Altered States

Daryl and His Other Brother Daryl

illustration by Doug Potter

Just because we're spending a lot of money doesn't mean it's a boondoggle." Words like that from the mouth of a councilmember could easily have elicited an entire column, replete with an avalanche of facts and figures to the contrary, from Daryl Slusher back during his muckraking journalist days as politics editor of The Austin Chronicle. But the councilmember in question, seen making that utterance on a Channel 6 broadcast of an April 29 City Council work session, was Daryl Slusher himself. My, how times - and people - change. It wasn't all that long ago when Slusher the journalist seemed to think that any expenditure by the City Council was a boondoggle in the making.

Several weeks ago, Kayte VanScoy noted in a Chronicle "Council Watch" column (Vol. 17, No. 25) that the once-virulent pen of Slusher had moderated a bit; Slusher the activist, it seems, bears certain marked differences from Slusher the elected official. No, we're not going to beat up on our old pal Daryl again. Actually, we weren't beating up on him the first time - as VanScoy's column noted, a softening of Slusher's hard edge was inevitable. There are certain luxuries afforded to the activist journalist - mainly, the ability to bitch indiscriminately and toss out ideas without any real repercussions - that are lost when said journalist suddenly ascends to a position of electoral responsibility. Some changes in Slusher's hell-bent acerbity are a sign that he understands the coalition-building and compromising necessary to statesmanship.

Indeed, Slusher is not the only one of our city's activists who has undergone a metamorphosis of late. And as the success of the recent Smart Growth bond package has shown us, longtime foes - in this case, enviros and the business establishment - proved they could join together to work toward the same goals, whereas a couple of years ago it was difficult to even get them in the same room together. Last week's "Council Watch" had Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce President Glenn West and S.O.S. Alliance Executive Director Brigid Shea getting all warm and fuzzy with each other, and even S.O.S. lawyer Bill Bunch was seen laughing it up with development lawyer Richard Suttle at the victory party after the bond election.

This working friendship between the two camps is all well and good, but we in the alternative news business are a little uncertain about how to cover this new, happy family. While there used to be clear lines between "us" and "them," what happens when "us" and "them" become joined at the hip? Are we no longer expected to challenge our city leaders because this new brand of leadership includes people like Slusher - the very man who took skepticism and cynicism to new heights in his weekly Al L. Ears column?

Famous Last Words

Amid this new-day-has-dawned mantra that we keep hearing now, it's still fun to poke Slusher just a little with his own sharp stick. And that stick can easily be found in the Chronicle archives.

Was that really Daryl Slusher out stumping for the recent bonds - all of them? His support of Prop. 2 (the purchase of land over the Edwards Aquifer) was predictable, and there was certainly no good reason to oppose Prop. 3 (flood control measures in East Austin), but could anyone have imagined Slusher and other enviros supporting the expansion of the Convention Center, as Prop. 1 will do?

Slusher recently told the Chronicle, "It's ironic that I was the one who originally wanted the Chronicle not to endorse the Center." Well, that's understating it a bit. Before the 1989 bond election in which voters decided to build the center, Slusher set off the Boondoggle Early Warning System with a loud wail. In his "Council Watch" column of June 23, 1989, Slusher pointed out that Austin then owed $2.54 billion (not including interest) in bonds - $12,000 per Austinite, and "a third world-sized debt," he wrote, and asked whether we really wanted to add to that. Moreover, he noted, the debt was largely attributable to such boondoggles as the South Texas Nuclear Project or potential boondoggles as the Manor Airport (which, of course, failed to materialize when Bergstrom became available).

"Yes, neighbors," Slusher wrote, "our city has been a glutton. We went wild at the municipal shopping spree and the bills are arriving daily."

And Slusher certainly didn't have coalition-building in mind in the article "Debtors' Convention" of July 7, 1989, when he refuted the claims of Convention Center proponents thusly:

Why is your correspondent having difficulty accepting all these glorious "facts" about the convention center?

Could it be because electricity from the South Texas Nuclear Project was going to be "too cheap to meter"? Could it be because the empty buildings downtown were going to provide jobs and boost the economy? Could it be because the Chamber of Concrete and the Austin American Real-Estatesman think it's a great idea? Could it be because leaders of both the local Democratic and Republican parties have signed off on the deal? Could it be because many of the people who brought us the Nuke and the Boom are now touting a convention center as the ultimate solution? Yeah, that might be it.

