In a race as close as the contest for City Council Place 4 appears to be, the mud was bound to start flying. Attorney/novelist/ deacon/candidate Brewster McCracken has slung a fistful at incumbent Beverly Griffith, first at an April 16 candidates forum and then in an April 17 press release in which he tried to pin blame for HEB's withdrawal from early voting on Griffith.
The giant grocery chain says it will almost certainly pull out of Travis County and the city of Austin's systems, partly due to space concerns, but also in response to a lawsuit by Place 3 candidate Linda Curtis and her activist group, Independent Texans (see "Litigious Linda," April 19). At the time Curtis filed her suit, she had been working as a paid signature-gatherer for Griffith's petition to bypass Austin's term-limits law. The suit, which Curtis has dropped, alleged that because HEB allowed early voting, it must also permit petition-gathering. Claiming that petition-gathering violates its no-solicitation policy, however, HEB plans to drop early voting in order to avoid further litigation. The chain is not participating in the current city election.
"Griffith has repeatedly denied that she had any role in the lawsuit," McCracken's press release alleges. "[H]owever, McCracken has produced court records to the contrary. ... In her deposition suit, Curtis testified that she discussed the lawsuit with Griffith and that Griffith authorized the suit."
But did Griffith really do so? Well, yes and no -- literally. In the Dec. 12 deposition to which McCracken refers, the defense counsel repeatedly asked Curtis whether Griffith's campaign authorized the suit -- and she repeatedly said no. Eventually, however, she did waffle: "Beverly is not a party to this lawsuit," Curtis said. "She doesn't want to go around suing people for anything. ... She asked me to run this campaign, the petition drive, because she knows I know what it takes to get on the ballot. And I told her, 'We need to go into court on this.' And she said, 'Whatever. Do whatever you have to do to get this done that's proper, legal, and all those things.' So I don't know what the answer is. I guess 'Yes.' Why don't I say 'Yes.'"
However, both Curtis and the Griffith camp say McCracken is taking that sorta-maybe "yes" out of context. They say the defense lawyer was trying to challenge Independent Texans' standing in the suit. If he could show that the group would suffer no injury if Griffith's petition failed, then they would have no right to sue. Thus, Curtis was trying to establish a tangible connection between the interests of Independent Texans and Griffith.
Curtis' meetings with Griffith were "not to ask for her approval," Curtis said, "but just to tell her what I thought needed to be done in order for us to be able to get the job done. And Beverly understood what I was talking about. That didn't mean that she said, 'Go sue HEB for me.' That's ludicrous, and Brewster McCracken knows it."
In fact, the Griffith campaign says Curtis asked Griffith to give her a contract stating she was an official campaign representative. According to Griffith campaign manager Brandi Clark, Griffith responded, "No, not for the purposes of a lawsuit." Another part of Curtis' testimony backs up that statement.
Further weakening McCracken's attack is the chronology of the HEB/Curtis saga. Curtis' suit was filed in December, but HEB actually first wrote to Travis County about a possible pullout in October -- more than a month before Griffith hired her. That letter was in response to a similar, previous suit by Curtis and the ACLU in August, when Curtis was gathering signatures for the Austin Fair Elections Act charter measure. Curtis says she and other organizations have been fighting for access to petition at shopping centers for years, and that this is an ongoing issue, not one specific to Griffith's campaign. "It's not her issue," Curtis said. "It's mine."
And while McCracken focuses on the loss of the HEB sites to the city election, it more heavily impacts the separate county system. City Clerk Shirley Brown says the reason HEB didn't participate in the current election is because the city never asked them. "We knew [the county situation] was dangling out there, so we looked for other facilities," she said. The city didn't heavily rely upon HEB outlets anyway, she adds, but uses recreation centers and other city-owned buildings. "HEBs were only about three out of the 180 sites we had [in the last municipal election]."
McCracken now denies charging that Griffith was responsible for HEB dropping their early voting sites. "What I am doing," he said, "is I'm relying on newspaper reports where HEB says this was the final straw, or something to that effect. I believe by itself it was wrong for a political candidate to be sanctioning lawsuits against local merchants or having their campaign involved in it."