The Smell of Palmer on E-Day

Election '97 Coverage

Fiddling While Austin Burns: Nofziger's campaign manager Linda Curtis illustrates the role of big money in the mayoral election.

photograph by Alan Pogue

The most relaxed person at Palmer Saturday night may have been Bruce Todd, who arrived at the auditorium early to do a TV interview. Austin's lame duck mayor and his wife Elizabeth Christian, who have already planned for a brighter financial future by starting a consulting business called Todos, hung out at the table reserved for conservative consultants Emory & Young to leisurely watch the returns come in. Todd offered the following words of advice to the incoming mayor: "Get out of City Hall as much as possible to be among the public. Don't believe that what you see every Thursday is a balanced viewpoint."

The rumor flying around on election day was that third place mayoral candidate Max Nofziger would throw his support behind Ronney Reynolds in what was then thought to be an impending runoff between Reynolds and Kirk Watson. After all, Reynolds, according to one consultant, had been "sucking up" to Nofziger for weeks, and there was no love lost between the Watson and Nofziger camps. However, Nofziger campaign manager Linda Curtis, who turned Nofziger's campaign into a one-issue platform for finance reform, was quick to squelch the rumor. "Reynolds tried too late to get our endorsement -- he should have started 10 years ago."

Curtis kept up the fight throughout the night -- asking passersby for a calculator so she could figure out how much each candidate spent on votes. "Watson spent nearly $100 a vote while Reynolds bought them for $50 apiece," she pointed out. As Watson's boisterous crowd of sign-carrying supporters marched and chanted for the TV cameras, Curtis gleefully threw wads of play money into the air that she had printed up with pictures of Watson and the notorious polluting plastics plant that the now mayor-elect once approved for a permit as chair of the Texas Air Control Board. "The irony of ironies for Ronney is that here this guy voted to keep campaign finance reform off the ballot and he was subsequently crushed by big money."

Watson consultant Dean Rindy pointed out an irony of his own: "You know, Max is somebody you think of as a happy person, but very little emanated from that campaign but bile."

As Watson came breezing into Palmer after the returns confirmed his place in a runoff, he stopped to shake the congratulatory hand offered by Councilmember Daryl Slusher before bounding onstage to happily face the cameras. Reynolds appeared subdued and harried in his dark suit and sneakers -- or "running shoes" as he called them on TV.

Place 2's outright winner Gus Garcia enjoyed the moment as his supporters danced a celebratory macarena. Looking back, the race had been a breeze, but consultant Sandra Castellanos said they had been prepared for an attack at the end which never materialized. "The last C&Es showed that [opponent Becky Motal] raised $40,000, which freaked us out," Castellanos admitted. The Garcia campaign -- which developed the message that Garcia represented all of Austin, not just Hispanics -- stepped up its TV spots and sent a highly effective fundraising letter to voters from former Gov. Ann Richards. "She had said she would stand on I-35 with signs on election day, but we opted for the letter."

"Viva Zuniga!" was the rallying cry for Place 5 frontrunner Manuel Zuniga, who graciously offered a hug and a congratulations to grassroots candidate Karen Hadden. Although UT associate professor Bill Spelman will face Zuniga in the runoff, Hadden was pleased as punch to have made a surprising third place showing ahead of former Garcia council aide Bobbie Enriquez. "I had a good time," Hadden said. "I am thinking about running again. I'm proud to have brought issues like transportation and keeping our utility public into the forefront."

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all Saturday night was Place 6 candidate Willie Lewis' runoff survival against incumbent Eric Mitchell. After such a poor showing in the early voting returns -- Lewis' 34% to Mitchell's 56% -- no one predicted that the virtual unknown would make it a real contest by the end of the night with 44.8% of the vote to Mitchell's 47.5%. "We started so low and Willie was the last candidate to declare," said Lewis's campaign office manager Johnny Barnett. "I'm stunned and relieved."

Veteran consultant Mark Yznaga, who volunteered for Lewis' campaign, could barely contain himself, implying that he had performed magic. "Nothing up my sleeve," he joked.

At the Mitchell table, consultant Preston Ervin coordinated supporters for his no-show candidate. He sent them away once it became clear that Mitchell would not be appearing at Palmer. So, will Ervin and his team be forced to do more actual campaigning during the runoff? "I don't talk to the Chronicle," Ervin replied. Some strategies never change.

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