Say what you will about Willie Lewis, the outgoing council member is a gracious loser. Remember Eric Mitchell? Sore loser, that one. But Lewis, he's okay. The single-term officeholder went down in a shocking upset Saturday night, losing his re-election bid to Danny Thomas, a Baptist preacher, police officer, and rookie politician who ousted him with 56% of the vote in a three-way race. Lewis lagged behind Thomas throughout the evening and ended the night with an abysmal 36%.
The next day, Lewis spotted Thomas on the street and brazenly flagged him down to congratulate him. "He was in his truck, so he pulled over and we talked a while," Lewis said. "I told him there were no hard feelings on my part, and that I'd make the transition as easy as possible for him." That transition appeared a foregone conclusion very soon after 7pm Saturday, when the early vote returns showed Thomas with a healthy lead. The challenger and his supporters arrived at Palmer Auditorium a short time later, and continued rejoicing well into the night with uplifted palms and refrains of "God is good, God is good."
For longtime Election Central gadflys, the open display of faith and politics was entertainment of the highest order. But for Thomas, a man of the cloth, it was business as usual. "This was God's will," he said. That and a little help from lottery millionaire Thomas Henderson, the former Dallas Cowboy who bought TV and newspaper ads to promote Thomas' candidacy. Thomas' heaviest votes came from outside Central Austin, with many voters taking their cues from pastors of large institutional churches, both black and white.
What went wrong for Lewis? There's a lot of speculation on that front, with the most well-worn explanation being "Willie screwed himself." There are some who argue that Lewis, after three years on the dais, had no record to tout, no message to share. Others reason that Lewis is not one to blow his own horn, and therefore takes credit for little. Then there's the complacency issue -- a trap that incumbents fall into once in a while. The Place 6 seat is proof of that, as evidenced by what happened to Lewis, and Eric Mitchell before him.
Lewis' campaign manager, David Terrell, suggested another reason for the upset -- the controversial "no endorsement" of the mayor issued by SOS Action, the political offshoot of the Save Our Springs Alliance. "We may have hurt ourselves, hurt our credibility as far as our other endorsements were concerned," said Terrell, who sits on the PAC board that voted not to endorse. The PAC did endorse Lewis and Clare Barry, who also lost without a runoff. "Obviously we're in a new Austin, and the old coalition doesn't work the way it used to. And our opponents, too, were smarter than the last time," Terrell said.
That said, the Austin Police Association PAC hit a winning streak this time around, breaking its cycle of losing endorsements. "This is the first time we'll have a council member with unique insight into policing," said Mike Sheffield, president of the police association. And how will Thomas' acknowledgement that police brutality exists in Austin square with his former higher-ups at APD? "If it makes people uncomfortable, so be it," Sheffield said. "Danny's an honest man. He'll tell it to you straight."
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