The Council We Deserve?
In the races for City Council, it's a search for competence amidst the chaff
Council Member Jackie Goodman, stepping down this year from her Place 3 seat on the dais, has attended a few of the candidate forums around town to watch how her potential replacements perform on the stump. As a sitting member, Goodman doesn't get involved directly in the debates, but she has a response ready when she's asked what the most important qualities needed in a City Council member are. "Patience," she answers. After a moment, she adds with a wry smile, "and a sense of humor."
Goodman's advice is useful as well for anyone following this year's council campaign, which has thus far been an uneven mixture of predictable chorales, surreal dog-and-pony shows, and single-issue check-offs, with the weeks of ritualized exchanges only rarely interrupted by moments of sharp or illuminating debate. With the scale of the campaigns inevitably limited both by the nature of the office and by Austin's restrictive campaign finance ordinance a mixed blessing the process is intensely retail, so that it seems at times the candidates will personally need to shake hands with every potential actual voter in order to have a shot at victory. Thus far, mostly political junkies (often the same faces) have turned up at dozens of forums around town to hear the candidates reciting minor variations on the prevailing issue winds: stop the toll roads, improve local affordability, build a more efficient transit system, protect the environment while planning for growth, maintain fiscal responsibility ... none of it is either surprising or outrageous, but on the whole it's not the sort of thing likely to drive the voters into an electoral frenzy.
The single exception this year may be the proposed smoking ordinance, which could be a wild card affecting both turnout and the outcome in at least one race although nobody is certain how. "If the election were held today, the ordinance would win," guessed political consultant Dave Butts a couple of weeks ago. (Butts is supporting Place 3 candidate Jennifer Kim* and also working on behalf of Onward Austin, the anti-smoking coalition sponsoring the ordinance.) "But a lot can happen in a month," he continued, adding that it's still unclear if there could be enough angry smokers in Austin to turn the tide the other way.
It's an odd, even lopsided campaign overall, with only one of the three council contests delivering much suspense. The Place 1 and Place 4 races are almost certainly to be decided early on election night. The Place 3 race, on the other hand, has no heavy favorite, and will almost certainly go to a run-off and which two of the four candidates will make that run-off is very much still in play.
A Full House
In a saner metropolis should you know of any, drop us a line the four candidates for Place 3 would be spread out more evenly among all three available seats. But with Lee Leffingwell hogging Place 1, and Betty Dunkerley incumbent upon Place 4, the four most promising young candidates have clustered in Place 3, where three are doomed to draw short straws. Each of the four is arguably qualified for the position, though Margot Clarke and Mandy Dealey have the perhaps marginal advantage of having run for office before Clarke for the Place 5 seat eventually won by Brewster McCracken two years ago, and Dealey in the 2000 Democratic primary for the District 48 state rep seat now held by Republican Todd Baxter. All four have recognizable Democratic roots, although perhaps different shades of blue: Jennifer Kim, currently a small business owner (Computer Moms), points to her service as an aide to Laredo Sen. Judith Zaffirini, and Texas Hospital Association staffer Gregg Knaupe once worked for retired state Rep. Barry Telford, D-DeKalb. On "the issues" those sacred questions beloved of good-government types, which in races like these often have little relation to either qualifications or electability there are few dramatic differences, and the various candidates' forums (including the endorsement interview at the Chronicle) have not cast either tremendous light or shadow.
There are a few explicit lines of demarcation, however. Although all four have declared their opposition to the Central Texas toll road plan, only Clarke has expressly rejected any financial support from those with toll road interests, earning her the double-edged distinction of an endorsement by the Austin Toll Party and Independent Texans. ("I don't agree with everything they've done," Clarke says, "but I applaud their success in bringing the whole issue into the public arena, which is integral to everything I'm trying to do.") Clarke has also been the bluntest on her support for the smoking ordinance ("If I had been elected two years ago, we'd already be over this controversy because I would not have voted to reverse the original council ban" unlike Brewster McCracken), but both Dealey and Kim have indicated that while they will enforce whatever the voters say, they personally support the ban. Knaupe, who has been pitching his campaign to the same Northwest/Southwest axis that won for McCracken, says that while he's not a smoker he believes small businesses need a "stable regulatory environment" to prosper, and therefore he opposes the ban.
