Field of Dreamers
Dems Expect Victory in District 48, Despite GOP Popularity
When Sherri Greenberg announced last fall that she would not seek re-election to her District 48 state House seat after a successful 10-year stint, the news awoke a herd of snoozing political hopefuls, particularly a pack of Republicans who scrambled to put together campaigns by the March primary. Perhaps not everyone was so surprised, however, as Democrat Ann Kitchen -- a local businesswoman/attorney who helps health care providers implement public assistance programs -- quickly emerged with a well-organized campaign complete with many of the players who ran Greenberg's efforts in the past. (For instance, Kitchen's husband, Mark Yznaga, ran or consulted on most of Greenberg's campaigns.)
Opposing Kitchen in the Democratic primary is Mandy Dealey, a former president of the Austin Area Mental Health Association whose record of community activism has somewhat mirrored Kitchen's. Both Kitchen and Dealey worked on health care issues like the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) during the last legislative session, both stress the importance of continuing to provide better access to health care for lower-income Texans, and the two even worked together on a Planned Parenthood committee. In fact, there doesn't seem to be a single issue where the two diverge to any significant degree.
What sets the candidates apart is the makeup of their respective camps. Much of Kitchen's support network is rooted in the well-oiled enviro/progressive machine that drives local politics these days; she also appeals to the blue-collar constituency that makes up a large part of the district. Dealey, for her part, is backed by many old-school Democratic traditionalists who cut their teeth on the civil rights and feminist movements of the Sixties and Seventies, as well as the old-monied West Austinites who may regard Kitchen as a threat to the status quo. Beyond that, both women are determined to preserve their party's hold on District 48, which Greenberg wrested from Republican control in 1990, when GOP Rep. Terral Smith decided not to seek re-election after 10 years in office.
For now, it's not so much a game of trying to point out differences as it is trying to point out that you're the lead contender, the first one to pop to mind when the voters think about their representative that "used to be Sherri Greenberg."
The district that is still largely Democratic presents an interesting demographic mix. The area meanders from just north of RM 2222 and west of MoPac south through Tarrytown, before widening out and encompassing much of South Central and Southwest Austin. The district also includes most of West Lake Hills, Tangled Forest, and Sunset Valley, which has seen phenomenal commercial growth, and accompanying traffic, in the last two years. The configuration creates, as do many political districts, a mishmash of demographics among the 118,000-plus residents. According to 1990 census data, about 73% of the population is Anglo, 23% Hispanic, and 5% African-American. And although parts of West Austin are obviously some of the most affluent sections of Austin, some 10% of the district's residents live under the poverty level, and 54% are renters. Greenberg says she decided to step down after realizing that she had accomplished many of her original goals. "I shouldn't just stay in a position because I can," she says. After clawing her way out of a primary against four contenders in 1990, she quickly established herself as a popular legislator who was opposed in only one other election in her five terms.
"Sherri was a solid Democrat and a recognized leader on child care and retirement benefits issues," says state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, whose District 49 seat covers much of North Austin. "And perhaps most importantly, she was part of the team of Austin legislators that led the effort to minimize or kill Austin-bashing bills."
Naishtat says Greenberg's seat is "extremely important" to the local political landscape. "With Sherri not seeking re-election, the Republicans have a better chance than ever, but I'm confident that the District 48 seat will remain in the Democratic fold."
Not only is the seat a voice for Austin in a sometimes hostile Legislature, it also serves as a representative to the Capital Metropolitan Area Planning Organization (CAMPO) -- the group of area officials and representatives that decides where state and federal transportation money is to be spent. So whoever is elected will have an important role in deciding on issues such as highway funding and light rail.
Travis County Republicans, although not considered the most conservative bunch in Texas, still have some significant departures from the primarily Democratic Austin-area delegation (Terry Keel is the only Republican representative from Travis County).
For instance, although the District 48 GOP candidates interviewed stressed that they want to preserve Austin's quality of life and environment, none came out with a full endorsement of the specific issues that watermark Austin progressives -- such as the Save Our Springs Ordinance. Many also faulted Greenberg and the Austin delegation for not working effectively with the rest of the Legislature.
