Campaign Update: Frontrunner Dues and Blues

Kim and Clarke race for the line

John Wickham announces his threat of a lawsuit against the city and council candidate Margot Clarke in front of City Hall as attorney Marc Levin looks on.
John Wickham announces his threat of a lawsuit against the city and council candidate Margot Clarke in front of City Hall as attorney Marc Levin looks on. (Photo By John Anderson)

The City Council Place 3 run-off campaign between frontrunner Margot Clarke and newcomer Jennifer Kim, currently in the early voting period prior to the June 11 election, is not exactly generating white-hot controversy. The two candidates are in steady rotation on cable Channel 6, in an excruciatingly polite City Hall forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters (likely to be the last time voters see the candidates together). And both hit the airwaves with new TV commercials this week, with only 10 days left to make a vivid enough impression to motivate voters to the polls.

The differences in emphasis remain: Clarke is stressing greater citizen participation in local and regional government and her independence from big developers and the "toll road lobby"; Kim leads with economic issues (property taxes and affordable housing) and presents herself as the "new generation" or "future" of Austin politics. But on nuts-and-bolts issues like public safety, environmental protection, small business promotion, and so on, the policy differences are not exactly dramatic – undecided voters may find themselves relying on nuance or perceived questions of personality.

On the other hand, Clarke, who enters the run-off with a 40% to 27% lead, has apparently caught a dose of the frontrunner's virus: negative attacks. Last week a newly formed group – called Austin Taxpayers for Fiscal Responsibility and headed by defeated Place 4 candidate John Wickham and conservative attorney Marc Levin – filed three ethics complaints against Clarke and City Manager Toby Futrell, charging that she is illegally receiving Fair Campaign Finance Ordinance funds. Clarke was the only Place 3 candidate who agreed to abide by the ordinance, and under the terms of that agreement, she was provided with about $91,000 for the run-off from designated campaign funds collected by the city from candidate and lobbyist filing fees. Wickham and Levin charge that Clarke violated various aspects of the ordinance (or other laws) by exceeding the general and personal spending limits for the campaign, and called for her to return the money. "It is simply unfair to voters that public funds are being used to finance a campaign that included expensive TV ads that most candidates, including myself, were unable to afford," said Wickham. Their complaints were echoed to a degree by defeated Place 4 candidate Wes Benedict, who said that while there may be precedent for the funding mechanism, he believes the city is "interpreting the rules incorrectly."

However, according to Campaigns for People director Fred Lewis, the ordinance provides that should a qualified candidate's opponents choose not to sign the Fair Campaign contract, the spending limits are waived – so Clarke is legally entitled to the campaign funds. "I'm not a big fan of waiver provisions," said Lewis, "but they are common in campaign ordinances all over the country and have been regularly upheld by the courts. Clarke's campaign has followed the law, and she is due the full amount." Lewis points out that the same rules were followed in previous council campaigns, when current Council Member Raul Alvarez and former Member Bill Spelman received funding under the ordinance. In short, said Lewis, the Wickham/Levin complaints "have no merit" and amount to nothing more than "a publicity stunt."

The two campaigns are staying somewhat aloof from the dispute. Clarke spokesman Elliott McFadden dismissed the complaints – "I just don't think there's a lot to it" – and wondered aloud about the funds underwriting the "Taxpayers" group (an e-mail distributed by the Clarke campaign speculated that Real Estate Council of Austin-related money is behind the group, and described Levin as a "right-wing extremist"). Kim spokesman Amy Everhart said that while no laws may have been broken, Clarke may have violated "the spirit of the ordinance … intended to give an equal chance to all campaigns." She said that Kim had not signed the Fair Campaign contract because she believed she needed to raise and spend additional funds "to distinguish herself in a crowded field."

In another odd twist, last week some voters received Kim phone calls from a phone bank that showed up on Caller ID as "Gregg Knaupe." Defeated Place 3 candidate Knaupe has not made an endorsement, but it turns out that the Kim campaign has hired former Knaupe consultants Mark Littlefield and Rick Cofer, whose staff was making calls from the former Knaupe phone bank – according to Cofer, the phones have since been changed over by the phone company. (Knaupe told us that he was unaware of the phone-bank switch, and Cofer said simply, "Mark and I agreed that Kim was the best candidate for the city.")

Also late last week, Texas Monthly Publisher Mike Levy sent out a mass mailing and e-mail blaming the current council and Clarke for everything from a mediocre library system to "an alarming increase in heroin overdoses." Levy's version of Austin is closer to scenes out of Fort Apache, the Bronx, and more specifically plagiarizes his own 2003 letter attacking Clarke on behalf of eventual Place 5 victor Brewster McCracken. (One would presume things have improved since Levy's candidate won, but apparently they've only gotten worse.) Asked about the mailing – paid for by Levy under the PAC name "The Committee for Even Minimally Sane and Rational Government in Austin" – Levy insisted that his letter is not a "personal attack" but simply represents his conviction that the council neglects "basic core services" like libraries, public safety, code enforcement, and traffic for environmental obsessions like "salamanders" and "Stratus." "I just don't think Clarke cares about that," said Levy. "I'm not calling her crazy, I just think Kim's a better candidate." (Kim is not mentioned in the letter.) Levy's letter, however, virulently describes Clarke as an "obstructionist" embarked on "sheer goofiness" and a "threat to any hope of bringing sanity to Austin government."

Responded McFadden, "It's funny that his letter should appear the same week that the city manager tells the council that public safety now consumes 113% of the city's combined property and sales tax revenues. Levy is the same guy who said commuter rail would destroy our city, and that Kirk Watson was the worst mayor in Austin's history. It's pretty outlandish, but par for the course for Levy."

But McFadden said the Clarke campaign is taking the attacks seriously and responding to voters with phone banks and block-walking, "so people really know what's going on with this election." He remains confident about the outcome of the run-off. "We're in high gear, getting our field program going, getting the neighborhoods walked. Things are humming, and I think we're going to take care of business."

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