The Shark Bites Back
Mitchell Says the Eastside Needs Sharp Teeth
On election day for Austin's 1994 city council races, James Harper and Carol Hadnot rose before dawn to stand outside of Windsor Methodist Church in East Austin. They waved "Eric Mitchell for Place 6" signs in the hopes of attracting last-minute votes for a candidate they believed would support development and business owners on the Eastside. Because Mitchell was an unknown at the time, Harper and Hadnot, both prominent members of the Black Contractor's Association (BCA), used their connections in the African-American community to stir up support and generate donations. Three years later, Harper and Hadnot have dumped their Eric Mitchell signs, and are backing his most viable opponent, rental property owner Willie Lewis. "I feel like any change would be a help," Harper says.
Harper expressed his dissatisfaction to Mitchell when the councilmember called together a meeting on February 26 with the BCA, which Harper leads as president. Mitchell was likely looking for the suppport of the minority contractors for his 1997 candidacy. However, tensions quickly escalated into a standoff between Harper and Mitchell.
According to Harper, after Mitchell opened the meeting and asked for comments, Harper immediately stood to protest Mitchell's bid for support. "I'm saying `Where have you been for three years?' We had kind of written him off," recalls Harper. "[Mitchell] goes `I'm not afraid of you and you can get out.' And I said, `If anybody needs to leave, you need to leave.'"
Harper says that he and some of his fellow contractors believe that Mitchell has neglected the BCA in favor of other contractors in other parts of the city -- namely his Westside acquaintances. He complains that Mitchell's Eastside initiatives tend to benefit the same small cadre of Mitchell's friends in real estate and construction -- including developer Jo Baylor and Clotheal Haynes and Gene Watkins, former city housing officials who are currently profiting from Mitchell's redevelopment plans. "He's got his little cronies that he works with," Harper says. "If it's not something they're involved in, he doesn't deal with it."
Mitchell refutes Harper's claim, and says that he is motivated by doing what's right for Austin, not by lining the pockets of his friends. Mitchell says that Harper and other detractors merely want to control the process, and thus the money, for Eastside projects. "They want to tell me who to deal with and who not to deal with," Mitchell says. "They want me out of office because they want someone to lead around."
And as for the fact that the same clique of Mitchell's friends tends to benefit from his initiatives, Mitchell explains that the black business community is a small one in which everybody knows everybody else. And anyway, he adds, "If I shake the table and a dime falls off and lands in a black person's hand, then I'm gonna keep shaking that table."
Despite Mitchell's assertions that his detractors are few and far between, however, Harper and Hadnot are not the only former supporters who have jumped Mitchell's ship. Citing their disappointment with what they say are Mitchell's infamous grandstanding and angry outbursts, as well as dissatisfaction with his commitment to East Austin, four other former allies -- Charles Miles, publisher of the Capitol City Argus, Rev. Marvin Griffin of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Van Johnson of the East Austin Economic Development Corporation, and Eva Lindsey, proprietor of the historic Victory Grill -- are defecting, and they say they have a legion of voters behind them. Johnson says that Mitchell is not, nor has he ever been, a true Eastside representative. "I think the African-American community demonstrated where they stood with Eric in the last election. I don't think he's the African American candidate," Johnson asserts. "If you look at the polls, Eric Mitchell did not carry one black precinct. The white population elected him, and that's who will reelect him."
Mitchell says that this time he will win some support from the area he represents: "I guarantee you that black folks are going to vote for me this time around." But his most viable opponent, Northeast Austin resident and rental property owner Willie Lewis, is hoping to mine voter dissatisfaction with Mitchell's bad behavior to win that Eastside vote for himself. Lewis' campaign theme hammers on the need for "maturity, responsibility, and integrity," to be an effective leader in Place 6. The implication is that Mitchell, who has been known to hurl insults and curses at members of both the council and the voting public, lacks all three.
