Austin @ Large: The Big Mac Attack

What does the McCracken shellackin' mean for the Wynn council?

Brewster McCracken dances with his wife Mindy at Hill's Cafe, celebrating his election victory on Saturday.
Brewster McCracken dances with his wife Mindy at Hill's Cafe, celebrating his election victory on Saturday. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Don't tell the consultants, but, "Nobody knows anything" -- William Goldman's famous First Rule of Hollywood -- also applies to politics. If ever an election had "too close to call" written all over it, it was Saturday's City Council Place 5 run-off. Earlier in the week, the Brewster McCracken campaign queried Travis Co. Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir about the procedures for a recount.

But as soon as the early-voting numbers came through, that script went out the window (much to DeBeauvoir's relief); what many thought would be the closest race in memory turned into a McCracken Shellackin' -- the biggest blowout in a council run-off since 1988, with McCracken ending up with 64.2% of the final vote to Margot Clarke's 35.8%. (Even the giddiest volunteers at McCracken's afterparty at Hill's Cafe would only take credit for predicting a 20-point victory.) Despite Clarke's solid performance on May 3 in the city center, and despite past trends that favor the underdog in run-offs, McCracken managed both to cut into Clarke's base and get out his vote everywhere else.

<b>Brewster Drops Da Bomb:</b> By cutting into Margot Clarke's center-city base and getting out the vote in surprising numbers elsewhere, Brewster McCracken turned a supposedly close race into the biggest blowout in a City Council run-off since 1988.
Brewster Drops Da Bomb: By cutting into Margot Clarke's center-city base and getting out the vote in surprising numbers elsewhere, Brewster McCracken turned a supposedly close race into the biggest blowout in a City Council run-off since 1988.

Though McCracken may have won on campaign strategy and tactics -- having a lot more money than Clarke didn't hurt, either -- the size of his triumph, which surprised even the candidate himself, poses an obvious question: Does this represent a mandate for the Wynn council? Certainly, the giddy crowd at Hill's (owned by rabid McCracken-backer and KVET radio host Bob Cole) comprised more than just his friends and relations; even though on most issues McCracken and Clarke were more alike than different, those backin' McCracken saw his victory (and Wynn's before it) as a validation for their vision of Austin's future and a defeat for the more threatening vision symbolized, if not articulated, by Margot Clarke. The task for McCracken -- and Wynn -- is to now figure out what that vision is.

Why Brewster Did Better

McCracken himself notes that "after May 3, we thought the election was a total tossup. Only during the last week did we get the sense that people were moving my way." He ascribed his showing mostly to his campaign's success at retail politics. "I think it was the grassroots stuff. We had an intensive get-out-the-vote effort; we had (volunteers from) the University Democrats working from 10 in the morning to 8:30 at night on the phone banks." Judging from their numbers at Hill's -- in McCracken's own words, the place was "thick with college kids" -- McCracken is in tune with the Youth of Today. Despite the crypto-Republican image Clarke's supporters tried to pin on McCracken, many of McCracken's own backers are ready to jump on the Howard Dean bandwagon.

Which may be why McCracken fought Clarke to a draw in her urban-core back yard. On May 3, Clarke beat McCracken by nearly 12 points in Central Austin and took 10 precincts by more than 100 votes; this time she only won by four points and only pulled 100-vote margins in five boxes. This is not just a turnout problem, although it certainly didn't help Clarke that turnout in the city center (as was the case citywide) was down a third from May 3, while turnout in McCracken's Northwest stronghold actually increased from the first round. The contraction of the total vote should have affected both camps equally, but while Clarke's total Central vote on Saturday was indeed down by several thousand from her first-round result, McCracken's was more or less unchanged. As the map shows, not only did Clarke's margins across Central Austin drop considerably in the run-off, but she succumbed to McCracken in some neighborhoods -- such as Crestview, Barton Hills, and Enfield -- where she had won on May 3.

