Center of Gravity
Flush With New Money, City's Good Times Shift Council's Sails
Depending on your perspective, the May City Council elections portended one of two things: (1) Visionary, long-range policy-making has become the guiding principle of Austin politics, or (2) we no longer care about anything except making money. Some say that by adding a downtown developer and former police officer to the council, voters pushed the pendulum away from the left back toward the center. Perhaps a better analogy is that the policy engine has hit top dead center. Austin had definitely begun to believe the hype -- that if the business magazines rank this city No. 1 for everything from capital investment to dating opportunities, we must be on to something. Was there ever a time when Austin politics was so filled with manifest destiny? Thanks largely to the mayor and City Council members who took office in 1997, the city's portfolio is studded with more "investments" than a bond trader's spreadsheet: We've bought watershed, parkland, infrastructure, downtown development, even a river. We've planted neighborhood organizations. And by god, all this gov'ment meddling has created some of the most fertile commercial soil in the world. Looks like we made it. The Austin miracle looks so pretty in the glossy photos of the national magazines, in fact, that there's now considerable paranoia about spoiling the effect through doubt or effrontery. It's now a faux pas to question whether the city should smoke the peace pipe with developer Gary Bradley or accede to a "one-time-only" deal on the Colorado River. On the other hand, it's also quite unfashionable to belittle impervious cover limits, neighborhood petitions, and pedestrian access. In the May election, the candidacy of new urbanist developer Will Wynn drove a wedge in the environmental contingent, with SOS leaders disagreeing publicly over whether to support him, and, by the same token, Mayor Kirk Watson's era of big deals. That split, along with the considerable personal contributions Wynn made to his own campaign, sunk neighborhood leader Clare Barry. Meanwhile, incumbent Willie Lewis, who never shed much light on policy discourse but who adhered to the green vote, got trampled by Danny Thomas, a political unknown whose primary capital consisted of full-page endorsements from Thomas Henderson and, perhaps just as importantly, his independence from the progressive machine.
It's easy to see how a skeptic could conclude that Austin's activist agenda has been co-opted by the Chamber of Commerce. But it's also possible for an optimist to conclude that sustainable growth has triumphed in the marketplace of ideas. Voter turnout seems to say it's time to put the city on cruise control. But "what happens then?" argue the skeptics. Prosperity becomes the beanstalk that leads to apathy and conservatism. The newcomers arrive, they uproot poorer residents, they forward e-mail copies of the daily newspaper's bromides on the foppish behavior of city board members and commissioners. They begin to snicker. Isn't government silly? We go right back to where we started at the beginning of this decade. And there's yet another dark spot to consider: This city still contains broad swaths of people for whom Austin isn't that good. The gravity of the equity issue, that hollow third leg of Mayor Watson's Austin economy, is expanding even faster than the city limits.
The mood of current and outgoing City Council members is decidedly mixed as they consider Austin's political future. Retiring incumbent Gus Garcia has grown rather candid about his discomfort with Mayor Watson's fast-track leadership style. Too many important decisions are being made in developers' offices, Garcia says, and a council that doesn't question deals thoroughly is going to let the public recede further out of the loop. "A lot of things are happening at a high level, and the information never trickles down," says Garcia. "And that's happening more and more because the mayor gets invited to [the Real Estate Council of Austin meetings] and other places. With a more conservative council, it will be easier for that to happen." Garcia offers little comment on incoming council members Wynn and Thomas, saying he doesn't know them personally (which, in the case of Eastside representative Thomas, is in itself indicative of abnormal weather patterns), but that he fears that the council's independent streak may be waning. The new council will be a "different breed of cats," Garcia predicts, more susceptible to outside influence.
