How Can Wynn Lose?

Mayoral hopefuls try to pull front-runner off his pedestal

Brad Meltzer
Brad Meltzer

Don't call these "predictions," just speculations:

Scenario 1: As is now typical in Austin, fewer than one in eight eligible citizens vote on May 3, and Will Wynn is elected Austin mayor with just over 50% of the total. Max Nofziger, Marc Katz, and Brad Meltzer each finish, in that order, with less than 15%; Leslie Cochran and Jennifer Gale between them pull about 3%; and unknowns Christopher Keating, Herman Luckett Jr., and (write-in) Joaquin "Jack" Fox total up to less than 2%.

Scenario 2: Turnout is even worse, Wynn finishes with just less than 50% and heads into a run-off with Katz, who pulls about 20%; Nofziger finishes a disappointing fourth with about 13%, behind Meltzer's surprising 16%; and the rest of the pack stays down in the 1%-apiece range. On May 31, after a sickening profusion of TV ads from both sides, Wynn beats Katz 55%-to-45% and is elected Austin mayor.

Scenario 3: Turnout is higher than expected, and Wynn finishes with less than 40%, heading into a run-off with ... Nofziger, who energizes and woos the central-city keep-it-weird vote and ends up with 25%, just ahead of Katz's 22%. Meltzer barely breaks 10%, and the rest of the pack, well, you know. And on May 31, despite spending Nofziger into invisibility, Wynn is elected Austin mayor by a mere two-point margin.

Again, just speculations; we won't know until it happens. But all three scenarios are plausible (each is based on an actual Austin election of the past decade). And all three end the same way: Will Wynn is elected mayor of Austin.

Katz, Meltzer, and Nofziger all know their mission is to claw past the others and get into a run-off with Wynn. Or, even more pressingly, to ensure there is a run-off; the increasingly loud baiting of Wynn by both Katz and Meltzer this week could suggest a fear they may not get that second chance. These efforts are encouraged, of course, by those of us who want to see a truly contested race and not a cakewalk at this critical time for our city. But what chance would Katz or Nofziger or Meltzer have to win this election in a run-off, let alone without one?

Probably not much, if Austin voters behave next month as they mostly have since 1993. The challengers to Wynn all are, or should be, banking on different people, induced in different ways and inspired by different messages, voting for different reasons. Media attention to unconventional candidates like Katz can help push this along, and even Wynn sees the potential for 2003 to mark the transition between political eras. "A bunch of Austinites have looked up around the same time and said 'Wow. Who are we?' A fair amount of people are challenging their preconceptions about what Austin City Hall is all about."

Betty Dunkerley tapped into this uncertainty in 2002, outpacing the pack on the strength of votes from the forgotten Austin; even she didn't expect to do so well against a candidate (Beverly Griffith) with strong center-city support and another (Brewster McCracken) with a loyal suburban west-side base. Wynn, so often paired with Dunkerley on the council, could follow the same path -- and, since he's not running against a well-funded incumbent, end this race on May 3; to say a run-off is inevitable is wishful thinking. Wynn's message -- light-green, pro-growth but not pro-sprawl, regionally focused, basics not boondoggles, all pitched as common sense -- has sold well in Austin since about 1993, and so far no challenger has obviously gained the kind of traction against Wynn that, say, Margot Clarke has already gained against McCracken in the Place 5 race. But has Nofziger, Meltzer, or Katz captured enough attention from a restless electorate to find a way that Wynn can lose?

On the Right Flank

He won't lose to Gale (though she has a good tag line, "Austin loses if Will wins"), Luckett, Keating, or Fox. (Or to Vera Carp, although who's to say she's less real than Jennifer Gale?) He won't lose to Leslie Cochran either, though Leslie has managed to be a more serious candidate. "Even if you vote, you don't get what you ask for, and the city government never listens to the people," he says, offering his very alternative self as an alternative. It would be rash to say Cochran could never win an election in Austin, which you can fairly say about the ubiquitous Jennifer Gale and the various unknowns. But he likely won't win this one.

