Rookies and veterans compete for council's Big Show
With an eye toward the May 10 elections, prospective council members now campaigning for the Place 1, Place 3, and Place 4 seats are swinging for the bleachers in their hopes of making it to the big leagues.
Below, for your scorecard-keeping pleasure, is the Chronicle starting lineup of spring council candidates.
AT BAT: PLACE 1
"Captain" Lee Leffingwell
Team: City Council Veterans
Position: Utility greenfielder
Strengths: Experience, good compromiser, slow fuse
Weaknesses: Unassertive, low profile
Retired airline pilot Leffingwell has been a steady if low-key force on the council since his initial 2005 election. His previous political experience was primarily environmental: Before running for council, he served as chair of the city's Environmental Board. In the tradition, he's been a strong advocate for water conservation and was the architect of redrafting the Save Our Springs Ordinance. Leffingwell's supporters point to his green bona fides; he also touts himself as a fair and deliberative consensus-builder on the council – a trait challenger Jason Meeker has tried to turn against him by suggesting Leffingwell is not a fighter. Meeker has also slammed Leffingwell for a possible mayoral run in 2009; Leffingwell says he's "totally concentrated" on his current seat and that he won't decide "about the mayors race in '09 until that time."
It's certainly true that Leffingwell's undemonstrative, matter-of-fact manner – his reluctance to indulge in "I feel your pain" genuflecting to influential quarters of the Austin body politic – has left him vulnerable to attack on some issues, like his unapologetic advocacy for Water Treatment Plant No. 4 or his frank conclusion that the council could not legally act against the Wal-Mart at Northcross site plan.
He says he plans to campaign on his initiatives past and present – environmental protections, advocating better mental-health-care programs, and consolidating Austin's Public Safety and Emergency Management teams (airport police, et al.) under the Austin Police Department umbrella. "I feel very good about my chances," says Leffingwell. "I don't want to be overconfident, I don't want to be underconfident, but I think I do have a broad base of support. ... We'll just have to wait and see."
Jason "the Slugger" Meeker
Team: Northcross Box-Bashers
Position: Designated hitter
Strengths: Righteous anger at bad development calls
Weaknesses: Beanballer, unseasoned
While lamenting the Texas presidential primary "taking up so much oxygen," Meeker says there may be an advantage: "People engaged in campaigns like Barack Obama's, who are eager for change; they should channel that energy into the City Council race. ... I am the 'change' candidate when it comes to Place 1. I've been fighting the status quo for more than a year and a half." Meeker says Austin voters have mistaken Leffingwell's inaction for deliberation and that the incumbent sold out the surrounding neighborhoods in their Wal-Mart turf war. Early in his campaign, he misleadingly characterized Leffingwell as a nuclear power proponent by misrepresenting a quote in the Statesman. With Leffingwell unofficially considering a mayoral run in 2008, Meeker is arguing that Leffingwell could serve less than a year in Place 1 and that a special election to fill the seat (depending on the timing) would cost taxpayers money (a charge, it should be pointed out, that's also been levied at Responsible Growth for Northcross regarding its suit against the city).
Meeker is tenacious in his effort to oust "the insiders" at City Hall. Whether he can break out of the big-box with Austin voters – that is, out of what's been perceived as a single-issue campaign – remains to be seen. "Give this campaign a chance," he says.
Allen "the Beard" Demling
Team: Red River Rockets
Position: Bicycle pitcher
Strengths: Idealistic, in touch with the kids
Weaknesses: No stats, no league support
Demling's direct political experience is inherited – his father, John, served as village president of the western Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, Ill., from 1993 to 1997. Galvanized by his own work on the Kinky Friedman gubernatorial campaign and student elections, Demling decided to throw his hat – or more accurately, his beard – into the ring. Sporting an instantly recognizable, ZZ Top beast of a beard, Demling proclaimed his competition in a recent beard-and-mustache competition organized by Austin's Misprint Magazine – one of Demling's supporters and contributors, in the form of donated ad space in their bitingly satirical zine.
Candidate Demling wants to support Austin's ecologically friendly industries, improve public transportation and nonautomobile forms of transportation, implement strict transparency at City Hall, and preserve Austin's counterculture character. "Artists, musicians, tattoo artists, bikers and 'outsiders' are profoundly important to the character of this city," Demling says on his website. "They are the people who make living in Austin fun. We need to make sure live music isn't pushed out by the rapid growth of Downtown."
Jeffrey "No Hitter" Hancock
Team: Muse Boosters
No stats available: Retired on bench
Real estate agent Hancock filed on closing day for this race – then dropped out the day after the ballot was set, throwing his support behind Jason Meeker. His announcement excoriated Leffingwell for voting against allowing the massive Villa Muse development complex to build outside of Austin's environmental protections – somewhat laughably insisting that toothless state and county regulations would be sufficiently protective.
AT BAT: PLACE 3
"Whirlwind" Jennifer Kim
Team: City Council Veterans
Position: Switch hitter
Strengths: Passionate, unafraid to kick up dust
Weaknesses: Not seen as team player
Facing shifting political support and a strong challenger in Randi Shade, first-term incumbent Kim has continued her consistent work advocating on behalf of Austin families and affordability – like leading the Affordable Housing Incentives Task Force – while further aligning herself with some of Austin's more vocal insurgencies.
