Gus Takes Affirmative Action

A bridge-builder and media darling with surprisingly strong support across a range of normally competing interests. A crusader against city council activism with deep backing from those interests longing for a return of their Boom No. 1 good times. And an unconventional wild-card candidate carrying the banner for Austin's progressives and counterculture activists.

No, it's not the mayor's race -- it's the emerging contest for Place 2 on the City Council. Most of the noise so far here, in the race for Ronney Reynolds' abandoned council seat, has been about Gus Garcia's attempt to jump from his current side of the dais to the other, and in the process destroy the much-reviled "gentleman's agreement" that reserves Places 5 and 6 for candidates of color and, sotto voce, the other five seats for Anglos. Ultimately, the significance of this is questionable -- even to Garcia, who still supports the idea of a Latino-only Place 5. Other minority candidates have run for Anglo seats; the most recent was Manuel Zuniga, who came within a heartbeat of knocking Jeff Hart out of last year's Place 1 runoff against Daryl Slusher, and the gentleman's agreement was at best a footnote in that race. (Zuniga is running this year for Place 5.) And Anglo candidates have, in every recent election, run for Places 5 and 6 -- perhaps even successfully, depending on your feelings about Robert Barnstone.

Since plenty of Austinites, looking at Barnstone and/or Eric Mitchell as examples, think the gentleman's agreement is a joke anyway, and since Garcia's appeal as the most popular incumbent likely clouds the ultimate question of whether candidates of color can wage and win races for Anglo seats, we can probably skip ahead to the real interesting part of this race -- how it so neatly mirrors the political terrain of the mayor's race, thus making Messrs. Watson, Reynolds and Nofziger not only contenders, but leaders of de facto slates. Garcia would likely chafe at being tagged as part of Kirk Watson's supporting cast, but there's certainly no doubt that Becky Motal is mining the same fairly narrow base of support as Ronney Reynolds, nor is there any dispute that Mike Librik will draw his votes from the same well as Max Nofziger. That leaves everyone else -- those of us who aren't members of either the Country Club Party or the Helmet Law Party -- to vote for Gus, which makes his chances very good indeed.

For that matter, better than Watson's, since none of the mayoral candidates have the baggage borne by Motal. Even though the LCRA manager hardly embarrassed herself with her showing against Jackie Goodman last year, she proved to be an embarrassment to her Chamber and RECA backers when it became clear she was a bona fide pro-life conservative, and thus unelectable in Austin. Since the pro-bidness community has already lost the zeal and momentum it had in 1996, it seems loath to further dilute its chances by backing a lame horse, and we might expect Garcia -- whose last contributors' roster includes, along with the A-list of Austin liberals, names like Ron Kessler, Pike Powers, and even Zuniga, who was Motal's ally last year -- to pick up much of the Chamber/RECA support that is likewise gravitating toward Watson.

The opposite dynamic could work in favor of Librik, a 27-year-old bicycle shop owner (Easy Street Recumbents) and featured player in the anti-helmet-law circus, who in normal circumstances would be a typical Austin fringe candidate, destined for 2% of the vote. With Nofziger in the mayor's race, though, both he and Place 5 candidate Karen Hadden benefit from the coalescing of hard-left activists (or what passes for hard-left these days) into an actual political movement, with common rallying points like the helmet law, the camping ban, and the proposed campaign-finance reform ordinance, with which all three have pledged to comply. To many cynical Austin political observers, of course, that and a buck will get 'em a cup of coffee at Ruta Maya. But in these vaguely defined times, as candidates struggle for the dubious privilege of leading Austin through the toughest times it'll ever know, Garcia's tried-and-true strategy of playing to a broad crowd may not seem like a desperate enough measure to the bulk of Austin voters. (But don't bet on it).

By the way, Place 2 gained another contender this week when Joe Gonzales announced he would pull out of the already crowded Place 5 field to run, as he put it, against Gus Garcia. Gonzales, who calls himself a pro-life candidate, favors the development of emergency housing in East Austin, a community he says Garcia hasn't done a good job of serving.

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