Men Who Would be Mayor

Scrambling for Money, Consensus, & Power

illustration by Doug Potter

It's a weeknight in March and Ronney Reynolds, Max Nofziger, and Kirk Watson are sitting before a neighborly audience from the Lakewood Homeowners' Association in Northwest Austin. They are fielding questions that touch the heart of the issue at hand as voters prepare to send another candidate into the leather and oak decor of mayoralty at City Hall.

This year, the old campaign cliché of "a city at a crossroads" brings with it an additional urgency as Austin prepares to enter the afterglow of the Great Hi-Tech Boom. A daily influx of almost 100 new immigrants to the Austin area has brought prosperity and national recognition, but even local politicians are smart enough to have figured out that we've outgrown our infrastructural britches. The tax revenue brought by the influx can't support the requisite roadway expansions, the parkland acquisitions, emergency services, and all that other stuff that makes for a livable city. Tonight, the specific questions from the audience are alluding to that one general question that every politician tries to answer: How can this city continue to grow without forsaking its charm?

At the left end of the panel of candidates is that Central Texas hippie with the signature drooping moustache and casual dress, the 49-year-old musical mayoral candidate Max Nofziger. In a nine-year tour of duty on the city council that ended last year, Nofziger's brand of environmental liberalism was interpreted as restricted growth and increased taxes by conservative voters like these in Austin's western outskirts. Republican developer Jo Baylor, who served on a board that helped create the city's Drainage Utility, asks why Nofziger "raided" the utility to pay for legal protection of the Save Our Springs (S.O.S.) ordinance. The audience murmurs with discontent. An anonymous resident shouts: "Max used it as a slush fund!" Rising from his chair, Nofziger says the utility was troubled from the start, then he stiffens and his voice flares across the audience to Baylor: "If you had done a better job as a boardmember, things might not have been so bad!"

The tumultous atmosphere is becalmed by impromptu moderators, and an appropriate follow-up question is asked of the very conservative councilmember of six years, the beefy Ronney Reynolds. The question: How will Reynolds unite the disparate elements of the city, meaning, of course, environmentalists and developers? Instead, Reynolds relates his recent sign-in-hand opposition with other protestors -- his election campaign even purchased the signs and buttons used by the angry mob -- along the Southwest Parkway denouncing Councilmember Daryl Slusher's environmental plan to close part of it, a proposal especially hated by the developers and suburbanites that Reynolds has done everything for during his term but light their cigars. "When you try and provide a consensus, you get nothing, you get roadblocks," Reynolds says, explaining his propensity for factionalism.

Seated between Reynolds and Nofziger is the pint-sized personal injury lawyer Kirk Watson, whose political and civic involvement has brought him notice in local government circles, although he's been a relative unknown to most of Austin's votership. Casting his colleagues as beholden to one interest group, Watson seizes the opportunity to harp on his favorite campaign message. "Austin has been dominated for too long by the politics of blocking," he begins, then turns to Reynolds. "Councilmember Slusher pulled back on the plan to close the parkway, and then you go down to the community and buy signs for people to fight it. That is divisive. It's not an attitude that will bring people together."

And without some sort of unity, the theme goes, there can be little hope for a future of both continued prosperity and charm. Watson, 39, is hoping to cash in on his ties to both the environmentalist and business and development crowds, and so far it's paying off. He has got an impressive variety of endorsements, and he's raised nearly twice as much money as his opponents in the most expensive mayoral race since the Eighties. According to a recent poll printed in the local daily, Watson and Reynolds are neck-and-neck, each with about one-third of the vote, and are expected to end up in a run-off after the May 3 election. The poll shows Nofziger with 17% of the vote, a situation that no doubt pleases Watson since Nofziger's voters would likely slit their wrists before electing Reynolds in the run-off. (For information on the five other mayoral candidates, see sidebar, p.20.)

