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Austin @ Large: Austin at Large: Too Many Cooks?

The restaurant guys might spoil Will Wynn's (and Max Nofziger's) smooth campaign

By Mike Clark-Madison, January 31, 2003, News

Right now nobody is officially a candidate for mayor or City Council in the May election. Filing doesn't begin until Feb. 18. (Yes, I know, there are levels of official-ness relating to campaign finance -- the designation of a treasurer and such -- but not everyone who does those things ends up on the ballot.) But, as I write, six people have publicly stated they intend to run for mayor. Some of them are freaks. Some of them are veteran politicians. And some of them own restaurants. You guess which ones are which. No, the categories aren't mutually exclusive.

Once you have to use two hands to count the candidates, a run-off becomes more likely -- but that presumes that two credible candidates will lead the pack. Gus Garcia faced seven opponents in November 2001. He beat them all by margins well in excess of 3-to-1. (Garcia got just shy of 60%; Eric Mitchell, the No. 2 finisher, got 16.6%.) Right now, conventional wisdom holds that Will Wynn may repeat Garcia's performance. But that was before Marc Katz entered the race. I gotta tell ya.

Absent Austin's most famous deli owner, the race was shaping up into Austin's third mayoral cakewalk in a row. Former Council Member Max Nofziger, making his fourth run for mayor, would do about as well as former Council Member Mitchell did. Which would be substantially better than Nofziger did when he last ran, in 1997, against Kirk Watson and Ronney Reynolds. Restaurateur Brad Meltzer -- aka "the Republican," though he touts his bipartisanship -- would do as well as Greg Gordon, "the Republican" who ran against Garcia in 2001 and got 13.3% of the vote. (Like Gordon, Meltzer -- who owns our local Benihana outlets -- is almost unknown even to people who get paid to know who the candidates are. All they know is he's "the Republican.") And Leslie Cochran and Jennifer Gale would do as well as they always do. Will Wynn might as well start measuring his mayoral drapes.

Now comes Marc Katz, who despite being a comic character in most of our memories is more than a speed bump on Wynn's path to glory. At this point, any race against Wynn is by definition uphill, but if Katz does indeed run and runs seriously, I would say a run-off is likely, perhaps assured. Katz, like Wynn but unlike Jackie Goodman, has enough money to run and win under the current rules of the game. And he needs less of it, because he has the highest name ID of anyone in the race (though admittedly, "Will Wynn" is such a good name for a candidate). And unlike most people with this supposedly cardinal political virtue -- say, Goodman, or the leading prospective stunt-candidate from the last go-round, Sammy Allred -- Katz has few discernible negatives. What's not to like? What Austinite (the voting kind, I mean) of at least moderate standing doesn't have at least one faintly positive memory of an experience at Katz's Deli?

It's been there for nearly 30 years, with his name, face, voice, and slogan attached. His community involvements, as far as I can tell, have been at least benign, usually admirable: Lord only knows (well, I suppose Marc Katz knows) how much money he has helped raise for local nonprofits, particularly AIDS organizations. He has a lot of fans and a lot of friends.

And Katz's ability to speak to what I think is this year's electoral Zeitgeist -- nostalgia for old Austin, obsession with its economic and cultural recovery, and veneration of local businesses and icons of the scene -- surpasses any other candidate's, even Nofziger's. Look around the country and you'll find a lot of officeholders like Marc Katz; people like him used to be fixtures of Austin politics. (Consider former mayors Harry Akin, impresario of the Night Hawk, or Roy Butler, or Bill Drake -- businessmen who everyone knew long before they ran for office.) None of this is to say that Katz would make a good mayor or deserves your vote, of course. But if he wants to be, he's a perfectly credible candidate.

Katz does, however, have some fairly weighty personal baggage -- namely, a substance-abuse problem, and subsequent rehabilitation, that he has acknowledged but not discussed in detail, and that everyone who's been here more than 10 years seems to know about. In his court fight last year with his son Barry over the ownership and management of the Katz's restaurants in Austin and Houston, the younger Katz, and his superstar lawyer Roy Minton, alleged that Marc Katz was once again using drugs in late 2000, which is why Barry took control and made decisions Marc later found objectionable (and actionable). This charge may not be true, or even relevant; Austin voters have in the past firmly (and rightly) blown off details of their electeds' chemical pasts, whether it be Ann Richards' alcoholism or Jackie Goodman's long-ago marijuana bust. When the latter affair became public in 1996, then-retiring Max Nofziger was asked if he ever smoked marijuana. (Please.) He told the Statesman it was none of their business.

But words like "drug abuse" and "relapse" and "late 2000" are a little more grave and more recent than voters are used to hearing about their prospective mayors. It's hard to imagine that Katz, should he decide to mount a serious campaign, wouldn't be pressed for more details. Certainly us news jackals will do so. Watch to see what the other candidates do. It will be a good indicator of what their internal polls say about Katz's chances.

Other than that, the biggest challenge for Katz would be that he, Nofziger, and to a degree Meltzer are going after more or less the same voters. But I think the candidate who suffers the most here is Nofziger. To be as formidable a challenge to Wynn as Max thinks he deserves to be, he would need to pull down votes from both Wynn's left -- the Keep Austin Weird vote -- and Wynn's right, the GOP vote (to which Max now has surprising access, thanks to his anti-rail stance). But the two restaurant guys, Meltzer and now Katz, have left Max without much of a claim to stake in the upcoming campaign. end story

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