Eight Is Enough
Diverse Set of Opponents
"We hear people saying that we need more diversity -- not just in the issues, but in the actual people on the council," says Ortiz. "They aren't so interested in a certain number of African-Americans or Latinos, but they want diversity. And that's why I ran for this seat, to show that we are qualified to run for any seat." So long, gentleman's agreement, it's been good to know ya. Well, not really. Ortiz, Vrudhula, and Mok have all indicated their willingness to run in a future race.
Griffith can counter that, while she is indisputably a well-off white woman, her supporters stretch the demographic and geographic gamut; the current list of "Neighborhood Leaders for Beverly" takes you from Oak Hill to Northwest Hills to Chestnut Hill, and her endorsements include both the Austin Board of Realtors and the South Austin Tejano Democrats. There are Griffith signs in Cat Mountain and Circle C Ranch, and on East 12th Street and Montopolis Drive. And there's that $80,000 or so in the bank, which is a lot of $100 checks from hither and yon.
"Our style has been to invite public interest and involvement in government," says Griffith, alluding to her intervention in neighborhood hot spots like the Triangle, Barton Springs Road and Town Lake Park, and Waller Creek -- the venues through which she introduced the word "charrette" to the Austin civic lexicon. "And I think the 800-plus individual contributors to my campaign, and the 60-plus neighborhood leaders who are supporting me, is an affirmation that that's the style the citizens like."
Ortiz, Mok, and Vrudhula can all, however, legitimately claim to be community leaders themselves, and they see the facts on the ground differently. All three are notable for serving on high-profile city boards -- Ortiz on the Electric Utility Commission, Mok as chair of the Telecommunications Commission, and most notably Vrudhula on the Planning Commission. For all three, these positions are just one of many civic involvements, but the up-close-and-personal view they afford of city mechanics informs all three campaigns, especially Vrudhula's. "It's because of what I've seen on the Planning Commission, and chairing various subcommittees along with it, that I feel I can contribute to the city," he says.
"Too often, the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing, and I don't think the council understands this," he continues. "Smart Growth is fine, but it's a pie-in-the-sky, long-term thing, and we need to fix the roads and infrastructure now." Of the three, Vrudhula -- who is partial to Gus Garcia ("my mentor") and Jackie Goodman -- is the freest with specific criticism of Griffith. "Beverly's a nice lady, but she hasn't done anything. She's taken credit for a lot of things where she's just jumped on the bandwagon. Beverly hears the neighborhoods; I listen to them every Tuesday night." (That is, at the Planning Commission.)
Vrudhula's focus on traffic and infrastructure is shared by all the field -- as Mok puts it, "We thought we could restrict growth by not building roads, and instead we have a mess that does everyone a disservice, and I hope the city will learn from its mistake." Beyond that, the three leading challengers diverge somewhat, though this is mostly a matter of emphasis. Vrudhula focuses most heavily on economic development -- "I want Austin to be the software capital of the world. If countries like India and China can export programmers who make $60,000 a year, then we can develop and export these as well. If the city doesn't take a lead in developing this industry, we're missing a great opportunity."
Ortiz and Mok (along with Linda Dailey and Doug Alford) are much more focused on affordability and social equity. Actually, Ortiz has his platform boiled down to a neat acronym -- ACT, for affordability, children, and traffic -- and has adopted, as seen on his prominent downtown billboard along the highway, a slogan that could be a mantra for the entire Place 4 Eight -- "For a council that sees more than green." For a rookie, Ortiz is a sharp campaigner, and were he running against some acknowledged troglodyte, he could uncork the sort of grassroots groundswell that made Brigid Shea a councilmember and almost made Daryl Slusher mayor.
"My main concerns are simple -- that people can afford to live here, that they can take their children to places that are safe, and that they can get from one place to another on time," he says. "I've been getting very good feedback from people who say it's about time to pay attention to these issues -- and I'm making everybody else talk about them too, the other candidates, and the council itself. We knew traffic was going to be an issue, but youth issues and affordability issues -- I feel comfortable saying that we pushed those issues on the agenda."
Compared to either Vrudhula or Ortiz, Amy Wong Mok is probably hindered by her lack, so far, of an easily distilled "message" for voters to quickly grasp and remember at the ballot box, except to the degree that she is a message incarnate. Few people in Austin embody our civicje ne sais quoi so well.
Mok is by trade a telecom consultant, married to a UT computer-science prof, but by training a mental health professional best known for her pivotal role with the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. She lives in a gorgeous Northwest view home, but espouses positions that must appall some of her neighbors here in GOP country -- "Preventive and primary health care should be available to everybody," say, or "With our high-tech prosperity, who are we leaving behind? Does the city even know?" or "If the city councilmembers lived next to Holly Power Plant, they wouldn't allow it to open again. We should all be sharing the burden of our growth, not this small group of people in East Austin who can't afford to lobby."
What Mok is really about, she says, is "personal commitment. We need a council who recognizes its duty to the people -- all the people -- and is willing to invite passionate debate on people issues. And I take these issues very personally. It isn't about who makes the loudest noise -- we need to share our prosperity equitably and let small things matter. A man at a forum tells us his wife is pregnant, he lives on a busy street, and he's worried about his child's safety. That's what's important. That's the level at which we need to make decisions. And that requires personal commitment from the council."
Beyond Smart Growth
All of this means, as you can probably tell, that in the challengers' view -- as Mok describes it -- "It's utterly necessary for the council to expand its horizon beyond environment vs. development and look at the greater impact." The problem, of course, is that EnviroWars is what, up until now, has gotten people out to vote, and sent them rummaging for their checkbooks come campaign time, and when Griffith says her vision of Austin is "a city within a park," she does not think that this is a dream she holds alone.
Nevertheless, she says, "The good thing about all [the candidates] is that we have some core values. Whoever can show and articulate those values the best is going to win. We're all interested in kids, neighborhoods, the environment, fiscal health, and efficient and effective open government. What I can show is a solid record of accomplishment and achievement on the council to further those goals. And I think people see that."