Who Will Survive?
Seven Council Members. One Coveted Position. And, In the End, Only One Survivor ...
Which is another way of asking the $35,000-a-year question: Why will there never be another 7-0 vote of the Austin City Council on anything that matters? The May elections didn't change the council's political complexion that much, and the issues of great import yesterday are still important today, right? But in the first 100 days of the second Watson regency, we've seen fractiousness every bit as piquant as in the bad old days, when the council was clearly divided into ideological camps.
Because now, term limit fans, it's everyone for his or her own self. The Kirk Watson era will inevitably end no later than June of 2003, thanks to a city ordinance that limits council members to two terms in office. And if Hizzoner jams on a race for statewide office, as is widely expected, his reign will effectively end before the close of 2001.
And if Gore wins and anoints rising-Dem-star Watson with a Cabinet-ish post, then Life After Kirk could start about six months from now.
At the Cedar Door and Hickory Street, Las Manitas and Little City, the handicapping for the next mayor's race -- presumably a special election -- is raging full tilt, and the only sitting council member absent from the discussion is Place 2's Raul Alvarez. Which means he won't get voted off the island any time soon. Everyone else is fair game -- even the people who only idly wish to be mayor, or who only weakly command public support -- because they all have the power to sway the small, select club of people who will actually vote in the next election. (As, for that matter, does Alvarez.)
On the real Survivor, the first people voted off the island were not the malign but the useless. You could say we-the-people already did that in May when we sent Willie Lewis back to civilian life. Unable to deliver the black base, invisible and/or risible to the Sammys and Bobs, and redundant to the central-city progressives, Lewis is, in purely political terms, not missed.
None of the current six is useless in the same sense. Alvarez and Danny Thomas bring their ethnic bases, Will Wynn can interface with the Chamber crowd, and even if Daryl Slusher has, once and for all, alienated his hard-core enviro consituency (but where are they going to go, anyway?), he still speaks Bubba better than anyone on the council. That leaves the two most likely -- in fact, all but inevitable -- candidates to succeed Watson: Jackie Goodman and Beverly Griffith, who have spent years tussling, parsing, and massaging the same base, the central-city neighborhood left.
Now, if being loved by your colleagues were what mattered, Griffith would be voted off the island and onto an ice floe. The Place 4 council member has thrown shade on Watson since before he was elected, and as each council member in turn has found reason to stand in the mayor's nimbus of popularity and effectiveness, they have ended up grinding against Beverly's gears. But beyond that, Griffith, whose negotiating style has been described as "starting with nailing her shoes to the floor," has vexed her peers with (in their view) her personal eccentricities and her willingness to drag the council from the tail of her lame political horses.
Witness the fracas over this November's city bond package. It was an established political fact that Watson's transportation bonds were primarily symbolic, a counterweight to light rail, and remained so, even after the mayor got carried away and doubled the price tag. It was Griffith who forced the council into a no-win debate over
spending money the city doesn't have, years from now, on projects that were invented on the spot. It was a good way to define herself as the anti-Watson, and if Griffith is counting on a backlash to carry her to the middle of the dais, she could be in luck. But as one City Hall insider says, "She'd be in a little better shape if she won once in a while."
Griffith has a genuine following among people whose influence over election outcomes is hard to overstate -- those who loathe and fear city government. Witness her hiring of former Austin Neighborhoods Council president Jeff Jack as her campaign ... er, council aide -- a man who, regardless of his commitment and gifts, had not been oft-heard saying very nice things about the city that now pays his salary.
Jackie Goodman, on the other hand, is the favorite of neighborhood leaders who like and trust the city. But to run for mayor, she will need the support of some of Griffith's Central Austin supporters who live in neighborhoods that regularly see 25% or higher turnout. Again, if popularity mattered, the mayor pro tem would be the last off the island. She's so nice, and gentle, and quiet, and smoother than Yoo-Hoo when she needs to get her political way. To have served on the Austin City Council for seven years, put your stamp all across the city agenda (Smart Growth, neighborhood planning, social equity), and leave no one feeling betrayed takes talent.
But it becomes clear that these are not ordinary times -- that we are, in fact, in the dog-eat-dog world of Survivor -- when you realize that the next mayoral election is not Jackie Goodman's to lose. After Watson's bullish reign, Goodman would probably be the best choice to heal all the cuts and bruises. But that presumes that those who are fighting the political battles now erupting in our streets -- contests that may make yesterday's enviro-vs.-developer bouts look like minuets -- will be ready to make peace. If Watson leaves just as the real war gets started, Goodman is going to have to talk a lot louder, and if she did that, she wouldn't be Jackie Goodman anymore.
That takes us farther down the dais to erstwhile mayoral candidate Daryl Slusher, who surely knows in his bones he'd be better off running for constable, but who, even as he has lost former friends, has made new ones among the sort of civilians who might themselves be asked to fill Watson's shoes. (Let's forget about Lee Walker, Ross Garber, Peter Zandan, or Robin Rather running for mayor.) If -- as happened on the TV show -- the nice people like Jackie get voted off the island, that sets up a pit-bull matchup between Slusher and Griffith, and the same voters now seething at Slusher may, to borrow the Survivor bon mot, rather pick a snake than a rat.
As their tenures are so new, it's hard at this point not to demote Will Wynn, Raul Alvarez, and Danny Thomas to the roles of bit players in this drama. Since he's got the self-fulfilling prophetic name, and looks the most like Kirk Watson, there's been obvious talk of Wynn as the next mayor, which might be practical if Watson serves out his full term. But in a special-election scenario, Wynn will be too inexperienced and ill-formed to cut a serious swath through Slusher, Goodman, or Griffith. Once his downtown-business base is annexed by one of the three veterans, Wynn is off the island.
Conversely, because he looks the least like Kirk Watson, and found himself flouting Hizzoner's will from Day One, there was once genuine speculation that Danny Thomas could be mayor. That has been diminished by Thomas' emergence as Griffith's best friend; between her vendettas and his own newbie blunders, Thomas is drawing the same groans from city insiders as did Willie Lewis. Just as Griffith has taken Thomas under her wing, Goodman and/or Slusher will adopt the more-like-them-anyway Alvarez, diversity will be achieved, and Danny and Raul are off the island.
Can they all get along? No. Machiavelli would be a forgotten Italian courtier in tight breeches were he not right, and Survivor proved that once again. The guy who won was the most manipulative, the quickest to form alliances and then turn on them, the best at intimidating his fellow castaways and keeping them off their game, and the most careful at crafting his scheme for success. On the inside, that describes one council member better than any of the others. But as we've established, Kirk Watson will be the first off the island.