According to McCracken, when his campaign phone-banked and block-walked in the city center, they found that while older voters -- the people who always vote, and always for the more "left" candidate -- had their minds made up, younger voters were still undecided. They cared about the environment and social equity and the Chronicle and Sierra Club and SOS endorsements of Clarke, but they also worried about jobs and affordability and were mad as hell about the smoking ordinance, all good issues for McCracken. "It had a lot of the same dynamics as last year when Betty Dunkerley won," says McCracken, who finished third in that race and basically never stopped running. "Folks are concerned about the budget and the job situation, and I think I was a lot more specific on those issues than Margot. When that became clear in voters' minds it obviously had some impact."

Austin @ Large: The Big Mac Attack

But Central Austin is less than half the story here; even if the urban core had turned out at 20% and Clarke had carried it by 12 points, she still would have lost. The rest of the story is that McCracken, also like Dunkerley, worked to pick up votes in the Forgotten Austin, the North, East, and Southeast boxes that get ignored by campaigns with their eyes on the Central and west-of-MoPac prizes -- or those, like Clarke's, that simply don't have the money, the organization, or the third-party backing to reach those hard-to-reach voters. Only by carrying those boxes, as well as Central, could Clarke have neutralized McCracken's advantage in the Northwest and Southwest, but pulling off that feat may have been impossible given McCracken's 4-to-1 fundraising advantage. (Had Dunkerley actually had to go into a run-off with Beverly Griffith, the results would likely have looked like these.)

Note on the map how even though turnout went down, McCracken's absolute margins -- not just his percentages, but the actual number of votes -- went up in the run-off across North and East Austin and on the southern frontier (for example, the boxes around ACC Northridge). On the Eastside, McCracken again picked up neighborhoods (East Cesar Chavez, Holly, and Chestnut) that had gone to Clarke in the first round. In these precincts, the jobs-and-budget message may also have been enhanced by the strong support (and direct-mail pieces and ads) thrown to McCracken in the campaign's last week by the public-safety unions and their advocates, whose fear of Clarke was more sincere than it was rational.

"Brewster committed early on that public safety had to be a top budget priority," says Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield. "Voters looked for candidates with common sense who would be reasonable, and I think a lot of people must have felt Margot wasn't going to be reasonable. But Brewster has progressive positions on a number of issues, and people will see he has a broader agenda."

And the Point Is?

But does he have a mandate to go with it? Ultimately, Margot Clarke did pretty well for a candidate who was heretofore virtually unknown and substantially outspent, facing an opponent who'd already built a base and an organization in a previous race. "I feel all right and relieved that it's all over," a notably upbeat Clarke said on election night. "I'm disappointed for my team and for all the volunteers who worked so hard."

The fact that the Place 5 race went to a run-off at all, and that Clarke enjoyed the support of a number of powerful Austinites, suggests that Will Wynn -- who grinned his way through the evening at McCracken's victory party -- may not have quite the glorious road ahead of him that McCracken backers think was paved by McCracken's win. ("I'm happy because it means the mayor is going to have a much more productive three years, if I may be so blunt," said one Wynn supporter at Hill's Cafe.) But McCracken's minions at Hill's were joined by not only Wynn but Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Raul Alvarez -- who, their mutual distaste for the anti-smoking ordinance notwithstanding, are unlikely to form too cozy a foursome with Wynn or McCracken during the next three years.

When asked what he's going to tackle first, McCracken -- after groaning over the smoking ordinance -- said "I really do want to focus on clean energy," one of the specific issues where he was as progressive, and more specific, than Clarke on the campaign trail. "And there are some significant things happening soon in that regard." Score one for the greens! "And I want to work on finding a way to complete the Waller Creek Tunnel project." Score one for the developers! Like Wynn, who's not nearly as committed to what in Austin is the right-wing agenda as his right-wing fans seem to believe, McCracken cuts across tribal lines, or will if the tribes let him.

In any event, McCracken's grand plans may be overwhelmed by the city's dire fiscal realities -- if Wynn, as he said during the campaign, feels like "the dog that caught the car," then McCracken is the dog that caught the dog that caught the car. In that light, the exaggerated distinction between Right and Left in this race seems less meaningful. "What people really wanted was somebody in the middle," Mike Sheffield suggests. "They looked at Brewster, and they saw the mainstream, and that's where they wanted to be."

Brewster Won By ...
end story

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