Citizen Mary

Mary Arnold has been quietly fighting for Austin for 30 years

Citizen Mary
Photo By John Anderson

Mary Arnold is the model of what people in the South call a real lady. Soft-spoken, well educated, she displays the quiet self-assurance of someone who had a "proper" upbringing. Proper, that is, according to the standards set for young girls growing up in the well-to-do University Park area of Dallas, during a time when the city was rumbling out of the Great Depression with extraordinary verve. Like many women of her generation, Arnold could have easily assumed a role that centered on the business of running the family household. Fortunately for Austin, she did not.

For nearly 30 years, Arnold has played a large part in shaping -- and in some cases, changing -- the city's history, beginning with the 1973 campaign to stop the University of Texas regents from selling the Lions Municipal Golf Course property to commercial developers. The city operated the 18-hole golf course through a lease agreement with UT, but Regents Chairman Frank Erwin was in a hurry to turn a profit on the 150-acre property and there were plenty of willing buyers. In a rare show of unity, golfers, activists, and city leaders joined forces in the "Save MUNY" campaign. As luck would have it, Arnold already knew a good deal of land-use history, and she remembered that when the George Brackenridge family had donated the land to UT in 1910, there were certain conditions prohibiting the very thing Erwin was trying to do. She continued digging up more facts to bolster the arguments against Erwin's plan.

The city and UT wrangled for several more months until finally a backroom deal came together. Citizens, naturally, did not care for the dubious maneuvering that went on behind the scenes, but they nonetheless cheered the bottom-line resolution: MUNY was saved, and remains an oasis of green space and recreation on the West Side. The landmark campaign represented Arnold's initiation into the finer points of organized opposition. She was then a 38-year-old mother of two, a volunteer docent at the UT Huntington Art Museum, and a reputable member of Old West Austin society. "We agitated and did all sorts of wild and crazy things," Arnold recalled, delighting in the memory of thwarting the efforts of a big wheel like Erwin. From that point on, Arnold devoted her life to advocating for good government and protection of the environment.

Now, at the age of 66, Arnold insists she is ready to slow down. She wants to organize her papers, travel with newly retired husband Bill, and devote more time to her grandchildren. She's been saying that for years -- but has kept right on going. Nevertheless, the Save Our Springs Alliance is honoring her with a big "retirement" party Friday night at Austin City Limits. Arnold did, in fact, retire from the SOS board of directors in December, although she continues to serve as the group's most valuable human database. She's accumulated reams of knowledge and political savvy about Austin history and politics, and her memory is renowned.

Official retirement or not, no one expects Arnold to fully disengage herself from local issues, least of all her husband, who took over the cooking and shopping responsibilities long ago. "We've had a running joke for years," he says. "She would tell me she's slowing down, and I'd say, 'That's funny, because you're home less often.' She has fewer causes now, but she's spending the same amount of time on them that she did when she was involved in everything." On average, Arnold attends three to four meetings a week. Last week, for example, there were two meetings on the controversial development proposal of Stratus Properties, over which the developer and neighborhood and environmental groups are still trying to reach a resolution. Her third meeting was as a City Council appointee to a committee that's studying the environmental implications of the Lower Colorado River Authority's efforts to pipe water into sensitive areas already plagued with growth and development problems.

Arnold's impeccable research and activist skills in the MUNY fight earned her the recognition of City Council members, and thus began a long series of council appointments to key boards, commissions, and special committees. Along the way, she had an influential hand in crafting the Austin Tomorrow Plan, the city's much-beleaguered but still operable blueprint for long-term growth and planning. She also covered lots of ground on ordinances to secure the watershed ("They were a little bit watered down, but they made a difference"), along with tree preservation, parkland dedication, and landscape ordinances. In the early 1990s, Arnold worked with SOS Alliance leader Bill Bunch on the SOS water-quality ordinance, whose 1992 passage marked the crowning moment in Austin's environmental history.

Mary Arnold taking a stand against a proposed Town Lake development.
Mary Arnold taking a stand against a proposed Town Lake development. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Battling the MUDs and the Mayor

In many respects, Arnold was the environmental community's secret weapon against developers. She was the quiet one -- the one sitting studiously in the corner, poring over mind-numbing documents, scribbling in the margins, highlighting passages with one color here, another color there. "One of the things that makes Mary special is her legendary ability to take complex documents and annotate them so that normal human beings can understand them," said George Cofer, executive director of the Hill Country Conservancy. "The other side may have had $250-an-hour corporate lawyers, but we had Mary."

