Lefty Changes His Spots

Not Your Same Old Slusher

illustration by Doug Potter

Some people thought I was going to cause trouble just for trouble-causing's sake," says Councilmember Daryl Slusher of his career change from investigative journalist to councilmember. As a writer, Slusher made a name for himself ferreting out the hypocrisy and waste of the same governmental bodies on which he now serves. He never made many friends among politicians, but he did succeed in building an energized base of support among Austin's left-wing activists. Now, nearly two years after he took office, Slusher has also succeeded in winning over many of Austin's more mainstream institutions and leaders. Instead of looking at his new-found popularity as a victory, however, some of his former supporters are crying foul at what they perceive as Slusher selling out for the sake of political popularity. Slusher first got involved in politics in 1979 fighting the South Texas Nuclear Project. In 1985, after several years of political activism, Slusher and veteran journalist Daryl Janes founded the Daryl Herald, which hung on for three years by examining the minutiae of city governance in an entertaining way. In 1988, Slusher founded the short-lived Austin Mirror. Later that same year he joined The Austin Chronicle, where he served as politics editor from 1989 to 1994. Along the way, Slusher used journalism as a forum to tackle environmental issues and governmental boondoggles, and his writing became a touchstone for the otherwise diverse constituency of Austin liberals.

In 1994, Slusher pitched his first political campaign as a mayoral candidate against incumbent Bruce Todd. Although Todd did an admirable job of downplaying Slusher's low-budget crusade, behind the campaign scenes it was obvious that Slusher and his devoted support base would prove tough to beat. In fact, Slusher did lose that race, but with an impressive enough standing to provide momentum for his 1996 victory for the Place 1 council seat he now holds.

Many of his supporters, particularly in the environmental community, hoped that Slusher's ascension to office would shake up city government for good. Visions of bicycle paths and greenbelts danced in the heads of his campaign volunteers. It would soon become apparent, however, that Slusher the activist and Slusher the councilmember are two different animals.

"I think it's more that people are getting to know me than that I've changed," Slusher says of the now-familiar criticism that he has been co-opted by the dominant paradigm. He does admit, though, that "being a councilmember is certainly a larger responsibility than writing a column," and suggests that the different job descriptions are at the root of his current image problem.

The most obvious difference of Slusher's council tenure is the support thrown his way - though cautiously - by the Austin American-Statesman. As a journalist, Slusher slammed the daily on a regular basis for boostering the real estate community at the expense of the environment. And yet the daily seems more than happy to support Slusher by recasting him as a reformed radical, eagerly harping on the theme that "cracks have emerged in the relationship between Council Member Daryl Slusher and the most militant greens." Slusher simply jokes about the reversal: "It scares me. My wife doesn't trust me as much anymore since they started saying nice things about me."

Most recently, those cracks have been emerging around the issue of the JPI development along the Barton Creek greenbelt at State Highway 360 and MoPac. JPI was long ago granted permits for a high-density development which far surpassed the current restrictions of the Save Our Springs (S.O.S.) ordinance. Since Slusher's bread and butter for five years before taking office was hammering on the critical importance of S.O.S., many supporters expected him to take an obstructionist position on the JPI development. Instead, Slusher and councilmember Beverly Griffith struck a compromise with JPI to bring the development into compliance with S.O.S. Still, environmentalists have expressed their disappointment over development of any kind on the banks of the greenbelt.

"You don't call for people to come down to S.O.S. and then attack them when they do," Slusher says, although he might have done just that as a journalist. "No one in the environmental community is saying `Wow! You got them down to S.O.S.!'" he complains.

Brigid Shea, executive director of S.O.S. Alliance, says she does applaud Slusher and Griffith's efforts, but points out that the $5 million necessary for the city to simply purchase the land from JPI "pales by comparison" to the cost of the infrastructure to support the project, to say nothing of the cost of cleaning up the environmental damage that such a development might cause.

The first blush of this rift with his grassroots support came in August 1997 when SB1704, a state law which restricted cities from applying new water quality standards to already-permitted projects, was repealed. Instead of gleefully slapping S.O.S. restrictions on every development in town, Slusher joined forces with Mayor Kirk Watson and Councilmember Gus Garcia to create a new development standard with a task force of representatives from the environmental and real estate communities. The resulting replacement ordinance, while it did force several unbuilt projects to comply with S.O.S., also required amendments to the sacred S.O.S. ordinance itself. S.O.S. Alliance legal counsel Bill Bunch, who sat on the task force, worried about "tinkering" with the law. Other environmentalists have been less forgiving. Brent White, leader of Austinites for a Little Less Corruption and a two-time Slusher campaign volunteer, says Slusher's devotion to the environment "seems to depend on which side of the bed he wakes up on."

