Off the Desk:
Ecology Action will hold its annual Earth Day Celebration in Waterloo Park this Saturday from 10am to 7pm. Activities include a "can crunch" in which teams from Motorola, Dell Computer, and other businesses will compete to see which team can crush the most cans in a given time period. There will also be a variety of exhibits, a panoply of food vendors, a children's activities tent, and an education tent with information on composting, solar building, recycling, and other issues. Musical guests include Michelle Solberg, Cheri Knight, Steamroller, and Ginger McKenzie. Free. For more information, call 303-0165... - R.B.
About 2,000 school, church, and community reps are expected to participate in the first Austin Interfaith Convention at 4pm Sunday at St. John's Tabernacle on Blessing Avenue. Topics include job training and building new playgrounds. Interfaith is asking the city and county to each commit $1 million to support training initiatives that will place adult participants in "living-wage jobs." Austin Interfaith's Mary Molina said a survey of local corporations unearthed roughly 600 jobs open in the areas of high-tech, health care, and banking that poor residents could fill with the right training and support. Call 916-0100 for details... - L.T.
Down But Not Out
Afer five hours of comedy and drama before an overflow crowd, the Austin Planning Commission on Tuesday night delivered the first official city rebuke to the ultra-controversial Triangle Square project.
In an unusual 6-0-3 vote, the commission voted to deny the GR-MU (commercial/mixed use) zoning requested by the Texas General Land Office and Cencor Realty for the tract between Guadalupe, Lamar, and 45th Street. This came after dozens of speakers, out of more than 200 Triangle foes in attendance, decried both Triangle Square's negative impact on North Central Austin - particularly on traffic - and the shopping complex's incompatibility with the surrounding neighborhoods.
The commissioners echoed these concerns, but struggled with the Triangle's status as state-owned land. Even if the City Council follows the PC's recommendation, its decision is still subject to review - and likely reversal - by a board of review dominated by state officials. After getting burned in similar circumstances on the Hog Farm, the commission carefully linked its action to specific sections of the Land Development Code, as state law requires. This wasn't enough to reel in two of the three abstentions. (The third was from Commission Chair Dusty McCormick, who gave no reason for his decision.)
Commissioner Rachael Rawlins, while expressing her personal preference for the alternative Triangle concept espoused by the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association and the Neighbors of Triangle Park, had trouble with linking urban design questions - i.e., New Urbanist vs. suburban strip mall - to what was in essence a fairly simple zoning case. And Commissioner Betty Baker, after noting that - given the state's ultimate veto power - any PC action was likely futile, simply walked off the dais after the public hearing. The City Council gets its shot soon, since state law requires it to act before May 14. Expect renewed attempts to bridge the gap between Cencor and the neighbors, and probably yet another revised Triangle Square plan (which would be #4) to emerge before a council vote. - M.C.M.
This Time He Did It
Ron Davis was far and away the happiest person at Palmer Auditorium Tuesday night as he reveled in the thrill of a long-awaited election victory. The Eastside activist who had lost two high-profile elections in the past four years easily won the Democratic runoff for Pct. 1 county commissioner over Stacy Dukes-Rhone, with over 60% of the vote. Davis was teary-eyed as he hugged his son and personally thanked each of his supporters. The scene was reminiscent of Sally Field's famous Oscar speech, with Davis finally getting the affirmation that, indeed, voters really do like him. Davis will face 27-year-old software engineer Greg Parker in November's general election, though in this Democratic stronghold, the toughest part of the race is clearly over. Said one pundit: "Pct. 1 may vote for a Republican one day, but it will not be in our lifetime." Still, Davis said he's not taking the Republican for granted: "Every opponent that you face, you have to face with the same energy. You can never afford to take that opponent lightly."
Davis - well known for efforts to shut down East Austin's 52-acre gasoline tank farm, as well as to open an Austin Community College campus on the Eastside - certainly took nothing for granted in this runoff. Dukes-Rhone, the sister of District 50 State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, and daughter of Eastside powerbroker and political consultant Ben Dukes, Sr., ran a strong campaign and gained some notable endorsements, including that of former opponent McKee, and former councilmembers Eric Mitchell and Charles Urdy. But in this battle between two familiar East Austin names, it was Davis who walked away the victor. - L.T.
Baxter Bags Win
Rick Schafer's community ties and Statesman endorsement were no match for opposing candidate Todd Baxter's well-oiled campaign machinery in the race for the GOP nomination for Pct. 3 county commissioner. Outspent several times over, Schafer lost by a margin of 2-1 in the runoff, and said he was beginning to think Austin voters had the right idea by passing campaign contributor limits last fall. "Can an average working guy get elected? As an American, I still want to say yes, but after the reality I've experienced, I have to wonder," Schafer reflected Tuesday night.