Local Democrats, although realistically confident of victory in District 48, nonetheless say it is a must to win decisively. With redistricting from the 2000 census on the horizon, it's likely that another House district will be created in the Republican bastion of Williamson County, and a flood of more conservative voters could also join the ranks in Travis County districts.
This is why District 52 Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, was a happy camper at a recent gathering of the Capitol Pachyderm Club, a local Republican group. Krusee bluntly spelled out how good the GOP has it with redistricting. If the Texas House and Senate fail to come up with an agreeable redistricting plan for state seats by May 2001, or if Bush vetoes a plan favorable to Democrats, the authority to draw the plan goes to the Legislative Redistricting Board (LRB). Since the board is made up of the lieutenant governor, attorney general, land commissioner, comptroller, and speaker of the House, it doesn't take a mathematical genius to see that the 4-1 majority of Republicans on the board spells doom for the Democrats. "It really doesn't matter what the Democrats do," Krusee says. "It goes to the Republicans, and we write our own plan."
However, when it comes to U.S. Congressional seats, failure to create an acceptable plan means the redistricting is decided by the federal courts, a gray area for both parties. So Republicans dearly want to gain the Texas House majority by winning three new seats, while retaining their 16-15 Senate majority. Those majorities would then allow them to draw new districts and effectively add even more Republican seats for the Texas Legislature and U.S. Congress.
Krusee, who chairs a conference committee on redistricting, says that about 80,000 voters from predominately Republican areas of Williamson County will have to find a new home in current districts located in Travis County, most likely in District 48 and Naishtat's District 49. Krusee says it will be a fight for "political survival" next session among Democrats. "Who wants 80,000 Republicans -- raise their hand," he joked to an appreciative audience at the Capitol Pachyderm Club. "If a Democrat did win [District 48] this election, they'll have a hard time holding it the next."
Greenberg has made it a policy not to endorse candidates, so her support is only directed toward a Democratic victory, which she says should be realistic in a district that is "more Democratic than when I was elected to it."
Republicans disagree and note considerable victories among statewide and local candidates in the 1998 November general election. A look at that election shows mixed results for the GOP in District 48, with George Bush winning by a healthy margin, along with Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza and Agricultural Commissioner Susan Combs, while Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, Attorney General John Cornyn, Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, and Land Commissioner David Dewhurst took a beating. Greenberg ran unopposed. Overall, the district cast 51.4% of its votes for Democrats in an election marked by the Republican landslide on Bush's coattails.
Krusee notes that Republicans mistakenly thought they would get a House majority in 1994, then again in 1996, only to be disappointed. "Again, we're very hopeful if we get Bush on the ticket," he said.
But for Kitchen and Dealey, redistricting in 2001 and the 2002 election are a long way away, while the March 14 primary looms ahead.
When asked what defines the major difference between herself and Kitchen, Dealey notes, "It's our approach to problems."
It's Our Approach
Dealey -- a 17-year Austin resident who is working on a master's degree from UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs -- says she carries a well-defined method of building consensus, setting policies, and working with individuals to carry out programs. And she stresses that all along, you have to get the affected individuals' input. "I'm a big advocate of asking people what they need instead of telling them what they need."
In addition to heading the Austin Area Mental Health Association, she served as vice-chair of the city of Austin and Travis County's Indigent Health Care Task Force, executive director of Leadership Texas, and Texas director of the Foundation for Women's Resources.
Kitchen -- a 25-year resident of Austin and graduate of the UT Law School -- currently works as a manager with PriceWaterhouseCoopers. She has served as a health law consultant, senior policy advisor to the Texas Health & Human Services Commission, and assistant attorney general in the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division.
Even though both contenders have worked in the legislative arena, Kitchen says she has a better grasp of the political process, working on bills from "inception to passage -- That kind of experience allows me to hit the ground running at the Capitol," she says.
Dealey says her leadership on bond campaigns for arts programs (she spearheaded drives in Dallas, her home town, for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert hall) and on the Laguna Gloria board as co-chair of its campaign for the Austin Museum of Art gives her an edge in working from an idea to winning broad-based support.
Both candidates believe that the key issues next session will revolve around education -- chiefly finding ways to attract quality educators above and beyond the $3,000 pay raise passed statewide last session. And finding ways to keep tax money in AISD under the Robin Hood system will be particularly challenging, they say.
