Seven of Five

McCracken, Clarke lead the pack in crowded open-seat race

Seven of Five
Illustration By Doug Potter

"I'd like to revive the idea that a council member has the right to vote no," says Robert Singleton, who is running for the open Place 5 seat on City Council.

This is not the kind of campaign rhetoric Austinites are used to hearing, after years of councils that pride themselves on 7-0 votes and look askance at those who habitually break from the pack. Exhibit A: Beverly Griffith, who stayed intractably true to the principles she rode in on in 1996 -- and got booted out because of in 2002.

To be fair, Singleton, a dyed-in-the-wool activist with years of experience watching councils come and go, doesn't really believe in his heart that he'll emerge the winner in this seven-candidate race. But he makes a good argument for field research into why good candidates "turn soft" as council members, or else like Griffith end up alienating their peers. "We vote for people who say, 'I'm going to do this, and I'm going to fix that,'" Singleton goes on, "[but] it seems like people's agendas begin to change once they get to the council."

Singleton is not alone in wanting to get in there and mess with the status quo. He's joined in the Place 5 race by two other rebels with causes -- Carl Tepper and Scott Marks -- who want to change the system from within, though for different reasons. Tepper, an interesting hybrid of Republican values and Austin attitudes, wants to be the voice of conservative voters and of the freethinking bicycle community. His interest in the latter grew out of the frustrations he's experienced as a member (for five years) of the city Urban Transportation Commission. "There is only so much you can do on a [city] board," he says. "You feel a sense of powerlessness when city staff exercises power over the process." His favorite example of this is the Shoal Creek Boulevard bike plan, a project designed to prove that cars, bikes, and residents can coexist on Central Austin streets. The Shoal Creek plan is supported by the UTC, the bicyclists and the neighborhood, but has gotten hung up in city bureaucracy, Tepper says, over one issue -- indecisiveness over the width of the traffic stripes.

People who follow local politics are familiar with both Singleton and Tepper, but no one had a clue who Scott Marks was when he jumped into the race March 19, the last day for filing. Had he started his campaign efforts at least six months earlier, this progressive lawyer/affordable housing advocate could have been a real contender. He, too, is running out of frustration with the current council, and thinks he could make a difference in planning and housing policy. "Downtown lofts are a perfect example of how the city gives these incentives to developers without even addressing affordability issues," he says.

So here are three legitimate, thoughtful candidates who would likely stick to the principles that got them elected, even if it meant voting no when everyone else was voting yes. But without a sufficient base of support in a low-turnout election like this one, chances are slim that any of them will win the opportunity to turn "consensus" on its ear. Jason Pate and Steve Swanson are two other candidates who, though serious and well-meaning, are less explicit in their vision of the multiple roles of a City Council member. Swanson's continuing campaign theme is resolving Austin's conflicts through open-arms communication. "People can resolve problems simply through a willingness to know each other first," he says. "I trust that it can happen here."


Margot Chases Brewster

That leaves the two front-runners, which is one front-runner more than many people expected this race to have. Attorney Brewster McCracken, at first unchallenged as the odds-on favorite, is making his second run for council after finishing third behind Betty Dunkerley and Beverly Griffith a year ago. McCracken ran a well-received campaign then, did much better than most would have against not one but two formidable opponents, and emerged from the race with name recognition, particularly in Northwest Austin where he lives and enjoys his largest support base. More importantly, McCracken's prior experience on the campaign trail gave him a head start on this year's fundraising drive; he reported more than $100,000 in contributions on his April 3 campaign finance report.

But Margot Clarke, a first-time candidate and former local leader of both Planned Parenthood and the League of Conservation Voters, is running almost even with McCracken on endorsements, having picked up the support of several Democratic clubs and community organizations (as well as of the Chronicle). In fundraising, though, she is way behind McCracken, who has a sophisticated campaign operation and lengthy Who's Who list of supporters of all stripes (Ann Richards, Pike Powers, Martha Cotera, Allan Baker, Robin Rather, Bruce Todd, Joseph Parker, and most recently Kirk Watson.) Clarke draws support from a diverse, but more consistently progressive, mix of prominent Austinites and old-school liberals -- including Ronya Kozmetsky, Jim Hightower, Amy Wong Mok, Glen Maxey, Mary Arnold, Dianne Hardy-Garcia, and Bruce Elfant.

It should be noted that McCracken, the apparent favorite in this race of the business community, is sometimes mistaken for a Republican; council races are nonpartisan, but McCracken is, for all intents and purposes, a Democrat. (His father-in-law is former Democratic senator and ex-Texas Tech chancellor John Montford. And while we're on the subject of family ties, Clarke's stepfather is the late Charles Alan Wright, a UT law professor and constitutional expert who served as Richard Nixon's counsel during the Watergate crisis.)

Unlike the other candidates, McCracken and Clarke are not publicly faulting the council for its policies. And by the same token, these two would be less likely to vote against the council by taking the initiative to forge alliances with other members.

