Politics Top 10

Top Ten Political Stories

1. It's the Utility, stupid. The story of the year has to be the city's collective anxiety over the inevitable deregulation of the electric utility industry. Like junkies protecting their stash, councilmembers, city staff, and electric utility commissioners racked their brains in 1996 for ways to ensure that the publicly owned Electric Utility Department (EUD) will continue to provide cheap energy in the dog-eat-dog world of competition, when, in the future, any old private energy company could come along and steal our best customers. That event would spell disaster for Austin, which is addicted to the annual shot-in-the-arm to the general fund that the EUD transfer provides for basic city services. In fact, this year's budget battles weren't over whether we should suffer this cutback, but how fast we could manage it.

2. Going private. Citing a pressing need to support himself after he steps down from office in 1997, last spring Mayor Bruce Todd announced the formation of a new marketing alliance called Todos, offering PR, consulting, and lobbying services. Critics complained that the mayor was placing himself in an ethical snakepit by announcing a desire to make money while still in office; he would likely be approached by companies interested in taking over the public utilities Todd has been pressing to make private. Todd assured reporters that his new firm will not benefit from his mayoral push towards privatization. In fact, Todd spent a lot of time deflecting questions about the P-word in 1996 -- every time it was mentioned together with the F-word (that's Family), you could almost hear the collective feathers of Todd's wife and father-in-law -- Elizabeth and George Christian -- ruffle. But we can't help it if the mayor, who has been pushing to privatize the electric utility for more than a year, is married to the daughter of a man who works for a company that is waiting in line to buy it. All three parties said they never talk about privatization, so could we just drop it already?

3. The Case of the Missing Atheists. It's a puzzler. For a loud-mouthed woman who loved the spotlight, there had to be something pretty appetizing to make Madalyn Murray O'Hair disappear from her Austin home without a trace. Her son, Jon, sold his Mercedes in San Antonio at about the same time that he, Madalyn, and Robin Murray did their vanishing act. (Of course, $600,000 is also missing.) And two dogs belonging to the trio pulled a Houdini as well. David Travis, a local who worked at the American Atheist General Headquarters shortly before the disappearance and discovered bank statements detailing accounts in New Zealand containing large amounts of cash, is one of many atheists who say they feel betrayed. "They have not only walked away from everything they built and stood for, but they dealt it a blow because Madalyn Murray O'Hair did all she could to tie her name to atheism."

illustration by Doug Potter
4. ACC's Follies. The Austin Community College's (ACC) board of trustees took foible and folly to new heights in 1996. ACC's losing season includes a sack by the Save Our Springs Alliance, which found a way to thwart ACC's plan to lay down stakes for a new campus on top of the aquifer when it successfully sued the board for violating open meetings laws. ACC trustees didn't win too many fans either when they took to poking their noses into the affairs of day-to-day administration -- a pesky habit that sent ACC Prez Bill Segura scurrying off to laissez faire pastures in L.A.'s community college system. Now, the ACC trustees have resolved to hang tough -- and together -- to get the community college back on the road to proper academic decorum. This show of good behavior was aptly demonstrated last month in the board's unanimous vote for Richard Fonte to succeed Segura in the president's office. We'll see what the next semester brings.

5. Something reeks at RECA. Using corporate money to benefit political candidates is supposed to be illegal, but during the 1996 city council campaigns, Austin voters caught a glimpse of how big-money interests can skirt the law. They watched the Real Estate Council of Austin -- which boasts a veritable who's who of developer interests on its board -- perform some questionable services when it funneled more than $90,000 of voter identification information paid for with corporate money to its favorite political candidates at rock-bottom prices. In another ethics-flaunting display of corporate money-laundering during the city council races, the Austin Gun Show, Inc., paid for a direct-mail campaign pushing city council candidates who were pro-gun. Austin voters were not amused. None of RECA's or the Gun Show's picks were voted in.

6. Gimme a T! Gimme an I! Gimme an F! What does it spell? Okay, so maybe the spirit of TIF (tax increment financing) fizzled out and didn't become the household name that downtown boosters had hoped in '96. The cheering squad had tried to get city council's blessing on creating a TIF district downtown as a funding mechanism for public-private development ventures such as apartment houses and retail concerns. When council didn't deliver on the deal, chamber of commerce warlords proceeded to do some napkin-talk strategizing. The idea was to go over council's head and ask the Lege straight out to make TIF the law. Word of this under-the-table maneuver spread quickly and the TIF spirit fizzled still further. But the downtown crowd has yet to cave on this one. Expect the enthusiasts to spiff up the TIF proposal in '97.

