Beverly Besieged

Place 4 race a three-way scramble on shaky ground

Place 4 candidates (l-r): Beverly Griffith, Betty Dunkerley, and Brewster McCracken
Place 4 candidates (l-r): Beverly Griffith, Betty Dunkerley, and Brewster McCracken

On the campaign trail, Beverly Griffith comports herself with good ol' gal aplomb, seemingly unconcerned about these nice people running against her. But in her private moments or fever dreams, the Place 4 incumbent may have visions of being attacked by not one, but two, two-headed monsters.

That's because both of her strongest challengers, Betty Dunkerley and Brewster McCracken, have pulled off the neat trick of running both to Griffith's right and to her left at the same time. (Her weakest challenger, UT student Eddie Green Bradford -- his real middle name -- has mostly run on her Libertarian right.) Dunkerley -- the city's longtime finance director -- has worked to nail down the good-government, fiscally responsible, basic-services-for-the-working-man vote (aka the Sammy-and-Bob caucus). The message was aptly captured by the Statesman in its endorsement: "Dunkerley offers the council more of what it will need in the coming years -- fiscal constraint and financial expertise."

Dunkerley has noted that you'll be hard-pressed to find any major corporation that doesn't have a CPA on its board -- an implicit assertion that Austin Inc., a $2 billion enterprise facing the largest budget deficits in its history, needs her expertise more than she craves the glory of being a council member. (Austin Inc. does have a CPA on its board -- Mayor Gus Garcia -- though he typically deferred to Dunkerley's expertise when she was on staff.) Though Griffith is a banker by profession, and has during her tenure spent more time squinting at the bottom-line impact of agenda items than do many council members, she has basically left unanswered the charge that (compared to Dunkerley) she's a fiscal lightweight.

Perhaps surprisingly, Dunkerley has also become the candidate of choice of many Austinites of color, the African-American community in particular. Not that the Eastside isn't likewise interested in good government and fiscal responsibility, but therein normally lies much of the constituency for social spending that a squinty-eyed bottom-line watcher may reject. Former Dallas Cowboys star and lottery millionaire Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson is impacting his own bottom line with independent ads on Dunkerley's behalf; she's picked up the vigorous endorsement of Eastside newspapers Nokoa and The Villager; and her campaign treasurer is Rev. Joseph Parker of David Chapel Baptist Church, second only to Sterling Lands in the Eastside preacher elite.

This must be a blow to Griffith, whose tag-teaming with minority council members over her two terms -- especially Danny Thomas, who also got elected with Henderson's support -- has been conspicuous, and who is duly proud of how much time and lucre the city has spent, at her initiative, on Eastside projects like her beloved destination parks. "Nobody cares about that," says one (anonymous) observer of Eastside politics. "They care about the money."

That is, getting a fair share of city contracts under Austin's star-crossed disadvantaged business enterprise program, which was in the view of black and Hispanic contractors a horrifying mess until Dunkerley inherited it in 1996 and straightened it out. This was the first time many city watchers got to see Dunkerley, formerly the CPA in the back room of the budget office, in front of the camera, so to speak, and apparently many remain impressed.

On the other hand, many Griffith supporters watched Dunkerley in action crafting the Seton-Brack deal and were not impressed. Griffith's last big fundraiser was at the creekside home of Dr. Jim Brand, chair of the Brackenridge Hospital Oversight Council, which opposed the "hospital-within-a-hospital" deal designed to remove forbidden women's health services from the Catholic-run, city-owned hospital's domain without kicking Seton out entirely. If Dunkerley has been dogged with any persistent charge on the campaign trail, it's that she doesn't support a woman's right to choose, which she vigorously denies.

Meanwhile, McCracken has a potentially more serious charge to refute, at least in this town: that he's a Republican. According to his campaign filings and his supporters list, McCracken enjoys the backing of people who've also supported young GOP star Todd Baxter, both in his campaigns for county commissioner and his current race to unseat state Rep. Ann Kitchen, and Jill Warren in her race against Kitchen in 2000 to succeed Sherri Greenberg. (McCracken himself gave money to Warren, and she to him.) This information has already been neatly compiled in an anonymous e-mail hit making the rounds -- "The question needs to be asked: Does Brewster support the views of these supporters? Or do these supporters support Brewster's views?"

