The Fight of His Life
Are Ronney Reynolds' Mayoral Hopes on the Ropes?
Mayoral Candidate Kirk Watson
photograph by John Anderson
Dozens of Austin's political elite -- ranging from Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) members and Chamber of Commerce leaders to hard-core Save Our Springs Alliance (S.O.S.) officers and neighborhood representatives -- stood with Watson during his announcement, forming a visual Who's Who of the city's civic and business activists. Among the attendees were Walter Hinojosa, Texas AFL-CIO Director; Diane Hardy-Garcia, executive director of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Lobby of Texas; and Chamber of Commerce chair Kerry Tate and former chair Ron Kessler, just to name a few. But it was the presence of members from both the environmental and development factions -- which clash the most and wield the most political clout -- that stole the show.
For years, a prevailing opinion has been that Austin politics is less than the sum of its parts, that spatting among the city's various factions has undermined efficient and productive governance. So when some of Austin's most respected environmentalists like the matriarchal duo of Mary Arnold, vice-chair of the Save Our Springs Alliance and Shudde Fath, Electric Utility Commissioner stood on the bandstand with the likes of Joe Duncan and Jay Hailey, former presidents of the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA), the development community's most powerful political organ, it did more than authenticate Watson's promise of a symbiotic future. It gave him the upper hand in the race against his only declared opponent, City Councilmember Ronney Reynolds.
Mayoral Candidate Ronney Reynolds
photograph by John Anderson
Despite Watson's running start, however, political aficionados say it's too early to count Reynolds out. There are five months until e-day, and Reynolds, 48, has strong name identification, lots of money, and he knows how to run a campaign. In fact, he does his own fundraising, and is so confident that he hasn't yet hired any political consultants. "You don't win by the business or the environment," says Reynolds, "you win with people, and that's how I've been able to win the last two times."
But in Watson's corner, the celebration seems to have already begun. Never in
the history of Austin politics have so many from such diverse extremes rallied
behind one goal. While Bruce Todd won the last two mayoral races with a similar
consensus-building theme, he remained deeply mistrusted among most of
the environmental community, and many complained that his supporting cast of
environmentalists were pseudo-enviros who had been wined, dined, and
politically 69-ed into allegiance with the business community.
Can't We All Just Get Along?
Although he sings a familiar refrain, Watson claims that this time, there really is a new day dawning. "Austin needs someone that can bring some new ideas to the table," he says, "someone with my background that has an opportunity to broaden the discussion." That background that Watson touts is firmly rooted in both environmental causes and in the business world. How else could you describe a resumé that boasts both a position as treasurer of the Environmental Defense Fund and a vice-chairmanship of the governmental relations board of the Chamber of Commerce ? That Watson, largely unknown just a few months ago, has come so far so fast is partly a testament to Austin's changing political scene, say many of his supporters. With an economy increasingly driven by the high-tech industry rather than real estate speculation, Austin's business community is evolving, and its leaders are more willing to reach out to a candidate with strong environmental ties like Watson.
None of which is good for Reynolds, who has long been an enemy of the environmental movement because of his all-out support of development and big business initiatives. Reynolds, of course, has never been known as a consensus-builder. "Ronney is my friend," explains RECA's Hailey, a former Reynolds supporter. "He's voted in many ways that have been helpful to RECA. But it boils down to who the right person is for Austin right now. At a later time, Ronney may be a good leader, but now we're at a critical point, and a different kind of leadership is needed."
Less than a year ago, the outlook was positive when Reynolds confirmed his middle-of-the-dais dreams after Todd announced he was quitting. With a resumé boasting two council terms, an $80,000-plus campaign stash, and the seemingly undying support of the business and real estate commmunity, Reynolds seemed a shoo-in. But now that many Chamber and RECA heavies have thrown their collective weight behind Watson, Reynolds' most important foundation is threatening to crumble beneath him. He's about to embark on the race of his life.
Like other proponents of the environment, Watson has preached the alarmingly
sensible message that a healthy environment and a strong economy go
hand-in-hand. To carry it out, Watson, a name partner in the firm Whitehurst,
Harkness & Watson, which has a specialty in pursuing medical malpractice
claims, asked former Gov. Ann Richards to anoint him chair of the Texas Air
Control Board (TACB, since merged with the Texas Water Commission to form the
Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission) in late 1991. Richards obliged.