"It's such a struggle, because we're deemed property rich, but a district with such a large percentage of poor students," Dealey says. "In a state where we have a budget surplus, I think those resources have to be found."
And once again, the duo chimes in on the need to fill the gaps in health insurance for children and families where CHIP coverage and other publicly subsidized health care aren't available -- particularly in ensuring that all teachers have coverage through their districts. "The uninsured is still a big issue," Kitchen says. "I think we'll be looking more at extending coverage to families." Dealey says making it easier to enroll in programs is critical, as well. "Oh, we have all these great [programs], it's just that you can't get to them. Access is the key."
And the Ann and Mandy list goes on:
Kitchen and Dealey take their possible role as defenders of Austin seriously, both as community leaders and as members of a delegation of Austin Democrats that fights interference in Austin policies from the Legislature.
"I really believe that local control is an important issue," says Kitchen, an original SOS steering committee member. But with the advent of cooperation between business and environmental interests in Austin, and the city's success in defending SOS in the courts, she says the opportunity is ripe for Austin legislators to "work with the Legislature and help them understand what Austin needs."
"We need to have flexibility," Kitchen says. "On the whole, though, I think SOS moved our community forward."
Dealey stresses involving all parties in disputes or problem-solving. "I think Austin ought to be given the opportunity to solve its own problems," she says. "But everyone involved needs to be at the table. [Mayor Kirk Watson] has really made great strides in taking that approach -- the Legislature should be the court of last resort." Dealey notes that bringing parties to the table is the idea behind the changes in annexation laws, which allow annexed areas much more latitude in negotiating with cities and ensuring that they will get equitable services in a timely manner. "Again it goes back to working together," she says. "Agreeing to services and ground rules is the way to make it work."
On the day before her first community-wide fundraiser, Kitchen's campaign team sent out a release proclaiming: "Kitchen Campaign Coffers Near $100,000 Mark." The release highlights a time when campaign money carries a double entendre -- dirty from the hands of contributors seeking influence, and a blessing from the community that adds legitimacy to a candidate. Kitchen's campaign chair, Joanne Savage, also took the time to point out that while her candidate had hundreds of contributors for the period ending Dec. 31, Dealey had only managed to collect from about 19 contributors. An unofficial count by this reporter put the numbers at 206 to 20. However, Dealey's first major fundraiser was scheduled for Feb. 2 (the day this issue went to press), and it was hosted by Liz Carpenter, Sarah Weddington, Wilhemina Delco, Ada Anderson, and Martha Cotera -- all longtime Democratic activists.
Look What I've Got
Regardless of their financial support in the community, both candidates also kicked things off with their own large loans to their campaign -- $62,600 for Kitchen and $45,000 for Dealey -- so neither is exactly lacking for money -- yet. And Dealey, whose ex-husband hails from the prominent Dallas family that publishes The Dallas Morning News, and for whom Dealey Plaza is named, seems to have pockets deep enough to handle the primary campaign in store.
David Butts, a longtime area political campaigner and consultant working for Kitchen, says that Dealey will most likely raise about $400,000 for the campaign, although it's unclear how much would be spent in the primary. "I do expect that we will be outspent," he says.
The Kitchen fundraiser in January attracted a large crowd of the progressive Austin clan that has long been associated with environmental battles and one of their chief architects -- Kitchen's husband, Mark Yznaga. And working for Kitchen are veterans of the Austin political scene -- Butts, Savage, Todd Main, and media guru Dean Rindy. So Kitchen, with a well-organized campaign, plenty of money for mailings, and a contingent of surefire support in the environmental community, has an early lead.
And she has demonstrated acumen in the political process by jumping on particularly popular issues early -- such as the unpopular Longhorn pipeline. A colorful mailer went out to South Austinites before the last public hearing on the pipeline that not only offered her opposition, but a plan to ensure that another pipeline controversy doesn't spring up again.