It's hard to think of the Phi Beta Kappa scholar as a typical activist. Citizen Mary would be a more apt title, because of the genteel manner in which she advocates for good government. Her areas of expertise are environmental and land-use regulations, and she can recite the sordid details of the Municipal Utility Districts that are in large measure the source of Austin's suburban sprawl. MUDs enabled developers to secure city utilities without having to pay for the construction of water and wastewater treatment plants. Arnold argued mightily against them when she served on the city's Parks Board from 1978-1984. "That's really the main thing that I wished they had listened to me about," she says. "They created little enclaves that allowed them to keep themselves separate from our city, even though they use our streets, our parks, and work here."

Inevitably armed with the facts, Arnold's method is persistence. And if at first that doesn't succeed, she'll ... persist. "If Mary's onto an issue, she won't go away," said her friend Susan Toomey Frost. "She talks sweetly to people in a very rational way, and she never, ever gives up." It's a style that has served her well in her years of negotiating with city staffers (although many of her trusted contacts are retiring or taking other jobs), and any number of council members who have revolved in and out the doors of City Hall at the will of voters. Arnold has lobbied them all with trademark relentlessness. Even those who consistently oppose her find it difficult to tell her no.

"If there was a cure for cancer and Mary Arnold was against it, it would be a close vote," developer Gary Bradley remarked one day last fall. He was volunteering a backward salute to Arnold's victory of a few days earlier, when the City Council rejected a Lumbermen's Investment Corp. proposal to build a 180-foot luxury condo on a vacant patch of real estate north of Town Lake. For Arnold, the triumph -- though it may be short-lived -- was just another chapter in a story that began in 1984, when Arnold, Roberta Crenshaw, and Susan Toomey Frost sued the city for passing an ordinance -- without proper public notice -- that gave away a chunk of the city-owned Sand Beach Reserve to Town Lake Joint Venture, a development outfit financially linked to then-Mayor Ron Mullen. The mayor and his partners subsequently intervened in the lawsuit, claiming the conduct of the three women was "willful, wanton, and malicious."

But Mullen was also gearing up for the 1985 re-election campaign, so the timing of his lawsuit against three civic-minded ladies could not have been worse. His mayoral opponent, Frank Cooksey, must have been turning back flips with his good fortune. Two days before the election, a full-page political ad appeared in the Statesman. The bold print screamed, "Why are Mayor Mullen and his partners suing these three ladies for over $800,000? Because they questioned Mayor Mullen's land development deal using city parkland ... and they would not be bullied!" Three days later, Mullen was history.

Arnold believes the ad contributed to Mullen's defeat, and helped usher in a new era of city politics with Cooksey and a more user-friendly council that included Smoot Carl-Mitchell, Sally Shipman, and George Humphrey. "It was a huge win for Cooksey," she says, "because he was an outsider running against an incumbent." The Town Lake Joint Venture and Mullen, an insurance executive, eventually went bankrupt, Lumbermen's foreclosed on the land, and the Sand Beach Reserve controversy dragged on for several more years. Finally, in December 2000, the city and Lumbermen's reached a settlement defining the boundary lines of the property.

Sitting at her dining room table last month, Arnold hardly seemed on the verge of retirement. And because Lumbermen's is still determined to build something big on the property overlooking Town Lake, Arnold regularly checks in with city staff on the matter.

This May 1985 advertisement -- featuring Mary Arnold, Susan Toomey Frost, and Roberta Crenshaw -- appeared in the <i>Statesman</i> two days before the mayoral election. Incumbent Ron Mullen was defeated.
This May 1985 advertisement -- featuring Mary Arnold, Susan Toomey Frost, and Roberta Crenshaw -- appeared in the Statesman two days before the mayoral election. Incumbent Ron Mullen was defeated.

Education of an Activist

You have to wonder if Arnold's teachers at Highland Park High School predicted that the well-behaved valedictorian -- Mary Margaret Miller -- would grow up to challenge those in positions of power. "She is a strong, outspoken woman," said Brigid Shea, a former SOS leader and City Council member. "She has consistently taken on the pillars of the community. She's the one who will point out that the emperor has no clothes -- regardless of whether it's going to offend her peer group or not."

Mary Margaret Miller was born in Dallas on June 4, 1935, the only child of Shannon and Ann Miller. Her father was a civil engineer who built bridges and power plants -- jobs that required a good deal of travel. Her mother's interests centered on piano and voice; she sang in the choir at Highland Park Presbyterian Church, and in later years served on the Pan American Round Table, a women's group that fosters good will with Latin America and sponsors students from those countries.

