Contenders Lining Up to Replace Gus Garcia: The Wannabes
After his term ends next year, Council Member Gus Garcia is retiring from the council. The Watson council's elder statesman has served since 1991, and, El Concilio's ire toward him notwithstanding, he is a popular and highly regarded council member. And since his September announcement that he would not seek re-election, the tributes have started to flow in. (A more thorough one was Arnold Garcia's column in the Statesman, which outlined his service beginning with the AISD Board of Trustees in the 1960s.) One group not sitting around mourning over Garcia's approaching retirement is the smallish clump of challengers who are quietly making the rounds among power brokers, trying to drum up support for potential council bids. No one has officially announced his or her candidacy as of yet; look for that to start happening soon after the new year. But even though the campaign announcement is the official beginning of the campaign season for voters, for would-be candidates -- the serious ones, anyway, proceedings start long before the announcement.
One important prize is the support of the enviro/progressive establishment, the one with the super-powerful organization and voter-turnout machinery. And that support is by most accounts still up for grabs. Though there are some promising names in the list being bandied about, no real favorite has yet emerged.
Who'll Be the One?
A possible wild card is Gloria Mata Pennington, a 25-year Parks and Rec employee who oversees senior citizens' programs. Pennington herself is headed for retirement from the city early next year, but is strongly considering making a bid for a comeback as a city elected official. Little is known about her, but she's talking to all the right people, and is said to be high on Garcia's list of favorite candidates.
Another strong contender would be attorney Rafael Quintanilla. He's best known for his membership in the Citizens for Responsible Planning organization that lobbied against passage of the SOS Ordinance in 1992. But times have changed, and so has Quintanilla, who now says he supports the ordinance. Quintanilla has a good reputation as a moderate around town, and while SOS types aren't hyping his candidacy, they aren't having fits about it, either. When he ran for the ACC board last year, Quintanilla briefly drew a challenger in campaign finance reform and environmental activist Brent White, who said at the time that he filed his candidacy because Quintanilla was an enemy of the SOS Alliance. But cooler heads reportedly prevailed, and White's quixotic candidacy was nipped in the bud with a few face-saving concessions from Quintanilla -- he wouldn't support the construction of new schools over the aquifer, etc.
For his part, AISD employee and Electric Utility Commission member Hector Ortiz would have some fence-mending to do before he could get himself ensconced as the choice of the greens; he angered them during his recent run against Council Member Beverly Griffith with a publicity campaign suggesting that the greens are oblivious to the larger concerns of the city.
Also in the running may be Raul Alvarez, one of the under-30 crowd who works with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and has ties to People in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER), and therefore, to El Concilio. According to Austin Neighborhoods Council president Will Bozeman, Alvarez has spoken to the ANC about his possible candidacy, as has Ortiz.
Then there's the influence of the outgoing council member himself. Garcia could have considerable influence with his large constituency if he publicly threw his weight behind one of the contenders. But that may or may not happen. As one local consultant said, there's not necessarily anything in it for him politically in doing so: "Why stake your political legacy on someone else?" A more likely scenario is a behind-the-scenes kind of support, whereby Garcia shares his money, organization, and contacts with one of the up-and-comers. Robert Chapa, Garcia's right hand in the political operative category, has reportedly been friendly with both Quintanilla and Pennington in recent days, but the very freshest buzz has mystery woman Pennington in the driver's seat.
Even the thought of fresh blood on the council should be enough to rejuvenate jaded council watchers, weary not only from two years of relative peace and quiet but from the sight of the same faces in top city leadership for going on three years. The low turnover is, of course, related to the fact that this group is a good sight better than some of the ones that preceded it, so it's taken a retirement to open up a real race.
Still, there may be more than one real race on the ballot next year, as City Hall gossip has Hector Uribe (a candidate for railroad commissioner in 1997 who ran on the platform of abolishing the commission in favor of a new Texas Oil and Gas Agency) mulling a run against Council Member Bill Spelman for Place 5.
As rumor has it, Uribe, seeing that the Garcia forces may go with Mata Pennington, will seek to regain the former "gentlemen's agreement" seat for a Hispanic candidate, thereby doubling that community's representation on the council. (A quick refresher: Spelman won the so-called Hispanic seat against Manuel Zuniga in 1997; both men were vying for the seat Garcia vacated when he opted to run for Place 2.)
That Uribe is contemplating a run is said to be troubling Spelman's camp, which is already smarting from the Statesman's recent attempts to frame the council and city bureaucracy as the source of the city's growing pains. (The challenge could prove a good thing for the city, though, if the additional competition goads Spelman to show even more of the frank, independent style he has displayed from the dais in recent weeks. )
Garcia himself seems sanguine about the opportunity to usher in a new generation of Austin political leadership, especially for East Austin and the city's Hispanic community. In an interview earlier this summer, before he announced his retirement, he told the Chronicle that others could do his job more or less as well as he: "There are enough good people in this community that can do most of these things," he said. Garcia recalled his council run in 1997, viewed as groundbreaking because he left the Hispanic Place 5 seat to run for the traditionally Anglo Place 2. Garcia said there was resistance to the switch. "I told them when I took office for a second term, I will not run for Place 5 again. And the people that hang around council members, the groupies, said, "You have to give us three more years. Another Hispanic ought to have that seat.'"
He didn't do it, Garcia said, because "I don't want the [Hispanic] community to be dependent on any one leader. I am far from being the only one who is an advocate for these issues."
Nonetheless, Garcia says he'll keep working for Austin after life on the council is through, and he is optimistic about the outlook for Austin's Hispanic community. (He is fond of saying that East Austin is going to be the next Hyde Park, which he presumably takes to be a good thing.)
"Over the next 25 years, you're going to see some very positive changes," he said. "The community is now working from the inside out. Couple that with the fact that there will not be a single majority group in this community; the largest group will be Hispanics. With that kind of scenario, it doesn't take a genius to figure out what the challenges are: Who are going to be the leaders, how can we have a positive transition, and what are the dangers and opportunities?" Garcia said he sees his role as that of "booster -- support for all the groups that want to do things." And, he said, "I don't need to be on the council to do a lot of these things. I'm going to be a player in this community for a long time to come."
This Week in Council: Council will resume meeting this week, Thursday, Oct. 28, after a two-week break. In addition to tackling a hefty zoning calendar, the council will welcome back Mayor Kirk Watson from his trip plugging Austin as a tech center in the Far East. Watson's traveling buddies, Council Members Jackie Goodman and Willie Lewis, may not make it back from abroad in time for Thursday's meeting.
At 6pm, there will be a hearing on renaming 18th St., from Trinity to West Avenue, Bob Bullock Way, after the recently deceased former lieutenant governor. No one is likely to argue that the legendary Texan doesn't deserve a street name, but naysayers make a cogent criticism: that it's foolish to start renaming our numbered streets after people, thus slowly undoing the good work that our city planners did way back when, giving us our coherent system of numbered, east-west streets. Too many more changes like the 26th St./Dean Keeton switch could put a real damper on the city's (traffic aside, of course) super-smooth navigability. (And, as in the case of 26th, people persist in referring to the street by its number anyway, which can cause confusion when it comes time for map-reading by out-of-towners.)
Critics say an easier loss to take would be those pesky river-named, north-south streets that run through downtown in the same order as the rivers themselves, from the Red River in the east, to the Rio Grande in the west. Which is closer to the freeway, Brazos or Nueces? Hard to recall, sometimes.