May 4 Election Wrap-up
Place 4: How Many Negatives Make a Positive?In the wee hours on Election Night, Betty Dunkerley continued to marvel at her fate. "I have two speeches," she said, pointing to each pocket, "one for if I came in second, and one for if I came in third. I don't have a speech for coming in first!"
She wasn't the only one left speechless. Contrary to nearly everyone's expectations, the former City Hall finance director and assistant city manager bloodied two-term incumbent Beverly Griffith all across town -- except for a few Central Austin strongholds -- to take 41% of the Place 4 vote. Griffith, who three years ago bested eight candidates without a run-off, this time only narrowly squeaked (with 29%) past third-place finisher Brewster McCracken (who took 26%), who quickly signaled his intention to endorse Dunkerley. On Monday, Griffith bowed to the near-inevitable and withdrew from the run-off, leaving Dunkerley the newest member of the Austin City Council.
Though Griffith's unselfish decision was admired by both opponents and supporters, Beverly did not exactly go gentle into the good night. "My only regret in withdrawing is that I will not have the opportunity to set the record straight in the run-off and respond to the constant barrage of half-truths and misrepresentations in the attacks by my opponent," Griffith said in her statement -- repeating a theme she had sounded on Election Night and in the last days of her campaign.
Yet, as did Ronney Reynolds when he made Kirk Watson mayor-by-withdrawal in 1997, Griffith said she'd rather give up, for the good of the city, than go wholly negative and attack Dunkerley head-on -- which she'd clearly have to do to close a 13-point gap. "She was unwilling to participate in a divisive, ugly campaign simply to retain her seat," says Griffith campaign consultant Mike Blizzard. "She is a very, very classy woman."
Like Reynolds, Griffith was blindsided by her challengers' success in her own back yard -- both Dunkerley and McCracken did well enough in the central city to keep Griffith from making up ground lost to Dunkerley elsewhere in town. West of MoPac -- where in some boxes turnout reached levels not seen in a decade -- Dunkerley and McCracken pushed the incumbent into single-digit territory, even as her colleagues Daryl Slusher and Jackie Goodman carried the boxes by handsome margins (see "By the Numbers"). This after Griffith sailed past charter-mandated term limits by collecting 26,000 signatures, far more than Slusher and Goodman. On election night, Griffith ended up with fewer than half that many votes, while both Slusher and Goodman exceeded their petition totals.
Divided and Conquered
Did Griffith's odd-council-member-out record finally catch up with her? Or was she punished, as she and her campaign imply, for taking the high road and letting herself be assaulted from below? By the standards of past races, or of the highly charged Place 1 contest between Slusher and Kirk Mitchell, one could be forgiven for not feeling that Griffith was handled too roughly by either Dunkerley or McCracken, or that she didn't give as good as she got. In the waning days of the campaign, Griffith put out a "setting the record straight" message to supporters, addressing Dunkerley's criticism of her position on the controversial CSC deal. "Betty Dunkerley attacks me for first opposing the CSC deal and then voting for it," Griffith wrote. "This is typical of her not telling the whole story."
Griffith went on to explain -- accurately -- that her refusal to sign on to CSC when it was first proposed allowed her to amend the deal and save the taxpayers money. But she then continued with what, to the untrained eye, might seem like an equally severe "attack" on Dunkerley's role in the equally controversial Brackenridge/Seton lease agreement. "Betty prefers the strategy of no negotiation at all, a prime example being the Brackenridge deal," Griffith wrote, explaining how she "wanted to investigate other options, but Betty Dunkerley said we had to remain with the Catholic-run Seton" and that "the city [i.e., Dunkerley] would not consider other providers, nor would she consider a request for proposals."
This likewise doesn't tell the whole story, since in Dunkerley's view there were no other options to investigate that wouldn't cost the city millions of dollars that it didn't have. Moreover, the Dunkerley-crafted deal to make the Seton/Brack partnership religiously correct was also the preferred strategy of Dunkerley's boss, City Manager Jesus Garza, and of a majority of his bosses on the City Council. Blaming Betty for Brack -- which Griffith more or less did when it was happening -- was, in the eyes of at least some observers, what motivated Dunkerley into the race against Griffith in the first place. (Dunkerley didn't deny this outright.)
Whether these are "attacks," or meaningful discussion of the two veterans' records, is in the eye of the beholder. The challengers, who studiously ignored each other throughout the campaign, did take time -- McCracken far more often than Dunkerley -- to point to Griffith's perceived record of "divisiveness" as a voice of dissent on the council. Griffith did not acquire that reputation against her will, despite reminding voters that 93% of her sponsored agenda items had passed, proof of her team-player credentials. Her campaign was buoyed from the outset by support from urban-core voters who found her the only acceptable incumbent, but that proved to not be a large enough base.
Players for Which Team?
Considering the vehemence of the opposition Griffith has earned for saying no when she's said no, both challengers offered a notably civil version of familiar Anyone-but-Beverly themes. They too can claim to have run what Griffith called (in her own case) "a positive campaign, focusing on my qualifications and accomplishments serving you, and on my vision for Austin's future." But the two-against-one offense made Griffith's row to re-election almost impossible to hoe. As McCracken noted early on Election Night -- when Dunkerley began with a lead in early-voting totals and never gave it up -- "Betty's being at 40% shows that we've accomplished our goals in this race."
McCracken's 26%, as a political neophyte competing against two longtime City Hall fixtures, is really what doomed Griffith's chances for a third term. "It's one of the first elections in a while where we've had a real choice," he said on Election Night. "The city's better off when that happens."
While Dunkerley takes over the Place 4 seat, both Griffith and McCracken say they're going to stay involved in the community -- an involvement that, in McCracken's case, could involve another run for elective office. "Obviously, after all this work," he said, "I think I've built a base where, if I do choose to run again, I could do it."