Mary acquired analytical and artistic traits from both her parents. In high school, she excelled in academics and was active in choir and drama, and after graduation, she enrolled at UT as a liberal arts "Plan II" student, one of an elite group selected for that honors program. She arrived with a full-tuition scholarship -- "for the big sum of $25," Arnold says with a laugh. Once at school, she wasted no time establishing her identity on campus. She joined the League of Women Voters, the University YWCA, and the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority.

After graduating in 1956, Mary spread her wings still further by spending the following year in London, where she audited courses at the prestigious School of Economics. She returned home to Dallas and took a job as a secretary at Texas Instruments. For Mary, it wasn't just any old secretarial job -- it was an opportunity to learn the operations of a company that was on the cutting edge of new technology. "That experience alone was worth four years of business school," she says. True to her nature, Mary wasn't content to settle into corporate complacency. By 1958 she had returned to Austin to work on a master's degree in government. Between working at the Texas Legislature in 1959 and as a part-time researcher at what was then the Institute of Public Affairs in 1960, she met and married Bill Arnold.

By 1961, Mary Arnold was exploring new ground yet again -- this time as the assistant dean of women at UT. But the Arnolds moved to Houston the following year, when Bill accepted a job as a financial officer for a private company. Mary took time out to have a baby -- son Wade, now a lawyer in Amarillo. The young family returned to Austin a few years later, this time planting permanent roots. The birth of Ellen, the Arnolds' second child, rounded out the family. (Ellen is now a graduate student in the UT School of Social Work.) And a few years later, the young mother would be drawn into the land battle with Frank Erwin and UT that set the course of public life in Austin.

Caught in the Stampede

In 1994, after years devoted to public advocacy, Arnold mounted her first and only campaign for public office. She ran a well-organized campaign against Council Member Ronney Reynolds, who made up part of the pro-development majority known as R.U.L.E. -- an acronym for Reynolds, Charles Urdy, Bob Larson, and Louise Epstein. Back then, the local environmental coalition was much more unified, and the progressives were onboard with Arnold. (Daryl Slusher was also a member of the green slate in his run against Mayor Bruce Todd.) But there were two factors working against the novice candidate. First, Austin's Christian Coalition had succeeded in getting a referendum placed on the ballot to overturn the city's newly instated domestic partners benefits law, and ultra-conservatives, many of them first-time voters, turned out in droves. Reynolds had voted against the measure and thereby won the conservative group's endorsement. Had it not been for the Christian stampede to the polls, Arnold's supporters believe, she would have won the election.

But it also didn't help matters that Arnold came up short as a campaigner. She wasn't accustomed to playing dirty, and she clearly wasn't comfortable asking well-off friends and acquaintances for campaign money. "We never could get her to go after Ronney with hard-hitting sound bites," George Cofer recalls. "She wasn't a great candidate, but she would have made a great elected official."

"As a candidate, you have to let yourself get mad," says Toomey Frost, who knows a thing or two about running for office. She had lost a run-off election against Bob Larson in 1990. "Mary's way is much more subdued -- but she's unbelievably enduring. She would have been the bane of the development interests."

Eyes on the Prize

But Arnold's long and continuing importance to the city has not been as an out-front politician. "Mary was the glue that held the environmental community together over the years," said Bill Bunch. "She is the sage elder that this city desperately needs more of. If she had won the election, and if city officials had listened to Mary over the last 20 years, Austin would be a much more livable city." With more of that elder leadership, Bunch believes, there very likely would not be the virtually unregulated MUDs, or the Terrace PUD along South MoPac, or, more recently, the agonizing development agreement with Gary Bradley, which led to a bitter split of the environmental community. Though Bunch and Arnold are polar opposites in their approaches to politics, they agree philosophically on most issues. "Mary is very firm," Bunch says. "She doesn't bite on the sales pitches that others have."

As for Arnold herself, her main current concern is citizen apathy in Austin. "We've been lulled into complacency. There is just not as much of a public outcry as there has been in past years." The proposed SH 45 project that would link I-35 with MoPac, she says, is but one example of a major highway project and potential environmental disaster that has drawn little vocal opposition. "We just can't continue to overload ourselves with highways as the solution to our transportation problems," she says. And neighborhoods are at risk of becoming homogenized by new development -- often over the objections of the residents most affected by it. "One of the newer bumper stickers that I truly love is 'Keep Austin Weird,' and what I've always loved about Austin neighborhoods is that they're very eclectic -- not all cookie-cutter." A regional vision won't solve all of the city's growth problems, Arnold says, but there are enough red flags on the horizon to warrant a sense of urgency. "People come here from out of town and remark about how wonderful Austin is, and I tell them, 'We worked very hard for it.'

"But we've got to be very careful not to let Austin get away from us." end story

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