7. A little less cute of an acronym, please. This year saw Brigid Shea's Fair Campaign Finance Ordinance spiral into a crash-and-burn free-fall before it even got off the ground. But from the ashes rose Austinites for a Little Less Corruption. The grass-roots group, with the help of Priorities First!, worked hard to gather 29,000 signatures that at first failed to pass muster with the city clerk. After a successful fight for a recount, the ALLC came ever so close to putting the measure on the ballot, only to have it die on the dais when councilmember Ronney Reynolds -- who favored the measure at first blush -- performed an about-face and abstained on second reading, nailing the lid on the coffin of campaign finance reform for last season.

8. Money talks. Morales walks. When Victor Morales, a high school teacher from Mesquite, rode in on his white pickup truck to save us from the reelection of U.S. Senator Phil "ready money" Gramm, he was doomed from the start. But what a ride. Morales' low-budget, grassroots campaign took us back to the days when handshakes and town squares were the place to politick -- not at $1,000-a-pop fundraisers. Morales may have been clueless at times, but at least he gave Gramm a run for his money.

9. But will he tuck us in? Big daddy Bruce Todd continued his social tinkering initiatives in 1996 (remember the no-smoking ordinance?) with a couple of new very, very important rules to live by. First, don't be homeless. That's bad. Second, don't ride your bike without proper head gear. You might fall down. And third, brush your teeth before bed.

10. Gridlock. Traffic relief was a constant theme all year, as neighborhood groups from as far south as Oak Hill to as far north as Westover Hills fought construction of freeways, widening of streets, or traffic-inducing commercial developments in an effort to retain their neighborhoods' integrity. Austin Transportation Study members had their work cut out for them as they struggled with decisions that could effect water quality in Barton Springs for years to come. And our mass transit system known as Capitol Metro, such as it is, got a reprieve from threats of revenue cuts when efforts to roll back the one-cent tax to one quarter of a cent failed to materialize.

Top 10 Political Moments

illustration by Doug Potter
1. Next thing you know, he'll be wearing an algae tie. Newcomer Rich Oppel must have felt so calm and at one with his adopted community when he took a ceremonial dip at Barton Springs on New Year's Day, 1996, as part of the Polar Bears' annual cold-water swim. Of course, the Chronicle reported on the odd sight of the Cox-owned "real-estatesman's" top editor, who had earlier expressed an inability to "generate appropriate angst for the Barton Springs Salamander," bobbing with the endangered amphibians. While Oppel was cooling his heels in the pool, three sources say, Freeport's Jim Bob Moffett was steaming about the escapade, and about Oppel's alleged bias in attending S.O.S.'s New Year's Eve Bash the night before. Oppel, who confirms he heard something about possible Moffett complaints, says he doesn't give a damn about anybody's views on his swimming habits. Funny, though, there was no sign of Oppel in the treacherous waters of Barton Springs this January First. Oppel explains that he had scheduling conflicts this time around.

2. Gong Show. Catcalls greeted Mayor Bruce Todd when he spoke at the inauguration of the council-elect last June. Impatient environmentalists and community activists hooted, talked to their neighbors, or flat-out left as the mayor droned on about his plans to systematically privatize everything under the sun. Okay, not everything, just the water and wastewater utility, trash collection, health clinics, parks and recreation, and the convention center. S.O.S. lawyer Bill Bunch, who was among the rabble-rousers crying for Todd to shut up, explains that he was anxious for inaugurees Beverly Griffith, Daryl Slusher, and Jackie Goodman to have their moment in the spotlight, not "to hear Bruce's grand plan to sell off anything of value the city owns."

3. Knives or Bare Knuckles? Eric Mitchell, Austin's oldest schoolyard bully, received an e-mail from In Fact newsletter creator Ken Martin, pointing out that the councilmember hadn't properly filled out his contribution and expense reports. Mitchell told Martin to research it himself, and if he had a problem with that, well, "bring it on!"