Slusher admits that there are "definitely some greens that are mad at me," but he defends his work on the replacement ordinance. "It shows that we can govern," he says, "rather than just continue the war" between environmentalists and developers. Of course, the irony is that Slusher was always a general in the very war he wants to be credited with ending. Slusher points out, however, that he will always be able to defend his record on sheer numbers, pointing proudly to the increase in "the amount of land removed from S.O.S. jurisdiction when I came into office and the amount that will be under S.O.S. when I leave." As he is fond of pointing out, HEB groceries and Seton Hospital are voluntarily complying with S.O.S. in their new developments.

True Colors

The final straw for many of his activist supporters came, however, in September 1997 when the grassroots Our City, Our Choice (OCOC) movement tried to gain a place on the ballot to amend the city charter. The concept of OCOC was near and dear to Slusher: restricting city subsidy of suburban sprawl. But Slusher did not agree with many of his personal and political friends that such a concept should be codified. Shea points out that Slusher and Watson - who opposed OCOC - "were developing a close relationship at the time." That new-found friendship was made apparent when OCOC supporter Kirk Mitchell came to speak in favor of the amendment at council and found himself the target of a scathing attack by Watson from the dais. When Mitchell attempted to point out that Slusher stood with his group on the issue, Slusher quickly denied his support for the amendment. OCOC subsequently failed to gain council approval for a place on the ballot and many OCOC supporters left feeling betrayed.

Most recently, Slusher's evolution on more than just environmental issues has become undeniable. In the past month he has voted to continue city funding for the Austin Revitalization Authority and the Central City Entertainment Center (CCEC), both projects which Slusher has long opposed. After both votes, Slusher made long, conciliatory speeches defending his new-found love for the Eastside projects, touting their obvious necessity. "If it works, it'll be worth every penny," an apparently converted Slusher chirped after approving a $5 million construction contract for the CCEC - a city-funded family entertainment center which he has attacked as an obvious boondoggle for years. "I didn't see what good it would do anybody to vote against it. What would be the point?" asks Slusher, referring to the overwhelming community support for the project. Nevertheless, the sentiment doesn't sound much like the bulldog activist of yore.

And speaking of potential boondoggles, which Slusher claims he has "prevented from happening" since taking office, what of the Waller Creek Tax Increment Financing district (TIF) and its sibling project, the expansion of the convention center? Not only has Slusher reversed his previous TIF-phobia to support the Waller TIF - even risking his relationship with fellow TIF-phobic Griffith who has been fighting it - but he has said very little about the proposed mega-sizing of the convention center of which he has been so skeptical in the past. Slusher points out that he continues to ask the toughest questions on the convention center, and says that he has prevented the city from subsidizing a convention center hotel, but it is strange nevertheless to see Slusher so closely allied with the party line of Austin's big businessmen.

Still, is support for a few business-friendly projects and a somewhat predictable politicizing of his views cause enough for the grumbling of discontent among Slusher's constituency? Or can the division perhaps be linked to a simple problem of perception? After all, some of the people Slusher now works so closely with were his former targets as a journalist: Councilmembers Garcia and Jackie Goodman both felt the sting of what Goodman once called his "poison pen," and Slusher now cracks jokes about pesky journalists with fellow Capital Metro board member John Treviño, whom he vilified in his Herald days.

"Sure, to see somebody who was your friend and now they're in a position of authority and dressing up... you know, it's different. That's very superficial, but it is kind of funny," admits political consultant Mark Yznaga. Councilmember Jackie Goodman says that becoming a suit is an "occupational hazard" of the job. Shea, also a former councilmember and journalist, sympathizes with Slusher, saying that she too "felt like an alien at times" in her council role, and was often miffed by the changed expectations she confronted in her friends while in office.

"I thought he'd become a politician," shrugs White. "Up until he got really buddy-buddy with the mayor, he was the lone voice speaking out on issues other councilmembers were sheepish to speak about in public," he says, adding that even with the disappointments, Slusher is still "one of the best councilmembers ever." White adds: "As activists we just have to mature and learn the etiquette to deal with him."

And that transformation - of the activist community and of Slusher - may be at the heart of this lovers' quarrel. Not only has Slusher risen through the ranks to an unprecedented place of power, but grassroots activism has risen right along with him. The enviro-sweep of council in the last election, to say nothing of the recent Chamber of Commerce decision to support environmental protection as an economic boon, is proof of that rise. Perhaps the spat is really one of growing pains on both sides, as former outsiders get used to influencing the mainstream.

"I suppose there is always going to be a certain level of tension between those who are elected and even those very people who helped elect them," says political consultant David Butts. "People in power will automatically start looking at a bigger picture, as opposed to people who focus on something very necessary, but very narrow."

As White points out, the real battle may come in 1999 when Slusher's seat will be up again. Slusher says he does not yet know if he will run again for Place 1 or seek higher office, but he pooh-poohs those who say he may have lost his base of support. "There hasn't been a surrender," Slusher says in defense of his movement toward the center. "It's been peace on the terms that the citizens have been voicing."

This Week In Council: The letter of intent for the council's proposed apartment complex at the Poleyard will be up for discussion. And speaking of housing, Willie Lewis' "traditional neighborhood" proposal steps up to the plate.

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