On the stump, each candidate has emphasized a personal campaign theme. For Clarke, it's Austin's "unique sense of community" that is created by "real public participation" in the political process. Dealey says she's running out of a determination to "carry on the legacy of service of Jackie Goodman" most specifically to sustain the health and human services on which she has focused much of her volunteer service (e.g., Planned Parenthood, public health nonprofits). Kim emphasizes a need for greater "affordability" for ordinary families in Austin, and her determination to find ways to "balance progress and stewardship of the environment" in managing growth. Knaupe points to his THA experience with helping to establish the local hospital district, and says the city needs to work with state and federal agencies to procure more public health and public safety funding. (He also highlights his support for an Austin academic health center, which may carry some weight with UT voters or those hot on economic development.)
With the exception of the smoking ordinance which, depending on turnout, could be sufficient to propel Knaupe into a run-off none of these distinctions is likely to draw the voters' rabid devotion or ire, and the campaign buzz has been mostly beneath the surface, or in the background, where the supporters gather. Clarke is best known for her environmental work (e.g., the Sierra Club), and her core is in the central city, while Dealey is identified largely from her work with health care nonprofits, and her likely strength is among Westside liberals. That leaves Kim and Knaupe to divvy up the stealth conservatives among Austin voters call 'em the McCracken Backers and judging from endorsements and campaign cash, Knaupe is leading in that fight. Blog and e-mail sniping have pointed to donations from GOP supporters or developer types in the Kim and Knaupe list, and in the 30-day-out reports that were filed last week, the Knaupe campaign has suddenly blossomed with a slew of $100 pops amounting to more than $20,000 from a whole bunch of folks who just happen to have Real Estate Council of Austin or other developer connections.
Knaupe's campaign is bragging that he now has more cash on hand than the other three candidates combined, but when asked about the apparent RECA tide, Knaupe was diffident. "All that means is that [former mayor and RECA member] Bruce Todd held a fundraiser for me, and it went well. There's no quid pro quo and I hope those people are looking for leadership and independent thought on the council, because that's all they'll get from me. I'm not going to be anybody's 'man' on the council." As for the development issue, Knaupe immediately raised his own concerns about AMD's announcement, that afternoon, that it plans to build a new headquarters on the Stratus Corp. Lantana tract, right over the contributing zone for the Edwards Aquifer. "I'm nervous about that, and since I live in Travis Country, it's even a NIMBY issue for me. I don't believe that infrastructure out there can sustain that additional traffic, or the additional residential and road construction the facility will bring."
On yet another front, Knaupe's opponents are beginning to raise the issue of the THA's enthusiastic support for the Proposition 12 state constitutional amendment concerning "tort reform," which won narrowly statewide but was handily defeated in Travis County. Asked about it last week (at the RECA forum, coincidentally), Knaupe said that although he worked for it as a THA employee, he personally opposed and voted against it. (Unlike the hot-button smoking ordinance, the issue may now be arcane or passé enough to allow Knaupe a pass with municipal voters.) Only a few weeks out, it would appear that Knaupe has triangulated himself sufficiently to make him likely to survive into the run-off where he will have plenty of money to pull a potential McCracken. Who will he face? That's a tougher call Kim seems perhaps a race away, and still looking for a constituency, while Clarke and Dealey may find themselves fighting for the same voters (the Chronicle's dual endorsement may suggest such an outcome). Then it's too close to call at least one reason to come out on election Saturday morning, and to pay attention on Saturday night.
Leffingwell and Others
"I thought about running in 2003," said Lee Leffingwell. "And what I learned, in looking at that race, is that if you're serious about running for council, you need to start early." When he decided to run for the seat being vacated by Daryl Slusher, Leffingwell remembered his own advice, and began gathering support last year and he was quickly successful enough to drive several other potential contenders away from the Place 1 race. He's a native Austinite and retired airline pilot with plenty of local contacts (his wife, Mary Lou McLain, is the president of Family Eldercare), and he's visibly at ease on the campaign grind.
