De Leon believes Smart Growth has been reckless in its disregard for those displaced by rising property values, citing speculation control and rent control as possible remedies. "Not only East Austin feels it," he says, but the north and south sides as well. "Smart Growth can be the death sentence to the minority community, and to the older people and young students. They don't have a place to live."
Of Slusher, de Leon says, "Somewhere along the line he lost his heart. I don't know where, but it's a very sad situation. He knows -- he spent 15 years with us over here." De Leon says he is running for Place One to bring attention to Pecan Street, as well as other issues like the Holly Power Plant and the BFI recycling facility. "We need to buckle down and say, 'What are we going to do for the Mexican-American community in East Austin, so they can stay here?' Because we are going to have ethnic cleansing in Austin, Texas."
In the role-of-government spectrum, de Leon favors not only rent control but metro government. "The dynamics of the governments are almost totally opposite. My firm belief is, in order to work this out, we have to think about metro government -- where everyone gets to share in the decision-making of what happens to the community."
Slusher said de Leon's attacks are typical of a faction on the Eastside whose philosophy is, "If you disagree with us on one issue, that means you've turned your back on East Austin. [But] last time Marcos stood before the voters to represent East Austin, he was soundly rejected, and [County Commissioner] Margaret Gómez was elected."
Slusher's campaign literature boasts among his supporters a list of Eastsiders from both the Hispanic and African-American communities -- some of whom, he said, he met working on de Leon's early-Eighties county commissioner campaigns. "It took me less than 15 years to figure out that working with Marcos wasn't the path to progress," he said. Slusher broke with de Leon and El Concilio (which de Leon once headed) in the mid-Eighties over the People's Community Clinic, which wanted to locate near I-35 and Rainey Street. They opposed it, "with much the same tactics that they use today -- things like they hadn't contacted the community first, there would be too much traffic. I didn't understand why they were opposing a health clinic in a poor neighborhood." (The clinic eventually settled further north of the proposed site, at 2909 N. I-35.)
Among the council's Eastside initiatives, Slusher said, he helped gain approval for a $2 million loan for the Workforce Center at the new Austin Community College campus, the St. John's multipurpose center, and the addition of neighborhood representatives on the Austin Revitalization Authority ("We turned that organization around," he says), as well as bond money for the Mexican-American Community Center and the Carver Museum. Slusher added the East Austin Overlay as an example of the Watson council's commitment to the area. "This is the council that finally approved it. No other council has done that before."
The Ron Paul Factor
On Slusher's other battle front is Crow, whose critics have portrayed him as part of the extremist fringe, out of step with the political times. Indeed, such are the circles Crow runs in that he considers the pejorative "social engineers" to be trite and overused, though it's a put-down not often heard in the halls of progressive Austin.
Crow is a dyed-in-the-wool ideologue who makes every thought -- and sound bite -- captive to his philosophy of "common sense" government that doesn't intrude on the freedoms of citizens unless they intrude on the rights of others. No government regulation. No affirmative action. No to a lot of things. This philosophy parallels that of Crow's employer, the Libertarian-turned-Republican U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, who's known around Congress as "Dr. No" for his consistent, resounding negatives on a cornucopia of legislative issues. Crow thinks city government should be about "building and maintaining roads, provide basic city services, manage the debt, and that's about it. ... I would like to see City Council meetings just flat-out boring," he says, displaying a lack of familiarity with the tone of many Thursday evenings in the council chambers. "The most controversial thing we should be talking about, or the most exciting thing, should be some old lady complaining about potholes. Unfortunately, it's a constant attack on businesses, on personal freedoms."
Within Crow's property-rights rhetoric lie seeds that resonate with those who feel that Austin's leadership has overstepped its authority in dictating how individuals may use their private property. In point of fact, the Austin Board of Realtors, made up largely of residential builders and brokers, has endorsed Crow.
Crow has said repeatedly that he's interested in developing a political network to oppose the current Austin regime -- a "common sense" coalition of "freedom-minded" people with Republican and Libertarian leanings that would provide "an alter ego to S.O.S." This coalition, Crow believes, will change the way business -- and everything else -- is done in Austin. But Slusher is betting that Crow and his "common sense" philosophy won't be the Next Big Thing.
"Common sense is to protect your environmental resources, and I think the environment is central to our economy. You're not going to build a common-sense coalition based on unplanned, unregulated growth." Slusher adds that although Austin residents have repeatedly said they favor controlled growth, there's danger in assuming the battle is won, "if people take it for granted, if people don't go vote. ... The economy's doing well, we've made a lot of accomplishments on the environmental front, so there's some complacency and overconfidence."
Crow would scotch other council policy priorities, such as hiring goals for women and minority contractors as well. "If every contract that goes out goes to a company owned by black females, or by white males, I could care less as long as we are getting the best value for our tax dollar," he says. "I don't want to know who owns the companies." And forget about a living wage for city employees: "I'm not in favor of minimum wage at all. If the market were just allowed to work, people would actually make more money. Everyone wants to look at, 'You can't raise a family of four on minimum wage.' Of course not. Minimum wage is not designed to support a family of four."