By contrast, Dealey has been somewhat slow out of the gate, but she holds a lot of potential for attracting attention with a well-financed campaign and a clear message. She also holds her own court with years of community activism and a presence in the arts community bolstered by her husband, UT Dean of Architecture Larry Speck. Dealey says her husband, who recently offered his resignation from his dean's post at UT after a flap with regents over design of the new Blanton Museum of Art, is getting into the nitty gritty of the campaign. "He's having so much fun," she says. But fun is fun and politics is politics, so Dealey also has seasoned consultant Peck Young on board.
Regardless of whether they buy TV or send out a dozen campaign flyers, both realize what Greenberg long knew: that to win District 48, you have to walk it. For now, it's mostly political insiders watching the game, but both Dealey and Kitchen want to be the face at the door or on the coffee table when the voters awaken. With the Democrats, you're likely to get just what you expected on the home front -- candidates who support the Save Our Springs Ordinance, the city's growth management policies, light rail, and spending surplus money on education and health care.
On the other side is chaos -- a jostling pack of Republicans trying to be the first to be tabbed by the media as a front-runner, and thus, the first to get widespread name identification. Since two or three seem to be floating to the top, though, it looks like a runoff will be in store for the GOP when no one grabs more than 50% of the vote on March 14.
What started as a field of seven -- what candidate Joe Anderson affectionately labeled a "litter" -- narrowed with the withdrawal of Alex Jones, a local talk show host who says he wanted to focus more on getting his views out on the airwaves. Then Al Stowell, a businessman who redevelops and renovates public housing projects, withdrew last week to make a run at Ted Whatley's AISD board seat in May.
The Republicans seem to be doing their own thing without really knowing what to do. Sure, they're attending club meetings and luncheons, but they're mostly talking about what's going to happen in November in a battle with a Democrat. Little discussion occurs about the primary, and candidates even take to asking reporters what they know about the opposition. "With [five] of us in this race, it's a lot of wait and see," says candidate Scott Loras, a local attorney and president of the Capitol Pachyderm Club. "Most of the people don't know any of us real well." Loras, who has been involved in the GOP ranks volunteering for campaigns for the last 10 years, says it's "no one's race to win, so it's everyone's race to lose."
Royal Masset, a former state GOP political director who now consults candidate Joe Anderson, says area Republicans are not coming out in support of one candidate or another yet, partly because the campaign started on such short notice after Greenberg withdrew. "Very few people are making endorsements," he says.
Contribution reports don't offer any indication of support either, since no one had any of any substance by the Dec. 31 cutoff date. It is known that Loras, Anderson, and Jill Warren are shooting for spending about $50,000 to $75,000 in the primary race, much of it their own money. Anderson is clearly winning the visibility war with an early scattering of signs, but Warren, whose yard signs began cropping up this week, seems to be the name that everyone is asking about in political circles.
That leaves the small-budget candidates -- UT student Robert Wyckoff and Oak Hill businesswoman Maria Gavilan Burbridge -- clamoring to get their messages out.
Two hot topics -- education and transportation -- are the centerpiece issues on the GOP side. For starters, all want more accountability in education. Warren believes the Legislature can play a key role in developing training programs in secondary schools and community colleges to help sustain the needs of the booming economy. Positioning herself as part of the high-tech community, she says local elected leadership needs to do more in bringing high-tech business leaders into the picture. "We have to convince them they're part of the city," she says. "There's more to being a legislator than going up the street right there and passing laws," Warren adds. "It's about leadership."
Anderson says the House has the power to "retool" school boards and make them more responsible and effective. "If everyone gets together on the [issue], you can change the way school boards operate," he says.
Loras agrees. "Right now, there's a whole lot of dysfunction among board members who are pursuing their own agendas. I think we would have some influence there." He also wants to require quicker standardized training and orientation for board members and require districts to develop more specific line-item budgets. And he mentions that teachers still need a raise. "The $3,000 raise last time was a good start, but we need more."
Too much focus has been put on money problems at AISD, Burbridge says, adding that the school district needs to "give more control to parents." As for Wyckoff, he'd like to see more money going into programs that enable more people to attend college.
As for vouchers, Burbridge is entirely opposed to them, while the other four say that the concept should be explored. However, all agreed that it would be a tricky task to come up with a voucher system that didn't hurt public schools.
And just when area leaders thought people were lining up for light rail, along come the Republican House contenders.