At the time, the TACB was regarded as a bureaucratic cesspool of corruption and
inefficiency. Though the Democrat had to work with a Republican-dominated
board, and had to spearhead the implementation of the complex Federal
Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, Watson met every federally imposed deadline
by the time he left in 1993.
Queen Ann's Tree-hugger
On day one, Watson called for the first-ever audit of the agency. Next, he used his chairmanship to increase public participation and make the meetings more discussion-oriented than their original formal speaking process allowed. Neil Carman, clean air director for the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, says, "Watson made himself more accessible as chair than anyone in the past."
Though Watson had been president of the Texas Young Lawyers' Association in 1990 and 1991, and had served on the State Bar Executive Committee from 1989-1992, he was an unknown entity when he took over at the TACB. He now faces the same obstacle in his bid for the mayorship, and a common question is whether the newcomer can handle the city hall pressure-cooker. Reynolds emphasizes that he is the candidate with the political experience to run the city effectively.
But Watson counters that he is no stranger to sticky political situations. In 1992, as the TACB chair, minorities from Northeast Austin came banging on his door, complaining of noxious emissions from the six gasoline storage tanks in their neighborhoods. Led by Susana Almanza, executive director of People in Defense of the Earth and her Resources (PODER), the residents claimed that fumes from the "Tank Farm" caused headaches and nausea. Watson initiated dozens of emissions tests, though all but one claimed the fumes were safe.
To ease the situation, Watson displayed the tightrope-walking ability that some say is his greatest asset. He joined the Republican side of the TACB in voting for decreased testing at the site, but later sided with the neighborhoods in a vote for an emission reduction. Although the reduction plan didn't pass the board's muster, Watson negotiated a voluntary plan with the oil companies. Later, with the help of Texas Water Commissioner John Hall, he created the nation's first task-force on environmental racism. Ron Davis, an East Austin activist and one of the tank farm protestors, says, "I thank God for a person like Kirk Watson. He was so instrumental in us getting those tanks shut down."
From the other side of the coin, Watson won over industry attorneys like Pam Giblin, with the local office of Houston-based Baker & Botts, which now supports him. And when the TACB disbanded, the Republican-dominated board passed a resolution praising Watson and asking Richards to immediately appoint him to another committee. One of those Republicans was Bob Bailey, who initially referred to Watson as "Queen Ann's [Richards] tree-hugging environmentalist," but has now written a two-page letter supporting Watson's candidacy. Bailey was impressed, for instance, when Watson created an office to help small businesses understand the complex Clean Air Act, the first of its kind in the nation. The office served Watson's dual message: Small businesses learned cheaper methods to reduce emissions, and the environment benefited from more compliance with the regulations.
Of his success at the TACB, Watson says, "We all had different views of the world, but we created a process that allowed community to be built around solutions." That inclusive message made him a hit with chamber chair Tate, and when a slot for the 1996 vice-chair of the chamber's governmental relations board opened late last year, she brought Watson aboard. (It was through his chamber connections that Watson made fast friends with some RECA members.)
When his two-year stint as the Travis County Democratic Chair was about to end
this year, Watson says, a number of friends urged him to make a mayoral run.
Watson would not say who they were, only that some came from the Democratic
Party, and others were just longtime friends who didn't want Reynolds to run
unopposed. (Watson has aspired to elective office before; Texas Lawyer
reported that in 1990, Watson kicked around the idea of running for the
house seat vacated by Republican Terral Smith.) Last March, to establish the
required Austin residency necessary to run for mayor, Watson moved from his
suburban cradle in West Lake Hills to a tony, $738,000 spread in Central
Austin. Soon after, Tate and other Chamber bigwigs threw their support behind
him, and other business leaders followed.
Business Splits for a Change
One Reynolds defector is Mel Waxler, a former chair of Leadership Austin, the Chamber's training ground for up-and-coming politicos. For Reynolds' last campaign, Waxler had his photo on a Reynolds campaign flyer. Now, he says, "I think Kirk will have a better shot at bringing the diverse, but very valid, interests of the community together."