4. With lawyers like this, who needs enemies? Trivia question: Who said the following quote? "Constitutionality aside, it is simply wrong to give one applicant advantage over another based solely on the color of one's skin." Buzz. No, it was not a lawyer arguing for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against UT Law School for its admissions policy which favored minority applicants over whites. It was our own state attorney general Dan Morales at a press conference last May announcing the state's appeal to the U.S. Supreme court on behalf of UT. The attorney who filed the original suit told a Daily Texan reporter that Morales' arguments sounded "like something we could have wrote." The nation's highest court subsequently refused to hear the case.

5. Hark, the councilmembers sing. In the touching-moment category, 20 former and current councilmembers and mayors struck a peace treaty and corralled themselves into the same room together for some old-fashioned political harmony, if such a thing exists. The holiday sing-along at the annual Armadillo Christmas Bazaar included the likes of Max Nofziger, who organized the event, Lee Cooke, Frank Cooksey, Carole Keeton-Rylander, Lowell Lebermann, Brigid Shea, Jackie Goodman, Beverly Griffith -- you get the picture. But truly the sight to behold, the one we will never forget, was that heart-palpitating scene of Mayor Bruce Todd and nemesis ex-councilmember Louise Epstein making a joyful noise unto the rafters while standing right next to each other. It was so... so... Talk amongst yourselves... we're getting farklempt.

6. Props are important. Place One candidate Jeff Hart learned that the hard way when one of his supporters took it upon himself to place a gaggle of 15 screaming children waving "You gotta have Hart" signs behind the lawyer-turned-politican as Hart swept into Palmer Auditorium to claim a spot in the runoff against opponent Daryl Slusher. The supporter pointed to Hart and shouted, "make sure these kids stay with this man," dooming Hart to look just a little too much like the soccer moms' dream as the obnoxious young ones jockeyed for position to make faces at the television cameras. Hart's finance committee chair derisively observed aloud, "No kids came in with Daryl."

7. The set-ups are on her. That Margo Frasier had a battle on her hands in her successful quest to become the first female sheriff of Travis County should come as no surprise, especially when you consider some of the tactics used to besmirch her. Take, for example, just one of the set-up calls made to Sammy Allred's and Bob Cole's KVET morning show on which Frasier appeared with her Republican opponent: "Do you agree that your personal alternative lifestyle is an issue?" Frasier stopped the caller in her tracks with a simple "No." Nuff said.

8. Breaking up is hard to do. Last summer, the public breakup of the friendship between former Chronicle columnist-turned-councilmember Daryl Slusher and longtime source and premiere S.O.S. defender Bill Bunch brought dismay and worry to the truest believers in Austin's environmental causes. Had Slusher, who, in part, built his reputation on reporting environmental abuses, won a place on the council only to go to the dark side? The disagreement between the friends stemmed from a headline-grabbing Texas Court of Appeals decision that the S.O.S. ordinance should never have been cast aside by a Hays County jury. Great, said Bunch. That means that all the developers the city granted permits to under a weaker water quality ordinance should now have to refile under the stricter S.O.S. Not so, said the unrecognizable Slusher, citing, among other reasons, fear of the Legislative repercussions. Slusher and Bunch have since kissed and made up, especially in light of the recent release of a hard-core set of environmental initiatives Slusher vows to make reality.

9. Departing is such sweet sorrow. In a telltale moment that revealed more than just bitterness, but also an inability to propel a cohesive progressive movement, then-councilmember Max Nofziger refused to sit down for a Chronicle Q&A last spring with then-fellow councilmember Brigid Shea: "You see, the problem is, she's a talker. I'm a listener." As two of the city's most progressive and faithful watchdogs, Nofziger and Shea stepped down from the council dais last June, leaving a string of disappointments behind. Three years ago, after the 1992 S.O.S. vote sparked the ascendancy of the council's progressive majority, the future had seemed so bright for the liberal duo. But over the years, the two filed numerous counter-proposals or adjustments to major conservative efforts, but produced few of their own. As Eric Mitchell once needled Shea: "I've been here two years. What have you done since you been here?" Oh, and let's not forget that sterling Max moment when the councilmember-turned-musician rolled up his sleeves to hawk cars on TV.

10. Did you say suck? Drunk with victory after a bitter campaign, much-maligned Travis County D.A. Ronnie Earle likened his run against lock-'em-up former assistant attorney general Shane Phelps to bathing in napalm. What the outcome of the race illustrates, he said, "is the power of community, not the power of gunslingers. Gunslingers suck, right?"

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