Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Where Do We Sign? Garcia's council gathers its signatures

Austin At Large
The captain has jumped ship, and just like in the movies, an intrepid passenger among the all-star cast has risen to take the helm. What rocks and whirlpools lurk before Mayor Garcia as he steers the ship of state into the harbor? And where is the harbor?

Much depends on whether Gus Garcia will have the same crew in six months that he does now. All three term-limited incumbents on the City Council -- Daryl Slusher, Beverly Griffith, and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman -- are currently gathering the 18,000 signatures the City Charter says they'll need to re-appear on the ballot. (As we've noted before, state law contradicts the charter on this point and sets a much lower threshold, but nobody seems willing to take advantage of this loophole -- in particular because its validity might depend on an eventual decision by current Attorney General John Cornyn.) That means they're already campaigning, which means anybody who wants to unseat them should likewise already be campaigning.

Is the GOP listening? In West Austin boxes, candidate-from-nowhere Greg Gordon pulled down up to 28% of the vote just because he is a Republican. (And maybe just because he is a white man, but we'll let that lie.) For years, the chairs of the Travis County Republican Party -- first Becky Motal, herself a twice-failed council candidate, and now Alan Sager -- have been huffing about how they're going to take the City Council to the woodshed. But the candidates with the GOP's backing, tacit or otherwise, have either been not ready for prime time, or a little bit wack, or both.

Green With Envy

At no point has it seemed to sink in with the GOP (or with the broader "Chamber community") that is supposedly the loyal opposition to the Green Council, that Garcia and Goodman, and even Slusher and Griffith, are real public servants with claims to hold office that go beyond their purported fetishes for birds and salamanders. Running college students, neighborhood cranks, or Sammy Allred against them is not going to work, even if they do carry Circle C Ranch.

Nor has the right wing traditionally hipped to the fact that the Green Machine's tactics -- signature gathering and block-walking and being at the right parties -- really do work. That's why candidates like Garcia win boxes in places like Hyde Park by 8-to-1 margins. It only takes a couple of those boxes to drown out any saber-rattling from Circle C or Davenport Ranch, as long as the campaign strategy on the right is to spend money ineffectively and luxuriate in its own right to rule. (Not that the left doesn't forget its own formula from time to time, which results in disappointments like the light-rail defeat.)

It's going to be even worse in May for whomever Alan Sager offers up to run against Goodman, Slusher, or Griffith, because if those incumbents get on the ballot -- which they probably will, though it won't be a slam-dunk -- they will have already, in effect, won the primary, and thus they'll enjoy an advantage greater than that which ordinarily accrues to incumbents. On the flip side, the best hope for any opponent on the left (probably seeking to unseat Slusher) is to make sure he doesn't get his 18,000 signatures and then field a more acceptable candidate in his place. But said candidate also needs to be out walking blocks and being at the right parties, which will be difficult since the Slusher/Goodman/Griffith signature armies will likewise be there.

None of this is to say that the City Council can't do anything until after the May elections. Indeed, it will probably want to do quite a bit to remind people that Kirk Watson did not take the keys to city government with him. And there is surely quite a bit to do, even if there isn't any money to do it with. Garcia has already laid down the gauntlet on education; public safety is now an important issue to people for whom it wasn't before; and a recession only highlights the holes in the social fabric that the Watson council talked a lot about and didn't get to do much to fix. Not to mention the environment, transportation, parks and libraries, affordable housing, and all that other stuff that isn't finished.

Signatures and Bottom Lines

The question is whether the same old people, minus Watson (in the opinion of too many Austinites, the only one who mattered), can come up with a new agenda while at the same time tapping their traditional bases in an extended re-election campaign. If the right wing approaches the next set of council elections with the same cynicism and clumsiness it has brought to past contests, it won't matter, because Garcia's team will carry the day and push Austin's political day of reckoning into 2003.

We don't relish the thought of a strong right-wing presence on the City Council, but as we said about the just-concluded campaign, it would be good for the City Council to be forced into clarity and action by a real contest against credible opponents. Even if the incumbents all win, and even if they should win -- and right now there's nobody who looks like a better alternative -- they should win on their often considerable merits, and not just on their ability to gather signatures at the right parties.

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Gus Garcia, Kirk Watson, City Council, Jackie Goodman, Daryl Slusher, Beverly Griffith, John Cornyn, Greg Gordon, Becky Motal, Alan Sager, Circle C Ranch

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