Out of Nowhere

Kirk Watson
photograph by John Anderson

That Watson is in such a promising position is no mean feat when you consider that Reynolds and Nofziger have a combined 15 years of experience on city council. Watson's only government service was short-lived -- from 1991 to 1993 he served as Gov. Ann Richards' chair of the Texas Air Control Board (TACB, since merged with the Texas Water Commission to form the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission). During those two years, the Democrat got a Republican-dominated board to implement all of the Federal Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. He also won credit for shutting down six gasoline storage tanks in Northeast Austin, and helping to create the nation's first task force on environmental racism. For that work, Watson gained a reputation as a brilliant moderate who was equally liked by big-business lobbyists and neighborhood activists. "He opened the door to residents in the area [Northeast Austin] and took a stand in hearing their cause, which a lot of chairs don't do," says Susana Almanza, of People Organized in Defense of the Earth and her Resources (PODER), which labored to shut down the tank farm. "The fact that he allowed the community to have a format with the air control board speaks volumes" about his ability to bring both sides together. Watson's role as treasurer of the Environmental Defense Fund, and his presidency of the Brykerwoods neighborhood association didn't hurt his resumé either. Neither did his vice-chairmanship of the Chamber of Commerce's governmental relations board in 1996.

The effect of Watson's recent activism has been to garner him a cross-section of support that is rarely heard of in Austin politics. During his announcement speech in October, Watson was accompanied on stage by leading environmentalists like Mary Arnold, vice-chair of the S.O.S. Alliance, and Shudde Fath, longtime Electric Utility Commissioner. From the other side of the political spectrum were developer interests like Joe Duncan and Jay Hailey, former presidents of the Real Estate Council of Austin.

Both Reynolds and Nofziger belittle Watson's TACB and Chamber of Commerce successes, saying his conciliatory mettle won't truly be tested until he's gone before the public firing squad at City Hall. "I don't have any learning curve," says Nofziger, "while Kirk just doesn't have a clue. That experience he claims is totally worthless to anything he'll face on the city council, and if he doesn't realize that he doesn't know what he's getting into."

But others are clearly less skeptical, such as Steve Beers, Sierra Club chair, whose organization has endorsed Watson. "We believe that Watson has real potential to forge a new consensus between mainstream business and environmentalists," Beers says. The Sierra Club is one of many progressive groups that cite the same reason for supporting Watson, organizations such as the S.O.S. Coalition PAC, the Austin Women's Political Caucus, the Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus, and the South Austin Democrats, to name a few.

Reynolds, meanwhile, has garnered but a handful of endorsements, most of them coming from the real estate and development community, such as the Austin Board of Realtors, Take Back Austin, the Texas Association of Capital Area Home Builders, the Austin Hotel and Motel Association, and the Real Estate Council of Austin. (The past four heads of the Chamber of Commerce have all endorsed Watson.) For historical reference -- and a chuckle -- it's interesting to note that when Reynolds first ran for council in 1988, he lambasted his opponent, Smoot Carl-Mitchell, for being supported primarily by development interests. Funny how things change.

Developing Support

Ronney Reynolds
photograph by John Anderson

That much of the development community is supporting Reynolds is of little surprise -- as consultant Don Martin says, it's "payback" for Reynolds' undying devotion to their concrete cause. (Martin, who worked on Bruce Todd's reelection campaign, is not working for any councilmembers in this race.) The development community should be grateful -- he's done everything for them but give away his first-born. Remember, in 1992, Reynolds delayed a vote on the S.O.S. ordinance, allowing developers to file thousands of acres of development proposals under the more destructive regulations already in place. A lockstep developer vote on zoning cases, he also twice led the unsuccessful charge for extending sewage service to Freeport-McMoRan's Barton Creek PUD, a proposal so hated that more than 1,300 speakers attended two public hearings on a moment's notice to protest what they thought meant the end of Barton Creek.

The development community, of course, is powerful and deep-pocketed, but cannot alone win the race for Reynolds. Which partly explains why he was so intent on getting the endorsement from the Austin Police Association (APA). In the last year, he got the ball rolling on a proposal to build the South Austin Police Substation and secured an extra $1.3 million for the police budget. Nonetheless, the APA gave a surprise endorsement to Watson in March. "I was extremely disappointed," complains Reynolds, adding that APA members were upset because he had voted to cut five captain positions. "It was a labor issue," he explains. But it was much more than that. Reynolds had long been accused by APA members of being "a fair-weather friend" who came around with goodies only when elections were around the corner. To make matters worse, he had supported things like a $10 million bond sale for a baseball stadium while the department's severe lack of funding and management (detailed in an audit released shortly before the APA endorsement) had forced officers to use faulty emergency equipment like expired bulletproof jackets held together by duct tape, and radios in frequent disrepair.