When it came time for endorsements, the Chronicle editorial board, of which Slusher was a member, offered no endorsement. "We like the idea of a convention center for Austin," the board wrote, but "the [convention center's] proponents' campaigns, if not exactly dishonest, have been damn near hysterical," a campaign which "seeks to intimidate us into voting yes rather than rationally persuading us."

Truth be told, just about all of the arguments Slusher cited the last time around were valid this time, too; but there he was supporting the Convention Center - along with just about every other progressive group in town. The Chronicle struggled with its own endorsement of the downtown project, but in the end, there we were, jumping on the motley bandwagon.

Lege Leeriness

There are other changes afoot, too. One recent "Council Watch" (Vol. 17, No.34) noted how the Green Council has been signing off on plans to build hundreds of homes over the Edwards Aquifer, homes which won't be built in accordance with S.O.S. standards, although the council could have forced developers to do so. The column observed that fear of the Legislature was one of the factors motivating this concession to developers. While Slusher wasn't singled out in the column, he is one of the councilmembers who has quietly signed off on this deal - without a peep from the S.O.S. Alliance.

Since when is Daryl Slusher afraid to tussle with the big, bad Texas Legislature?

A mere three years ago, Slusher was livid over local political representatives' unwillingness to duke it out with state lawmakers who engaged in "Austin-bashing." In "Kick Me, I'm From Austin" (April 28, 1995), Slusher wrote:

"Let's take another look at the oft-repeated argument that the council should approve a deal with Freeport PUD in order to stave off legislative attacks. First of all, the attacks are coming from more parties than just Freeport. Among other things, the Legislature is undoing deals the city made with developers years ago. For example, the developers and residents of many suburban MUDs have milked the city for millions in subsidies and now they want to avoid their end of the deal - annexation and the resulting city taxes. And if Freeport has such pull at the capitol, isn't it likely that they, too, will go back to the Legislature after they get their city sewer and get themselves out of any commitments they don't like?

In other words, let's not be paralyzed by the fear of what the state may do. And again, the same thing could have been said about the recent development approvals, yet neither Slusher, nor any other enviros of note, were pushing that line this time around. (But then, the state Supreme Court upheld S.O.S. last week, so with the exception of those hundreds of homes that will be built sans S.O.S. rules, the argument might be all but dead anyway.)

Those Were the Days

And finally, lest Slusher and his supporters get too bent out of shape over jabs such as those in "Council Watch" and "Media Clips," let's recall what Slusher wrote about former Councilmember Max Nofziger, about two years into Nofziger's tenure. First, from a "Council Watch" column headlined, "Max, You Coulda Been a Contender" (May 19, 1989):

Max, you were supposed to be different. You weren't some scrubbed clean, middle-of-the-road, liberal white boy running out to the front of the movement. You were one of the folks. You hung around the Split Rail. You played your trumpet on street corners. You announced your campaign from the ruins of the Armadillo.

You were the one who wasn't going to change once he got in office. You didn't need developer money or high-dollar consultants to get elected. You won because of hard work by thousands of people who believed in the cause you were espousing. You're breaking our hearts, Max. You're tearing us apart.

You were going to fight for the spirit of Austin, for all those things that we hold dear. Like say, Barton Springs. So what heartbreak it is to see our would-be hero not only voting for, but leading the way on a move that could eventually finish off those ancient springs which already are too-frequently closed by the ravages of pollution. How could you do it, Max?

Two weeks later, fending off criticism from the column, Slusher asked, "Was I mean to Max? A little, maybe." Slusher then noted some of Max's accomplishments, but followed with, "The rest of the time it's hard to tell the difference between Max and any other `liberal' who changed once he took office."

One has to wonder how Slusher the journalist, not known for compromising or cutting officials any slack, might cover Slusher the councilmember, particularly in this newfound era of bridge-building between old foes.

Ultimately, this Slusher examination may come off sounding harsher than it is meant to be. We certainly don't doubt that the journalist-turned-councilmember is - to borrow a phrase from one of his columns - still fighting for the spirit of Austin. But Slusher is, perhaps, the most illustrative example of how the tenor of local politics, as we used to know it, has changed. In truth, this could be an examination of the whole lot of us.

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