Man in the Middle
"Personally," says Council Member Daryl Slusher, "I think Austin is growing way too fast."
"Personally," says Council Member Daryl Slusher, "I think Austin is growing way too fast." Surprising? Not to anyone familiar with Slusher's history. As an activist who fought the South Texas Nuclear Project, as a force behind protecting what will soon be Town Lake Park (the renovated Palmer Auditorium area), and of course as the Chronicle's longtime Politics editor and columnist, Slusher often drew lines in the limestone and challenged developers, boosters, and city leaders to cross them. And what was driving the dark forces that threatened the town Slusher wanted to save? In a word, growth.
So why, detractors ask , is the center-left politician who now uses the name Daryl Slusher so supportive of the city's new growth agenda? Hasn't he helped the Watson council bring more and faster growth to Austin than we had ever seen? Well, no, he says, since the alternative to Smart Growth, he thinks, is not No Growth but Dumb Growth. Our booming economy, Slusher says, gives us no choice but to attempt to manage growth, direct it away from environmentally sensitive areas like the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, and help Austin avoid the nightmare of urban sprawl.
That's all old news, of course, but even four years into his tenure, people are still surprised to see Slusher wearing the mantle of consensus and reconciliation. As Kirk Watson's overwhelming re-election performance shows (of course, his major opponent was a crossdresser who lives in a grocery cart), many people like the fact that the City Council now, through Smart Growth and other strategies, appears to want to solve problems instead of fighting them off or pretending they don't exist. But others -- the committed activists on both sides of the fence -- think business, environmental, and populist interests are supposed to remain locked in righteous combat. And by all evidence, Slusher used to be a committed activist.
In the last election, Slusher's two most successful -- though not very successful -- challengers came from outside the Smart Growth magic circle. Former Travis Co. Commissioner Marcos De Leon, a leader in the Eastside activist movement El Concilio, has vigorously attacked the Council's new agenda as a threat to East Austin's working-class fabric. De Leon and other central-city progressives, shocked to see new infill projects crowding into already crowded neighborhoods, are disappointed in the role Slusher has taken. "Somewhere along the line," De Leon said in the last election, "he lost his heart."
But that doesn't mean that Slusher's old enemies have forgiven him either. Chad Crow, who also aimed to unseat Slusher in 1999, won support from the traditional Austin business leadership that is still smarting over environmental regulations like the Save Our Springs Ordinance, which Slusher championed vigorously. Even though high tech execs have largely displaced developers and downtown lawyers as Austin's economic elite, the business community's support for the progressive consensus of Smart Growth is still fragile.
The political climate in Austin is no doubt changing, Slusher says, but perhaps not for the worse. Tech workers care more about Austin's progressive and environmental goals; Slusher, a member of the Capital Metro board, points to the tech sector's support for light rail as proof of a different business agenda. And the Green Council is far from doomed by a changing Austin, Slusher says, as long as the streets are kept safe and the water keeps flowing. "The people in Austin will let the Greens govern," Slusher says, "But we have to take care of the basic services."
Sounds like a man who's mastered the dirty art of politics. Is that what Austin wants from Daryl Slusher? The council member says that despite his role in crafting compromise on the council, he has stuck with his fundamental principles throughout. And he does admit he has more sympathy for government than he may have had in his fire-breathing journalistic days. While he has not considered future political plans, he says, if he returned to private life, he would have a better understanding of the trials of those who govern. "I understand a lot more about the gray areas," Slusher says. "It's harder to run it than it is to tell other people how to run it."