Austin @ Large: Which Way Did We Go?

Looking for the starting line as the Council races begin

Austin At Large
Indulge me for a bit while I gently tease my old friend Daryl Slusher. Last week, when – as part of the kickoff of the next council election cycle – Slusher made official that he would not seek a fourth term in May 2005, he issued a statement that dealt with the business at hand (he's not running, thank you one and all, it's been great) in a few paragraphs, leading up to a "short review" of the highlights of his tenure. Thereupon follow 1,570 words of the Gospel According to Daryl, a master narrative of Austin history over the last decade, as seen from Slusher's end of the dais. If it's a bit too long to be engraved on his tombstone, it's certainly apt fodder for a time capsule – perhaps to be embedded inside the "stinger" of the new City Hall.

Lest I give the wrong impression, Slusher does not cast himself as the indispensable hero of this grand adventure, and he's certainly as qualified to narrate this chapter of the Austin story as anyone. But such distinctions were muted in the response elsewhere in local media, which treated Slusher's far-from-a-surprise announcement as a major news story, replete with End-of-an-Era phrasings. I must have missed the same treatment when it was given to Jackie Goodman, who's made publicly clear for months if not years that she's not running again, and who has been more crucial (and for longer) than Slusher in creating what are now Austin's mainstream politics and their attendant city policies. Perhaps the mayor pro tem needs to issue a Manifesto.

The Wheels Are Grinding

I'm not blaming Slusher here, and I'm plenty guilty of trying too hard, more than once, to turn the run-of-the-mill gear-grinding of municipal politics into the stuff of epic. (They call news stories "stories" for a reason, folks.) But my querulous nature leads me to contemplate whether bullshit should be called. End of what era? What has really changed? For whom? Why? And so what?

I'm not so glib or dense to argue that Austin isn't a much different place today than it was in the mid-1990s when Slusher and Goodman first entered local electoral politics, since I've spent the last decade anatomizing those changes in these pages. But those changes have as much to do with economics and demographics as they do with policy and politics. Neither Goodman nor Slusher (certainly not Slusher) is mute; they can tell their own stories and declare their own legacies however they want. But we, the electorate, now have to best decide not just who, and what, and how, but even if we want to fill their shoes. And that game, as noted above, has already begun.

And begun pretty damn early, or should I say begun in public view earlier than normal. The most salient effect of Austin's austere campaign-finance ordinance is that it now takes a year, or more, to run for City Council. The candidates for Slusher and Goodman's still-warm seats – Lee Leffingwell, Mandy Dealey, Jeff Trigger, Margot Clarke, Jennifer Kim, Greg Knaupe, Steven Adams, and others – have already been working the crowds, and in the process working one another to perhaps narrow the field, at least for either Place 1 or Place 3. (Meanwhile, Betty Dunkerley appears to have an unobstructed path to re-election, with only the redoubtable Jennifer Gale declaring an interest in the Place 4 race.)

Since 1997, when the campaign-finance rules were first passed, their prescribed magic date (six months out) when candidates can designate treasurers and start raising funds for City Council races has usually passed without this much notice. Then again, not often before, perhaps never before, has it been this clear, this early, that a seat (let alone two) on the City Council is about to be unfilled. When those seats belong to the two most tenured council members, and when those two trace their lineage back to more or less the same green field, it's inevitable that the next cycle will be defined as a Crossroads.

Our aspiring new best friends will be judged on their similarities, or lack of same, to Slusher and Goodman, and thus as either heirs to or dismantlers of the Green Machine. And depending on who wins, come May we will really see the "end of an era," or some such overheated statement of epochal significance. Whew! That's hard work! No wonder the council contenders need to start early.

A Modest Proposal

Now, I fear that old habits die hard, and we will end up in the spring with the candidates nicely sorted into pro-environment and pro-business camps, each fed and supported by the usual camp followers, and we can all take a long nap. And people wonder why voter interest in City Council races is so desultory. Because they're boring! Because we've been pretending for a decade that the issues of a decade ago are still the ones that engage the hearts and minds of the citizens. What are we, Democrats? (Well, yes.)

I suspect that, if we really took this end-of-an-era stuff seriously, and thus started this election cycle with a completely blank slate, we would spend the next six months talking very little about the environment or real estate. Just a hunch. Or, for that matter, transportation (which, it should be clear by now, is mostly out of the City Council's hands) or taxation, or even the size and weight of our police force. We would instead debate "quality of life" issues, like the potential new, toughened-up homeless laws, or the smoking ordinance that will probably be on the same May ballot. We'd spend a lot of time drilling down into the details of the city's supposed embrace of small business and "cultural vitality." And we'd pay close attention to the gaps in Austin's social and community services.

These threads would, indeed, correspond to the Slusher and Goodman legacy – both are not only greens, like most everyone else with power in local politics, but populists, which is a more unique distinction, a formerly omnipresent but now fast-fading persuasion within our mainstream progressive movement. I'd like to see, to put it most bluntly, class (okay, "social equity" or "quality of life") become a dominant theme in the next election cycle; have we now, officially, decided that Austin can only be a great place to live for its established neighbors and people with money? It was, after all, as a class issue that Austin environmentalism finally broke through the wall between counterculture and mainstream. I hope that's not the era that's now ending. end story

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Daryl Slusher, city council, Jackie Goodman

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