The Way Gus Sees It
Council Member Daryl Slusher says he agrees that the city is losing a trusted guardian with Garcia's resignation from the council, but that the council's direction isn't about to change. The recent elections weren't a defeat for the old SOS crowd, Slusher says, but rather a sign that their values are being institutionalized. Likewise, the council's willingness to deal with former city archenemies like Bradley doesn't signal a retreat from SOS principles, Slusher says. "It's more like there's been a lot accomplished," he says. "If folks automatically assume that doing a deal with Bradley was wrong, then they should have been disenchanted with government from the beginning, because that assumes that the people you were working to get in there wouldn't be able to make any progress to begin with." In other words, what good does it do to elect council members who wear ideological straitjackets when the bogeymen are out driving cement trucks?
The deeper issue, however, is not whether the city should compromise with major employers and developers. Of course it should. With hundreds of businesses pouring into Austin uninvited, what choice do we have? What will decide the city's fate is the tenacity with which council members hold on to the principles that we are supposedly "institutionalizing" -- no new roads built to service new subdivisions, no tacky architecture on Town Lake, no big-box shopping centers next to residential neighborhoods, etc. Add to that list fledgling social equity initiatives such as the affordable housing trust fund, city-sponsored day care, and the availability of public health. Compromises that shape growth to match our greater goals are productive, but those only happen when council members come to the table with hard and fast convictions about what is not negotiable. So the question is, will City Council continue to drive hard bargains?
Moving to the Middle Council member-elect Will Wynn is, not surprisingly, viewed by the city's ardent grassroots community as the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing, a developer who, his good intentions notwithstanding, will ultimately place investors' needs ahead of the city's. From what we know of Wynn, that may or not prove to be true. The person Wynn will replace, Council Member Bill Spelman, whose analytic fervor and public policy background earned him the reputation as the "professorial" council member, says his interviews with Wynn have revealed a passion for details, but perhaps not for confrontation. "His instinct is to find the center," Spelman says of Wynn, "which is also the mayor's instinct, to find the center and occupy the hell out of it." Former SOS stalwarts such as Robin Rather and Brigid Shea backed Wynn's candidacy for City Council, saying Wynn's independent mindset offsets his lack of activist credentials. Spelman agrees that Wynn is a thinker, but as to whether his instinct is to challenge the prevailing winds, Spelman says, "That strikes me as a different kind of personality."
But wait, there's more to know about Wynn than that, something you may not have heard: Wynn is apparently a nut for the infinitely arcane business of developing affordable housing programs. "His eyes light up and he gets real excited" when you bring up affordable housing, says Spelman. "That is the issue that really gets him rolling." If Wynn develops a "beat," Spelman says, an area of specialty that council members tend to gravitate toward, Wynn could be more formidable when the discussion ventures onto his turf.
Downtown Commission chairman and developer Robert Knight, who describes Wynn as "a balanced guy" whose "heart is in the right place," says Wynn's real-world experience will be a healthy antidote to some of the fuzzy logic that's currently influencing downtown planning. For instance, says Knight, everywhere in the Central Business District, consulting teams are pushing retail, retail, retail, even if the city has to support it with subsidized parking, and even if boutique strips lacking department store anchors aren't considered sustainable models. "I would hope that Will, as a developer, will take it a little bit slower, and say, 'guys, we've got some round holes and some square pegs,'" says Knight, who has recently spoken out against the first-floor retail designs as proposed for the impending Computer Science Corporation office buildings. "We've stimulated residential and office development, so the consumers are here, now let's let retail take care of itself."
Less is known of Danny Thomas -- the man who'll replace Council Member Willie Lewis -- other than that he's not a member of the traditional Eastside power structure, which gave us Eric Mitchell, nor an ideological firebrand, despite his Baptist roots. "If he walked into this office right now, and his picture hadn't been in the paper, I wouldn't know who he was," says Garcia -- a surprising comment from one of the oldest of the Eastside patriarchs. But Thomas has spent 21 years as a civil servant, not as a landowner or activist, more traditional roles for Eastside players. Garcia, who once protested against police actions and never won the endorsement of the police association, as Thomas has, says he's fearful of a law-and-order mentality in East Austin. But Spelman says Thomas' attitude thus far is easing fears that he's shortsighted or combative. Hopes are high that Thomas won't use Eastside poverty as an excuse to stand against Austin's building restrictions, bond issues, or annexation. Even if he does, Slusher offers, on the whole the city would benefit from the discussion.
