The Austin Chronicle

Hell Hath No Fury

Place 1 race pits old friends in a battle of dis-Illusions

By Amy Smith, May 3, 2002, News

In his six years on the City Council, Daryl Slusher has: (a) evolved into a highly effective leader or (b) succumbed to the influences of high-handed lobbyists. Kirk Mitchell is absolutely convinced of the latter and, even though he once gave Slusher thousands of dollars in campaign contributions (back when the sky was the limit), Mitchell now wants to boot his former friend out of office -- at any cost, it seems.

Mitchell's campaign to unseat his old ally didn't start off pretty, and no one expects it to end that way. With a war chest stoked with anger and money, Mitchell is buying air time and ink to paint Slusher as the man responsible for most everything that's wrong with Austin. Drawing on this strategy, Mitchell believes he can force Slusher into a run-off "by the skin of my teeth." Of the five Place 1 candidates, Mitchell is clearly Slusher's most formidable foe, as opposed to Austin attorney Vincent Aldridge, or lifetime candidate Jennifer Gale, or UT senior Craig Barrett, who carries the endorsement of the Travis County Libertarian Party.

David Butts, a volunteer consultant on the Slusher campaign, likes to think that his candidate will pull enough votes to win outright on May 4, but he allows that a second Slusher vs. Mitchell match isn't out of the realm of possibility. "Given the nature of these elections, I think Kirk has a chance of making it into a run-off. I also think he has a chance of not making the run-off."

If there's anything Slusher and Mitchell do have in common at this stage of their relationship, it's that each holds a fairly long record of offending people over the years. But Slusher probably comes out ahead on that front. So one could reason that Mitchell's base of support has more to do with resentment toward Slusher than full-fledged support for Mitchell.

Most people who follow city politics closely know that Slusher has become the antichrist in the eyes of certain progressives and environmentalists, and they want him to suffer the consequences. Things have turned so venomous, in fact, you'd think Daryl Slusher was the Bruce Todd of the early Nineties. "Many of the reasons Kirk jumped in at the last minute to run against Daryl are the same reasons Daryl jumped in to run against Bruce Todd," said Mitchell consultant Mike Blizzard, reflecting on the 1994 mayoral campaign. The difference between then and now, however, is that Mitchell is running against an old friend, while Slusher, a former journalist, was running against an incumbent he used to regularly rake over the coals in this publication. Slusher and Todd have since become allies.

It makes sense that Slusher would be pegged as the No. 1 target on the council, even though his voting record on key issues closely matches those of the two other incumbents running for re-election, Beverly Griffith and Jackie Goodman. All three, for example, voted for the controversial subsidy deals the city struck with Computer Sciences Corp., and later Intel. But Slusher, because of his investigative roots, was the one Mitchell and others of his ilk were counting on to rattle cages down at City Hall, to expose corruption and cover-ups from the inside. "It's more mysterious than anything else," Mitchell says woefully. "He seemed like a tougher, more honest, more principled guy." Mitchell says he's "just arrogant enough" to stick to his principles and on that score would advocate an end to corporate subsidies, give more wisdom to picking the city's legislative lobbyists, and refuse to cave on deals that would jeopardize water resources. In other words, Mitchell says, he would do all the things Slusher failed to do to ensure Austin's livability.

But Slusher says that when he accepted Mitchell's generous financial contributions (Mitchell hails from a wealthy, philanthropic Houston family), there were never guarantees that he would repay him in the form of votes. "He thought I should do what he wanted me to do, but I'm an independent thinker," Slusher says. "This shows how controlled by lobbyists I'm not."

At the top of the anti-Slusher attack list are the boondoggles he supported as a council member. But Mitchell himself, along with a fair number of other Save Our Springs Alliance leaders, went on record endorsing the mother boondoggle of them all -- the CSC relocation to city-owned property, which at the time was billed as the environmentally smart thing to do. While Mitchell expressed concern about the process, he told council members in December 1998 that they should do "almost whatever is necessary to encourage a corporation [to relocate] where we desire to really build a thriving metropolitan center." That's why, he explained, "SOS got involved ... to see if there's anything we could do to help." Today, Mitchell says he "never felt good about" the subsidy issue.

Slusher explains his position this way: "It was distasteful to me to give any incentives or subsidies to corporations, but I eventually determined that doing so was in the best interest of the city and the Edwards Aquifer. It's one thing to change your position on something," he adds, taking a swipe at his opponent. "It's another to deny you ever had that position."

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