Place 6 Gets Ugly

Election '97 Coverage

Willie Lewis supporter Ron Davis, and consultant Todd Main celebrate Lewis' success in forcing a runoff with Place 6 incumbent Eric Mitchell
photograph by Alan Pogue

At 10pm on election night, the giant sheet cake reading "Eric Mitchell Bad To The Bone" around an icing rendition of Mitchell's 1995 Chronicle cover (Vol. 15 No.5), remained uncut at Mitchell's swank Convention Center victory party. Meanwhile, across the river at Palmer Auditorium, his challenger for Place 6, Willie Lewis, was ecstatically pumping hands and giving interviews. The traditionally more conservative results of early voting had shown Mitchell with a healthy, and predictable, 56% lead; but as the totals rolled in throughout the evening the two men inched to a nearly even finish, 47.5% to 44.8%, with Mitchell ahead by a hair. "I was trying to win it outright," Lewis enthusiastically reports, but if that's true, he may be the only one not shocked by his low-budget campaign's strong showing.

Mitchell failed to make his way over to Palmer to face the press, although his campaign manager Preston Ervin made an appearance. "It ain't over 'til it's over," suggested Mitchell's right-hand developer, Gene Watkins, and Mitchell concurred. "I'm just being a realist," said a clearly deflated Mitchell, refusing to talk victory. But the ever-vocal Dorothy Turner, not surprisingly, had plenty to say on election night. She confessed that the Mitchell campaign "didn't do a whole lot of work," besides her own personally orchestrated effort at the April 24 council meeting. "We filled the chambers with T-shirt wearing supporters," she chirped, admitting that the raucous meeting was nothing more than a campaign stunt. Turner seemed unmindful of the increasingly even election results and seemed to take Lewis' defeat for granted.

"We'll deal with Mr. Lewis afterwards. He is a travesty because he attacked Eric on his color. He said Eric was too black. How can you be too black?" she wondered, without specifying any incident in which Lewis had raised the issue of race during the campaign. (Lewis said he never did.)

Meanwhile, Lewis was busy basking in the glow of his newly won press attention, cheerfully retelling stories to anyone who would listen. "Preston [Ervin] was trying to ignore me. I had to go beat on his table and say, `Hey! you can't ignore me!' I told him I wanted his Eric Mitchell button so I could hang it right behind my desk when I win," Lewis jubilantly related.

In light of Lewis' surprisingly strong showing, his confidence may not be misplaced, but his campaign manager, Todd Main, said that the real work has just begun for the campaign. "We have to do a whole new campaign; it's just like starting over from scratch," he says of the impending run-off. The campaign's founding hope -- that ingrained anti-Mitchell sentiment would force the incumbent out of office -- still holds true, and Main said the money game is sure to pick up now that Watson's supporters are free to look for other worthy causes. "A lot of progressive and moderate voters support Willie Lewis' candidacy and they are sending checks," Main said, though he was not willing to comment on how much money the campaign had received since Reynold's Monday announcement. "We are going to have the resources we need to win the election."

For his part, Lewis simply seems to be enjoying his new legitimacy. "Nobody took my campaign seriously, especially after the first contribution and expenditure reports came out showing we just had $1000. Everybody just said, `Eh! forget about it.'"

No doubt the Lewis camp can also expect to pick up many of the 7.6% of voters who went to the "microcampaign" of Eric Lee Samson, but Lewis should not be counting chickens just yet. In the first place, Mitchell carried 12 of the 16 East Austin precincts -- all of which he had lost in his 1994 race against Ron Davis. Even Lewis' own Pecan Springs precinct, where he was president of the neighborhood association until recently, went with Mitchell. The Eastside support will be a considerable boon to Mitchell, who obviously has lost much of the Westside support that brought him the win last time.

And while we may have been spared a bloody mayoral runoff, both sides in Place 6 are sharpening the long knives. The race is about to heat up into an all-out mudslinging war. Utilizing one of the primary tools of the Mitchell campaign, local talk radio, to get out its message, Mitchell's supporters have begun spreading thus far unsubstantiated dirt on Lewis by fax and telephone. According to Turner, Lewis is an "enabling old man" who swapped rent for sex with drug-addicted female tenants of his low-income properties and she, the Rev. Frank Garrett, and others have been doing their dead level best to relay this rumor to the public by way of KVET and KAZI radio programs. Rev. Garrett refused to comment on his calls into KVET, or on the Lewis campaign's assertion that Garrett refused to take on-air comment by Lewis during Garrett's own KAZI call-in show. "I'm not going to discuss it with any printed press," was Garrett's only response.

Turner, on the other hand, faxed the Chronicle a letter -- which had been sent to a list of eight local ministers -- that was written by a woman claiming to be Lewis's former tenant, Janice Brown, which began: "Because I would not have sex with Willie Lewis, me and my three babies were put out of our home." Turner says she does not know Brown, who could not be reached for comment.

Main was quick to respond: "The allegations are a complete and total fabrication. We're talking to attorneys right now. You can't just character assassinate people." The Lewis campaign is preparing to distribute all relevant records regarding Brown and her stay in Lewis' housing, which by all accounts ended with Brown being sued for $729. (Also notable is that Turner faxed the letter on letterhead of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, where she works as a contract compliance specialist. Her personal use of city property to fax information benefiting the Mitchell campaign is a clear violation of city policy, according to a spokesman with the city manager's office.)

Mitchell's glass house is also fragile; his personal history includes neglected child support payments and bankruptcy, which Lewis' campaign has so far steered clear of mentioning. (The campaign did see fit to run a commercial that highlighted Councilmember Mitchell's vote on a contract that benefitted his company.) And at election after-parties, there were rampant whispers of a progressive camp-funded trip to Atlanta to dredge up mud surrounding Mitchell's business dealings there. Don't be surprised if researcher Scott Henson's Hall of Shame website grows a little bigger in the final weeks of the runoff. But of course, the dirt-digging machines are working overtime on both campaigns. It's bound to get ugly.

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