Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Coming to terms: The limited wisdom of term limits

City Council members (l-r) Daryl Slusher, Beverly Griffith, and Jackie Goodman after winning re-election in 1999
City Council members (l-r) Daryl Slusher, Beverly Griffith, and Jackie Goodman after winning re-election in 1999 (Photo By John Anderson)

It's a lovely image conjured up last week by Statesman columnist Susan Smith: Beverly Griffith, with her "Prada purse full of money," buying up signatures to bust term limits. Obviously, it wasn't to be taken literally, because Griffith is clearly not a Prada kind of girl (Hermes scarf and Coach bag, maybe ...).

It's no secret that Griffith, who with her husband Balie owns millions of dollars' worth of real estate, has spent real money -- one dollar per signature to her clipboard wielders, and then some -- to collect the 20,000 or so signatures (5% of registered voters) that will allow her to run for a third term. This escape-hatch provision of Austin's term-limit law was upheld by District Judge Suzanne Covington last week, so it looks like money well spent.

Griffith may have already collected the sigs she needs, though her campaign is planning to pick up a few thousand extras just to make sure. By contrast, the very-un-wealthy Jackie Goodman and Daryl Slusher are only "more than halfway there" in their tag-team quest for the magic number, although their pace has picked up of late with their popular concert-cum-signing-parties at Antone's. Griffith has reportedly spent more than Goodman and Slusher combined.

The obvious conclusion here is not quite so obvious, since according to Griffith's campaign, she has only contributed $5,000 of the reported $45,000 she has so far spent. The rest has come from shaking the fundraising tree, which is pretty impressive considering the vows of chastity and poverty -- that is, the $100 contribution limit -- the city charter imposes on the politically involved.

Green Bedfellows

That doesn't make moot Griffith's financial advantage; she can afford to front-load her fundraising now, and then dip into her purse-full-o'-money in the home stretch when others have exhausted their accounts. But that's not the same as saying that only the wealthy can afford to bust term limits -- which is what Smith sorta said, what we said last week in "Page Two," and what former mayor Bruce Todd said when, immediately after Covington's ruling, he announced a new political action committee to gather sigs for Slusher and Goodman, at the now-standard one-dollar rate.

Before you fantasize about a Cancún trip, please note that, according to Griffith's head sig-wrangler Linda Curtis, a dollar a name is, at best, minimum wage. Since few people truly enjoy being clipboard jockeys, few volunteer for the gig, and paying one's campaign grunts -- as opposed to buying a bunch of TV time -- has not heretofore seemed sleazy or undemocratic. Nor can one fault Griffith for planning ahead and getting an early start, even if Slusher and Goodman did not, in the jibe of one non-supporter, "sit around and whine and wait for [the city attorney] to bail their asses out" when term limits were inevitably challenged in court.

So why all the animus toward Griffith? Well, accusations like that last one, which Slusher and Goodman staunchly deny, don't dispose their friends to think highly of a Griffith camp that, while supposedly on the same side, sounds and acts more like an opposition campaign every day. And making enemies, which Beverly has, is a natural consequence of Griffith's being on the bottom end of a lot of 6-1 (or 5-2, with Danny Thomas) votes.

But Griffith's friends also include people like the leaders of the Save Our Springs Alliance, progressive consultant Mike Blizzard, and Linda Curtis, the mother of campaign-finance limits and an outspoken term-limits backer who told us she'd never work for Slusher or Goodman. So Bev has in hand the grassroots that brought the Green Machine to power, the people that, once upon a time, made the political careers of Slusher and Goodman possible.

Face it: There's a reason why Bruce Todd, who fought a bitter and wildly expensive 1994 campaign against Slusher to narrowly win re-election, is now hitting the pavement on Daryl's behalf, while Mike Blizzard, who worked like a dog for Slusher in that and subsequent elections, is not. Todd now says Slusher has proven to "be a responsible council member," which even eight years later is tantamount in some leftie quarters to being endorsed by Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Or, perhaps it goes without saying that Bruce and Daryl are now cozy, since Slusher is the anti-Bev in this little drama among the amigos of the Three Amigos. While some may blanch at Goodman's seeking a fourth term on the council, her rep is still pretty positive, a recognition of the fact that she's been more than ordinarily effective at advancing the Green Machine agenda. But Slusher -- with or without cause -- is reviled as a sellout by many who helped establish his political career. If you're wondering why it's Griffith who is leading in the quest to bust term limits, this fact is not incidental.


This may be yet another occasion for us to thump our tub about the idiocy, or at least inadequacy, of our term-limit law. Assuming that Slusher, Goodman, and Griffith all make it onto the May 4 ballot, the sig-wrangling grind will just become a tedious added step in future council campaigns. (In fact, it will again be the Three Amigos, should they be contemplating lifetime employment on the council, who will next encounter the term-limit provision in 2005.)

But if they don't all make it, no matter what the claims about the petition process being a "kinder, gentler" (Curtis' words) term-limit law, you'll be seeing a charter amendment to repeal it faster than Bruce Todd can say, "I'm forming a PAC!" In fact, the Charter Revision Committee is slated to recommend just such an amendment in its report to council this week (see "Chartering a Course," p.24). Given the turnout that we've seen lately, it would take a lot less than 20,000 people to throw out term limits, or to at least reduce the signature quota to a more manageable figure.

Interestingly, in her decision, Covington pointed out that she was not ruling on whether the 5%-of-voters requirement -- a number that changes from one day to the next, as new voters register and old ones leave town -- was "unconstitutionally vague," since that's not what the Austin Police Association was complaining about in its lawsuit. This suggests that she or another judge might decide the charter provision is too vague, just as all Three Amigos have complained. It's probably too late to make a difference this go-round, but Austin's term limits may not have seen their last day in court.

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