Which brings us to Meltzer, who aims to beat Will Wynn in the usual way -- lots of money and a tried-and-true political message. After spending more than $110,000, nearly all from his own pocket, as of early this month (date of the last campaign finance reports; the next ones are due Saturday), Meltzer is no longer an unknown. But whether people like what they see in the TV ads and billboards and saturation mailers and aggressive press campaign is another matter.

Meltzer sure isn't going to dazzle his way past Wynn with exciting ideas or on-the-stump charisma -- although most of us would look ordinary standing next to shiny Will Wynn, cuddly Max Nofziger, flamboyant Marc Katz, and a guy in a dress. The bigger problem, at least to the conventionally wise, is that Meltzer is simply too conservative and sounds too much like a GOP drone -- "no new taxes," "cut red tape," "run Austin like a business" -- to appeal to a typical Austin electorate. His high-visibility campaign is the first real test of the thesis, long beloved by the Travis Co. GOP, that Austin really isn't that liberal and that City Hall is ripe for Republican picking at will.

Meltzer would be a lot more formidable if he were running for, say, county judge or state rep. -- a partisan race lasting nine months, without campaign finance limits, with a vastly larger electorate (even a state-rep. race, in a much smaller district, often draws more voters than a citywide Austin race), most of whom (if they bother to consider anything but party affiliation) are only paying enough attention to remember the keywords. But Austin races, even for mayor, play out in front of a much-smaller, more-selective, and more-informed electorate, with whom Meltzer has yet to really communicate, regardless of their side of the fence. (Consider just KVET's Sammy Allred, who called Meltzer "the biggest, stupidest jerk I ever had on my show.")

Witness his call for Austin Community College to abandon its effort for a tax increase. This is, of course, impossible, since it's already on the May 3 ballot, and that's the sort of minor detail Austin voters well understand. The same with his attack this week on the Mueller redevelopment project, saying there's no plan (the plan, five years in the making, was adopted two years ago). Or his clueless call for the council to not make public-safety budget decisions until after the election (the council won't even see a proposed budget until August). Wynn, who's spent most of the campaign ignoring his challengers, this week complained that Meltzer (and Katz) "don't know the first thing about how city government works." Meltzer claims that Wynn has waffled on his commitment to preserving public-safety jobs through the budget crisis -- a charge immediately disputed by police union president Mike Sheffield, whose legions, along with the fire and EMS employees, have endorsed Wynn.

Though he claims to support ACC, Meltzer -- backed by national anti-tax ideologue Grover Norquist -- suggested that even holding the vote sends the wrong message to the obviously overtaxed Austin public. (We're checking to see what, if anything, Norquist knows about ACC. We'll get back to you.) Admittedly, many Austinites agree their taxes are too high already. But those backing the ACC measure -- large numbers of community leaders and even larger numbers of ACC's 29,000 students -- form a pretty big voting bloc that most candidates would not dismiss so cavalierly. (All six ACC campuses are early-voting locations and the busiest ones so far as of this writing.)

Such poses are par for the course in partisan Texas politics, and Meltzer could do well if his campaign turns out voters who show up on November dates but normally sit out City Council races. (Those conservatives who do vote in Austin tend to think Will Wynn is the most sensible member of the current council.) He thinks now is a good time for such a change. "I'm a homeowner who's seen my taxes go from $2,500 to $9,000 in 10 years, and my water and electric bills double even though my demand is the same," he says. "I'm the gentleman who's running to stick his neck out and not to be the friend of everyone on the inside. I want to represent the voter who knows what's been happening to Austin in the last two to three years."

Maximum Experience

On the other pole we find Max Nofziger, who likewise is depending on turnout to move him forward. "I want this race, and my campaign, to play a role in reversing the trend toward declining voter participation," he says. "In Austin, which is supposed to be an activist community but which is now resting on its laurels, to see turnout decline to single digits is just deplorable. So I'm working actively to increase voter turnout. The issues are so important that people will have to take action." He adds that each of his platform planks -- what he calls "points of urgency" -- "is going to motivate somebody to go vote."

