The Austin Chronicle

Compromising Raul

By Emily Pyle, September 29, 2000, News

Voters must have read the subtext in the June runoff when they elected Raul Alvarez over Rafael Quintanilla for the seat that had been held by Gus Garcia. There was little difference between the candidates' stated positions on neighborhood planning, light rail, social equity issues, and most of the standard fare of the campaign. The difference lay in the candidates' résumés. Quintanilla was a former lobbyist for Time Warner and Dell Computer, and had opposed the Save Our Springs ordinance. Alvarez had worked as environmental justice director for the Sierra Club. That was sufficient distinction for voters, and it made Alvarez the youngest and greenest member of the City Council.

Two months later, however, Alvarez's council votes are hard to distinguish from those of Mayor Kirk Watson's Block of Four, and some Alvarez supporters are beginning to grumble. Alvarez isn't skipping out on his promises, said Mike Blizzard, a local political consultant who worked on Alvarez's campaign. "He's going to resist factional politics. He always walks that fine line, and it's a very difficult line to walk. To not be part of any one faction, but communicate well with all the factions. Not allying yourself so strongly with one faction that you can't reach across it."

Indeed, bridging the gaps between opposing factions might turn out to be what Alvarez does best. He did, after all, win majorities in East Austin and the environmental voting boxes in West, South, and Central Austin -- connecting with factions that are rarely united. And a high point in his career as an organizer involved uniting the divided factions in East Austin's environmental activist community.

Alvarez managed to dodge that bullet in the fight over the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan, which he had supported before coming onto the council. When the Eastside political group El Concilio changed its position and opposed the program, claiming it would increase property taxes and force established residents off their property, Alvarez rode out the debate and the measure was approved.

And to be fair, Alvarez has staked out a few positions; his $25 million in bond money for affordable housing was second in boldness only to Beverly Griffith's high-dollar parkland proposal. And Alvarez did join fellow freshman Danny Thomas in supporting Griffith's bonds proposal, which included funds for building and maintaining parks in East Austin, although he withdrew his support when Griffith's plan began to sink like a stone. He also backed away from his own $25 million bond proposal for affordable housing, but only after cutting a deal that sets aside $3 million annually from the General Fund and 40% of tax revenues from developments built on city-owned land to pay incentives for low-income housing projects -- which required the city to take on no debt.

Then Alvarez turned in a different direction and joined the majority voting down Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman's last-minute budget amendment, which included money for several neglected programs some would have expected Alvarez to support. Like other opponents of the amendment, Alvarez said the funding scheme -- taking money from an existing fund for transportation improvement and reimbursing it with bond money -- was too risky. Yet among the budget items in the Goodman package Alvarez helped defeat was $3 million in funding for affordable housing. "He's learning the ropes in City Hall, but he's a quick learner.," Blizzard said. "He's learning very fast."

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