes, Christian, 42, cuts a pretty and professional figure in a yellow sheath dress and pearls as she escorts a visitor down the 12th-floor halls of the Franklin Plaza downtown, where she offices next door to her husband. The posh building is a hub for lawyers and lobbyists -- just down the hall from Christian's digs is Brown McCarroll & Oaks Hartline, home of veteran city lobbyist Jerry Harris. In an anonymous conference room overlooking Town Lake, the fifth-generation Austinite reflects on growing up the eldest of six children in a family steeped in politics. Her grandmother, Ruby Christian, who had worked 25 years as a clerk with the State Comptroller's office, was a full-time volunteer on several statewide political campaigns, and pitched in on behalf of several senators during legislative sessions. Elizabeth Christian was in junior high when her already-famous father, who had been Gov. John Connally's press secretary, moved the family from Austin to a suburb outside Washington, D.C., to become President Lyndon B. Johnson's press secretary.
Although she says the turbulence of those times -- such as the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King -- affected her deeply, Christian is blasé about the perks she enjoyed because of her father's position, such as riding on Air Force One and hanging out with LBJ. "We [kids] had an amazingly normal life. We weren't in the public eye. [My father] kept us out of it. My mother and dad are real avid historians... and we just lived at the Smithsonian. Those are my memories -- that and playing in the creek by our house."
Writing was always her strong suit, and not long after her family's return to Austin in 1968, Christian worked for the McCallum High School newspaper. She got a close-up view of politics, Christian says, when, while a student at the University of Texas' journalism school, she spent an exciting summer in 1973 working at the White House as a secretarial intern for Republican Anne Armstong of Texas, special counselor to President Richard Nixon. "That was the height of the Watergate hearings being on TV," Christian recalls. It should come as no surprise that Christian, with ties to the Democrat Johnson, should also have a role in a Republican presidential office -- her father was then a member of Democrats for Nixon.
Christian says she enjoyed her time at the White House -- she had coffee with then-V.P. Gerald Ford twice a week -- but adds that politics didn't appeal to her. However, Woodward and Bernstein's ground-breaking journalism did. But instead of pursuing that kind of investigative reporting, Christian says, throughout her career she has practiced a form of communications that, to her mind, presents no contradiction -- a "hybrid," or a cross, between journalism and PR. After graduating from J-school with a specialty in public relations, Christian worked for five years at the State Bar of Texas, editing the Bar's newsletters, taking photos, writing public service announcements, and organizing press events. She even wrote a book on halfway houses for prisoners to reintroduce them back into society. In the late Seventies, she worked as a technical editor at a company doing most of the research on Texas' first effort to create a coastal management plan.
In 1980, she left Austin for California and the Los Angeles Times, where she landed a job in the paper's PR department. She eventually moved into copy editing, and wrote business stories for the real estate section. In 1984, she and her then-husband, a Times photographer, moved to hippie-bastion Ukiah in Northern California and bought an alternative weekly newspaper that had its beginnings as a pro-marijuana rag, she says. "We took it over and ran it the way that people with Los Angeles Times training might run it." Within two years the experiment was over; Christian and her husband sold the paper and moved back to L.A., where she was eventually re-hired at the Times as an assistant business news editor.
When asked what stories she wrote that made her most proud, Christian shrugs off the question with, "It just feels good when that newspaper comes off the press and you're done and you haven't made any mistakes..." Newspaper archive records reveal that in the late 1980s Christian wrote dozens of stories on gardens, with particular attention paid to flowers ranging from daffodils to African violets. She also wrote a few yuppie how-to articles on topics like dressing your kid, writing a resumé, and recognizing impending layoffs. After a stint at a Los Angeles PR firm, Christian and her husband eventually returned to Ukiah, where she ran the Chamber of Commerce, work she describes as "the most fun PR job in the world."
After her marriage ended, in 1994 Christian planned a return to Austin and, at the suggestion of longtime friend David Weeks of the PR firm Weeks-Correa & Company, interviewed with Todd and was hired to be his campaign manager. (Weeks, who was working on Todd's re-election bid, had interned for Christian's father years before.)
