The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Money Talks

By Erica C. Barnett, May 12, 2000, News

Blame it, if you will, on big money, low turnout, or dissension in the environmental ranks, but chances are that what you saw on Election Night 2000 represents the shape of things to come. And if the race between Will Wynn and Clare Barry for the Place 5 council seat proved anything, it was that while money can buy you a runoff-free election, it can't buy you grassroots support, even if you do outspend your opponent five-to-one.

True, turnout in the central city -- the fulcrum of Barry's support and the nerve center for many of Austin's true-green environmentalists -- fell short of what some had hoped, tilting the field rightward (relatively speaking, of course) toward a Danny Thomas-Rafael Quintanilla-Will Wynn council lineup. But what was clearer than the moderate westward slant of this year's results was the overwhelming power of money throughout the electoral process -- from the full-page ads run by Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson on Thomas' behalf, to Wynn's largely self-financed television commercial onslaught, which many, the candidate himself included, were crediting for his 0.5% margin of victory.

"You can't get in front of very many voters without using the mass media," Wynn said Saturday, at a notably subdued pre-victory party across the street from Palmer at Vinny's Italian Grill, where a dozen supporters sat around tables on the cafe's dim patio and talked in muted voices over spaghetti and garlic bread. "It does make the race cost more, but if you don't do that, you can't get in front of enough voters to encourage them to go to the polls." Besides his television and direct-mail efforts, Wynn attributed his victory to "a broad base of individual supporters" throughout the community -- among them former SOS board chair Robin Rather and former board member Brigid Shea.

Meanwhile, Barry -- whose campaign efforts were hindered by her late entry into the Place 5 race and the $100 limit on direct contributions imposed in '97 -- was upbeat, if not downright cheerful, as the hour grew late and the results showed Wynn lodged firmly at a nail-biting 49.82%. "I couldn't be more grateful to all my supporters," she said. "This has truly been a grassroots effort, and I have continued to rely on the support of volunteers throughout this campaign." (An exhausted-looking David Butts, Wynn's consultant in the race, could be seen alternately pacing the floor of Palmer and checking the city's computer terminals, still waiting at 11pm for the final tallies.) Ultimately, Wynn's victory was secured by just 178 votes -- and it wasn't clear, at least not until well many TV cameras had been packed away, that he could win without a runoff.

Now, back to that truism about grassroots support: While Barry's supporters made up one of the most vocal groups at Palmer (not counting the praise-the-Lord Danny Thomas contingent, of course), Wynn's were largely absent from the scene; a lonely group of three sign-holders shuffled behind the victorious candidate from one TV camera to another, making some at the scene question who, exactly, all those people who voted for Wynn were. "Clearly, anyone who's known Clare for a long time thinks very highly of her," said Barry's campaign consultant, Mike Blizzard. "To watch [Wynn's] money take the campaign was very, very difficult for them."

How much money? About $45,000, virtually every penny of which went to pay for those ubiquitous TV ads. The funding disparity, along with the fact that Wynn did not sign an optional city contract limiting his expenditures in exchange for city funding, had some of Barry's supporters crying foul. "I think it was very clear that if this had been a level playing field, and if Will Wynn had had signed the fair campaign act," Blizzard said, "we would have been in a runoff now."

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