Those somebodies, unlike in Meltzer's case, would be people who used to vote in Austin elections, back when Nofziger (finally) won in 1987 and then won again by increasingly wide margins in 1990 and 1993. (He likes to point out that in 1993 he got more votes than any council member has since.) Last year, the progressive forces for whom Nofziger is a natural candidate -- the people who agree without question with Nofziger that "we are in fact losing those things that make Austin special" -- represented a consistent 20% to 30% of the electorate. That wasn't very helpful for Griffith, Kirk Mitchell, Jeff Heckler, Ira Yates, or the Austin Fair Elections Act. But in this race, thanks to Marc Katz, 30% is probably more than enough to vault Nofziger into a run-off, if the progs in fact vote for Max and not Katz or (to keep-it-weird) Leslie or Jennifer Gale.

Nofziger may already be best situated for a one-on-one against Wynn; unlike Katz or Meltzer, Nofziger has an anti-City Hall agenda from which Wynn can claim no exemption. Wynn can vilify the Austin Music Network as much as Katz and city red tape as much as Meltzer and the busted economy as much as anybody. But he can't exactly disclaim Smart Growth, which Nofziger calls "an unmitigated disaster" -- even though Wynn often points out that the CSC and Intel deals went down before he was elected, he firmly supported them as a leader of the Downtown Austin Alliance. (Though he says he'll oppose any incentives for a Borders at Sixth and Lamar.)

The same with the Stratus Properties deal -- Nofziger says he's "the only real environmentalist" in the race -- or the Seton/Brackenridge deal, or the other big-ticket annoyances to disaffected locals who used to fuel the Green Machine. Or light rail, which Nofziger knew early on wasn't nearly as popular in the central city as the Machine thought. (Even Brewster McCracken, in so many ways Wynn's twin, has proclaimed that light rail is dead.)

To the Birkenstock Belt cadres, these things are a lot more important than the Music Network. And Wynn's opposition to AMN, and to the Iraq resolution, likewise plays here into Nofziger's hands. (Max also says he's the only real anti-war candidate, which might be stretching it, but Wynn, Katz, and Meltzer all opposed the resolution.) The best Wynn can say is that he wasn't alone in supporting the Watsonian agenda, and then point to all his endorsements.

Bruce Todd had all the endorsements in 1994, too, and Wynn probably doesn't want that race -- where the incumbent hung on by his fingernails to beat Daryl Slusher -- to be his model. But Slusher was written off because he was a rookie; Nofziger, as he likes to say, has "more experience than all my opponents combined" and is making his ninth City Hall run. So why doesn't he have more official support? His strength -- that he's been around forever and that everyone knows, more or less, what he stands for and what he's done -- may also be his weakness. (It hasn't helped that Nofziger has taken ample credit for many accomplishments -- building the Convention Center, moving the airport, cleaning up South Congress -- that were clearly not all his doing.)

Both this paper and the other one declined to endorse Nofziger for remarkably similar reasons -- his own tenure on the council wasn't as impressive as he now might think, and he hasn't grown as far beyond the fringe as Austin now might need. (As that noted voice of native wisdom, Vera Carp, put it this week: "Go sing me a folk song, hippie.") He clearly is more seasoned, and conveys more competence, than Katz or Meltzer. But Wynn will surely ask voters, if it comes to a run-off, if they trust Max Nofziger now more than they did the first four times he ran for mayor. Nofziger has the tricky task of being both an institution and an agent of change.

Corned Beef or Baloney?

Change is front and center in the Marc Katz message -- "My opponents are living in the problem, and I know I'll be living in the solution." (Katz has explicitly included Nofziger as a relic of the status quo, about the harshest any candidate has been on anybody but Wynn.) Being famous, rich, and loud may not automatically give Katz the No. 2 slot in this race, but it's because of him that a run-off is more probable than possible.

Having said that, Katz is the wild card among the four top contenders, because he has no apparent natural base. Who is a Marc Katz voter? What neighborhood is ready-made for "Less Is More" yard signs? What community of interest knows that it believes what Katz believes? Though he's certainly succeeded over the years at being a public figure, people won't vote for him for the same reasons they go to his restaurant. Marc Katz will not be the only candidate on the ballot who's still open when the bars close.

