Meeker vs. Leffingwell
Candidates come out swinging
With elections some three months out, the race for City Council's Place 1 seat is off to a bruising start. Responsible Growth for Northcross' Jason Meeker is making up for his late start against incumbent Lee Leffingwell with the stridency of his campaign.
Formally announcing last Wednesday, Feb. 6 – almost a month after Leffingwell's official campaign kickoff and even after fellow Place 1 challenger, novice Allen Demling – Meeker has come out swinging. In interviews and during his campaign announcement, he's depicting Leffingwell as a nuclear-power proponent, which – given Austin's liberal bona fides and financially disastrous nuke history in the Eighties – ranks just below tossing kittens off the I-35 overpass, popularitywise. (Or, say, a Wal-Mart going up in your neighborhood.)
"He came out in favor of nuclear power in the Austin American-Statesman in September," Meeker said. "That's a huge issue. That's sure to be a financial boondoggle to the citizens of Austin, and I think it has environmental repercussions that the citizens of Austin are not going to stand for."
The reference was to a Sept. 27 Statesman editorial regarding the proposed expansion of NRG Energy's nuclear South Texas Project, primarily for the energy needs of San Antonio. The editorial encouraged Austin to consider a stake in the plant; it quotes Leffingwell not in support but as saying, "I think we have to give it serious consideration," and, "I know Austin Energy is going to be taking a serious look at it ... and they will evaluate the cost factors and safety problems, and I think we do have to realize that the plant is going to be on the ground whether or not we participate."
Late last week, City Council effectively took the South Texas nuke off the table (pending a formal vote). Leffingwell says the issue is a red herring, as any decision involving AE's investment in nukes would have to go to voters. "Certainly I don't support nuclear power without citizen approval, without some kind of helpful analysis of the economics and the safety involved," he said. "At this time, both the economics and the safety are not there. ... Based on the information we have now, I know I'm not gonna support that."
The slam against one of Leffingwell's strengths – environmental stewardship, dating back to his precouncil days on the Environmental Board – reveals not necessarily broad but certainly deep resentments against him from some blocs of the Austin body politic, including some from the neighborhoods that RG4N lays claim to. Liveable City board member Robin Rather is Meeker's first marquee-name supporter – albeit not yet officially.
"I am intending to officially endorse him, but I haven't actually done that yet," said Rather, pending a few "nuts-and-bolt campaign strategy questions" precipitated by his late entry. For her, the Big Box Ordinance council passed after the Northcross debacle was a landmark decision – but one, as she puts it, accomplished with little help from Leffingwell. Calling him "an almost mind-boggling disappointment," Rather says Leffingwell prolonged the ordinance's passage by trying to insert his own "absolute mumbo-jumbo language" into the ordinance. Rather also described Leffingwell's nuclear consideration as a deal-breaker. She recognizes Meeker is green but says he's got the heart Leffingwell lacks. "In an ideal world, you'd have someone who's both experienced and taking a principled stand on the big issues, fighting like hell. In this race, that's not gonna happen, apparently."
Rather's support for Meeker (or opposition to Leffingwell), along with whispers of further Meeker mobilization from similar quarters of liberal Austin, has caused chatter across the political class – that looking to play kingmaker with their own candidate in the 2009 mayoral elections, groups like Liveable City have encouraged Meeker's run to drive up Leffingwell's negatives, making him damaged goods should he run for mayor. The fact that Meeker has already slammed Leffingwell as eyeing higher office has done little to tamp down this talk – nor has Meeker's naming of Jason Stanford as campaign adviser. Opposition researcher Stanford, who also worked for gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell, is a friend of Brewster McCracken and a contender to run McCracken's rumored mayoral campaign in 2009, prompting buzz of a de facto alliance between the camps to kneecap Leffingwell early – the enemy of their enemy being their friend.
Rather finds such Machiavellian rumors far-fetched, saying she's only focused on what's best for the council, right now. Besides, she said, "To be honest with you, I think if Liveable City or anyone else really wanted to take Lee out, for the specific purpose of some other player, we probably would be running someone more seasoned than Jason."
For his part, Leffingwell is still adamant that there's nothing council could have done to stop Wal-Mart at Northcross, that it was "required by law to be statutorily approved by the staff," and "for a council member to interfere" with that process "would subject him or herself and the city to legal liability. I'm totally sympathetic with their grievance," Leffingwell said. "It's just that the city has to obey the law just like everybody else. It's not an issue for me to decide. ... But the fact of the matter is, I tried to improve the development by asking Wal-Mart's people, along with other council members, to reduce the size of the store, which they did ... and to make other improvements voluntarily, improvements they didn't want to do." Those negotiations would've been further strained, he argued, by "having chewed them out in public."
Still, the site plan approval, coupled with RG4N's unsuccessful lawsuit and a neighborhood group on the verge of bankruptcy, has left a lot of bad feelings and space for Meeker's candidacy. "I guess I could've been a little more sympathetic, said, 'I really feel your pain,'" Leffingwell conceded, but as both his supporters and detractors are quick to point out, emotional appeals are not the man's strong suit. Asked whether the city's reasoning has since been satisfactorily accepted regarding Wal-Mart, he answered: "I don't. I don't think that message has gotten out."