And They're Off!
City Council races pick up steam at candidate forums
With the filings officially closed last week, the City Council election campaign is now rolling in earnest, with the field for all three seats a bit more crowded than anticipated. The circuit of community forums and endorsement meetings is also heating up; last week Place 1 front-runner Lee Leffingwell continued his sweep of the organizational endorsements, as did Place 4 incumbent Betty Dunkerley. In the much more hotly contested Place 3, Margot Clarke picked up an endorsement from the South Austin Democrats, and a day later the Austin Women's Political Caucus endorsed both Clarke and Mandy Dealey.
Probate Court Clerk Scott Williams under the motto "Put service back into public service" added his name to the Place 1 ballot on filing day. Steven Adams did not he missed the 5pm filing deadline, but later announced that he intends to continue running, as a write-in candidate. That leaves Leffingwell supported thus far by every local political caucus that delivers endorsements facing Adams and four other ballot-listed candidates: Andrew Bucknall, James Paine, Casey Walker, and Williams.
Leffingwell is by far the best-known, most recently for his several years of service on the city's Environmental Board, and groups ranging from the Sierra Club to the Central Labor Council have announced their support for his campaign. He's taken some low-profile heat, in fact, for effectively becoming the "establishment" candidate because several prominent developers Beau Armstrong of Stratus, Perry Lorenz, Tim Taylor, Bill Espey, and several others show up as "solicitors" on his campaign finance filings. Asked about that last week by the South Austin Democrats, Leffingwell answered that there is no such thing as an "authorized solicitor," and the filing category only reflects those people who personally chose to collect at least $500 in individual ($100 limit) contributions for his campaign. In any case, "I don't accept any funds with any strings attached," Leffingwell said, and his supporters can expect "no promise, favor, consideration, or vote" in return for their contribution. (It was a response readily echoed by every other candidate.) Adams has been a Libertarian candidate for several offices in the past, and on the ballot might have represented a conservative voice marginalized by write-in status, he will have to be content to use his city-subsidized ACTV talk show to rail against high taxes and tolls. Of the rest, Eastside neighborhood activist Andrew Bucknall is the most politically experienced, and at a campaign forum last week he emphasized his work with neighborhood organizations, his long Austin family history, his social-service career, and his single parenthood as giving him the best range of qualifications. "I'm your progressive candidate," he told the South Austin Dems. Paine, Walker, and Williams are getting their feet wet for the first time in city politics, and none appears sufficiently familiar with specific city institutions or the local political landscape to present much of a challenge to Leffingwell or Bucknall. On the issues, with the exception of Adams' generic anti-tax, anti-immigrant sentiments, the candidates are pro-environment, anti-toll roads, pro-neighborhood and affordability, suspicious of corporate subsidies, and in favor in general of all kinds of nice things. The Place 3 race is almost the reverse from Place 1, in that all four candidates have considerable public experience and any two could make the likely run-off. Margot Clarke, defeated two years ago in a race with Brewster McCracken, was the initial front-runner, but subsequent endorsements around town have likely spread the field, making the race too close (and too early) to call. Like Clarke, the others Mandy Dealey, Jennifer Kim, Gregg Knaupe all have roots in Democratic and progressive politics, and all say they'll defend Austin's neighborhoods, environment, small businesses, affordability, and so on.
The Place 4 race altered most visibly in the final filing week, as incumbent Betty Dunkerley and perennial candidate Jennifer Gale were abruptly joined by three late-filers: Libertarian Wes Benedict (who jumped from Place 3), Elysium nightclub owner John Wickham, and Austin public library employee Phillip Byron Miller. Dunkerley would have cakewalked to victory against Gale alone; with four opponents, including the relatively well-known Benedict and single-issue candidate Wickham (against the smoking ordinance), it's now at least possible that she could face a run-off. Both Benedict and Wickham reportedly jumped into the race because of differences with Dunkerley over the proposed smoking ordinance. Miller is a novice, more than a little vague on the institutional details.
At a South Austin Democratic caucus forum last week, the candidates ran through the predictable variations barely distinguishing themselves on the high-profile city issues: development, toll roads, mass transit, affordability, single-member districts, corporate subsidies. Wickham, who had just joined the Place 4 race, didn't show, and in his absence there was nary a mention of the smoking ordinance. (That should change over the next several weeks, and may have an unpredictable effect on turnout and the vote.) On the question of subsidies, only incumbent Dunkerley who has wrestled with the issue over the last couple of years gave a particularly nuanced response. She said the city's incentives programs are a short-term response to regional job loss in the wake of the high tech collapse, and that they are all based on performance: "If the companies don't deliver what they promise, they don't receive the incentives."
This far out, it would appear that the Place 1 and Place 4 races will continue to turn on experience; in Place 3, it remains too early to guess where the divisions will fall.
City Council Candidates
May 7 ElectionPlace 1
Phillip Byron Miller