Austin @ Large: On Your Marks!

It's never too early (or too late?) for a council-race pregame show

Austin At Large
Just so you know: No, this isn't the last one. My last Chronicle column runs in two weeks. (I may just borrow Dave McNeely's and change a few names and details. Or not.)

But this is the last time in these pages where I get to kibitz and color-commentate on an upcoming municipal election. (The timing of my departure, before both a legislative session and a council race, is not accidental.) Now, more than five months before said election – and more than a month before candidates can even file for the ballot – may seem too early to start handicapping, amidst the fumes of our holiday hangovers and all. Thank Austin's campaign finance ordinance; the real opening day of Wabbit Season is now six months out, when candidates can start raising money.

Plus, you know, Austin's a big city now, and running for its City Council has become kind of a big-time deal – not the Super Bowl, but more important than, say, the Holiday Bowl, especially with all these candidates having to run citywide, to represent more people than did, oh, Howard Dean or Tom Daschle. (OK, almost as many as Tom Daschle.) So we get longer pregame shows now. Later will come the wardrobe malfunctions.

Indeed, the outrage – directed at my hide – has already begun. Two different candidates for Place 1, the seat being vacated by Daryl Slusher, have written the Chronicle to take issue, in no uncertain terms, with a phrase I wrote in "Naked City" two weeks ago: "While [Lee] Leffingwell has done a good job clearing the field in Place 1... ."

Doing the Math

I apologize to James Paine and Andrew Bucknall for the implication that Leffingwell is running unopposed – or, more precisely, that he's the only candidate worth talking about. My point was simply that, unlike in the Place 3 race to succeed Jackie Goodman – where all the declared (or self-declared) "leading candidates" are still heading for a demolition derby – in Place 1 at least two formidable members of the Future Council Club, Chris Riley and Robin Cravey, have opted not to run, and that Leffingwell's early success in rounding up backing has had some bearing on those decisions.

Right now, the only other firm candidate I know of in Place 1 is Steven Adams, the Libertarian who challenged Raul Alvarez in 2003. (He has not yet complained about not being mentioned in "Naked City," though he probably isn't reading the Chronicle, since last time he accused me of "slandering" him.) Up-and-comer Gregg Knaupe has yet to declare which race he intends to run in, which in my humble opinion is not helping his chances.

That's not the same as saying Leffingwell can start measuring the drapes (he'll need 'em) in his new City Hall office. And yet, my job description here (and in life) calls for honesty, and so we have to keep Paine and Bucknall's claims in perspective. To be frank, I have never heard of Paine, which I don't think is solely a testament to my laziness and ineptitude. His letter to the Chronicle was, in fact, handwritten, which is charming, but only a little.

Bucknall I do know, because he's a fellow Eastside neighborhood leader and we've been active on many of the same issues, and I have a lot of respect for him in that role. But if voters agree that Bucknall is, as he calls himself, "the true progressive in the race," he will, by historical precedent, earn at most 25% of the vote. Running against Leffingwell, who has widely accepted green bona fides as former chair of the city Environmental Board, Bucknall is likely looking at a lower starting point. Which means his most likely outcome is as spoiler – forcing the Place 1 race into a run-off between Leffingwell and Adams, or maybe Knaupe, both of whom would be running to Leffingwell's right, and both of whom Leffingwell would probably beat. To do better than that, Bucknall needs to either drive bunches of occasional voters to the polls, which requires money I don't think he has, or peel off big chunks of Leffingwell's base, which requires Leffingwell to display flaws or liabilities he hasn't yet shown.

Dharma vs. Greg, Again?

Though the Place 3 race is currently more fervent, it actually boils down more simply – it's a contest between Margot and the Non-Margot. In 2003, the latter role was played by Brewster McCracken, who had really never stopped running after his solid third-place 2002 finish, and who despite early fears of recount-worthy closeness ended up beating Margot Clarke handily. This time, it's Clarke who's never stopped running and who enters the race as the heir apparent, particularly to succeed Goodman in what has been for all eternity a "woman's seat." (The last man to be elected to Place 3 was Ron Mullen, in 1981.)

There are at least two other women, Jennifer Kim and Mandy Dealey, angling to be the Non-Margot this time. Kim is certainly energetic and persistent, which are good things for a rookie candidate, but Dealey is much better known and better connected, even though she's had a slow start to her campaign due to family concerns. That makes Dealey, who has a previous run for Texas House under her belt, somewhat of a wild card in the Place 3 race; in a straight head-to-head with Clarke, her chances would be very good, but in a four-way or five-way race, she may have trouble getting traction. (Even more so if it ends up being a six-way race featuring Betty Baker, but that buzz seems to have died down a bit.)

"Five-way" would include the aforementioned Gregg Knaupe, if he throws his hat into this ring, but my gut feeling is that, like McCracken and Clarke before them, both Knaupe and Kim are one race away from having a solid shot at a City Council seat. That leaves Jeff Trigger, who in the space of the last month has filled up a lot of Non-Margot space that Dealey will now have to wrestle back. Given Austin voters' usual habit of making elections more bipolar than the candidates themselves may justify, I'd have to put my bet on Clarke vs. Trigger in the run-off. Who wins that run-off depends on the zeitgeist and, oh yes, on how well the two run their campaigns.

That's the pound of salt here, after all – right now, we only know these folks' messages in the barest terms (most of which sound the same tried and true Austin themes), and as an electorate, we have yet to really decide what the issues are going to be in this race. Pending that little agenda item, all predictions are by definition vague. But that, of course, won't stop me from leaving this lovely parting gift to you. end story

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City Council 2005, City Council, election, Place 1, Place 3, Daryl Slusher, Jackie Goodman, Lee Leffingwell, Andrew Bucknall, Steven Adams, Gregg Knaupe, Margot Clarke, Brewster McCracken, Jennifer Kim, Mandy Dealey, Jeff Trigger, Betty Baker

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