Runoff Roundup

After a take-no-prisoners campaign from both sides of the ballot, election night for the Place 6 runoff managed to outdo even the dramatics of the past several weeks. While many were already predicting that dark horse Willie Lewis would walk away with the seat, no one could have predicted either the overwhelming margin of Eric Mitchell's defeat or the rage Mitchell expressed in his non-conceding concession speech.

Rejoicing in the progressive camp began even before the final results were tallied, as the traditionally more conservative early voting totals already showed Lewis with the same nine percent lead that he was to hold throughout the evening. Mitchell's supporters, who had spent weeks crying foul at Lewis' strong support in the environmental community, say that he does not represent African Americans or East Austin. Indeed, Mitchell carried over 80% of the Eastside boxes on Saturday. But while there is no arguing that Lewis'- support base is made up of progressive, central city voters - by and large the same voters who favor the environmentalist agenda - those supporters maintain that Lewis will be the one to accomplish more for the Eastside. They add that the newfound camaraderie between Place 6 and the rest of the council will actually increase the efficacy of Eastside initiatives. Many on both sides of the Place 6 race opine that this election proves that it is past time to institute single-member districts, ensuring equal representation for all parts of town. After the dust of election night has cleared, however, it appears that the lasting legacy of this year's Place 6 race could be a steady dissolution, stirred up by weeks of nasty campaign rhetoric, of hard-won ties forged over the last few years between minority communities and environmental activists.

The defeated Eric Mitchell marches into the Coliseum to unleash his fury on Austin.

photograph by Jana Birchum

Just after the final results were tallied, Mitchell's swank party at the Convention Center grew tense with hushed activity. Mitchell shook hands with his supporters, brushing up on his rhetoric as they prepared to follow him en masse to the City Coliseum for his angry concession speech. "Too black, too strong," said Mitchell, shaking his head in disappointment, previewing the rage to come. Mitchell refused to acknowledge this reporter, and relied on an angry Rev. Frank Garrett to run interference. "Go away," sneered Garrett just before he, Mitchell, and about two dozen other party guests reappeared in front of the microphones and TV cameras at the Coliseum. In what will surely be the most well-remembered speech in a career of abrasive diatribe, Mitchell stood before what he called "those people in Palmer, gloating" and proved that, for him, this election was primarily about racial divisions.

"You don't want honesty. You don't want integrity. You don't want responsibility. You want a house nigger, and you got one," fumed the usually composed Mitchell, following weeks of accusations by his supporters that Mitchell is somehow "more black" than Lewis (for the full text of Mitchell's speech, see p.20). Mitchell was not only willing to make such inflammatory statements in the heat of the moment, he was willing to back them up the following Monday during a call-in to KVET's Sammy and Bob morning radio show. "In the African American community that term is very definitive. It's someone who will do anything necessary just to be in the house," explained Mitchell, saying he would refuse to work with Lewis on community issues.

Willie Lewis campaign volunteer Steve Torku, 13, said the racial remark made Mitchell look like a "chump." Lifetime East Austinite Portia Watson, who served on the Austin Revitalization Authority, said it made her "sad," but that Lewis had "been geared up for that kind of talk."

For his part, Lewis seemed unfazed by Mitchell's name-calling, and was simply basking in an evening which was all his. "That's [Mitchell's] style. You can take the gangster out of the street, but not the street out of the gangster," Lewis said, referring to Mitchell's oft-told tales of gang membership as a youth in Atlanta.

Mitchell's supporters pointed not only to the gap between Mitchell's and Lewis' support in the African American community, but also to Lewis' strong showing with environmentalists as proof that Lewis is considered a turncoat in East Austin. "A good percentage of the minority community now has a smaller voice on council. [Mitchell] is being replaced by someone that may not have the broad shoulders to carry the same weight," said Mitchell sidekick, developer Gene Watkins.

Place 6 legend Dr. Charles Urdy, who held the seat for 13 years prior to Mitchell, agreed with Watkins. "Many people feel that [Lewis] has just been used. It's going to be difficult for him to be his own man," he said, predicting that this election will signal the beginning of political changes in Austin's African American community, which has traditionally joined forces with progressive politicos. "This election will rewrite the relation of black folks to the whole political structure of this town. In terms of the coalition we've had with liberals, I think that's busted now completely. I think people are angry, yes, and they're angry because they've been betrayed by things that they were a part of," explained Urdy.