Both sides agree that Mitchell's most impressive skill is his ability to attract resources to his Eastside redevelopment dreams. He wowed his fellow councilmembers in 1995 when he managed to pull in a whopping $9.6 million for his pet project -- the Rosewood Entertainment Center. He was also able to earmark $8.8 million for the future implementation of his $75 million Austin Revitilization Authority (ARA) board. The ARA is acquiring properties on East 11th and 12th Streets in order to raze the buildings on those sites, and then construct mostly commercial offices and stores on the land, then perhaps resell either the land or the buildings after property values have risen. The third, and most popular, Eastside initiative for which Mitchell is credited, is the $3.5 million Scattered Cooperative Infill Project (SCIP II), which is slated to produce 52 townhomes and single-family dwellings for rental and ownership at Waller and Catalta Roads. Each of these projects relies on federal housing loans, some of which are still awaiting final Housing and Urban Development approval, and which will have to be paid back by federal Community Development Block Grants. While all three of those programs were ones that he has picked up for implementation from former councilmembers, a fourth project, known as Central Urban Redevelopment (CURE) is one that Mitchell formulated on his own. CURE bestows breaks on fees and on zoning regulations to those wishing to develop in certain parts of downtown and East Austin.
Sounds impressive, but critics say that the only people jumping for joy over these development initiatives are those few who stand to financially benefit. While Mitchell is succeeding in promoting development schemes that throw business at his wealthy friends, detractors say they would rather that he work to institute programs to aid people who are in need of job training, education, and services like affordable child care.
"He needs to be addressing the social issues over here," argues former ARA board member Portia Watson. "[With] the numbers of people coming off the welfare rolls right now, that is something the city government should be trying to address. If he wants to really help the community, then that would be the way to go."
What will eminent domain and fancy new office buildings do, Guadalupe Neighborhood representative Mark Rogers asks, other than gentrify the neighborhood and push poor people farther from downtown? Mitchell lost the trust of some other Eastside neighborhood representatives two years ago when he stacked the non-profit ARA board, which oversees the 11th and 12th Street revitalization efforts, with developer interests from the Westside, while fighting to exclude participation by some area residents. "I don't think a councilmember should develop for the community, I think the people in the community should do those sort of things themselves," observes Rev. Griffin, whose Ebenezer Baptist Church has received national recognition for its own redevelopment efforts in East Austin.
And as for the Rosewood project, residents and councilmembers alike question how a multi-million dollar entertainment center in one neighborhood will help solve the root causes of crime in East Austin -- such as poverty and lack of job skills. While Mitchell argues that the center would provide needed opportunities for area youth to get off the streets, critics cite the center as proof that the councilmember does not know what is best for East Austin. "To spend $9 million [in federal monies for low income housing] on an entertainment center out of money that is supposed to go for poor people...do you think that's a good idea?" asks Miles, who publishes the Eastside newspaper, Capitol City Argus. "Using CDBG money [for an entertainment center] is basically criminal."
But Mitchell supporters say that they're grateful that he is accomplishing something in the traditionally neglected East Austin. "It really takes an aggressive personality to get these projects done," says Clotheal Haynes, who advises on SCIP II. "We had SCIP I, SCIP III, SCIP-to-my-lou before Eric... I personally feel that we would not have received the funding [for SCIP II] had it not have been for [Mitchell's] tenacity in fighting for it."
Ray Dell Galloway of the Anderson Community Development Corporation, which is overseeing SCIP II, agrees. "Since Eric Mitchell has been on the council, he's... done an awful lot to help all of these programs," Galloway says.
Opponents point out that, despite all the back-patting, no actual building has begun on any of the projects Mitchell so vehemently champions. "We're still in the same shape we were in before [Mitchell] got on the dais," notes former ARA board member Watson.
Supporters reply that the snail's pace of bringing change to blighted neighborhoods is all the more reason to elect an in-your-face politician to push for progress.
The Etiquette Deficit
It's that very rudeness that has been both a source of pride and embarrassment for the councilmember. He's been caught calling a group of environmentalists "a bunch of assholes," telling a fellow councilmember "Screw you!," and suggesting that a citizen speaking before council "Go fuck" himself. Mitchell defends his tough talk, saying that because he is black, he is being held to a higher standard than other councilmembers who use obscenities. "When Gus Garcia said `Jim Bob [Moffett] is screwing the city,' on the dais no one made a big deal about that," Mitchell points out as proof.
