Dale Gas, Gus!

Henry Cisneros, Gonzalo Barrientos, and other politicos try to get out the vote for mayoral candidate Gus Garcia.

Dale Gas, Gus!
Illustration By Doug Potter

The Spanglish chant that greeted mayoral candidate Gus Garcia Saturday afternoon at Nuevo Leon restaurant requires partial translation. "Give it the gas, Gus!" is the literal version offered by Garcia campaign manager Paul Saldaña, although he added that "Give 'em hell!" is probably a more emotionally accurate rendition of the barrio slang. Either way, it was an enthusiastic reminder of the cultural possibilities in Garcia's likely ascension to Austin's mayoral chair, and it fired the campaign rally that followed a get-out-the-vote walk led by Garcia and former San Antonio mayor and Clinton Cabinet member Henry Cisneros. Garcia, carrying a grandchild to the lectern, was clearly among friends and family, and the political dignitaries lending support to the occasion seconded the candidate's affable optimism. Cisneros, state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, Council Member Raul Alvarez, Constable Maria Canchola, and a handful of other celebs were in evidence as Barrientos, Cisneros, and then Gus addressed the crowd.

Barrientos emphasized the importance of Garcia's election as the city's first Hispanic mayor, in the tradition of the late San Antonio Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez and others, including himself. He noted wryly that when people ask how he was first elected in a predominantly Anglo Senate district he responds, "Yo dijo English." Cisneros, who at the moment isn't running for anything, delivered a fiery stump speech, describing Barrientos as "the most effective Senator in Texas" and declaring that education, housing, health care, and other programs are all better off because "Gonzalo's been on the job." As he pumped for greater voter turnout, he said, "We need wise people" in office, indicating that Garcia is just the right man for the mayoral seat.

The candidate himself was relatively low key, thanking friends and supporters, politely pointing out that "the job isn't finished," and exhorting supporters to get out the vote. He emphasized public safety, transportation mobility, and the environment, as well as his desire to run for "one Austin, as a candidate for the entire town." Later he told the Chronicle he was worried that turnout might be low, due to the common perception that he faces no serious opposition. Garcia intends to run a "full-speed-ahead" campaign, spending enough to keep voters fully aware of the race.

Some of his supporters, he said, have suggested he might need to "go negative" in response to Eric Mitchell's abrupt entry into the race. Yet he believes it's unnecessary and in fact renewed his friendship with Mitchell last week, when both men attended the inauguration of new Huston-Tillotson President Larry Earvin. "Eric and I have worked together on projects in the past," Garcia said, "and he and I agreed that whatever happens we would continue to do so in the future. Somebody even took our photograph together."

Asked if he thought a more heated political battle might be brewing between his campaign and the Austin Independent School District, Garcia said he spoke with AISD Board President Kathy Rider and reiterated his published comments that the district needs to be doing a better job, especially for minority and immigrant students. "I told her that we're going to work with her," Garcia said, "but that this is her job and the board's, and that it needs to be done." Did he think the mayor has enough to do without trying to run the school district? "These are our kids, and our schools, and I was on the school board for six years," he replied. "I need to use that experience, and we need to encourage the board to make policy that will help the schools and help the students become educated citizens of our city."

Garcia said he realizes the city is faced with an economic downturn and a financial crunch, yet he is not worried by published accounts that suggest a potential crisis. "September is always a slow month [for city revenues]," he said, "and things will improve. But the city manager is aware, as I am, that we need to be conservative in spending plans, so we don't run out of cash."

Asked if he thought his age might be a factor in the voters' judgment, he smiled. "I'm 67 years old, but I'm in good health, and I still feel young. I may not be as energetic as Kirk Watson -- nobody could be -- but I've lived in Austin 44 years, I know everybody, and I can do more on the telephone, bringing people together to solve problems, than almost anybody I know."

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