The Lewis camp, not surprisingly, takes an entirely different slant on the election results. "This is really the culmination of the S.O.S. election in 1992," said political consultant David Butts, who was aglow with relief Saturday night after banking $15,000 on Lewis' victory. Butts, along with progressive media consultant Dean Rindy and political consultant Mark Yznaga, can pat themselves on the back for spinning six members of the new council-elect into office, including Lewis. Mitchell's camp is decrying just that style of inner-circle maneuvering, but environmentalists are more than happy to credit the victory to the popularity of their political agenda. "The city of Austin clearly wants the environment protected. That debate is over," says Councilmember Daryl Slusher. Lewis's backers say that Mitchell's anger over Lewis' failure to carry East Austin boxes is ludicrous, given the fact that Mitchell himself lost East Austin by a wide margin in 1994. Rindy, for instance, says the Mitchell camp's "attitude is very hypocritical and inconsistent. Eric Mitchell didn't object when the white community elected him three years ago."

Although some in Austin are cringing at the reality of a 100% green council, many councilmembers predict that the general uniformity of opinion will make for quicker and more effective policy-making. "There is something much deeper going on here. There is a unity between the folks who are environmentally conscious, socially conscious, and truly fiscally conservative," explained councilmember Beverly Griffith, who was noticeably thrilled on election night.

Ron Davis, who lost his bid against Mitchell in 1994, argued that this coalition between the incoming councilmembers is an argument in favor of Lewis' candidacy, not against it. "Lewis will have a great constituency with the new council and that will be a great benefit to East Austin," said Davis. And even among the cooler heads in Mitchell's camp, the same logic seemed to discourage painting Lewis' victory as a complete dead end for East Austin. "The community that has seen a glimmer of hope is not going to let that light be put out," said Watkins, hinting at a willingness of East Austinites to work with Lewis.

Lewis will get a chance to prove himself soon. The new council convenes June 26 with a plate full of expectations from its loyal central city constituents, and a single-issue reputation to live down in every other part of town. Although Lewis fell back on his membership in Save Austin's Neighborhoods and Environment (SANE) as proof of his environmental concern during the campaign, it is likely that his focus will be more on neighborhood issues in East Austin than on strictly environmental concerns. It remains to be seen, however, how quickly Lewis will be able to mend the rift with pro-Mitchell factions on the Eastside, and also whether he will continue to champion the same initiatives as Mitchell, or start with a clean slate. It is ironic that while the council itself will be enjoying a new era of ideological unity, communities from East to Southwest Austin are fearing the sting of alienation from the council's environmental mandate.


by Amy Smith

Manuel Zuniga receives a consoling hug at his post-runoff party at Jalisco's.

photograph by Jana Birchum

Even before the polls closed last Saturday, Manuel Zuniga knew he had lost. The massive telephone effort that had gone into securing verbal commitments from voters in conservative outlying precincts basically fizzled and flopped. In the end, the votes Zuniga thought he could count on didn't count at all.

"They just didn't vote," Zuniga said Monday morning. "I guess they thought it was a Hispanic seat anyway and they didn't need to vote." His defeat by Bill Spelman in the Place 5 race, by a margin of nearly 10%, came as a stunning blow to Zuniga and his Hispanic supporters, not to mention those in the development community who had generously fattened the candidate's campaign coffer with large checks. Sadly, as hard as Zuniga worked to capture 60% of the Hispanic vote, it was the largely conservative white voting blocs in the north and northwest precincts that he desperately needed to nudge him over the top, to counter the remarkably powerful environmental coalition.

But somewhere along the way, probably between the May 3 general election and the May 31 runoff, the Zuniga camp's wires got crossed. "Our phoning indicated we were going to win by a very narrow margin, but by three o'clock on election day we knew we were in trouble," he said of the voter turnout tallies posted every two hours at polling places. There's another factor that can't be ignored, however, and that's the strong showing Spelman made in the historically conservative precincts - 49% in Northwest Hills, for example - that environmentalists see as a sign that, yes, the growth issue is a serious concern.

Nevertheless, Austin's Hispanics, at least those who voted for Zuniga, are shocked, hurt, and angry. And Zuniga is leading the charge in a way that almost seems out of character for a candidate who seldom lost his cool on the campaign trail. But no more Mr. Nice Guy. On Tuesday, Zuniga showed a combative side which - had he displayed a similar temperament in the final days of the campaign - might have served to score him some more votes. In an open letter to the Hispanic community (see below), Zuniga called on "all Austinites of color to remember how we were manipulated on May 31. If we fail to punish them two years from now, we will only have ourselves to blame." The "them" in this case is what he calls the "power-hungry, racist, liberal enviro-political machine" that ate Zuniga's lunch on election day.