In itself, such guilt-by-association is specious, since people often give money to the campaigns of friends and colleagues regardless of party, and McCracken clearly has a lot of friends. But McCracken can deploy a potent mix of weaponry for any entrenched incumbent to combat: Though he enjoys apparently genuine credibility as a progressive candidate, he also speaks Suburban-Republican far more fluently than does Griffith. His campaign literature has made much of his service as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve and as a deacon of his Presbyterian church, both résumé-builders that are unlikely to much matter to Birkenstock Belt voters.


Gathering Strange Bedfellows

You could see this all in action at last week's candidate forum sponsored by seven Northwest Corridor neighborhood associations, including many residents who were only annexed into the city (mostly against their will) in 1998. It was held at Spicewood Elementary, where Brewster's wife Mindy Montford McCracken went to school, as he reminded the crowd not once, but twice. (His father-in-law is former state Sen. John Montford, who represented a vast swath of West Texas at the Capitol for close to 20 years.) Mostly, McCracken -- who lives in Northwest Hills -- seemed to be running not an at-large race against Griffith, but for what would be the District 7 seat (the Northwest 'burbs) in the single-member map that the council decided not to attach to Prop. 3 on the May ballot. And if SMDs pass and he fails, he well might be making that run next year.

Most of the Northwest boxes -- especially the last-annexed ones -- have never voted for Griffith, and despite her ain't-Austin-great poses at this same forum, the whispered comments in the back of the room when she spoke ranged from cynical to downright rude. But lest Griffith be tempted to paint McCracken as Ronney Reynolds (the last council member from the Northwest) redux -- backed by numerous former Chamber of Commerce leaders, former Mayor Bruce Todd, and his father-in-law George Christian -- the "backin' McCracken" roster also includes a who's-who of young, hip Austin center-lefties.

McCracken has, without much apparent strain, picked up the support of the next generation of Austin power: People like Zoning and Platting Commissioner Michael Casias, Planning Commissioner Lydia Ortiz and her husband Hector (who ran against Griffith in 1999), UT prof/performer/guru Steve Tomlinson, high tech master and sage Peter Zandan, and most notably former Save Our Springs Alliance chair and all-but-certain future mayoral candidate Robin Rather. Rather and her sister-in-arms, former Council Member Brigid Shea, had originally pulled off the neat trick of pitching the candidacies of both Dunkerley and McCracken, but when it came time to choose, Brigid went for Betty and Robin for Brewster. (This put both of them at odds with their former SOS cohort, who are solidly behind Griffith -- but you knew that already.)


Playing the Percentages

In the face of this onslaught, Griffith's best hope, of course, is that more will be torn as Shea and Rather were torn, that Dunkerley and McCracken will split the Anyone-but-Bev vote, and that Griffith can tap her core support in the Birk Belt to squeak through without a run-off. Admittedly, some of the strongest players on the anti-Griffith side -- like the Austin Police Association PAC -- have not been able to choose, and co-endorsed both Brewster and Betty. But that doesn't necessarily weaken either challenger; Dunkerley has the daily's endorsement and is well known to hardcore city watchers who always vote, and McCracken is the first candidate in any race to go on TV, and both have enough money to fight to the finish. If, as seems more than plausible, Griffith ends up facing one of them in the run-off, the anti-Bev vote will unite.

As we write, the race seems split on two variables -- whether you think the current council sucks, and whether you think Beverly is part of the problem. Griffith's strongest supporters would answer "Yes, it sucks" and "No, she's not," cherishing her rep as the designated mourner for green council dreams gone awry. Dunkerley's base would say the reverse: "No" and "Yes" -- they despise Griffith, but they don't think Austin government is all that bad, or else Dunkerley's record as a key player in that government wouldn't be very attractive. While McCracken also plays well with that crowd, he owns the "Yes" and "Yes" vote -- anti-council and anti-Griffith -- outright, since he represents the biggest change among the top three contenders. (The last quadrant of the matrix -- the "No" and "No" vote -- includes this paper, but also includes the least-motivated voters.)

Which brings this race, like most council races, down to turnout. While we know better than to predict, Dunkerley could win the most boxes and still come in third, because the Sammy-and-Bob boxes in the North and South, and the Eastside, tend to have the lowest turnout in the whole city. That leaves McCracken and Griffith fighting to a draw -- he's a lot stronger west of MoPac, she's a little stronger in Central Austin, but the Birk Belt votes in higher numbers than the 'burbs, so it's a wash.

Stay tuned for the run-off. n

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