No to Light Rail
"I don't think the people will ride it," says Warren, who adds that we live in a "car culture." "I haven't talked to a single person who would ride it." Wyckoff keeps it simple. "Definitely not light rail," he says. Anderson is more diplomatic: "We need to address the infrastructure, traffic issues we have, but I am concerned that that light rail might not be the best way." But he adds that he wouldn't be against the will of the voters. Loras also is undecided. "I favor letting the voters decide," he says. "I am concerned that light rail will not benefit a good portion of District 48. -- There may be some more cost-effective alternatives."
Depending on what happens with light rail (local officials are leaning toward a November election), Warren would seek to reduce Capital Metro's one-cent sales tax income up to half a cent. Loras also favors a cutback in the tax rate, depending on the outcome of a light-rail election.
Anderson, Warren, and Loras all advocate expanding road construction to try and address the traffic nightmares. "We need to make sure we have the infrastructure to handle growth -- which means roads," Anderson says. Loras was specific, saying that Highway 290 West, State Highway 45, and MoPac South should all be extended.
Warren adds that she is a proponent of downtown revitalization since downtown can be the "heartbeat of a city." But she's opposed to trying to concentrate growth in the center city without having the roads to support it and favors "clusters" of development. "Austin's local leaders have not had a real vision for Austin. -- I think there's a better way to design a city than just allowing sprawl," she says, and she advocates long-range planning based on suburban growth for an area "busting at the seams."
All three also support SH 130, whichever route it takes, as a means to alleviate I-35 congestion. And on a related note, several of the GOP candidates blamed the current Austin delegation for its problems in dealing with fellow legislators and losing local control. "We don't have effective representation of Austin," Anderson says. "The city had to spend $2 million on the lobbyists. -- Either [Austin legislators] weren't effective, or they weren't taken seriously."
Loras also questions the city of Austin's use of lobbyists. "The elected officials, they should be the most effective lobby," he says. Warren says part of the problem with the area's fixation with the SOS ordinance has been that it's part of a system of local leadership trying to "stifle growth. -- It's the approach of SOS that's bothered me," she says. "The reality is that the application of it has strangled reasonable development. It also has prevented unreasonable development." She says SOS has a purpose that's been abused.
"I very much respect the environment, but people are No. 1," Loras says. He adds that he hasn't studied the SOS ordinance enough to comment on whether he supports it. "I love the Austin lifestyle, the environment -- that's what makes Austin attractive. But I think there's a lot more room for compromise than what's taken place."
Anderson, who also doesn't have a position on SOS specifically, believes that bringing everyone to the decision-making process to "bury the hatchet" will help resolve much of the conflict with the Legislature. But he adds, "I think a Republican, given the current environment, could be more effective."
Predictably, there is one issue that all agree on concerning the environment: Move the Longhorn pipeline project.
To be sure, Republicans have their eyes on the horizon -- the general election, the impact of redistricting in 2001 -- but they don't seem to connect the importance of the March primary to either of those outcomes. The collective calm about their primary doesn't match their enthusiasm about defeating the Democrats on their stomping ground, or else they would be honing the issues and selecting a candidate that had the best chance to beat the Democratic favorite.
Getting It Together
Several Republicans argued that the demographics of the area aren't as Democratic as the Democrats would like people to believe, and that voters from the rambling district will pick a candidate over a party. The only problem with that theory is that the Democrats have fielded two strong candidates, both of whom have experience, community support, name identification, and firm positions on the issues heading into the primary. So if the Republican theory for November is correct, they face the danger of losing their own voters to a well-positioned Democrat as well.
As several political consultants on both sides of the party line noted, "It's still early." Voters busy watching evening broadcasts on presidential contenders aren't ready to jump in the local fray yet. But still, it's a bit late for a strong Republican candidate to emerge before the primary. How big a fray the November election turns into will depend on how the Republicans organize and unify following the primary.
Says Masset, Joe Anderson's consultant, "One problem is that the Travis County Republicans are in a big faction fight between moderates and conservatives. -- To win in November, we need to have everyone together."
Barring a miracle, that GOP unity is not likely to happen in 2000, but there is one thing certain: No matter which Republican candidate wins the primary, there'll be no stopping the flow of GOP money into the race.