Austin @ Large: Austin at Large
"Like Kirk, But Slower' But mayor-apparent Gus Garcia is nobody's understudy
Before they get twitchy, it's not that Jennifer Gale or John MacPherson or Allen Phillips (or Leslie Cochran or Sammy Allred or Daniel Nazar, should they choose to file) aren't "serious" or "legitimate" candidates. But of any announced candidate for mayor, Gus Garcia has done more things that one expects people who want to be mayor to have done. In Gus' case, a lot more things, during nearly 20 years in public office, first on the Austin Independent School District board, then (after a few years' break) nine years on the City Council.
Some months back, when Gus first stuck his toe into the après-Kirk waters, those waters parted, but it would have taken willful ignorance to view Garcia as Watson-esque, which seemed the most important qualification to succeed the mayor. Now, it's Gus' un-Watson-esque-ness that's solidified his status as the mayor-apparent. "I've been talking to honchos who I thought were very pro-Kirk all the way, and when I told them 'I'm not like Kirk Watson,' they'd say 'Thank God!'" says Garcia. "I was stunned, because during my term he was incredibly popular."
That was then. One of Gus' supporters describes him as "just like Kirk Watson, but slower." And slowing down is what Garcia intends to do to the Watson juggernaut. Regarding the dreaded Smart Growth Initiative, for example, "We have to stop and look at what this thing has done," he says, "and put it under the microscope to see if it's having the desired effect. "We can see people building new homes and new businesses in a vibrant urban core, but we also see Intel and CSC. We need to revisit what we intended back in 1997-98 and see if that's happening now. The 1997 economy is clearly not what we have today and what will we have tomorrow?"
That sounds suspiciously like common sense, which may be enough for Gus to earn your vote. But Garcia still wants to see urban Austin get its share of regional growth, which was the main end of the Smart Growth Initiative -- though for different reasons. "People think Austin is really prosperous, but we have a large population that is not," he says, noting that the Austin ISD student body is now 60% minority and weighted toward the bottom end of the income ladder. "The less well-off are not in Pflugerville and Round Rock. We need to figure out how Austin can avoid being economically deprived."
That's different from saving Barton Springs, though Garcia was a consistent fourth vote for the enviros back before Watson rode the 7-0 Green Machine into power. Indeed, it's Gus' status as a enviro-progressive and a working-class advocate and a well-seasoned civic leader and a person of color -- he's green, red, blue, and brown, if you will -- that makes him such a daunting opponent. This has its downside, since it means Garcia could be elected mayor without opening his mouth, and Austin is in a psychic place where We Need to Talk about how to spend our early adulthood as a city. (Though of late, says Garcia, all people want to talk to him about is "security. Is the water safe? What should we do?")
Even though truly contested campaigns are the best means known for hashing out the popular will, Garcia feels an all-but-unopposed run won't leave him at a disadvantage when it's time to actually govern. "There's enough issues on which the community is in enough agreement," he says, like basic environmental protection, social equity, and health services, "that we can talk forever without running into controversy." Do not expect such talk to be a mayoral monologue if Gus wins. "We need deep discussions about real important issues that won't get you hammered because of what you think," he says. "I hope to be a good facilitator for that. In the past, the mayor has been the quarterback, and it ought not to be that way."
For example, "Some people want me to take a hard-line position with regard to (an incentive package for) AMD," he says. "But a potential mayor shouldn't be taking a hard line on anything. It's not a strong-mayor government." (Interestingly, if we remember right, back when Garcia balked at then-Mayor Bruce Todd's attempt to make Austin a strong-mayor city, an angry Todd hissed, "One day you'll be mayor, and you'll regret this.") "I don't think we want to pass or reject a tax package for AMD on a 4-3 vote." As for his vote, Garcia says "I probably won't be a fervent advocate for business-related initiatives."
The Rubber Room
Nor, says Garcia, does he plan on telling people what they should think, which would set him apart not only from Watson but from most of his predecessors who claimed to be "consensus-builders." Again regarding AMD: "I want to take [anti-incentive] Mark Tschurr and [pro-incentive] Eugene Sepulveda, have them to the mayor's office, and put 'em in a room. I want them to talk to each other, and I don't want to be the referee. When they're through, I want to listen to what they have to say."