As a five-year member and four-year chair of the Environmental Board (he stepped down to run for council), Leffingwell has a considerable record of doing the everyday work on land-use projects that doesn't make the headlines, and of working with all kinds of people across the city to get things done. The result shows in the range of his support: his long list of organizational endorsements runs from the Austin Police Association through the Central Labor Council, the Building Owners and Managers Association, the Environmental Democrats, the Sierra Club, and on and on (it also includes this newspaper); Leffingwell's declared individual supporters include CEO Beau Armstrong of Stratus, the Sierra Club's Karin Ascot, Envision Central Texas' Robin Rather, and dozens more. (Although he's not in a tight race, he's also raised considerable cash, even at the $100 limit his 30-day-out report showed about $14,000 in cash on hand, but he's already spent nearly $50,000.
Leffingwell's deep and wide early support drove the strongest opposition elsewhere. The others on the Place 1 ballot are all political novices: small-business owner and Democratic activist Andrew Bucknall; house painter James Paine; Teleclip employee Casey Walker; and probate clerk Scott Williams. (Steve Adams, contractor and ACTV talk-show host, missed the filing deadline and is running as an official write-in.) Of the four, only Bucknall has managed any significant traction, probably because he's worked with council committees (on affordable housing) and has some Eastside support through his chairmanship of the Huston-Tillotson Young Democrats. (He will graduate in political science from H-T on election day.) Bucknall is profoundly earnest at forums he jumps to his feet and declares, "I'm your progressive, grassroots candidate for City Council!" and he emphasizes the range of his Austin background and his personal experience as a single father and former counselor for abused children as giving him particular insight into the needs of all Austinites. He and Leffingwell have traded shots on particular issues Bucknall says Leffingwell isn't taking seriously enough the tensions between Austin police and local minorities, and Leffingwell says Bucknall shifted in the wind on the smoking ordinance. (Bucknall says he now opposes the ordinance because of the 15-foot rule for smoking outside venues, which he calls impractical.) Leffingwell says the city is handling the police matter responsibly, within an otherwise outstanding department, and he calls the smoking question a voters' initiative, for the voters to decide.
The three other candidates were last-minute filers with little name recognition or specific ideas, and none is likely to make a dent in Leffingwell's armor. Paine is an earnest fellow who says he wants to represent "working-class people" on the council, but has felt his own inexperience strongly enough that he told the online city politics newsletter In Fact Daily a couple of weeks ago that he was ending his campaign. (He now says he's in the race to stay.) Williams is a probate court clerk who's been a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity and Bikers Against Child Abuse, but with the exception of his opposition to tolling existing roads (a unanimous position across the campaign board), shows virtually no knowledge of wider city issues. Walker talked tough enough on the tollway front to garner the anti-toll road endorsements of the Austin Toll Party's People for Efficient Transportation political action committee and its allied Independent Texans (run by petition maven Linda Curtis) although he was embarrassed a few days later when In Fact Daily pointed out that he had, indeed, accepted money from toll road supporting interests specifically, members of HillCo Partners, a GOP lobbying firm. (Walker has since returned the money, but the episode served to amplify his political naïveté.)
Those two were literally the only organizational endorsements to escape Leffingwell, who said afterward, "Considering the Toll Party's actions in the [mayoral and council members] recall campaign, they weren't endorsements I was seeking."
Betty Under Siege
As Leffingwell is the candidate to beat in Place 1, incumbent Betty Dunkerley looks nearly as invulnerable here. Although she defeated a liberal/green favorite (Beverly Griffith) in moving from city finance director to council in 2002, she has largely been seen on the dais as a rational consensus-builder, with little damage to her well-established reputation as a budget hawk. (On the other hand, when Council needs money for special projects as in the current back-room puzzler titled How-can-we-bail-out-Midtown-Live-without-starting-another-shitstorm? they inevitably turn to Dunkerley to find a financial solution.) And while there is an inevitable undercurrent of prog grumbling that Dunkerley's just too conservative (politically and pragmatically) for an Austin council member, she reportedly won the endorsement of the West Austin Democrats (along with most other endorsing orgs) on the strength of her stout public opposition to Tom "Bug Man" DeLay's re-redistricting hatchet job on Travis County.