Still, it seems a stretch to compare a remark made about an out-of-town developer who has sued the city to, for example, the infamous "Screw you!" that Mitchell showered on Swede Hill neighborhood residents when they protested a proposal by Mitchell's buddy Jo Baylor to cover a neighborhood park with condominiums. "That's not profanity where I come from," is the only defense Mitchell offers.
Further, Mitchell adds, he won't "drop his chin to his chest and shuffle his feet around" for anybody -- a pose which, he charges, some racist councilmembers would prefer he strike. "You can put a goldfish in a shark tank or you can put a shark in a shark tank. I'm a shark." Supporters agree that Mitchell has to be a tad rude to champion the disenfranchised. But one prominent African-American Mitchell defector who'd rather remain unidentified wishes Mitchell would clean up his act: "Black people want their leaders to have a sense of decorum and statesmanship. It's a tradition."
Mitchell's bullying behavior was spotlighted again this March when he allegedly threatened Councilmember Daryl Slusher's aide Robin Cravey, saying that if he ever saw Cravey's "faggot" friends walking down the street, they "better walk the other mother-fuckin' way." While Mitchell admits he called Cravey onto the carpet for being disrespectful to him during a council meeting -- which Cravey denies -- Mitchell refuses to comment on what took place between him and the aide. While Mitchell steadfastly declines to answer questions about any physical threats Cravey alleges he made or whether he thinks the term "faggot" constitutes a slur, he's quick to say that the furor that erupted within the press and the gay community following the incident was a politically motivated hatchet job visited upon him by Cravey and Slusher. The Austin American-Statesman, which is endorsing Mitchell's candidacy, appeared to agree in an editorial that scolded the former Chronicle writer for taking the issue public.
Regardless of what took place behind closed doors, it's fair to say that Mitchell will say or do anything if he feels he is being threatened. He freely admits: "If I'm threatened in the wrong way, I'm going to try to blow your brains out."
In crime-ridden East Austin, Mitchell supporters say that those sensibilities ring true. "What Eric called that man I've been called a hundred times on Twelfth Street," argues ACDC president Galloway.
But Rev. Griffin says the rudeness issue will ultimately hurt Mitchell's candidacy. "I think the election will depend a great deal on people raising this issue of civility."
Lewis' campaign plays up Mitchell's etiquette deficit. Lewis says that Mitchell's reluctance to work with anyone who disagrees with him -- in the white, black, or Hispanic communities -- is counter-productive. In addition, he says, when there are important initiatives on the table that have to do with the city as a whole, Mitchell often acts completely disinterested -- "like he doesn't take the job seriously," Lewis says. A study of the council's voting records conducted by the Lewis campaign found Mitchell absent for 26% of council votes. Often Mitchell's legendary temper is to blame for his silences. BCA president Harper complains, "I have a councilmember that can't count to one. A lot of times he gets pissed off and walks off the dais on his own initiatives."
At other times, Mitchell's absences and abstentions appear to be payback towards councilmembers who have failed to support his personal initiatives. Yet, Mitchell claims, "A lot of the other councilmembers do things for political reasons, but I do them because it's the right thing to do." Lewis says that if he is elected, he will introduce a proposal to require that councilmembers explain, for the record, their decisions to abstain.
Who Are These People?
Mitchell's scandals aren't limited to political relationships. He's received press scrutiny over the years for filing bankruptcy, having difficulties with unpaid child support, and squeaking by ethics violations on council. Although no ethics violation claims were ever filed, Mitchell's voting on an airport contract, which brought his insurance firm $6,000, spurred former Councilmember Brigid Shea to revamp council ethics standards. Mitchell was again in the hot seat when his illegal omission of the addresses and occupations of his big-dollar contributors, mainly real estate and development interests, on official campaign contribution and expenditure reports were brought to light by In Fact newsletter. A suit is now pending against Mitchell for allegedly violating a non-compete agreement with the National Council of Contractors Association, a recruiter of minority businesses for city projects, which claims that Mitchell not only stole proprietary information about the Association's methods, but that he is also using that information to operate a competing business, the Mitchell Company.
Mitchell, 44, who is president of the insurance firm Wormley-Mitchell & Associates, is a resident of affluent Oak Hill in Southwest Austin. Although he never lived in East Austin, Mitchell says he can relate to the problems of growing up on the street as a gang member in inner-city Atlanta. Mitchell says that he is only making two campaign promises: to be honest and straightforward, whether people like it or not. Mitchell's low-key campaign exudes the same confidence.