Todd recalls that his first meeting with Christian was short. "I was late for a meeting and she had strep throat," he laughs. But she aced the interview, not because of any political connections, says Todd, "but because she seemed to be someone very capable."
Elizabeth Christian, Todd, and George Christian may not have discussed plans for privatization, but they certainly collaborated on getting the mayor re-elected. George Christian sat in on strategy sessions during the runoff, and political consultant Peck Young of Austin's Emory Young & Associates, who also worked on the runoff, recalls that when the elder Christian first appeared at a meeting, "some people in the campaign practically stood up and saluted." However, Elizabeth herself was "the least impressed with her dad," he recalls. "She helped the other [campaign workers] realize that he was a normal human being."
Todd and Christian kept their courtship a secret from the campaign staff until the race was over, but, notes Young, there were little hints all along that something was going on during the razor-close race. "After [then-mayoral opponent and former Chronicle editor Daryl] Slusher would say something bad about Bruce, when some people suggested that we attack Slusher, Elizabeth's eyes would light up and she would be going `Yeah, let's rip his heart out with pliers'," Young laughs. "But Elizabeth was able to get a grip on herself."
Immediately after the runoff, Christian married Todd and joined the national PR firm Jack Martin's Public Strategies, Inc., but says she quit because the job kept her on the road. She says she left Public Strategies to start her own PR shop under amicable circumstances, but not before taking a client with her: Scott & White, a major health care delivery service based in Temple with regional clinics across the country. Scott & White is now Elizabeth Christian Public Relations' main money-maker.
The next big client she took on paid a lot less -- in fact nothing -- but it was even more high-profile: AISD. As a volunteer, Christian co-chaired, with former school board president Willie Kocurek, the citizens' committee that worked all last winter to promote the school bond issue. Christian had the tough sell of asking tax-weary voters to pay another $100 per person annually in taxes to renovate schools and build new ones. Chamber of Commerce head Kerry Tate, of the PR firm Tate/Austin, says that Christian did a great job of heading off voter opposition from different segments of the community by addressing every concern equally. "When questions would arise from environmental groups or anti-tax people, [she] didn't blow that off or pooh-pooh them," Tate says. "She didn't do that cheerleader routine where you say, `How can you be against kids?'"
Christian considers the successful passage of those bonds her "greatest accomplishment," and her husband is even more proud. "It was a marvelous victory for the community," Todd says. "She did a remarkable job."
Her aggressive but professional style was a needed splash of cold water in the faces of AISD volunteers, PTA types, and school officials, recalls political consultant Stanley, who was the deputy finance chair of the citizens' bond committee. "Elizabeth didn't play the part of the socialite wife of the mayor wearing white gloves," Stanley says. "There was nothing Tarrytown about her -- she was tough. She was in the strategy sessions with her sleeves rolled up, calling the shots."
Christian's next big venture is the formation of a new marketing alliance that the mayor announced last May. The group, called "Todos," meaning "everything" in Spanish, will be a sort of one-stop shopping boutique for clients who might need services -- ranging from PR to environmental compliance issues -- that Christian and the five other members of the alliance could offer (see accompanying story). In the Statesman,Todd billed the alliance as a way for him to start making money now that he is facing re-entry into the private sector. With conflict of interest questions popping up like mushrooms after a rain, the usually enthusiastic Christian downplays the alliance's significance. "Todos is really a marketing alliance for which we don't have a client right now," she says. "Todos is just a fun name we came up with for our friends in this office."
The conflict-of-interest issue, however, has dogged the mayor since he began his push for privatization a year ago. The questions continued as he announced his intention not to run for office again, and as TU Electric, the Dallas-based utility that employs George Christian and wants to buy Austin's utility, began hiring people close to Todd. The image of Elizabeth Christian, her father, and her husband -- arguably Austin's most powerful political set -- sitting around a table carving up Austin's most valuable assets like so much Thanksgiving turkey doesn't seem so far-fetched to some. But such accusations pain the mayor's wife. "Because I happen to marry [the mayor], my poor Dad, who has the cleanest reputation of anybody I know, has been dragged into the paper and besmirched and hurt in a cruel way," Christian laments.
