The Plumber's Publisher
Mike Levy stays in the background as Texas Monthly's publisher, but takes center stage as a one-man activist group.
Mike Levy is such a colorful, dominating, and often just plain overbearing presence that you can't help but imagine that working for the Texas Monthly publisher is an endurance test. But the magazine's editorial staff says they couldn't ask for better. "Every day, Mike Levy does good things for this magazine," says Evan Smith. "For 30 years, Mike Levy has not interfered with the publication of a great magazine.
"He's supportive in a way almost every publisher I've ever worked with has not been," Smith continues. "Any other publisher would come storming in saying 'You can't do that!' Mike is larger than life, his interests are outsized to match, but he directs that energy his own way, not my way. We're not Mutt and Jeff, but we're not Tom and Jerry either."
Says Levy, "All I do is read the magazine, as a reader, when it goes to the printer. Back in the 1980s, I was telling Greg [Curtis] that the stories were too long; people don't have that kind of reading time. And when I see things like typos and logical inconsistencies, Evan hears about it. But I may be the publisher of Texas Monthly, I may have owned Texas Monthly, but it's still the editor's magazine. My one prerogative is that I can fire the editor. Otherwise, my job is to whine and nag and moan and groan."
Now, ask policymakers in Austin and they'll tell you Levy is amply qualified for that job. Along with his work at the Monthly, and perhaps more so now since he sold the magazine to Indianapolis-based Emmis Communications in 1998, Levy has been a one-man activist group, pressuring city officials with phone calls and now with an all-but-legendary e-mail habit, harassing and cajoling Austin to focus its energies on public safety and quality of life. Sometimes he is lauded for this; it's true that Levy is to emergency medical service what Bill Bunch is to water quality. Sometimes he is ignored. Sometimes he is called an idiot or, worse, "Austin's answer to Ross Perot." (That was us.)
As a civic kibitzer, Levy turns up in the news all the time, but when hundreds or thousands of people get their several emails a day from MLevy@texasmonthly.emmis.com, are they dealing with him or with the magazine? "One of the reasons we've enjoyed success is that we're in Austin instead of Dallas or Houston," he says, "and we have a corporate responsibility to give back. I've never appeared before council on anything I have an economic interest in, and most leaders in the business community here are too timid to be civic stakeholders instead of just economic stakeholders.
"Having said that, I know I can't do anything that compromises the magazine," Levy continues. "I give no money to candidates, except I gave a little money to Bush because I've known the family forever, and the magazine doesn't endorse political candidates. I'm doing it as a citizen, and as a corporate citizen, and if I owned a widget company that had been successful I'd do the same. I'm outraged by the complete lack of humanity I see in this city. I'm a plumber's son. I know where I came from. Most of our leaders have forgotten."