While Slusher does not support a council-mandated, citywide minimum wage either, he has worked to make sure that those employed by the city -- either full time or by contract -- are paid fairly and receive benefits, including health insurance. "I'm not in favor of the city setting a wage for the city," he says, "[but] I do think the city can treat its workers right, and in doing so set an example." Slusher promised that "economic equity" would be a central goal of his second term, and that he will encourage Austin's corporate leaders to voluntarily follow the city's lead on the living wage issue.
Crow is also the leading fundraiser among Slusher's challengers; his campaign had amassed $7,860 by the April 4 reporting deadline. Of that, $4,560 was received in contributions of less than $50, and therefore not required to be itemized on campaign finance reports. This law is designed to keep candidates from having to document small cash contributions, especially those that may come in via a cash jar sitting out at a campaign event, into which people may drop any denomination of dollars, or even their pocket change, at their leisure. Because over half of his campaign contributions have come in increments of less than $50, a full 75% of Crow's contributors are not identified in his campaign finance reports.
By way of contrast, Slusher, working from a much larger, established support base, most of whom give the maximum allowable $100 contribution, identifies 95% of his contributors.
There is no evidence that Crow is cooking his books. To the contrary, he says, his work experience prepared him uniquely to raise large sums from small contributors. "I worked for two years with a guy who's raised more money from less-than-$100 contributions than anyone else in the United States," Crow says of his boss. "I'm not going to work for the guy that long and not learn a few of his secrets." Still, his records illustrate a flaw in campaign finance disclosure regulations -- a dishonest candidate could receive an illegally large sum from a contributor and claim it as an aggregation of contributions -- or a crafty contributor could slip a bundle of fives into a fundraiser jar without the candidate's knowledge.
Others in this race have much smaller budgets than Crow. Vreeland has neither received nor spent one dime on his campaign, according to his campaign finance report, and de Leon has lent himself over $600 -- though his campaign has only spent $531. Challengers Dolores Duran and Scott White did not file reports.
It's the Execution
Though all signs -- the Computer Sciences Corp. deal, the Forum PUD, the city's nascent mitigation policy, and the S.O.S./Real Estate Council of Austin agreement (see "Council Watch") -- point to continued dominance for the Smart Growth set, Crow says he plans to beat them at their own game. "It's not a big secret on how you win elections; it's just execution," he says. "The only way to win is to personalize the campaign to a select group of people, and just turn 'em out to vote. And that's what the environmental crowd, to their credit, they're very successful doing it."
Crow has mimicked this strategy with his own would-be constituency. Though he claims support from Austin residents across the political spectrum, he focuses his campaigning on the solidly conservative areas on the edges of the city, especially in the southwest, hitting them repeatedly with a combination of direct mail, canvassing, and big signs proclaiming him to be the people's choice for conservative leadership. Even Slusher gives Crow credit for political savvy. "He's got a smart strategy," said Slusher. "I won last time by 1,200 votes. We've annexed 29,000 people since then and 28,900 of them are still mad about it. I'm not taking it lightly. And I hope the citizens of Austin don't either."
Among the challengers, Crow is the most talked-about and best-funded, as well as the one whose agenda is most diametrically opposed to the one currently in place at City Hall. And he believes his limited-government philosophy will catch on, even here in the People's Republic of Travis County, as we are still known to some. But in a town where people commit their own tax dollars, through the issuance of bonds, to purchase thousands of acres of land to be preserved as park and green space, even business boosters who remain unreformed in their hearts have noted the political expediency of working with the council to grease the wheels of commerce and bureaucracy. If some trees and salamanders happen to get protected in the bargain, no skin off their backs. The zeitgeist, therefore, is with Slusher. A former Chronicle politics editor famous for his anti-development diatribes, he's also known for his grassroots support, built over a couple of upstart, underdog campaigns. He was a prophet of the philosophy in his writings for the Chronicle, in which he advocated directing development away from the aquifer and into a corridor which includes downtown and East Austin -- today's desired development corridor.
Slusher is confident in his record, and that of the council with which he is so closely identified. "The fact that we've had this peace indicates that people are generally satisfied -- of course, we'll find out for sure in the election itself. People are generally happy with the way things are going ... the incumbents are pretty strong." Indeed, partly as the result of "this peace," Slusher has garnered the support of three past chairs of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, as well as several downtown business-mogul types like Roy Butler and Lowell Lebermann.
But Crow remains an up-and-comer more impressive than any in this field of council challengers, or in any in recent memory. He's organized, intelligent, and committed to his conservative ideology. And as Todd Baxter's ascent to the Travis County Commissioner's Court proves, there are people in Austin looking for just such a candidate. Even Slusher recognizes the danger: "That's my opponent's strategy. To turn out the vote in the very conservative areas populated by people new to this area who don't understand or care about the special nature of the city, and for the folks that really love the place to stay home, or go to the lake."
So if you like the way things are going in Austin lately, tear yourself away from the lake on May 1 and go vote. For political junkies, Crow is the kind of candidate who you hope gets his message out, even if you don't agree with much of it. With the boredom born of recent unanimity at City Hall, as well as growing fears that too little opposition is counterproductive, it's tempting to embrace Crow just for the articulate -- if extreme -- voice of dissent he represents. Having him on the council to skewer the sometimes too-fluffy liberalism of progressive Austin might be fun, but unless you want a much less active city government -- including no S.O.S. ordinance, and free-for-all, market-driven growth and development -- you'd better resist the temptation.