The current occupant of the Place 5 seat, mayoral hopeful Will Wynn, turned out to be a pretty consistent middle-of-the-roader, but he hasn't made much of an effort to establish good working relationships with other council members. Based on early indications, McCracken's voting sensibilities appear to align with Wynn's, or perhaps slightly to the left, while Clarke steers further to the left of both.

Once upon a time, the Place 5 chair was dubbed the "Jewish seat" by its former occupant (and later mayor) Jeff Friedman. Upon the advent of the "gentleman's agreement" and the 1975 election of John Treviño, it became the "Hispanic seat," until Gus Garcia broke the plantation-politics cycle when he vacated Place 5 and ran for Place 2 (now considered the "Hispanic seat") in 1997. Since then, first Bill Spelman and now Wynn have made it a white-guy seat, which it will continue to be for three years unless Clarke wins. No woman has ever held the Place 5 seat, for whatever that's worth; and if Clarke wins, it will be the first time since 1977 there will be three women on the council.

While McCracken's positions are at times almost indistinguishable from Wynn's, both he and Clarke say they will look for guidance on city issues not to Wynn, should he be mayor, but to Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, the longest-serving member of the current council. "What I particularly admire about Jackie is that she has a tremendous sense of what is the soul of Austin," says McCracken. "And one thing I really want to be a part of is helping Jackie maintain that soul."

But many Clarke supporters may argue she has a better sense of Austin's soul than McCracken. Clarke grew up in Austin, went away to college, then returned home to reconnect with her roots, and now lives in a straw-bale house. Clarke and McCracken each have two dogs; and McCracken (also an avid disc golfer) has woven animal rights into his platform; he advocates fixing existing flooding problems at the Town Lake Animal Center, rather than relocating the shelter outside the central city.


4 + 3 = The Next Council

How would either Clarke or McCracken change the emerging dynamics of a post-7-0 council? Right now, Wynn, Dunkerley, and Danny Thomas form what passes for the right wing of an aggressively centrist council; Goodman and Raul Alvarez anchor the left; and Garcia and especially Daryl Slusher are the swing votes, with the mayor leaning more often left and Slusher more often right. Assuming Wynn becomes mayor and Alvarez and Thomas win re-election, the only departing council member will be Garcia. If his vote is replaced by McCracken's, the mayor's wing will have a fairly solid majority. If Clarke wins, Goodman's wing will be joined by a more consistent (than Garcia) vote on the left -- making Slusher the key vote on a host of upcoming issues.

McCracken has already shown a lot of willingness to follow Wynn's lead on the issues Wynn cares most about -- Downtown development, revitalization, and Smart Growth, including such specifics as Waller Creek and Great Streets. Meanwhile, Clarke shares a sense of duty to advocate on the issues Goodman cares most about, like social services. (Slusher would probably be allied with the newcomer on either of those fronts.) And though Clarke promises to be less unyielding than Griffith, her campaign has been buoyed by support from Griffith partisans who feel their priorities aren't being recognized at City Hall (and who have at least some resentment of McCracken for the role he played in Griffith's defeat). As well, Clarke's Planned Parenthood connections have reinforced her appeal to women -- and she's the only woman running in any of the four races on the May 3 ballot.

However, though Clarke has solid enviro credentials, some more activist greens would like her to be a little more hard-nosed on the environmental issues of the day, and look to the unknown Scott Marks (whom they would like to get to know better) to run in the next election cycle. Mike Blizzard, a political consultant who worked on Griffith's campaign (but is not involved in the Place 5 race), said he met Marks only recently at a Save Our Springs fundraiser and was instantly impressed. "I told him that I thought he had gotten into the race too late, and that the die seemed pretty cast," he said, "but you never know."

That Clarke may turn out to be more like Goodman than Griffith on environmental issues is worrisome to some, since Goodman has often opted for compromise on the controversial, high-profile conflicts like the Stratus Properties deal of 2002. Clarke says she honestly doesn't know how she would have voted on that highly divisive issue. "My tendency would have been to vote no," she says. "I know I don't respond well to threats by developers, but not having been on the council at the time, I think it's a little bit impractical to say I would have voted this way or that way." McCracken (responding to a question from Robert Singleton at the Real Estate Council of Austin candidate forum) says he would have voted for the Stratus deal.

There are many, many more issues facing the city -- a gnarly budget deficit for one, the age-old transportation dilemma for another, and the prickly questions of how to redefine Smart Growth, how to make Austin affordable, and how to keep Austin weird. As they jostle for attention, the not-all-that-well-known candidates in this crowded race have tried to cover the broad realm of city concerns within the limited attention they've gotten from the citizens. But to hear Robert Singleton tell it, it doesn't matter what any of the candidates say about this before the election. The real test comes later.

"A friend of mine is convinced that there's something in the council chairs that crawls up and strangles their brain," he says. "So if I'm elected, I won't sit down." end story

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