The Green Queen
Beverly Griffith's populist ideas, once held by a majority of the council, are finding few friends as Mayor Watson turns the council's agenda toward transportation.
To hear Beverly Griffith tell it, her foremost political goal is as common in Austin as the smell of barbecue smoke: public improvements that spur sustainable development and strengthen the inner-city tax base. So why is it that, since this new council took over, Griffith has repeatedly found herself the ringleader of a dissenting faction that has split the council 4-3 on critical votes over public investments?
When Griffith sprung her parks bond package on an unsuspecting council in August, proposing to place it alongside the mayor's transportation bonds on the Nov. 7 ballot, it looked to some like a political ploy -- one that bordered on political martyrdom, it turned out, as it became increasingly clear that she couldn't pass it -- to rally the central-city electorate around her potential bid for mayor. Griffith also warmly welcomed new council members Danny Thomas and Raul Alvarez into her camp.
But Griffith, and those close to her, say that political gain was not the driving force behind her underdog campaign. Griffith was just following her vision, they say -- to find each and every opportunity to preserve green space in a city that is rapidly losing prime real estate to development.
During the feverish bond debates of August, Griffith must have recited her "environment, equity, and economy" mantra about a thousand times. In her mind, those first two pillars of prosperity are being sacrificed for the sake of the third; she wanted the council to rectify that omission with real dollars, right then -- not with hazy promises to put open space high on the agenda in due course.
It's her blunt rhetorical technique that makes Griffith, at times, unpopular on the dais, where laissez-faire pragmatism still rules to a greater extent than council members would like to admit. But out in Voterland, Griffith's style can't miss: Everyone knows exactly what she stands for, and that she'll never wait for a polite invitation from her peers to bring her issues forward.
There's a stubborn populist streak in Griffith, born perhaps from her longtime inclusion in elite circles of affluence that affords her the freedom to collude with the badly dressed, middle-income pack of activist geeks who actually attend City Council meetings and planning sessions. Throughout her career, Griffith has placed high priority on the public process -- so much so that she's a consistent thorn in the side of Mayor Kirk Watson, who prefers to solve problems himself rather than wade through hours of debate.
It's fellow Council Member Jackie Goodman who is known for her pledge to honor valid neighborhood petitions, but of late it's been Griffith whose door has seemed to be open the widest. Her recruitment of Jeff Jack -- a long-time enemy of pro-development forces -- as her new aide spoke volumes about exactly whose friendships she is courting.
For instance, while Goodman sided with the council faction that voted to pursue a settlement with Lumbermen's Investment Corp. over a disputed condominium project on the Sand Beach Reserve, Griffith has pushed to leave the developer out of the picture and have the city buy the land outright. That's what the citizens group Friends of Seaholm, whose members want the city to convert the decommissioned power plant next door to Sand Beach into a museum or other civic amenity, would prefer. Griffith's approach could allow the Seaholm renovation to become a bigger public works project -- one that could include a light rail hub, plaza, and parking. But the Downtown Austin Alliance, some of whose members spoke out against Griffith's parks bonds proposal, will again be opposing Griffith by endorsing the Lumbermen's project. The dispute is illustrative of Griffith's belief that city government, not private interests, tends to make the kind of investments that enhance the city's quality of life and shore up the tax base in the long term.
That position may not make Griffith popular in conservative circles, but her consistency and devotion to the bedrock issues of Austin's still-strong enviro-progressive faction ensures her a dependable stream of money and campaign mobilization for whatever future office she might seek. She's in the enviable position of harboring support within the business community based on her professional connections, while she looks strong to outsiders for flouting the conventional "go-along-to-get-along" decorum.
Griffith's performance for the rest of her term isn't hard to predict: Griffith will be Griffith, pushing for bond investments, scratching for park development dollars in every budget round, holding up downtown projects that don't include public space, and opposing developments that don't have full neighborhood approval.
As a second-term council member, Griffith is practically forced to look at a mayoral bid if she wants to remain in the public realm, since the city charter prohibits holding the same council seat for more than two consecutive terms. She says she has no current plans to run. If she changes her mind, she'll have to advance initiatives with better preparation than she showed on her bond proposals, lest she come across as a caricature of the old guard rather than a leader of the new.