Austin @ Large: A Very Mayor-y Christmas
Enjoy your gift from Gus Garcia. (You can't return it.)
"If I run, I win." Politicians never admit to stepping down because they can't win, and when Mayor Gus Garcia announced he wouldn't seek another term, he dutifully cited cliché No. 1 ("spend more time with my family") and cliché No. 2 ("pursue opportunities in the private sector") like a good pol should. But of course, Gus was right. If he had run, he would have won, by acclamation if not by default. In real life, I suspect, many Austinites don't like Gus Garcia and would like him even less if he proved not to be the "caretaker" interim mayor they had expected. Perhaps some day those people will vote. Until then, their existence can only be speculated, not verified by the city election results.
So should we be disappointed that Everybody Loves Gus isn't running again, or should we thank the mayor for his Christmas present? (No exchanges or returns, please.) I think the latter. Garcia was the perfect mayor for the moment -- in 2001, the city was sick and tired of Kirk Watson, reeling like everyone else after September 11, and starting to realize that Austin's economy and city budget were in serious long-term trouble. Calling Gus a "caretaker" -- which he hates -- does not have to be an insult. Caretaking was exactly what Austin needed as it grieved for the lost pleasures and possibilities of the boom time, before the city was ready to take stock and move on. As a psychological leader -- kindly Uncle Gus, who everyone likes and trusts -- Garcia has done quite well. But our needs are different now.
Had Garcia not come back to City Hall under this set of expectations, his term in office would be adjudged an unqualified disaster -- unfairly, perhaps, but politics is like that. It's the economy, stupid. It's worse than we thought. The budget gap keeps growing, the demands of the citizens keep getting louder. The Seton meltdown and the Stratus eruption have scrubbed away from City Hall any residual rosy glow left over from the Can-Do Era of Capt. Kirk. Now the council can't even decide which way the streets should go and is brought to its knees by such ephemera as the Austin Music Network. It feels no mandate. That's why we now need a vigorous and hotly contested campaign to succeed Garcia. Obviously, somebody needs to tell the council what to do.
The No-Can-Do Era
I hadn't felt this way until recently. I was looking forward to Garcia, Will Wynn, Raul Alvarez, and Danny Thomas all running for re-election, all drawing token opposition (unfortunately, Jennifer Gale can only run in one race at a time), and having a campaign about as enlightening as watching the green grass grow. This would have been an improvement over last spring's council election, which was plenty exciting but in all the wrong ways: a referendum on personalities fought amid the ruins of ruptured alliances. It smelled bad and gave lots of people (except, I suppose, Betty Dunkerley) a throbbing headache. Will next spring be any different?
As I write, within a matter of days the race has gone from a coronation (of Garcia), to a quarrel (between Garcia and Wynn), to a street fight (between Wynn, Robin Rather, Jackie Goodman, Max Nofziger, and who knows who else), and back to a coronation (of Wynn). So there's no point handicapping what might happen by the time you read this. But it's instructive that Rather, upon declining to run for mayor for the second and perhaps last time, cited her unwillingness to take part in a "bitter, expensive, and divisive race" between people who are more alike than different.
Despite the seemingly obvious opportunity for a candidate to run to Wynn's right -- offsetting Nofziger's appeal from the "left" -- none has yet emerged. And although Goodman is by no means out of the picture, there's a curiously strong consensus that she isn't viable because she has no money. And despite being popular with normal people, the mayor pro tem would likely become the object of a tag-team attack from her opponents, just as Beverly Griffith was last spring. So, once again, the citizens will be presented on their ballot with more different shades of green than the Irish countryside. The candidates (both for mayor and for Wynn's, and perhaps Goodman's, vacant council seats) will have to pay campaign obeisance to obsolete thinkers (first stop: 300 S. Congress) who will ask why they are not all interchangeable, as the old guard secretly lusts for mythical commonsense conservatives who will mop the floor with all their sorry asses.
Some Assembly Required
Last spring, candidates and their supporters retreated into their petty animosities and pretended these signified the existence of great differences that should motivate voters. Of course, that was before Stratus -- although I suspect that deal would have gone down differently if it had happened two months before, rather than after, the election. If that's how it's going to be this time, who cares? Wake me when it's over. I hear Lubbock -- which is having its own free-for-all election to replace U.S. Rep. Larry Combest on the same day as Austin's mayoral race -- is lovely that time of year. (A few weeks back, Jennifer Gale was talking about running in that race, too.)
But again, your gift from Gus is not returnable. So let's pretend we'd never heard of any of these people before, that they just arrived from Mars and had no friends and fit into no known niches and were strangers to the concept of "messaging." Let's ask them not about what they did yesterday, or 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, but what they'll do tomorrow. This is the citizens' opportunity to supply the next council with its operating instructions. Some assembly is required.