So the November showdown will pit whippersnapper Baxter and his ideologically fueled conservative platform against old-guard moderate Dem Nan Clayton, who has nearly 20 years' experience in local government. Clayton, while not exactly an environmental icon, has appeal in both parties, and will enjoy a considerable name-recognition advantage. To beat her, Baxter will likely need to court voters from the Republican middle to add to his conservative base. But Baxter says he won't be moderating his message. The tide has turned in favor of conservative principles, he said, adding, "This is the fact: I am the conservative vote in this race." Baxter opposes Austin's upcoming bond proposal to purchase environmentally sensitive land south and west of town, saying, "When the city takes actions that have a detrimental effect on property values that are within their jurisdiction, they should be willing to put up the money to buy the land. But when they want to control everything... it's a flaw in the argument because they don't have regulatory control over that land."
Slaughter Creek-area resident Eric Anderson, a leader of the Austin Tea Party annexation rebellion, was on hand to cheer Baxter's campaign, promising widespread support from landowners under "serious attack from the city's environmental agenda."
Meanwhile, independent candidate Kirk Mitchell was throwing an office-warming party down on West Sixth Street, a further sign that he intends to ride his riches into the campaign until at least Sept. 1, the date by which he'll have to decide whether to be included on the ballot as an independent. Anderson scoffed at Mitchell's attempts to capture rural votes with his "environmental protection as fiscal responsibility" campaign message, and Texas Campaign for the Environment director Todd Main agreed that Mitchell would find conservative votes hard to come by. "There's a maxim that says if voters get a choice between voting for a real Republican and someone who looks like a Republican, they'll probably vote for the Republican," Main offered. - K.F.
Overcoming a last-minute mail blitz by her opponent, Jan Breland emerged the victor Tuesday in a squeaker of a race for County-Court-at-Law #6. And when the final tally rang up in her favor, Breland wept. "I hate that it had to end this way," said Breland of the negative turn the otherwise cordial campaign took in the final days before the Democratic runoff. "You can look at all the negative stuff," she said, "but I think in the end people are going to vote for the best candidate."
Opponent Jade Meeker had sent out a mailer accusing Breland of inexcusable pokiness on caseload disposition in her Justice of the Peace court in Pct. 2. Meeker, a J.P. in Pct. 5, boasted a record of disposing of cases quickly and efficiently. But that - along with a slew of endorsements (including the Statesman and the Chronicle) - was not enough to put her over the top. Meeker collected a little over 48% of the vote - with solid support in the traditionally progressive boxes - but lost big in Breland's Northwest stronghold and in various pockets across the county.
But before Breland can land the $108,000-a-year-job, she has to fend off Republican attorney Randy Trybus in November. Political consultant David Butts, who worked on Meeker's campaign, predicts Breland will win the race, but not without a fight. "I'm going to support Jan and I imagine [Meeker's] supporters and the rest of the Democratic party will come out strong for Jan," Butts said. But, he added, "this should be a wake-up call for her to be a little more attentive to her job. She's already proven that she's a vote-getter." - A.S.
The Travis County Republican Party was out in force Tuesday night at Palmer Auditorium, where slicked-up GOP candidates awaited election returns in hopes of landing a spot on the Bush ticket in November. County Judge hopeful Hank Davis Gonzalez took nearly 58% of the vote over DeWayne Naumann, who at one point during the evening was handing out some serious high-fives as if he had won. Gonzalez, a former county commissioner, chalked up his win to a campaign that involved lots of legwork and door-knocking. He faces Democratic candidate Sam Biscoe this fall. In GOP runoffs for two J.P. seats, voters gave Jeff Casey a 64% win over Mary Parker Hughes-Bass; he'll go on to challenge Democratic incumbent Scott Davis for the Pct. 3 seat. And in Pct. 2, Barbara Bembry beat Nathan Zook by more than 65%; she'll meet Democrat Richard Anton in the fall.
In the state attorney general's race, former Supreme Court Justice John Cornyn survived a nasty battle against Barry Williamson for the GOP nomination. Although Democratic challenger Jim Mattox has vowed to stick to an issues-only campaign, we can expect this match to turn beastly in short order. - A.S.
Pondering Social Security
"Austin is the retirement capital of the world... for young people," joked Pete Fredreksen, Austin representative for the American Association of Retired Persons/VOTE. If that's the case, then it makes sense for Austin to be the stage Saturday, April 18, for one of five public forums nationwide to discuss the growing dilemma of Social Security in America. Forum organizers say that given the demographics of Travis County, in which half the people are under 35 years old, staging a forum in Austin will put a much-needed spin on the national debate.
"We're one of the youngest, most literate cities in the U.S.," said Mike Kelly, local consultant for Americans Discuss Social Security, a non-partisan group sponsoring the forums. "What are the values in a society where the elderly don't make up a majority of the population?" In conjunction with the recent White House town hall meetings mediated by President Clinton, the Austin forum is designed to bring young and old together to discuss the future of Social Security, and give advice to lawmakers as they attempt to refine the system.
The ADSS, funded by Pew Charitable Trusts, was launched in July and will continue collecting data for two years. As Kelly put it, the forums and studies are intended to "let people talk and politicians listen." Saturday's forum kicks off at 9am-1:30pm at the Hyatt Regency on Town Lake, with Mayor Kirk Watson hosting. The forum has a maximum of 800 participants registered, but observers are welcome. For more info, call toll free, 888-560-2377. - B.M.