Ironically, it is the business establishment and not the environmental movement which now has the unenviable possibility of parting down the middle for the first time ever. Even though Watson has strong environmental ties, a good many chamber types don't see him as an irrational tree-hugger. Indeed, he and Reynolds don't differ much on major business issues. Both have expressed potential support for a downtown TIF, which would reinvest a portion of property taxes into a specified downtown area. Both support looking at privatization as a way to provide more cost-effective service, though neither wants to see less services. And both have doubts about selling the Electric Utility Department, and are demanding more information.
The more the business community splits, of course, the more Reynolds' victory will depend on a RECA endorsement. (Readers may remember that the RECA created a controversy during last season's city council races after it was discovered that their Political Action Committee funneled tens of thousands of corporate dollars -- via voter identification info -- to developer-friendly candidates.) In the past, Reynolds has been a leading recipient of RECA's largesse. While two aforementioned RECA members have defected to Watson's camp, three other RECA noteworthies are mum on whether they'll support Reynolds. Even Reynolds' close ally, Freeport-McMoRan lobbyist David Armbrust, an attorney for Strasburger & Price, will not say where he stands. Nor will attorney Pete Winstead of Winstead, Sechrest, & Minick, who will replace Tate as the Chamber's chair in 1997 and who is general counsel for Austin CargoPort Development, which won the sweetheart deal to build and operate the new airport's $20 million cargo facility. RECA President Amy McElhenny, though she did attend Reynolds' annual October fundraiser, is also playing it close to the vest.
The reason for the reticence is unclear, though one consultant who requested anonymity and is not working on either campaign, reasons, "People are not excited about supporting [Reynolds], but they have to. A lot of people out there legitimately think they owe Ronney one. He's voted for the real estate community time and again."
Still, it would be unfair to say that Reynolds, a CPA with Reynolds, Loeffler, & Dowling, is pandering to only one faction. He has been a strong advocate of child care initiatives, has taken a keen interest in improving the police department (see sidebar), and is a resolute supporter of Austin traditions like Aqua Fest (no matter how much debt it takes on). "I'm not fluff," Reynolds says. "I've worked on many projects, taken a lot of time, and tried to accomplish something for the citizens. I have a record of goals and accomplishments and I'll run on that record."
Most notably, he stared down the mayor last year, leading a council majority against a sale of the Electric Utility Department. Still, his motives there were suspect. At least two councilmembers (former member Brigid Shea and current member Gus Garcia) charged that Reynolds was just helping his friends at the Lower Colorado River Authority, which has openly considered managing the EUD. The aforementioned Armbrust is an LCRA lobbyist and has been a key Reynolds financier and supporter.
But above all, Reynolds has gained infamy as a lockstep developer vote. A good
example of his allegiance has been his efforts to approve Freeport-McMoRan's
massive Barton Creek development proposal, commonly called the PUD, for Planned
Unit Development. In a fitting analogy, Reynolds once volunteered as a golf
caddy at a tournament hosted by Freeport. When it comes to
PUD-related interests, which have been the council's most generous developer contributors, Reynolds has been like a toy that raises a thumb in approval when a coin is deposited. He has voted for Freeport's proposal every time it has reached his desk, and in return, has received more PUD-related contributions than any other councilmember ($20,000-plus). The last agreement Freeport brought to the table, in February, 1995, was approximately 300 pages long, very technical, and had been prepared by Freeport. City staff had reviewed it, but the council had not -- they received it only two days before the public hearing and vote. During the hearing, Reynolds' colleagues asked dozens of questions about the impact the agreement would have on the city and Barton Creek. Reynolds, on the other hand, had no questions and instead played solitaire on Councilmember Eric Mitchell's laptop computer and frequently left the dais to watch a UT basketball game in the breakroom.
In 1992, Reynolds voted to delay a citizens' referendum on the S.O.S. water-quality ordinance. S.O.S. grew largely out of the movement against the PUD, and would have limited development there. Before he voted to delay the referendum, Reynolds told S.O.S. supporters to "take a hike." The reason became clear later, when developers had an extra 90 days to file dozens of development applications before S.O.S. cut into their profit margin.