Despite his lack of endorsements, Reynolds doesn't express concern. "Endorsements are nice, but the endorsement I'm looking for is from the people of Austin and not any particular interest group," Reynolds says. "Endorsements are special interest groups and you have to be very careful that you don't promise everybody everything."

Reynolds' bravery aside, the candidate is still taking steps these days to get votes any way he can. A little over a week ago, Reynolds made public his tax returns of the last three years, and is calling on Watson and Nofziger to do the same. It's doubtful that this move was truly targeted at Nofziger, who has been accused of running for office so he can have a steady income -- a charge which Nofziger, who does PR work for Hill Country Brewing and who moonlights as a musician at Flipnotics, vehemently denies. "I feel like this [tax return tiff] is a fight between these two big money-guys," Nofziger says. Yes, the target here is millionaire Watson, who, according to his personal disclosure statements filed with the City Clerk's office, earns $600,000 a year at his law firm of Harkness, Whitehurst, & Watson, which specializes in medical malpractice claims.

"This will show who the blue-collar and who the big-money candidates really are," explains Reynolds, whose household income hovers around $100,000 a year and who is actually a white-collar accountant with Reynolds, Loeffler, & Dowling.

Watson has not released his tax returns yet. Perhaps with a bit of prescience, he asked for a filing deadline extension for this year. The Watson campaign doesn't seem too enthused about releasing the returns. "It took Ronney six years to release his," says Watson's campaign manager Carol Butler. "I think we should have more than five days to release ours." Meanwhile, the Watson campaign dug up a 1991 proposal from Bruce Todd that all candidates be required to publicize tax returns. At that time, Reynolds would not approve the motion and instead sent it to the ethics commission for further review. He was then quoted on the dais as saying that requiring disclosure of tax returns "gets into being too personal" and later added that a candidate's "income... is not criteria for serving on this council."

Butler again: "Frankly, it's a cheap political stunt. This is the last gasp of a desperate campaign."

Maxed Out

Max Nofziger
photograph by Alan Pogue

Nofziger, on the other hand, has only two endorsements, one from the League of Bicycling Voters, for his anti-helmet law stance, and another from Austinites for a Little Less Corruption, whose director, Linda Curtis, is coordinating Nofziger's campaign. Nofziger, like Reynolds, is counting on his name recognition and says endorsements mean little. Everyone, of course, knows the story of Max. He is more than just a footnote in the history of Austin's counterculture, he's legendary. From the sidewalks of Oltorf and South Congress to the corridors of power, the flower-seller-turned-councilmember has sat on the dais to watch the mayoral baton passed from Frank Cooksey to Lee Cooke to Bruce Todd. He put in nine years of service as the environmental movement flowered into its current role as a dominant political force, as downtown has revitalized, and as the city limped from the bust to the boom. Max takes some credit for all three events.

Nofziger says he also helped along the city's economic renaissance. "I voted to lay off hundreds of employees," he says. "I served on the committee that developed the city's first financial policies. I chaired the Downtown Subcommittee. I created tax abatements for downtown housing. I formed the Convention Center Committee with Lee Cooke in 1990 that got the center built. I've got the best record of any councilmember in the last 20 years," he boasts.

Especially in the environmental arena, Nofziger has done much to be proud of. He has a long and generally reliable record of voting for a compact and green and prosperous city. He credits himself with stopping the proposed lignite plant in the Eighties. He says that he directed city staff to create the ordinance that lead to the environmental movement's piece de resistance, the S.O.S. ordinance, and was the only councilmember to support of it.

So if, as Nofziger says, he sparked the S.O.S. movement, then why have all the environmental groups abandoned him? S.O.S. counselor Bill Bunch explains why most enviros are lining up behind Watson: "Max has a strong record protecting the environment. I am appreciative of his distinguished service, but his record is not perfect." Bunch says that Nofziger at times supported sprawl and made decisions that could hurt the environment. Specifically, he notes that Nofziger voted to support legislation that gave "a huge chunk" of environmentally sensitive land in West Austin to the City of Bee Caves. Bunch says Nofziger also voted to give the Hill Country Water Supply Corporation a wholesale water contract, thus supporting development over the Edwards Aquifer contributing zone.

