The People's Porch

From Compact to Smart

Fast forward to April 1999, and the city is still facing many of the same kinds of growth and planning challenges it faced in 1988 -- only now the hot phrase is "Smart Growth" instead of "Compact City." On this evening in April, City Council Member Daryl Slusher is on Piña's porch making his re-election pitch to prospective voters. In the hot seat, Slusher calmly fields the questions as quick as they come. A neighbor doesn't want a methadone clinic next to her house; another man is upset because a roundabout has been built on one of the streets in his neighborhood.

"I believe your neighborhood voted for that," says Piña, coming to Slusher's aid. He points to an older man in suspenders. "He's the head of your [Bouldin Creek] neighborhood association, so you should get in touch with him." For the time being, the irate man is placated.

Slusher says he has been coming to the Patriotic Porch parties for the last five years. "He's a real hero," says Slusher of Piña. "Nobody was doing this sort of thing until he started it." He says he likes Piña's porch because of its down-home atmosphere. "Here you can look people in the eyes and it's a lot better than making commercials to get elected." Slusher says he liked the porch idea so much that he took Piña's porch philosophy and ran with it, this year campaigning at more than a dozen front-porch events sponsored by his supporters.

Scott White, a City Council hopeful who is challenging Slusher for the Place 1 seat, takes his place on the porch and is pleasantly surprised by the laid-back atmosphere at this particular candidates' forum, but is also visibly flustered at the thought of volleying political views on a tightly packed porch. "I don't get to come to this side of town very often," he says, nervously chomping on a corn muffin. "This is a lot different than the candidate forums where you get three questions and then you're done."

Sure enough, White isn't let off easily. "Hey, did they name that hospital after you?" someone asks. White takes it like a good sport."People always say that," he smiles, then continues on with his speech. When it comes to question-and- answer time the porch is awkwardly silent. White quickly takes his leave and disappears into the crowd.

At the Patriotic Porch parties it becomes immediately clear who the crowd favorites are. The three City Council incumbents -- Goodman, Slusher, and Beverly Griffith -- are the winners here, just as they were a couple of weeks later on election night. All three politicians work the porch like old pros, shaking hands with old-time grassroots buddies. Griffith has even brought a steaming dish of Elgin sausages from Threadgill's, which seem to be more popular than the candidates. Oddly, though, Griffith has also placed a fancy name card in front of the sausages, probably in a politically misguided attempt to further her name recognition. The ploy comes off decidedly un-grassroots-like next to the rest of the homebaked goods sans name tags. Griffith and her husband, Balie, apparently come to the same conclusion; fifteen minutes later, Balie is quietly plucking the name card off the table and tucking it into his coat pocket.

Piña says his porch is a place where voters can get to know political candidates, warts and all. "It's not a controlled environment," he says. "You can say what you want and wear what you want." And most importantly, he says, he tries not to bore the crowd -- entertainment and snow cones are a must -- and Piña's friend and porch moderator, Pablo Ortiz, will just about physically remove any candidate who speaks over his or her time limit. "We don't want to burden or bore the guests," Piña explains. "so the politicians' speeches can't be too long."

Piña has an open-porch policy, but it has been known to be stretched to the limits on a few occasions. "I had Lloyd Doggett over here at one of the parties," Piña recalls, "and a neighbor showed up -- he's real insulting, and he never bathes, and I think he was drunk that day." Nevertheless, Piña, who takes the word inclusion seriously, says that instead of telling the man to leave, he made him feel welcome. "I fed him and introduced him to people. And check this out," Piña says, pointing to a photograph. Sure enough, it's Piña in trademark hat, a smiling U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, and the neighborhood ogre smiling from ear to ear like they were the best of the friends. "That was a tough day for me," he says, "but I pulled it off."

Judging from the turnout of 75 people at the April Patriotic Porch party, Piña has indeed pulled it off. Neighbors and community activists greet one another by name, bearing cookies and cakes. The sense of community on the porch is infectious, and Piña works hard to make sure his guests are comfortable as he passes out name tags and encourages guests to mingle with local politicians.

M.J. Clark, 72, Piña's neighbor and a resident of the neighborhood since 1965, has been attending the porch parties since 1988. "He's a neat person," she says of Piña. "He's helped a lot of people out, and sometimes he's gotten shafted in the process but he never gives up." Clark says her tenacious neighbor has mellowed over the years since he moved in across the street. "When he first moved here he was so hyper and he came in like gangbusters," she remembers. "I kept telling him to give things time, not everybody in the neighborhood was ready to change so quickly." Clark, who insists she has "never been all that interested in politics," says she now looks forward to the Patriotic Porch parties every year. "He draws people in from all over -- there's always a real sense of community there."

Piña, who is single and has no children, says his true love is grassroots community politics. Still, he says he has no future plans to cash in and make a full-time living at politics. At the moment he is perfectly content being a precinct chair for the State Democratic Party's executive committee, and president of the Galindo Elementary Neighborhood Association, both of which are unpaid. Committed to his grassroots philosophy, he supports himself by renting out rooms in his house and delivering pizzas part time. "The first thing anyone asks you at a political function is 'Who are you with?'" says Piña. "And I tell them I'm with myself -- you just can't have the same impact if someone is paying your way."

Patriotic Porch guests are guaranteed to mingle with everyone from the homeless guy Piña met at a soup kitchen to congressmen and City Council members he helped get elected. And will there be more parties in the Patriotic Porch's future? "Sure," says Piña, who is already planning a July celebration for the Austin Neighborhoods Council. He plans to invite neighborhood associations from all over the city, and he doesn't seem the least bit worried about how all these people are going to fit on his front porch -- in fact, he wants to extend the invitation to everyone in Austin. "Tell them to come to the party and have a snow cone -- we'd love to see them." He really means it. If Piña keeps this up, he may have to build a bigger porch.

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