One group that has not forsaken Reynolds is tourism representatives, with whom
he has been intricately involved. Before he was elected to the council,
Reynolds was a volunteer coordinator who helped get the Convention Center
built. "The more tourists we have, the more sales tax revenue we have, and the
less property taxes we have. It's the best no-growth policy I've seen," says
T.C.B. at ACVB
Currently, he is closely tied to two of the state's largest convention education organizations, the Texas Society of Association Executives (TSAE) and Meeting Professionals International (MPI). Among other things, both groups teach member associations about getting the most out of conventions. His wife, Mary Reynolds, serves on the MPI board and Reynolds does taxes for the TSAE. Reynolds also does the income taxes for both the state and local Hotel and Motel Assocations. At a TSAE convention ealier this year, he spoke to non-profit groups about tax-saving opportunities. These same organizations provide a fertile breeding ground for contributors. An analysis of his January, 1994 Contribution & Expenditures Reports showed seven TSAE organization representatives among his contributors.
Late this summer, when hoteliers and tourism representatives begged the council to privatize the Austin Convention and Visitors' Bureau (ACVB), Reynolds put the privatization effort on the fast track. Five of his colleagues, however, had numerous questions about the proposed privatization, which would have put $3 million a year into the hands of a non-profit corporate board. The contract Reynolds stood ready to approve would have allowed only four public meetings a year and had no provisions for competitive bidding -- an alarming lack of public input with a bureau that, when private in the late Eighties, was rife with abuses of taxpayer money.
After two months of questions, and the additions of safeguards to ensure public accountability, a majority of councilmembers finally voted in favor of the ACVB privatization. Reynolds, frustrated with the pace of the approval process, asked few questions, and even called a special vote for faster approval.
It should come as no surprise, then, that a number of tourism representatives are serving on Reynolds' 76-person "initial steering committee," to help him figure out what issues hold currency with voters. They include Juan Portillo, owner of Tramex Travel and a former ACVB board member; Rusty Wallace, president of the local Hotel and Motel Association and general manager of the Doubletree Guest Suites Hotel; and Marilyn Monroe, who served as the TSAE executive director for 24 years, and has been one of Reynolds' biggest supporters. Says Monroe: "He is one of the few who truly understand the value of the convention business. I know him professionally, as my CPA, and I know him as an individual. He is a true leader."
And Reynolds can expect the support of Mitchell's wide African-American following, as he has backed almost everything Mitchell has done. (In fact, this paper dubbed Eric and Ronney the "ER tag-team duo" for their dangerous one-two argument combination.) Former state representative Wilhelmina Delco is a member of Mitchell's East Austin choir: "Ronney's been a good strong ally of Eric Mitchell's and I agree with 99.9% of everything Eric has done."
Delco, like other Mitchell supporters, is serving on Reynolds' steering committee -- which shows almost as much diversity as Watson's support base. One member who may seem an unlikely Reynolds supporter is Sarah Weddington, the University of Texas law professor who succesfully argued the landmark Roe v. Wade case before the Supreme Court. She says she backs Reynolds because he has "been good on supporting the provision of all medical services to women, like mammograms and programs to reduce teen pregnancy. He has a real even-handed approach to things, he doesn't always do what I want, but he'll do what's best for the city."
Despite his broad support, Reynolds undoubtedly knows that Watson has chipped
into his base, and he's got to make up votes somewhere. Maybe that's why he's
attempting to camoflauge himself in environmental green to win over the
tree-hugger coalition. He now admits that "The delay of S.O.S. was not a good
political vote." Also, he recently made a rare showing at the annual fundraiser
for the Save Barton Creek Association. And he just voted against the Bloch
Cancer Memorial, saying that it would spoil the purity of Town Lake. Partly
because of that vote, says Roberta Crenshaw, the grande dame of Austin's parks
system, she will serve on his steering committee. "He's impressed me with his
ability to take a stand," she says.
