Naked City

The Sal and Carole Two-Step: Toll Party Throws a Party

Sal Costello (l) and Carole Keeton Strayhorn
Sal Costello (l) and Carole Keeton Strayhorn (Photo By Mary Sledd)

Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn is a master when it comes to playing to the crowd, and the crowd couldn't get much friendlier than the Tunes Not Tolls concert with headliner Jimmie Vaughan last Thursday night.

Sal Costello's Austin Toll Party – the nemesis of more than one elected Central Texas politician – has wholeheartedly embraced Strayhorn for her tough stance against the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority in recent months. While the Toll Party and its People for Efficient Transportation Political Action Committee have taken every opportunity to lambast other politicians for supporting "double tax" roads, the group has lavished praise on Strayhorn, even awarding her its Anti-Corruption Award.

For Strayhorn, last week's crowd could still coyly ask, "What are you running for?" when the Strayhorn bumper stickers appeared on a table outside the ballroom. When she mentioned Gov. Rick Perry's name she knew the crowd would give a resounding "boo," and when she spoke of taking back the free roads of Texas, she knew she'd hear a cheer go up.

Naked City
Photo By Mary Sledd

"It doesn't get better than being here with the fine men and women who are here fighting against double taxation, loose regulation, government infiltration, and fighting for efficient transportation and accurate information, and real relief from traffic congestion on a freeway system that once was and again will be the envy of the nation," Strayhorn told the crowd. Given the warmth of Strayhorn's embrace of PETPAC – and the names of politicians advertised to speak at the event – it seemed only appropriate to examine just what kind of clout this group carried with local politicians.

First, none of the "heroes" mentioned on the flyer – Austin Republican state Reps. Terry Keel and Todd Baxter and Austin City Council Member Brewster McCracken – showed up for the event. The only politicians on hand were the trio endorsed by PETPAC in the current council election – Margot Clarke, Casey Walker, and Wes Benedict. And while the power of a recent recall petition drive might seem potent to council wannabes, the three appeared to have paid for their own flyer to advertise that fact.

Keel, whose anti-toll quotes at meetings have been used in PETPAC's radio ads, brushed aside any insinuation that he could have ties to the Toll Party, saying he couldn't help it if the group chose to use his name on a promotional flyer for the concert. Baxter said his understanding was that the Toll Party intended to recognize those members who stood up to vote against toll roads – no more, no less. He says he has no real ties to the group but supports their right to free speech. "The William Cannon Bridge will open as a free road this week," Baxter said. "I do think the loud and visceral response of citizens is what ultimately led to the William Cannon overpass being a free road. This activity has produced an effect." For the record, Baxter says he is not opposed to every toll road. He supports toll roads when they create true alternative routes in new right-of-way, such as State Highway 130 and U.S. 183-A. He still has a lot of questions about Loop 360 in his own House district and is opposed to converting the road to a toll road at this time.

McCracken said he was proud to accept the Toll Party's People's Champion Award, but that he did not consider himself beholden to the group, personally or politically. "I've been driven by my own analysis of the right thing to do and how to fix this problem," McCracken said. "I need to work with everybody to do that, whether it's the Austin Toll Party or the people on CAMPO who voted for the toll projects. If you're not willing to work with everybody, you're not going to be able to get something done."

State Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, who authored the bill that created toll roads, says that as long as he has been in the House, members have refrained during the session from attending fundraising events like Tunes Not Tolls, aimed specifically at raising money for a PAC with the sole intention of unseating members who voted in favor of the Central Texas toll road vote.

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