Initially, Dunkerley faced only the trans-uncertain election groupie Jennifer Gale in what promised to be a laugher no serious candidate cares to take on a well-funded incumbent, and against Betty, Jennifer couldn't even lay claim to the (increasingly scary) reflexive gender vote she copped in her last run for school board. But Dunkerley's stately march to recoronation was complicated by the late entry of perennial Libertarian candidate Wes Benedict (who moved from Place 3 on the last filing day) as well as the single-issue candidacy of Elysium club owner John Wickham, who said he objected to Dunkerley's opposition to adding the explicit phrase "live music venues" to the ballot language on the smoking ordinance. (Dunkerley was hardly alone, and the council shied from strongly rewriting a citizen-drafted initiative, but she's carrying the burden of being the only incumbent on the ballot.)
Dunkerley remains the heavy favorite, but the amended ballot means she's working harder than anticipated. Benedict doesn't have a big war chest, but he campaigns easily and well, and will benefit from generalized anti-incumbent sentiment driven by the toll road and smoking issues (although Dunkerley has had nothing to do with the former, and the latter vote in this race should belong to Wickham). In candidate forums, Benedict has gone out of his way to moderate his familiar "the free-market-solves-all-problems" rhetoric from previous campaigns he's no longer the executive director of the Libertarian Party of Texas but he continues to rest his campaign on small government, no corporate subsidies, and leave well enough alone. If you closed your eyes at a recent environmental forum, you could swear he sounded like a garden-variety, middle-of-the-road Austin liberal. (Much of that effect, however, could be charged to the softballs lobbed by the enviro groups, which were a dozen hopelessly lame variations on "Do you believe in protecting the environment?" By the end of the evening, any sane listener was desperately hoping a candidate would rattle the rafters by coming out four-square in favor of pollution and poured concrete.)
Dunkerley has taken a few hits for council actions on tax incentives e.g., the recent Home Depot and Freescale deals but she firmly defends these programs as specific responses to the economic downturn in the high tech industries and the consequent loss of Austin jobs. "These are all performance-based incentives," she tells every forum audience, "and we don't do them unless they will deliver more value in benefits to the Austin economy, and the companies don't get the incentives unless they complete their part of the deal." And she has benefited from her intimate nuts-and-bolts knowledge of the details of actual city management when the subject of billboards came up in a forum, all the other candidates made generic promises they would protect Austin's beautiful countryside; Dunkerley passed out a map showing her in-progress program both to move and steadily eliminate the worst of the eyesores.
As always, Gale shows up bedraggled and cheerful at the forums, promising if elected to hire Jackie Goodman (who demurs from the honor), to work for more bike avenues and smoking ventilation, and to "Keep Austin Austin." (In what promises to be an unexceedable campaign nadir, on Gale's official Channel 6 appearance she attempts to sing the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," in a manner reminiscent of Tiny Tim if that's not sufficient grounds for disqualification, it should be.)
Wickham seems genuinely concerned about the potential consequences of the smoking ordinance, but is otherwise uninterested in the affairs of City Hall and has thus far run a desultory and virtually invisible campaign (except in the pages of this newspaper). And political novice Phillip Byron Miller, an Austin library employee, has mentioned an interest in addressing traffic congestion but clearly knows little of city government.
It Ain't Over
There are still a couple of weeks to raise additional dust, but on paper, two of the three council races appear virtually decided frankly not the optimum situation for voters, who might have preferred to have the issues facing the city argued out in more explicit detail throughout the campaign. On the other hand, the Place 3 race will provide plenty of political drama, and perhaps even a new chapter in Austin's 30-year war between central city, populist greens and economic-growth-first, regionalist suburbanites. And it may also turn on the uncertain zeal of the anti-smoking/pro-smoking vote it's a reasonable guess to believe it will have some effect on turnout, but which way the smoke will be blowing on election day is another question altogether.
And with Dunkerley and Leffingwell representing essentially known quantities on the new council, the new group's tone may well be set by whoever survives the four-way donnybrook in Place 3, which remains very much too close to call. That's an answer likely to take shape only as we get ready, after May 7, for the full-scale rhetorical war of the Place 3 run-off.
*Oops! The following correction ran in our March 29, 2005 issue: Political consultant Dave Butts is supporting Place 3 City Council candidate Jennifer Kim, not Mandy Dealey, as reported in the April 22 issue in "The Council We Deserve?" The Chronicle regrets the error. *This story has been corrected from its original publication.