Gettin' Out the Vote

Singing Eric Mitchell's Praises

illustration by Doug Potter

It ain't every day you get a rap concert with your council meeting, but the audience had waited hours to speak about Eastside revitalization, and the council-induced delay seemed to reflect the same injustices that have helped keep that part of town down for so long. Sundry issues had pushed the public hearing from its 6:30pm start time to somewhere around bedtime, and no better cure than a good rap song could have been found for the building angst. Thus, shortly after the public hearing began, a young beat-boy named NOOK (Never Outcast Our Kind) digressed from the usual drone, ordered city staff to crank up the sound system, pulled his black cap a little lower over his eyes, and busted out with some phat rhymes about life east of the highway. The chambers throbbed with hardcore vibes while the councilmembers on the dais looked whiter, and stiffer, than ever -- only their eyes moved -- especially when NOOK, doing a running-in-place dance, lashed accusatory fingers at them and rang, "Trying to make it's hard when they keep on trippin!'"

NOOK, mind you, wasn't referring to Councilmember Eric Mitchell. Mitchell had organized the hearing on the pretense that his initiatives to redevelop the Eastside -- you know, 11th and 12th Street revitalization, housing for the poor, the Central City Entertainment Center (CCEC) -- were threatened by a possible revocation of federal housing money. That's not the case; funding isn't threatened, but Mitchell made an emergency of it anyway and rallied his Eastside supporters to the council meeting. The timing could hardly have been more perfect. Last week's was the final meeting before E-day (May 3, Vote!) and dozens of members of the "Eric Mitchell Fan Club" -- led by firebrands Dorothy Turner and the Rev. Frank Garrett -- turned out wearing green-and-white "Re-elect Eric Mitchell" t-shirts. They waved their arms like reeds in the wind when NOOK was rappin' and they echoed: "Growing up ain't easy, Growing up ain't easy." You'd have sworn it was a campaign rally for Mitchell's re-election cause.

Certainly, it was a brilliant strategic move, since it obscured the fact that many of Mitchell's former leading supporters who represent the Eastside -- like Rev. Marvin Griffin and Van Johnson, both with the Ebenezer Baptist Church -- have jumped to challenger Willie Lewis' camp. Some complain that Mitchell isn't the candidate most capable of representing them, a complaint made in 1994, when the former gang member won the Austin vote overall but lost all the precincts east of the highway. Others complain that Mitchell's programs are lining the pockets of only a few of his inner-circle cadres, like Jo Baylor and Gene Watkins. They also add that his initiatives got off to a quick start but ain't happenin' now. Mitchell fixed that perception by having staff run down the status of his initiatives before the public hearing to show that they're very much alive. The CCEC -- the Eastside bowling alley/skating rink/movie theatre -- should be running by December 1998. SCIP II (Scattered Cooperative Infill Housing) has acquired more than half (54) of its proposed lots and recently received another $700,000 from the council. And a master plan for the revitalization of East 11th and 12th Streets is expected to come to the council by the end of this year.

Additional evidence that the meeting was a ploy designed to show off Mitchell's Eastside support was that Mitchell had thrown the item on at the last minute -- the reason the public hearing was delayed. Already on the agenda was a public hearing and staff presentation, sponsored by Councilmember Daryl Slusher, about the quality of water at Barton Springs. That took an hour as Mike Heitz, Drainage Utility director, recommended that the council begin working on a Barton Creek Watershed master plan. Though Heitz noted that water quality has not declined in 15 years, he did note that increased pollution from construction would cause the pool to be closed more frequently.

To enviros, the creek is a barometer of the city's environmental health, but to politicized minorities, it's a slap in the face to more pressing afflictions like poverty, crime, illiteracy, and so on. That the Barton Springs issue had cut into their speaking time was no cure for this perception. Things got worse when Mayor Bruce Todd, in his quest to end the meeting before midnight, said that NOOK had pretty much summed up the feelings of dozens of others who had yet to speak and so the council should get to the next issue.

That's when one woman tore up to the mike. "What are you saying!?" she shouted. "This is total and outright disrespect for people who took out their precious time to speak to you. We sat here and waited while you talked about the Barton Springs issue."

The crowd brimmed with discontent until Todd put on his I'll-call-the-police voice and quieted the eruption. Surprisingly, Mitchell said no words in defense of his supporters -- perhaps he didn't want his colleagues to point out that the clash of items was no one's fault but his.

Earlier in the day, Mitchell had also tried to win a few extra Eastside votes by sponsoring an item to get full-time walking beats in four crime-ridden areas of the city (three of them east of the highway): 11th and 12th Streets; Springdale/Webberville; Loyola Road and Manor Lane; and South Congress. Doing so would involve 108 officers and cost more than $2.37 million. Since the city is looking at a $2.9 million deficit because of sales tax shortfalls, acting Police Chief Bruce Mills was against the idea. Free-spending Councilmember Jackie Goodman is easily persuaded to dole out city funding, however, and her second on the motion gave life to Mitchell's item. "I'll assume that we have that money somewhere," she said.

City Manager Jesus Garza intimated that the council ought to wait to consider the proposal until a cost-cutting plan is enacted. Slusher, Todd, Gus Garcia, and Ronney Reynolds took him up on it, and pushed for a delay. "In the spirit of compromise," Mitchell suggested that 27 officers be deployed at Congress and on 11th and 12th Streets, a proposal that would cost only $593,520. Mitchell recalled that city "financial wizards" Charles Curry and Betty Dunkerley had discovered "$6 million" during the budget process last September, and ordered them "to wave your magic wand."

The rest of the council didn't bite, but at least Mitchell got to say he tried. Even if he waited until the last minute before the election to do it. And though his ideas seemed only like rhetoric to get some votes, don't expect it to backfire and hurt him. That's kind of the way it goes with Mitchell. Despite his name-calling, his allegedly illegal votes to approve his own city contracts, and his exclusionary tactics, he's still expected to win the Place 6 seat. And though his revitalization initiatives are enriching only a few people, he's accomplished more than any black East Austin leader before him, even if the items are still in the oven. The needs for East Austin are greater than one man's sins, so don't be surprised if Mitchell's wrongdoings are overlooked at the ballot box.

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