And Then There Were Two
Oh, sure, second-place candidates always say they're happy if they just manage to force the leader into a runoff. But on Saturday night, City Council Place 2 contender Raul Alvarez, who from the opening tallies trailed top vote-getter Rafael Quintanilla by more than a half-dozen points, never seemed anything but content. He wolfed down a king-sized hamburger at the Filling Station, breezily told Council Member Daryl Slusher he had no idea which precincts were turning out for him (that's for campaign managers to worry over), and chatted away as if the occasion were his brother's wedding rather than a city election.
Eventually, Alvarez took 33% to Quintanilla's 39%; the two will face off again in a June 3 runoff. The Alvarez camp hopes, of course, that its door-knocking campaign can pull in supporters of third-place finisher Gloria Mata Pennington, a former Parks and Rec employee who took 11% of the vote. But campaign consultant Joseph Martinez admitted that no one knows where Pennington, who said she would not name an endorsee until this weekend, will throw her support.
Precinct returns show that Pennington's strongest support came from the city's northeast side, in the settled neighborhoods surrounding Reagan and Lanier high schools, where Quintanilla tended to do well, too. Moreover, Pennington was backed in the electoral preseason by many of the same political players who later switched their allegiance to Quintanilla. Pennington describes her "loyal little band of supporters" as "independent thinkers who thought I wasn't being controlled by any special-interest group."
Alvarez and Quintanilla have so far staked out mostly common ground on the aquifer, neighborhoods, sustainable growth, and social equity, although Quintanilla's past as a staunch SOS opponent and big-business lobbyist was clearly enough to give at least some voters pause. A difference in pedigree between the two camps was also evident Saturday night. Alvarez's crowd at the Filling Station was a mixture of graying ponytails, baseball jerseys, and colorful Central American prints, while leopard-print pumps, high-dollar haircuts, and linen suits were fashionable among Quintanilla's more affluent crowd at Jalisco's.
Both men obviously generate considerable excitement within their ranks, and both will have plenty of cash to stoke the boilers between now and June 3. As the only two candidates still campaigning for city office, Alvarez and Quintanilla will split the $58,000 kitty remaining at the city clerk's office for candidates who complied with the fair campaign chapter.
Neighborhood stalwarts who milled the floor at Palmer Auditorium had few strong words to offer on the Place 2 race, saying they felt vindicated by the candidates' rush to claim "neighborhood" credentials this year. But as former Austin Neighborhoods Council president Jeff Jack, now aide to Council Member Beverly Griffith, said, things are running too smoothly in Austin for people to get agitated over long-term problems.
That may spell trouble for Alvarez, whose message is that his activist and academic credentials as a neighborhood planner can do a lot to tackle growth issues without necessarily building more highways or hiding development deals from public scrutiny. But precinct results show that message may not reach far beyond Hwy. 290 in the north or Travis Heights in the south -- or Airport Blvd. in the east or MoPac in the west, for that matter. Quintanilla is clearly the default candidate for voters who are less engaged in the intricacies of who's doing what for whom and to what end, and his record as a public health care advocate will make it even harder for Alvarez to distinguish himself. Quintanilla won't say what his strategy for the next 30 days is, but when you start seeing pictures of traffic jams on TV in late May, it may not be the six o'clock news.