Point Austin: Candidate Scramble

A human tragedy overshadows the campaign two-steps, but the dance goes on

Point Austin
Briefly interrupting the somber eulogies for Mary Lou McLain Tuesday afternoon at the Unitarian Church, the ACLU's Will Harrell asked the assembled mourners whether they thought Lee Leffingwell – McLain's widower – should continue his campaign for a seat on the City Council. The many "ayes" from the crowd were subdued but heartfelt, and Harrell looked down at Leffingwell and said, "We need you on the council." That was the only mention of the matter during the otherwise solemn occasion, and Harrell may well be forgiven for saying aloud what has been in the back of many minds since last weekend.

It would be entirely understandable, on the other hand, if the grieving candidate decides city politics is no longer his most urgent priority. Perhaps by the time you read this, he will have made a decision whether to resume his campaign, suspended since his wife's untimely death. On Monday, campaign spokesman Mark Nathan said any decision was still several days away, adding that Leffingwell's supporters and friends were urging him simply to take his time and not to decide anything too quickly. In electoral terms, no immediate decision is necessary – the ballot is set, and it remains likely that Leffingwell will still win the vote outright, even against four other balloted candidates. Were he to step down thereafter, a special election to fill the seat would be held in due course – and the shape of that potential race might well be decided by what happens elsewhere (i.e., in Place 3, which has four strong candidates).

There will be plenty of time for politics. Before we move on, we should note that it was abundantly evident Tuesday that had Mary Lou McLain fully realized how deeply she had touched so many Austin lives over the course of her work as a nurse, a caretaker, a health care advocate, a public activist, a bosom friend, a sister, a beloved aunt – perhaps she would not have succumbed to her private dark night of the soul. The church was overflowing with friends, colleagues, candidates, city officials, activists of every sort, a couple of mayors, and loving family members. McLain loved, and was loved. Anyone familiar with depression will recognize its ruthless solipsism, and recall to ourselves the prayer of the Rev. Davidson Loehr: "When we need help, let us ask for it, and let us wait until it arrives."


Back to Earth

Elsewhere on the politics beat, the campaigns are getting simultaneously entertaining and obnoxious. Charges of money-grubbing and corruption have begun to resound, with barely a couple of weeks for the voters to decide if the charges have weight or are simply a sign of desperate candidates largely indistinguishable on questions of city policy. Place 4 challenger Wes Benedict is making the most noise, charging incumbent Betty Dunkerley with several counts of accepting illegal contributions, inaccurate or false financial filings, and with accepting too much money from nonresidents. Some of the charges seem either frivolous or circular; for example, in his complaint to the state Ethics Commission, Benedict says Dunkerley's outstanding loans are not accurately represented in every page of her filings, yet he arrives at the true calculation of her indebtedness by reference to the very same filings. In his complaint to the city, he claims that the brief run-off period in the 2002 election (two days, until incumbent Beverly Griffith withdrew) simply never happened – should the matter ever come to judgment, there would be several thousand Austin voters who could readily testify otherwise.

On the other hand, Benedict has clearly learned how to read a campaign filing, and someone with Dunkerley's reputation for financial punctiliousness has real reason to be embarrassed by the state of her accounts. Campaign spokesman Mark Nathan (yes, he's working for Dunkerley, too) says the errors are being corrected, and that some contributions Benedict claims were over the limits were already caught and returned (as is customary) before the matter was ever raised.

Dunkerley's sloppy finances are certainly fair game for Benedict; but to imply – as his campaign manager does in this week's "Postmarks" – that they are sinister evidence of personal corruption is mudslinging pure and simple.


Deep Money Matters

It's also a sword that cuts both ways. Benedict learned that the hard way this week, as alert opponents pointed out that he and Place 1's Casey Walker and Place 3's Margot Clarke – favorites of the Austin Toll Party's PETPAC – had transparently skirted the campaign ordinance by accepting in-kind contributions from the PAC (mailer design and extensive mailing list) that exceed the $100 limit in anyone's calculator but the elastic abacus of Toll Party mavens Sal Costello and Linda (A Little Less Corruption?) Curtis. This might be a mere peccadillo – although Clarke at least should know better – except that the Toll Partiers are lightning-quick to scream "Corruption! Thieves! Payoff! Sellout! Thug!" at anyone who so much as disagrees with them. Perhaps Costello and Curtis will now request an immediate criminal investigation of themselves and their anointed candidates by the Travis Co. DA. They would do us all a much bigger favor by simply ending their ceaseless demagoguing of a transportation policy dispute. I know – ain't gonna happen.

That's not to say monitoring the money is not worth doing – but with few exceptions, it's about public interests, not private ethics. Benedict is right to call attention to the Austin Police Association's late heavy hand in the campaigns, as is Clarke to the sudden influx of Real Estate Council-connected donations that may well tip the balance in Place 3 to Gregg Knaupe. With the personal contribution limits as tight as they now are, the "independent" PACs have inordinate influence in the last weeks of the campaign, and they have not been shy in using it. While the rest of us are watching the personalized Punch and Judy show, the usual suspects are gathering their numbers, husbanding their strength – and sending the money flowing to those races, and to underwrite those candidates, most in tune with the interests of the permanent government. end story

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