Shaking the Money Tree

The Sources Differ, But the Aim's the Same

Manuel Zuniga

photograph by Alan Pogue

On Wednesday, May 21, around noon, Bill Spelman and Manuel Zuniga were working the room where a political forum was about to get underway with members of the East Sixth Street Community Association. If the two Place 5 city council runoff candidates wanted to be somewhere else -- anywhere but another forum eating another plate of chicken (although this particular fare did look tasty) -- they did a good job of covering up their woebegone states. "It's great to be here," they chimed, time and again. "Thanks for inviting us." Mayor-elect Kirk Watson was there and spoke for a few minutes about Austin's future. Former Mayor Lee Cooke was there, too, shaking hands and waving to folks across the room.

But this week, the attitude at the respective camps could well be "forum, schmorum" in the final countdown to E-Day on Saturday. It's get-out-the-vote time with a vengeance, the time when mania becomes the controlling force of a campaign: jangled nerves, short tempers, giddiness, gloom, what have you.

In the money-is-everything department, campaign finance reports filed late last Friday revealed few surprises, what we could see of them at least. Spelman collected $54,697 and spent $59,384 between April 24 and May 22 -- some $20,000 in mail-outs and $20,000 in TV time -- while Zuniga picked up $58,461. Both candidates mailed their contribution and expenditure reports to the city clerk, but Zuniga's filing still had not arrived at the clerk's office by late Tuesday afternoon, so much of the forthcoming information on Zuniga's C&Es was snagged at Chronicle press time from an Extra edition of the political newsletter In Fact.

As for Spelman, his collection plate held one big noteworthy item: a $25,000 check from green team hero Don Henley of Eagles fame. What wasn't in his C&E was the $18,000 tip he picked up from the city coffers for good behavior -- er, for adhering to a fair campaign finance contract -- while opponent Zuniga, who stuck to a strict non-pledge policy, raked in big bucks from political action committees. Spelman collected the city money last Friday, one day after his campaign put the lock on the candidate's C&E report.

Mike Blizzard, Spelman's campaign manager, defended his candidate's decision to take the prize. "If both candidates had signed the contract, Bill would be splitting that money with Zuniga," he said. "And we'd have an election a lot more free of PAC and special-interest money. We signed the contract, we complied with it and we're receiving the city benefits. And Zuniga had every opportunity to do the same." Of the contributors, the progressively faithful Fath family kicked in a combined $1,850, with a total of $750 made in separate contributions from Creekmore and Adele Fath, and another couple of checks -- one for $1,000 and another for $100 -- coming out of electric utility commissioner Shudde Fath's pocketbook.

Bill Spelman

photograph by Alan Pogue

Other Spelman contributors included the local PAC of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which kicked in $750; Austin attorney Charles Herring, Jr., who gave $1,000; computer software entrepreneur Chip Wolfe, who chipped in $500; economist (and newly appointed Capital Metro board member) Jon Hockenyos with $75, and political consultant David Butts, $250.

Zuniga doesn't have much to complain about, at least where money is concerned. The Austin Police Association PAC, which threw its endorsement to Zuniga early on, handed over $11,450 in late April to the old-guard political consulting team of Peck Young and Bill Emory to cook up a mailer for the candidate. On Zuniga's latest financial report, PACs, PACs, PACs are the rule, with $2,500 contributions from the Real Estate Council of Austin PAC (bringing its total to $5,000 for Zuniga), as well as from the Austin Apartment Association PAC, and Frank Fickett. Other PAC donors included the Fulbright & Jaworski law firm PAC, the Jenkins & Gilchrist law firm PAC, the Texas Capitol Area Builders, BM&OH Electo-PAC, and the Texas Association of Realtors PAC.

To be sure, Zuniga, who has a reputation about town as a self-made millionaire, has pockets that run pretty deep, as do those of his friends and others of his builders'-instinct ilk. But the candidate, nevertheless, goes to great lengths to present himself as an average Joe. Speaking to the East Sixth Street merchants at the Pecan Street Cafe the other day, Zuniga, who owns a homebuilding concern, tried to strike common ground right off the bat. "We are common allies... we share mutual business interests," he told the group. He went on to address his run-ins with the city bureaucracy when his company began to suffer growing pains at its former cramped office site on Burleson Road.

Spelman, a UT associate professor in the LBJ School, drew on his experience as a police consultant to try and score some points with the merchants. "The type of policing that has to happen on East Sixth Street is a lot different than other parts of the city," he said. "Your problems are different.... You need a different type of policing style."

Calling this race is particularly tough. Zuniga has a strong business and development following, as well as what appears to be a relatively determined support from local Hispanics who want to preserve the Place 5 seat for Hispanic representation. Spelman, on the other hand, has the grassroots, environmental gig going for him, which of course is not to be underestimated in this town. Clearly, though, Spelman is the underdog here, due in part to the Hispanic factor that has figured heavily into the campaign. As such, Spelman -- the candidate and his message -- has gotten somewhat overlooked.

"It's not just about Barton Springs and the Golden Cheeked Warbler," said Blizzard, disputing the notion that Spelman is a one-issue candidate. "It's about quality of life and the impact growth is having on neighborhoods. People are wondering who's going to defend their neighborhood when a developer wants to come in and develop the last piece of vacant space."

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