Austin @ Large: Time Stands Still
Austin at Large: Candidates race backward across the finish line
With but hours to go before we vote, I guess we can give up hope that the City Council campaign will get better. It's time to express disappointment. The Place 5 race is the exception that proves the rule, I suppose -- readers who aren't paid to follow the candidates' every word perhaps don't realize how refreshing it is to hear people talk about something new, about ideas Austin hasn't tried before, about putting together new kinds of politics and alliances, about what this city means to its citizens and where we want to be when we grow up. Sure, the earnestness found among the seven Place 5 contenders could choke the Osmonds. But as political sins go, earnestness isn't such a terrible thing.
Why didn't we hear any of this in the mayor's race, which I sense has grown as tedious to Austin at large as it has to those of us taking notes? Wearing my good-government cap of civic virtue, I hope the mayor's race does go to a run-off, because I'd be shocked if the Place 5 race didn't, and I'd like more than 17 people to show up at the polls May 31 for Round Two. But I can't blame anyone who decides to vote for Will Wynn simply so he'll win outright and everyone will shut up.
It makes me appreciate this guy Andrew Hill, an indie filmmaker and fairly pronounced goofball who's a good bet to finish third in Fort Worth's mayoral election Saturday and force a run-off. If he wins, Hill says, he'll serve only 60 days; he'll then hand the gig over to Cowtown's mayor pro tem, the only person Hill thinks really deserves it. Using the same model here, Leslie Cochran could win and then give the crown (and tiara) to Jackie Goodman. Not the worst of all possible options.
The shame, of course, is that people in Place 5 took on the burden of a council race because they really had something to say, and they've been barked and yapped right out of public view. No, I gotta tell you, Katz -- you're a worthy citizen with an obvious commitment to Austin, and you understand this place in a way that Meltzer just doesn't. But the second-rate Nixon-in-the-Fifties act -- political moves inspired by political movies -- is just not the local flavor. "Secret memos." Give me a break. You own more valuable Downtown property than does Will Wynn, and we -- the citizens of Austin -- own more of the Waller Creek corridor than anyone else. Where's the conflict?
A Stale Local Flavor
Though I think Katz, Meltzer, and Nofziger have all chosen to be needlessly strident -- maybe the Lege's special scent is stimulating their limbic systems -- my disappointment with the contest is not about style. (I can't say I prefer Wynn's Eddie Haskell imitation. He never looked more natural and credible as when he emerged fully clothed, sopping wet, and freezing cold from Barton Springs.) It would be unfair to say this campaign has been without substance, but what stale, unappetizing stuff it has been.
Note to all: Your term as Austin mayor starts tomorrow. OK, June. But not in 1999. I'm not sure anyone who still hasn't gotten over the Intel building really deserves to be mayor, y'know? The de-Watsonization campaign is over. He is gone. Jesus Garza is gone. We already went through this a year ago, when council challengers (and one unfortunate incumbent) tried to slay the City Hall regime on the bone yard of Smart Growth. They found that message had no legs, and here we are again, and it still has no legs. Yes, the legacy of Austin's reckless and narcissistic Nineties still sucks. (Why, yes. We did say so at the time. Thank you for noticing.) We were all at that party, and we all did stupid things we regret, and we have all vented our pain and anguish. By the time we stop bitching about the Intel building, it won't be there any more -- snapped up by the feds for a new courthouse, or perhaps buried in the next ice age.
Meanwhile, important things are happening right now that we could be discussing as a community in this unique forum we call an election. The reality of the budget crisis -- that Austin simply cannot afford the "quality of life" it thinks it deserves -- has gone addressed by nobody, not even Wynn. Despite Katz's memo-waving, it is no secret that City Hall will lay off many, many people and cut back services by an order of magnitude. The choices we make will define citizens' relationship to the city for a decade, and their impact is not even being contemplated. (Some teasers: We create a new public-safety tax and sell off parkland.)
The Future Is Now
Nor have the candidates had much useful or credible to say about health care and the hospital district, about transportation (as we discussed last week in this space) or air quality, about housing, about regional policy. Wynn stands out simply for acknowledging these issues exist. They will still exist and define Austin for a generation, long after the next mayor is gone.
Instead, we have heard promises from each and every contender to get Austin "back on track." A slightly different track, to be sure, in each case, taking us back to our chosen Golden Hour in the City of the Violet Crown, be it two years ago (Wynn) or the Roy Butler era (Meltzer). But all of those tracks will end up sending us over a cliff, for the past ain't what it used to be. Time has already stood still for the City Council since long before Watson left, for just this reason: Nobody wants to make the first decision of the rest of Austin's life.
But for whoever wins Saturday, the clock is already ticking. Will the next mayor be able to change tracks and lead Austin into a future that's better than the past? Will he even know which way to go to find the future? (Look under the Intel building; that's where Watson left it hanging.) Stick around a while, Place 5 runners-up. We may need you again.