George Christian adds, "The idea that I'm out there pulling the strings and manipulating Bruce Todd is crazy."
Todd says he has never talked to his father-in-law, "who does not lobby the city for anything," about privatization, and that it's "irritating to hear the Chronicle use associations to imply guilt."
But the recent bombshells Todd has dropped -- that he wants the city to award management contracts to private companies to run five other city departments, including Solid Waste and the Water/Wastewater Utility Departments, and that he is starting an alliance that critics say could eventually benefit from those actions -- just serve to feed suspicious minds. "I take Todd at his word that he would not contract with a person who might have business before the council, but if I were a major utility or garbage-hauling company, or a company interested in operating [the Water & Wastewater Utility], I would certainly line up at Todos' door with inquiries to make sure the mayor was aware that I'm interested in his services once he is free," says Tom "Smitty" Smith, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. "You would be a fool not to make inquiries."
Have private garbage haulers and utilities made inquiries at Todos? Todd gives a definite "No," and maintains that the company is not going to benefit from potential business that could come to his firm in the future as a result of privatization. Frustrated spinmaster Elizabeth Christian: "I knew [this article] was going this way. There is no way in the world that this company would handle anything that would pose a conflict."
Todd has already received at least one inquiry he deemed too thorny to handle, according to one of his Todos partners. Although he refused to be specific, Todos' Jon Hockenyos, who runs an economic research firm called Texas Perspectives, Inc., and does work paid for by several private utilities, including -- you guessed it -- TU Electric, says that Todd has already had to decline business. "An idea came up and I asked him if he could work on it. [Todd] made some calls and said that legally it was probably okay, but it won't look good so he decided not to do it," Hockenyos says. "We are acutely conscious of complying with the spirit and the letter of the law."
Smith says that rather than make speeches suggesting a privatization revolution at City Hall, Todd should withdraw himself from the debate altogether and cool it with regards to improving his financial future. "He is placing himself in an ethical snake-pit," he maintains. "The alarming thing is that the mayor is sending clear signals to companies -- which may not be as scrupulous as he is -- that he is interested in discussing future employment now while still in a powerful office."
Todd responds, "I can only handle the decisions and actions of one person, and that's me. I've made it clear that I'm not going to be involved in conflicts of interest. Period."
What benefits Elizabeth Christian also benefits Todd, and Smith would like to see tighter revolving-door and conflict-of-interest standards restricting not only city office-holders, but also their family members, from using influence earned while in office for self-enrichment.
Christian points out that there is no clear statute on what constitutes a conflict of interest other than that under the revolving-door law, former councilmembers can't lobby the council for the year following their tenure. "But I can tell you that every single one of us [in Todos]... are stringently avoiding even the perception of a conflict."
Still, as Hockenyos admits, some of his clients "are not disinterested" in privatization issues. The question for Todos will be "Where do you draw the line?" Todd may not accept work from companies that want to contract with the city, but what about the firm's other members? "Conflict-of-interest decisions are a case-by-case decision among honorable people," Elizabeth Christian explains.
In the short year and a half since her return to Austin, Christian has managed to accomplish a lot: She helped get Todd re-elected, became the First Lady of Austin, and passed $370 million in school bonds. Now she would like nothing better than for the spotlight to shut off while she and her hus-band go about quietly trying to make some money. "She's just trying to build a business by herself, on her own, in her hometown," sighs her father George. As for the media attention, "She's fed up."
Perhaps Elizabeth Christian can take comfort from the same words of advice she gave her husband during the fight to keep his seat. As Todd fondly recalls, "One day during the campaign she told me to `Ignore the criticism of those with an obvious agenda. Be true to yourself and do what's right.' We have each reminded the other to do that from time to time."