There's also a sense that Nofziger's successes came from being in the right place at the right time. Other than his tax abatement plan for downtown housing and his proposal that led to the creation of S.O.S, he was not known for initiating broad plans. Some of the projects for which he gives himself credit can be attibuted to other councilmembers, such as the building of the Convention Center, which was primarily Lee Cooke's baby.

What he did propose were generally pedestrian-minded affairs, which often exploded on contact with public scrutiny. He's responsible, for instance, for using $300,000 in funding for inner-city bike lanes for a veloway outside the city. He was also the one behind the vilified "pedestrian coordinator" idea, designed to beautify and increase walkways, but that instead lent itself to incessant jokes about the Minister of Silly Walks. The idea passed, but was quickly rescinded when the new council took office last June.

Still, Nofziger's votes and heart have been in the right place over they years, and one would think the progressive community would rally behind its tried and true leader. Part of Nofziger's problem may be that he simply jumped into the race too late, months after many environmental supporters had already committed, and essentially, been locked into Watson's campaign, their name now Watson's capital property on flyers and other pronouncements. The unity of the environmental community is a rare and precarious thing, and for once, they are trying to prevent it from becoming a covey divided. "Max had a good voting record but my commitment to Kirk had been made and I think he'll do a good job," says Shudde Fath. "It's kind of sad."

Bunch adds that the support Watson is getting from the progressive community is not a vote against Nofziger, but a vote against Reynolds, who, Bunch says, "is the real threat to Barton Springs and Barton Creek." And conventional wisdom is that only Watson has the support to defeat Reynolds.

The Money Factor

One element that truly sets Nofziger's campaign apart is the issue of campaign finance reform, which the candidate has embraced as a sort of rallying cry. Nofziger says he's a living example of it, since he's never spent more than $50,000 on a campaign, and he's run for office eight times. Though he's now made finance reform one of his key issues, it seems largely a matter of opportunism; after all, while, as councilmember he supported proposals such as Brigid Shea's 1995 ordinance for contribution and expenditure limits, he admits that he never initiated a campaign finance reform proposal of his own. Nofziger had hoped the petition to limit campaign contributions to $100, known as the "A Little Less Corruption (ALLC)" petition, would be included on the May 3 ballot, enticing signatories to the polls to help boost him into office. But that plan fizzled when the city clerk invalidated the petition and when, after ALLC had sued over the matter, the court decided not to make a ruling by May 3. It was a major blow to Nofziger's campaign, but at least he's brought focus to an important issue.

Interestingly, Watson and Reynolds claim they support campaign finance reform, but disagree with some specifics of the ALLC petition. Both think it too much of an incumbency protection plan, and Reynolds does not support the proposal to limit personal contributions. "It's funny that Kirk says he believes in campaign finance reform and then he does nothing about it," notes Nofziger, referring to Watson's full-to-busting campaign coffers.

Indeed, Watson's past civic and professional experience is certainly paying off financially. In the three years from 1989 to 1992, Watson served on the State Bar Executive Committee and was president of the Texas Young Lawyers Association. He must have made some friends, because he's raised $261,264 of his $481,004 from attorneys, according to an analysis done by the Austin American-Statesman, and most of them are from out-of-town. (Watson even had a fundraiser in March at the Doubletree Hotel in Houston.)

Reynolds and Nofziger question Watson's out-of-town contributions, to which Watson responds, "It's the kind of money people want in campaigns because the contributors have no vested interest but are giving out of friendship because they want to see me do well."

Another fundraising network in which Watson has dipped his cash-bucket springs from the connections he made while chair of the Travis County Democratic Party from 1994 to 1996. Watson's fundraiser, Alfred Stanley, claims that Watson makes his job easy: "I'm perhaps less necessary to Kirk than I am to other clients because he has a tremendous personal network that goes across the state. Name your politicians and he's helped them. Ann Richards, Lloyd Doggett, Gonzalo Barrientos, it's hard to find people he hasn't helped. Now he's benefiting from the same network that he's used to help others."

For his part, Reynolds has raised about one-third of his $275,298 from developer-linked money, while Nofziger has raised a paltry $3,460, much of which came in the form of $1 handouts, possibly thrown into his hat during Flipnotics gigs. It's grassroots at its best. Nofziger scoffs at the big-money boys he's having to run against: "I never intended to get into a money race with these two big spenders. They're both big money. They're both cogs in the machine. Do you like it from lawyers or developers? If people are concerned about big money in politics, vote for me."