Although most environmentalists aren't likely to forget Reynolds' past, that doesn't mean they're ready to trust the Chamber-connected challenger completely. After all, the once green-tongued Todd turned out to be a huge disappointment. "I support [Watson] wholeheartedly, but at the same time I'm concerned that his public statements have been very general and vague," says S.O.S. attorney Bill Bunch. "I only hesitate because I see who his supporters are."
In the five remaining months before the election, Reynolds may not win any more environmental votes than Crenshaw, but at the very least, he's got plenty of time to rack up political brownie points with other factions, as he did in September, persuading the council to transfer $1.3 million in funding to the Austin Police Department. And as he's currently doing by leading the charge for a new South Austin police substation.
Still, though the Austin Police Association has endorsed Reynolds in his last two races, his support among police is by no means unanimous. "He's like a fair-weather friend who is supportive of the police department when it comes time for election, but in the off years baseball parks and other things take priority," says one officer who requested anonymity.
And it's Reynolds' fervent support last year for a $10 million baseball stadium that could threaten the support of his conservative home base in Northwest Austin. Reynolds has traditionally swept the Northwest precincts, but voters there obliterated any hope of the $10 million bond proposal after they felt they had been bamboozled by the council's attempt, led by Reynolds and Todd, to pay for the stadium without voter approval.
All of which should allow Watson to continue moving up the charts fast. Two
weeks ago, he held what some claim was one of the city's largest candidate
fundraisers ever, drawing a reported 800 people to swanky Green Pastures at a
$35 entry fee. Reynolds disputes that claim, noting that one owner of Green
Pastures, Ken Koock, who is on Reynolds' steering committee, has stated that
the restaurant can only hold 400 people.
While Reynolds took it upon himself to hire a pilot to fly over Texas Stadium with a "Ronney Reynolds for Mayor" banner during last week's Texas/A&M game, Watson has hired a dream-team of local political consultants to plot his strategy: Alfred Stanley, David Butts, and Dean Rindy. The uniting of the three is another indication of the business/enviro alliance that Watson has forged. The last time the three worked together was in 1993, on the failed campaign to pass county bonds for the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Project (BCCP). That project, which will use fees from development permits to acquire endangered species habitat, is seen as one of the city's first attempts to bring developers and environmentalists to the same table.
Watson's dream team of political consultants - strategist David Butts, media man Dean Rindy, and fundraising whiz Alfred Stanley.
photograph by John Anderson
The fact that Reynolds has yet to hire political consultants has some people wondering. Jeff Montgomery was his consultant in his last two races, but this time around Montgomery says he has a conflict of interest because, while Reynolds is his CPA, he jogs with Watson from time to time around Town Lake. Reynolds could still hire Mimi Correa and David Weeks, who have worked for him in the past, but they specialize in media, rather than overall strategy. "It does raise the question of who Ronney will hire," Montgomery admits, suggesting that Reynolds may have to seek out-of-town help, an undesirable move when it comes to local races.
Though Watson is riding high, Stanley says he respects Reynolds' strengths, and his camp is playing it safe. "A campaign is both a sprint and marathon," says Stanley. "Ronney Reynolds is a serious opponnent." What is certain, say political observers, is that the city can expect one of the most exciting mayoral campaigns in recent history. "It's going to be a close race," says the impartial Winstead of the Chamber of Commerce. "If I had my wishes I'd love for Ronney to be on city council and have Kirk be mayor so I could have the best of both worlds."
But he can't, and neither can the rest of the city. Still, the most hopeful news evident from this campaign is that maybe the business elite are evolving faster than their rhetoric. And maybe, just maybe, they've learned the value of cooperation. If so, it's another complement to the recent successes of the environmental movement, which is riding high, stoked by recent court victories like the validation of the S.O.S. ordinance, the slam-dunk of ACC's proposal for a campus over the aquifer, and the city's win against "Austin-bashing" legislation related to the Maple Run MUD. These developments would appear to be ominous for Reynolds. The last time things were going this well for the enviros was in 1993, when voters forced almost the entire development-friendly RULE council (Reynolds, Charles Urdy, Bob Larson, and Louise Epstein) out of office. Only Reynolds remains, saved by the fact that his re-election did not come up until a year later. He may not be so lucky this time.