Three's Company

It's rightly been called the Max Factor. A black-and-white contest featuring powerhouse candidates Kirk Watson and Ronney Reynolds took on shades of grey last month when former Mayor Pro Tem Max Nofziger jumped in. Voting for mayor would have been as simple as choosing chocolate or vanilla, based on the environmental/developer litmus test applied to Austin candidates. It was easy -- you were sure of your favorite flavor. Reynolds' growth-at-all-costs philosophy during his six-year councilship makes him the wheelman for the development and business monster truck. Watson, who served as head of the former Texas Air Control Board, casts himself as a solid environmentalist, with staunch environmentalists such as Save Our Springs boardmember Mary Arnold and Save Barton Creek-er George Cofer throwing him support.

Nofziger's recent decision to thrust himself into the race -- for the seat he's always coveted -- has shifted the winds a bit, at least for Watson. As a councilmember, Nofziger was considered a liberal who boasted support from the same environmentalists who flocked to Watson's side when he announced his intention to run. Watson, who has emphasized his heavy business ties -- via the dip he took into the Chamber of Commerce spa in 1996 as vice-chair of its governmental relations board -- may have to temper his Clinton-esque positioning to keep his enviro support.

Just as Clinton has downplayed his liberal roots to reach for the middle ground, so Watson has played up his support in the business community, appearing on the campaign trail with the likes of Chamber darlings Kerry Tate and Ron Kessler. Now it won't be so easy for Watson to take the enviros for granted. Perhaps in deference to that fact, Watson's campaign sent out a mass mailing recently that had him mugging for the camera next to an equally smiley Brigid Shea -- the former councilmember who took the most heat over the years for her staunch anti-development stances. And don't forget: She and Nofziger can't stand each other.

Although Watson says environmental points of light are sticking with him, he would prefer that Nofziger not be in the race. "This is not one of those more-the-merrier things," he says. Still, he adds, "We're not seeing any threat to our environmental support. Environmental leaders know my record and they know me and they're staying united."

Though Nofziger's campaign stockpile is almost laughable -- he has $1,500, compared to the quarter of a million raised separately by Watson and Reynolds -- both of Nofziger's competitors concede that the mustachioed musician has the lead in name I.D. "If the election were tomorrow, I'd win," boasts Nofziger.

And if you know the name, you know the myth. From the street corners of South Austin to the corridors of City Hall, the former flower vendor parlayed a cute personality and familiarity with the issues into a three-term tenure. Strung-out on politics, he left last June, but managed to stay cold-turkey for only a few months.

Aspersions in the press to the contrary, the unemployed Nofziger says he isn't just panhandling for a job. While fishing for a paid consulting gig with Watson's campaign, it was during the job interview, Nofziger says, that he realized he didn't like Watson's platform. It was after that, he says, that he decided he didn't want to work for Watson -- he wanted to run against him. Nofziger reflects some suspicion among local activists when he says he doesn't trust Watson, and he adds that it goes beyond the fact that the personal injury trial attorney for Whitehurst Harkness & Watson is an unknown entity. Rather, it stems from the fact that Watson has the same across-the-board backing that Mayor Bruce Todd once boasted as a candidate, and, well, we all know how he turned out. Nofziger says that during his interview with Watson, he came to believe that a mayoral position was merely a rung on Watson's climb to statewide office. "If that's the case," questions Nofziger, "do all our local issues become bargaining chips for Kirk to get close to money people, lobbyists, and the state Lege?"

Wrong, says Watson. "I don't know where he gets that. One of the greatest ways I can impact people's lives in a positive way is by running for mayor. Imaginative approaches to federal, state and local problems will be thought of at the local level, and that's why I chose to run."

Nofziger, on the other hand, has proven to be at least reliable, if not always successful in pushing his programs before the council. "I've got a bloc of support in this community that's voted for me seven times, and I don't think a 30-second TV commercial is going to change them," he says, referring to the embarrassing episode in which Nofziger appeared in commercials hawking trucks.

Without sticking his finger in the wind -- he abhors political consultants -- Nofziger has found himself on the popular side of many issues -- against the Nuke, against Freeport's PUD, in favor of campaign finance reform. He has surprised his constituency at times, most notably in approving inner-city bicycle money for the suburban Circle C development and voting for the "anti-homeless person" ordinance. Nonetheless, when Nofziger speaketh, many listen. That, and his experience, will win him some support.

Nofziger is also banking on the fact that Reynolds and Watson are not that different on a couple of touchstone issues -- specifically, the management of the Electric Utility Department and Campaign Finance Reform. Citizens could vote on both issues on the same ballot as the council races this May, and that timing is perfect for Nofziger. While Watson and Reynolds prefer that a council-appointed board manage the electric utility to improve efficiency, Nofziger wants the council to retain control, to keep the management closer to voters. And on Campaign Finance Reform, well, Nofziger says he is a living testament to its principles. He won three races without political consultants, and never spent more than $50,000. In compliance with the A Little Less Corruption's (ALLC) petition, which received almost 30,000 signatures last year, Nofziger promises to keep contributions below $100.

While Nofziger hopes to capitalize on voter disgruntlement, Reynolds voted against putting the reform issue on the ballot because it supposedly lacked enough valid signatures. The ALLC petitioners plan to sue to have that vote overturned. Nofziger has hired Linda Curtis, who headed the petition campaign, as his campaign manager. (Interestingly, Curtis, as head of Priorities First!, was against the baseball stadium that Nofziger supported). Reynolds and Watson, meanwhile, are going after the money like looters in Egypt, ringing up contributions by the thousands, with Watson getting the majority of his money from attorneys, and Reynolds banking on the development community.

One thing Reynolds has in common with Nofziger is a lack of consultants. Strangely, with less than three months remaining, Reynolds hasn't hired any, while Watson, on the other hand, has three heavy hitters -- Alfred Stanley, David Butts, and Dean Rindy -- on the payroll.

When asked to comment on the campaign, Reynolds refused. He leaned his head back, and smiled: "I just want to make your life difficult." He did admit that Nofziger will be a formidable opponent. Presumably, however, he would be quite pleased with Nofziger's entrance -- it may split the environmental sea long enough for Reynolds to waltz home with the prize. A common prediction from local consultants is that Nofziger will force a run-off between the two candidates. Nofziger foresees a different outcome, though, that relies on the existence of a silent majority: "Lawyers and developers have their candidate," he says, "and ordinary citizens have me," he says.

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