Whereas in past election years it was the furor between developers and environmentalists that took center stage, this time around minorities were siding against the Greens. Spelman felt that heat all along and has vowed to work for a single-member district initiative that may help to bring racial parity to Austin's city council. But for now, that is of little comfort to some Zuniga supporters. And try as Spelman may to steer his message away from the Hispanic factor to what is clearly one of the grimmest issues of the day - Austin's growth - local Latinos aren't likely to let their anger simmer down anytime soon. That's understandable when you think about it: The fastest-growing minority group - soon to be a majority - just lost the seat that guaranteed them a voice in city government. Crazy.

Zuniga's campaign manager, Hermelinda Zamarripa, is especially indignant over the loss. Her commitment to the preservation of a Hispanic council seat holds special meaning: Her uncle, John Treviño, was the city's first Hispanic councilmember. A lifelong Austinite, Zamarripa had worked tirelessly to recruit and develop a strong base of Hispanic support for Zuniga. The defeat, she said, "speaks to our need to have single-member districts... minorities should decide who we want to be our representative. How can [Spelman] represent a community when he probably doesn't even speak Spanish, and what does he know about the trials and tribulations of people who have been oppressed?" she asked.

Spelman, however, will likely be more sensitive to minority issues than many Zuniga supporters believe. "We have a council that has two years to prove itself to the Black and Hispanic communities," Spelman said. "I'm going to work to keep the lines of communication open to everyone, and I only hope that people judge me by my actions for the next two years."

While Zamarripa believed in Zuniga 100%, other Hispanics, like Johnny Limon, were more strongly committed to keeping the Place 5 tradition intact. "I was concerned that once Gus Garcia leaves his position [in Place 5], there wouldn't be any other Hispanic representation on council." said Limon. "We helped elect most of the (current) council," reasoned Limon, who is president of the Gardens Neighborhood Association in East Austin. "We support them on their environmental issues, and all we ask of them is more respect, and more representation."

Cathy Vasquez-Revilla, another Zuniga backer, fumes when she recalls comments made from people in the environmental community that she should wait until the "right" Hispanic candidate comes along. "That's really patronizing," she said. "Historically, we have been given access to the democratic process through the liberal door of the Democratic party, but what we have been missing is the ability to build our own coalitions from within. If anything, this whole experience has taught us that we - Hispanics and African Americans - really need to rely on each other much more."

In the fallout after the election, Councilmember Garcia is also taking some hits. Zuniga, in his outrage, blames Garcia for his loss. "I am bitter against Gus Garcia," Zuniga acknowledged. "I can't be angry with the environmentalists for getting their voters to the polls. They're damn good at it. And I think Bill Spelman is a good guy with a good heart. But Gus Garcia considers himself an environmental leader; he's not doing anything for Hispanics. He literally abandoned that Place 5 seat and didn't do anything to keep it in the Hispanic community. He could have gone to his environmental friends and asked them to leave it alone, but he didn't."

To which Garcia responded: "He can point the finger where he wants, but I don't think he needs to be looking for anyone to blame, and he shouldn't blame himself either. He ran a decent race, a clean race, but he lost. Period."

Zuniga also accuses the enviro community of convincing Bobbie Enriquez to run against him, and then failing to back her up. Enriquez disputes this scenario, and challenges Zuniga to support his claim. "I was never contacted" by the Greens, Enriquez says. "Who supposedly contacted me? I'd like to know."

Perhaps here would be a good place to look at what the Spelman campaign did right and what the Zuniga campaign could have done better. "The thing that we did really well was, we walked and walked and walked," said Spelman strategist Mark Yznaga. "We must have covered 30 precincts in what was really a tremendous effort by our people. We also sent letters to neighborhood groups, and people responded favorably." As it happened, Zuniga's own Barton Hills neighborhood in Precinct 342 went with Spelman, by a 55% to 45% margin. "Our strategic advantage was our organization," Yznaga said.

What was Zuniga's biggest mistake in the campaign? "He made a major strategic mistake by not attacking us," Yznaga said, an assessment with which Zuniga readily agrees. Another miscalculation may stem from Zuniga's parsimony - he neglected to fill the airwaves with TV commercials in the final week, leaving Spelman a wide open field for his spots. "His major strategic advantage was his money," Yznaga added. But Zuniga may have tightened the purse strings a little too soon.

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