Issue or Ain't You?

Aside from Reynolds' tax return issue and a public attack by the Nofziger campaign on Watson's environmental record (see "Naked City," p.16), the race so far has been remarkable for its civility and focus on issues. All three candidates agree that one of the biggest issues facing the future mayor is whether to privatize the city's key breadwinner, the Electric Utility Department. Both Reynolds and Watson say they do not favor privatization, but instead want to turn over control to a council-appointed governing body. They believe this would make the EUD more efficient, but Nofziger says that it would be the first step in the EUD's sale by removing it further from voter oversight. Nofziger would elect to keep the governance structure as is and focus on making the utility more efficient. "Make them pry your cold, dead fingers off your light switch before you give them your EUD," he likes to say.

The issues surrounding the repair of Capital Metro have kept the candidates busy, as well. Because of the agency's rampant mismanagement, its willingness to conceal items from the public, and more specifically, its refusal to repeal the recent quarter of a cent sales tax increase, politicians and their consultants can hardly resist capitalizing on Capital Metro. And Reynolds, Watson, and Nofziger have all polished their Cap Met acts for the campaign circus.

For the record, Reynolds was the first candidate to announce a proposal to fix the transit agency. In late February, he said at a work session that he would have an item on the council agenda the following week asking the council to put a non-binding referendum on the May 3 ballot asking voters whether they wanted to roll back the sales tax, and whether they supported light rail.

But the Watson campaign must have caught wind of the idea. Three days before the council vote, Watson stepped off the #1 (North Lamar) bus in front of the State Capitol to announce to an awaiting flock of reporters his "Tough Love With Capital Metro Plan." The plan involves a request that State Comptroller John Sharp do the first comprehensive performance review of Capital Metro, ultimately resulting in quarterly outcome goals for the agency. (An audit was the first thing that Watson did when he took over the chair of the Texas Air Control Board, and it's cited as a key in the clean-up of the TACB.) Watson would also create an advisory board of community leaders and transportation experts who would help the council select appointments to the board. "We have to know what they're doing, and how they go about doing it, in order to restore confidence in the agency," Watson announced.

Reynolds wasn't too happy about Watson's thunder-stealing, and was surely less happy when the council voted not to support his own proposals. Still, at least he got to note that Watson was playing politics, and that Watson's call for an audit was an expired idea, since the agency had already begun working on one.

Not to be outdone, Nofziger exited a Downtown 'Dillo at Sixth and Congress to another herd of press on the traffic-jammed afternoon of April 10. With passing buses drowning out his voice, Nofziger shouted, "There's been a lot of political posturing around Capital Metro. Our plan is based on a constructive approach. It's more than a superficial fix like the audit or just rolling back the tax."

But Nofziger's plan wasn't even really his own. Instead, it centered on a state legislative bill from Rep. Terry Keel that would allow the public to elect Capital Metro boardmembers. Nofziger would also push the board to re-institute free fares. Nofziger says it was his appointment to the Capital Metro Board in 1987, Stephen Bayer, who created the plan for free ridership that was responsible for turning around declining ridership numbers in the early part of this decade.

Betrayal On the Horizon?

On other issues, all three candidates want to begin building MoKan (US130) to relieve congestion on I-35. Reynolds wants to turn the deserted Robert Mueller Airport into "an intellectual Epcot Center" to bring new taxes to Austin. Watson has called for a larger greenbelt system, and a new master plan for the city (the Austin Tomorrow Plan of 1976 was never implemented) that is heavy on neighborhood input. "The city has done too much reacting and not enough planning," is one of Watson's favorite slogans.

Sounds like too many promises to too many people, observe Reynolds and Nofziger. While the two are probably just unhappy at the way things are going, they do echo sentiment in the community that Watson will, sooner or later, betray either the environmental or the development community. "Who is this guy going to be?" asks Reynolds. "We've had other political leaders who've tried to get things accomplished by consensus and never did."

In defense of that sentiment, Watson says he'll be uncompromised: "When people sign on with me, I'm not buying their philosophy; they're buying mine." Of course, we won't know for sure until he's elected. That is, if he's elected. And if he does get in, the disillusionment is bound to set in. Watson "will find that once he starts casting votes, he'll make 40% of the people angry," predicts Nofziger. It must be nice -- not having a record to run against.

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