At Least He's Not Angry
"My impression is that people are pleasantly surprised" by Thomas, says Spelman. "He's not crazy, and he's not full of anger or bile." A police officer's experience in resolving domestic disputes, Spelman adds, would seem to be the perfect background for serving on the City Council.
And though the wide turnout for Thomas could indicate that voters hoped they were getting a council member who would foil the current council's agenda, it seems far more likely that voter dissatisfaction was instead directed personally at Willie Lewis, whose sometimes inarticulate ramblings earned him a reputation as a bumbling fool in the local media.
Who's It Going To Be?
The one race yet to be decided -- the Place 2 contest between Rafael Quintanilla and Raul Alvarez, slated for a runoff June 3 -- has produced a rash of mixed feelings among political watchers. Both men are so likable, so well-versed in the crucial issues, both have run such clean campaigns, who wants to criticize either of them? Perhaps what's critical in this race, however, isn't so much what each would bring to the City Council individually as it is the voting blocs that could result. Those who share Garcia's mistrust of Mayor Watson's star power are going to feel more comfortable with Alvarez, a younger version of Council Member Spelman who comes armed with a fistful of urban planning credentials. Alvarez, who in his campaign has emphasized the need for a more open public process, could ally himself with Council Members Jackie Goodman and Beverly Griffith in putting the brakes on Watson's momentum, with an occasional assist from Slusher.
Those who are growing impatient with Watson's naysayers, however, will find a friend in Quintanilla, a man who, despite attracting the occasional "high-spanic" catcall from the East Austin gallery, has Austin connections that run deep and wide. A former lobbyist for developers and other deep-pocket clients, Quintanilla has, one suspects, learned when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em. Like Wynn, Quintanilla hails from a tradition where it's considered rude to talk back to the invisible hand of commerce, making him more likely, along with Wynn, to green-light Watson's agenda. "The big difference [between Quintanilla and Alvarez] is mostly one of personal style," says Spelman, but "Raul will obviously be less trustful of authority than Rafael."
It's hard to get past the fact that so much of what will shape Austin in the coming years can't be controlled by our local officials. Money will continue to pour into the city, and the cost of living will probably continue to rise. Barring an unforeseen economic crunch, we'll be playing with architectural drawings and dreaming of hip new downtown districts for some time, while the same old crummy shopping centers and office parks spring up all around us. Our stock of self-made millionaires will keep going up, but the level of poverty probably won't budge from where it has sat all decade long, making Austin just another hole for the poor and uneducated.
However, just how tolerable our state of affairs becomes will depend heavily on the attitude of our most visible leaders. It's easy to forget, in these times of conciliation, that Austin has remained distinct from other Texas cities because public ideas were often forced onto the table by people who weren't shy about saying, "No, it doesn't have to be done that way." Many current council members descended from a long tradition of opposing conventional wisdom, and it's troubling to see them replaced by others with less contentious backgrounds. Is it possible to institutionalize an aversion to back-room deals? Will concern for the poor -- who seldom reciprocate political advocacy with their votes -- be made a pier of public policy?
Obviously not, which is why Austin still needs its cantankerous activist community. Even good ideas can evolve into conservative dogma. We accept, for now, that it's acceptable to offer city-financed incentives to bring employers downtown, but will someone be around to pull the plug on that notion when its usefulness has run its course? The people who hold office are still more important than the political program they espouse, and the evidence suggests that our new City Council will be productive as long as the public's scrutiny remains strong, and as long as Austin politics continue to defy description in the pages of Money magazine.