But the Lewis camp says it has reason to be optimistic. A recent poll they conducted found wholehearted Mitchell support hovering at 31%, not a strong showing for a sitting incumbent. And Mitchell has high negatives, as well. "A lot of people are for Lewis because they're so strongly against [Mitchell]," explains Miles of the Capitol City Argus. And since Lewis easily garnered the endorsements of the Save Our Springs Alliance and the Sierra Club (Mitchell, who regularly votes against S.O.S.-backed initiatives, such as the campaign to classify the Barton Springs salamander as an endangered species, did not even bother courting Austin's sizable environmental vote), Miles predicts Lewis will benefit from Kirk Watson's broad support in the mayoral race, since Mitchell has endorsed Ronney Reynolds. "It really just depends on how long Kirk Watson's coattails are," Miles says.
Lewis apparently agrees since he has been showing up at Watson fundraisers to hand out campaign flyers. Wisely focusing his campaign rhetoric on his strong suit -- increased neighborhood involvement in everything from crime-fighting to city planning -- Lewis is falling back on a decade of neighborhood activism as the four-term president of the Pecan Springs Neighborhood Association in Northeast Austin, and as a board member of Save Austin's Neighborhoods and Environment (SANE). At 60, he is retired from two full careers -- first as an Air Force master sergeant and later as a quality control supervisor at Lockheed -- and is well into his third as an owner of residential rental properties. He points to a well-rounded background of public service that includes participating on the Robert Mueller Airport Advisory Board, and working as a volunteer probation counselor.
Samson, who is running a self-described "microcampaign," gained familiarity with Austin politics as an environmental activist. He boasts that he personally gathered over 1% of all the S.O.S. signatures in 1992, and proudly notes that he is only spending $100 on paper for his campaign. At a time when Samson's health was failing due to his fight with AIDS, he managed to achieve his "big goal before I died": graduating from the University of Texas in anthropology last May. With his disease currently in remission, Samson has recently returned to the work force as a substitute teacher for AISD. He emphasizes that he is not running against Lewis -- indeed, he joined the race when it still appeared that no one else was going to challenge Mitchell -- but rather for single-member districts.
Do Nice Guys Finish Last?
In a broken-record repetition of his campaign slogan, "maturity, integrity and responsibility," Lewis' campaign is more about personality than policy. (Apparently Mitchell feels threatened because his campaign literature defensively asserts the councilmember's "proven maturity, proven integrity, and proven responsibility.") And after three years of Mitchell's dramatics, defectors have eagerly embraced Lewis' nice guy image. "The man has an immense amount of integrity. People don't always speak to the common interests of various racial groups, but [Lewis] is very consistent with including people," Johnson says. According to Miles, the final straw in convincing many Mitchell supporters to change camps has been Mitchell's unabashedly capitalizing on the bitter anti-Lewis campaigning of Lewis' estranged wife, as reported in the American-Statesman.
Anti-Mitchell sentiment, however rampant, may not be able to counter Mitchell's superior financial muscle and city-wide name recognition. Furthermore, many voters may rightfully sense a return to the somnolent leadership style of Mitchell's predecessors Charles Urdy and Jimmy Snell in Lewis' sweet-but-uninspiring political presence, and could opt for Mitchell's rabble-rousing rhetoric despite recognizing his offensive manners. And there is no doubt that Mitchell can talk circles around the often tongue-tied Lewis. And while Northeast Austinites may be familiar with Lewis, it is likely that few other neighborhoods will be. "Any [Lewis] votes across the freeway are not Willie Lewis votes, they are anti-Mitchell votes," says Lindsey.
However, Lewis does have the advantage of backing from a tight-knit group of political consultants from Austin's progressive intelligentsia who are responsible for putting a crowd-pleasing spin on every left-leaning campaign from S.O.S. to Lloyd Doggett. Not that Mitchell gives a hoot what the white progressive establishment thinks. He obviously relishes his role as a thorn in its side. And while the clique of consultants insist that Mitchell is eminently beatable, they also have their work cut out for them in packaging Lewis as anything more than an upstanding citizen with adequate competency for the job.