In an irony many campaign-watchers have noticed, Katz (like Nofziger) has spent a lot of time complaining about City Hall "wasting our money on outside consultants" yet (unlike Nofziger) has rounded up expensive consulting talent for his mayoral bid -- payments to Emory Young and Associates account for more than half of his last reported campaign spending. And one can imagine Peck Young is asking the above questions, because reaching out to and then building on a base of likely supporters is how any candidate wins, in any race, in any locale.

But a key to Katz's appeal, at least in Katz's own view, is that he isn't already pigeonholed and can reach out to Austinites wherever they are, just as every kind of Austinite eats his pastrami -- both as a candidate and if and after he wins. "I think the mayor makes a tremendous difference. It's absolutely true that Austin is contentious and apprehensive and you have to sell what you're doing to the taxpaying public. And it's pretty clear that this hasn't been done."

For much of this race Katz himself has been contentious and apprehensive, despite his initial claim to wanting a purely positive campaign "competing for the voter, not with the other candidates." But it turned out that Katz himself hasn't voted since 1990, and he made his campaign debut in court, with an (unsuccessful) lawsuit against the $100 campaign cash limit twice approved by voters. Last week, he began fiercely pursuing Wynn with claims of a "secret City Hall memo" outlining massive layoffs and service cuts to balance the budget.

Both Wynn and City Manager Toby Futrell say no such memo exists, and even if it does, it's hard to say how this is a "secret." If City Hall does as Katz, among others, says it should and doesn't raise taxes (actually, he wants to "cut and cap" taxes) or touch public-safety spending, then the next mayor and council will have to cut the remaining General Fund budget by at least one-third. That means massive layoffs and service cuts. Q.E.D.

Such campaign theatrics, combined with Katz's full-on stage presence (he must not be able to see the microphone), come across as pretty brittle and talk-radio for an Austin municipal race, and since Katz has spent much time complaining about taxes and spending, he and Meltzer have often seemed interchangeable. But Katz also has his big-hearted liberal keep-it-weird side, with proven bona fides as a music-scene figure, an indie-biz icon, and a nonprofit player. (He was reportedly stunned that, after decades of raising money for AIDS organizations, he didn't get the endorsement of the Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus.) The very first item in his online platform asks Austinites to work together and volunteer for a better community, just like he has. And he's talked more about social equity and a fair shake for East Austin (including closing the Holly Power Plant in 18 months rather than six years) than anyone else in the mayor's race.

In the right hands, this combination could be forged into a next-generation Austin politics that really does reach across traditional lines and grab citizens, like Katz, who love Austin for all the right reasons but who don't think their views matter at City Hall, and who reject both Wynn and Nofziger as the same-old same-old even if they actually agree with them on specific issues. So far, Katz does not appear to have had that inspirational effect; his attempts at "branding" his campaign haven't been as coherent as you might have expected, despite his vision of returning Austin to "economic prosperity for everyone, a high level of cultural availability, an oasis of respect for one another, and a lifestyle we all enjoy." The interest in his campaign has not yet turned to excitement.

Even this late in the race, you can say that about all the candidates -- although Wynn's core supporters are pretty energized and motivated. Katz, Nofziger, and Meltzer all can appeal to enough unheard voters (it doesn't take that many) to displace the cozy consensus that has reigned in the wake of the Watson era. But none of them has shown much evidence that they do appeal to those voters. All have certain rough spots as candidates that may, on May 4, seem like the obvious reasons they didn't beat Will Wynn. But the biggest advantage the front-runner has is not money or name ID or incumbency -- since at least one opponent can match him on each of those -- but time.

For months and months -- at least since before Christmas, when Gus Garcia announced his retirement, if not earlier -- this has been a race between Will Wynn and ... some other people. Now, with only a week to go, voters know who those other people are and why they're running -- and that's hardly enough time for the candidates to find and woo and win the voters they need to succeed. By this point, the contenders -- or at least the one, if there is one, who makes a run-off -- almost must depend on bad news arriving at the Wynn campaign's door, a major gaffe by the candidate or a major embarrassment at City Hall.

That is, it's Wynn's to lose. end story

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