Raul Alvarez's victory in Saturday's runoff election for City Council has liberal political wonks boasting that reports of the Green Machine's demise have been greatly exaggerated. The win by Alvarez, environmental justice director at the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, over Rafael Quintanilla, an attorney and lobbyist, proves that grassroots appeal still sells in the central city, they say. Alvarez, who came in second to Quintanilla in the May general election with 10,946 votes to Quintanilla's 13,040 in a five-way race, overcame that deficit in the runoff largely on the electoral strength of liberal precincts in Clarksville, Bouldin Creek, and Hyde Park, where more than three of every four voters who cast ballots in May returned to the polls on Saturday.
In contrast, nearly half of the general election voters at Casis Elementary in Tarrytown, a Quintanilla stronghold, failed to return for the runoff. Alvarez won most ballot boxes from Anderson to Stassney, I-35 to MoPac.
But it's also true that less than 5% of registered voters turned out for the election, perhaps confirming pundits' contention that environmental guardianship and neighborhood planning just aren't issues anymore. The real determinants in this race were more likely elbow grease and youth. Alvarez's fired-up, energetic corps of 200 volunteers included a phalanx of Austin firefighters, who blanketed central city neighborhoods, circulating more than 10,000 fliers before 10am on Saturday. At the very least, it's an explanation that helps account for the lackluster showing of fellow neighborhood activist Clare Barry, whose campaign was unable to get those grassroots ingredients frying in the May 6 election and lost big to developer Will Wynn.
Quintanilla concedes that Alvarez won over the core environmental voting blocs while his more conservative supporters failed to return to the polls. But Quintanilla says it wasn't fair for Alvarez to paint him as a stooge for the development community. "They were sending mail-outs in the last few days with some fairly inflammatory terms in it, saying that I voted for Circle C" as a city planning commissioner, says Quintanilla. "They left out that that was 17 years ago, under many different circumstances."
Local Republicans and developer Gary Bradley, however, clearly saw a friend in Quintanilla -- or at least an enemy in Alvarez. Bradley placed a letter urging support for Quintanilla in the Circle C Ranch newsletter, and Republican-sponsored phone banks cranked up just before the election promoting Quintanilla as the conservative candidate in the race.
Alvarez campaign consultant Mike Blizzard said he was thankful for Bradley's endorsement of Quintanilla, which he says boosted Alvarez's credibility with Central Austin voters. "He had the build-[SH]130-over-grandma's-house crowd behind him," Blizzard says of Quintanilla. "It generated enthusiasm [for Alvarez]. It's one of those issues where you take your opponent's weapon and shoot him in the head with it." Neither Quintanilla nor Alvarez resorted to using TV commercials, though Blizzard says the Alvarez camp had video footage in the can in case Quintanilla went on the air.
The Alvarez campaign might have benefited from some luck on Saturday as well, when the city moved the Casis ballot box to the Howson Library without posting any notice at the door. Quintanilla says he rushed a campaign worker over to the school around noon to shepherd voters to the new location, but didn't know how many might have already given up. A large mailing from the Austin Police Association supporting Quintanilla also failed to arrive before the election. Quintanilla lost the election by only 201 votes, but is not contesting the results.