Her recent abstention from endorsing Marc Ott as city manager, citing concerns the hiring process wasn't sufficiently public – immediately after the newly formed Better Austin Today PAC voiced similar concerns – seemed to be a turning point. Some of her institutional support has switched to Shade (like the combined public safety unions, including the firefighters who strongly supported Kim's last campaign), so Kim's search for a constituency has lead to a slightly more strenuous tone, especially when touting neighborhood concerns. In the Northcross Wal-Mart battle, for instance, Kim has vowed to vote against any further funds for attorneys defending the city. As for her outsider status on the council – those occasions she's been the lone holdout – she says, "I stand up for what is right." In at least one instance, Kim's independence was vindicated when Water Treatment Plant No. 4 was moved to a different site. Asked to differentiate herself from her opponent, Kim says: "I can't really talk about her, because I don't know what she really stands for. She hasn't really been vocal on city issues until she started campaigning."
Randi "Hitting Streak" Shade
Team: The Charity Cases
Position: Place 3 termstop
Strengths: Different perspective, already splitting league support, and "Not Kim"
Weaknesses: Untested in the big leagues
"The popular wisdom is that you don't challenge an incumbent successfully," says Shade, "but I'm doing the best that I can. ... I know it's rare, but I'm thrilled I'm getting good response." Shade is running an Austin-centric campaign to unseat Kim: "Listens to you. Listens to Stevie Ray," read the banners on her website, apparently from the mind of campaign manager Mark Nathan (also managing Leffingwell's campaign). Former UT-Austin student body president, Shade founded Internet philanthropy website CharityGift.com in 1999, at the apex of the dot-com boom. (It was acquired by another Internet charity concern before it went belly-up; Shade bought it back ... then sold it again in 2005.) She touts her role in launching the Texas arm of AmeriCorps and her founding director's role at the Texas Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service under former Govs. Ann Richards and George W. Bush.
Shade stands for growth (i.e., the responsible kind), governance (including support for some form of single-member districts), and (better) city services and hasn't shied from calling out the incumbent – by touting her own openness and availability (echoing charges Kim hasn't been sufficiently so) or launching more direct attacks (like Kim's airport-security snafu). "There's no question to some extent this is a referendum on Jennifer Kim," she says, "so there's no getting around that."
Ken "Guardsman" Weiss
Team: Battle Rattlers
Position: Center-right fielder
Strengths: Anti-toll stance plays well to the crowd
Weaknesses: No stats available, no league support
A Texas Army National Guard officer, Weiss takes several standard Austin political positions: protection of small, family- and minority-owned businesses; environmental protections; and supporting green technologies, like switching to energy-efficient LED lightbulbs (which Kim recently sponsored at council). He also speaks to the need of ramping up public safety responders, especially firefighters, to meet a growing Downtown's needs and opposing "toll roads that use existing, tax-paid roadways." While lacking any sort of institutional support from the Austin politi-gentia, Weiss doesn't look like he's running on a lark – although some of his proposals may have trouble picking up steam. "The citizens of Austin don't want or need another politician to run Austin," Weiss says on his website. "What they need is someone with great business sense and the proven leadership skills that I have shown."
Trevor "No Hitter" Titman
No stats available: Retired on bench
A self-described 21-year-old college dropout and video game enthusiast, Titman didn't make the March 10 filing deadline, sending him and his plans to keep Sixth Street bars open past 2am back to the farm leagues.
AT BAT: PLACE 4
Robin "Springs" Cravey
Team: Slacktown Salamanders
Position: Left field
Strengths: Batting 1.000 environmentally
Weaknesses: Seen in some quarters as a throwback player
With his trademark chinstrap beard, cowboy hat, and ubiquitous bow-tie, Cravey is visibly unmistakable. An attorney by trade, Cravey's been involved in Austin politics for some time – for instance, he was a council aide to Max Nofziger back in 1995, then later to Daryl Slusher. In that tradition, Cravey's candidacy is the most direct descendent of the Save Our Springs-era Green Council of the late Eighties and early Nineties. His environmental concerns are paramount; he currently serves as the founding president of the Friends of Barton Springs Pool. "We have to keep Austin green," Cravey says. "We have to protect our water quality lands to the west, protect our farmland to the east, and make this city function in harmony with the environment."
Cravey also trumpets housing affordability, mass-transit, and pedestrian/people-powered transportation in his holistic vision for Austin's future: "I think it's really important we have a vision for where we want to take the city over the next 20 years or so and we carry through on the vision." He's also unafraid to draw distinctions among his fellow Place 4 contenders. Of a recent candidate forum, he said, "I've got more experience than any of the other people on the stage [in Place 4] and maybe deeper and broader experience than all of them [in the City Council race]."
Cid "the Commissioner" Galindo
Team: Downtown Titans
Position: Center field
Strengths: Well-rounded player; government, business experience
Weaknesses: Double player for Downtown development league?
Out of the blue, in January Galindo received the endorsement of the combined public safety civil service unions (Police, Fire, and EMS). The unions have a rep – fair or not – as a potential conduit for deep-pocketed Downtown campaign dollars, so the announcement raised some concerns that Galindo – who parlayed business and management into success developing kids' educational materials, then into a string of Downtown patronage positions (director of the Downtown Austin Alliance, president of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association) – is the presumptive "business" candidate. But that view neglects Galindo's broader involvement in urban planning: positions with Envision Central Texas, the Planning Commission, the Central Texas chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism, and Downtown social service nonprofit Caritas of Austin.
"We're very, very pleased with the success the campaign has been having," Galindo says, calling the unions' endorsement "a great early victory." He says his inclusive style won the endorsement: "Both of my opponents [Cravey and Laura Morrison] come from an activist, single-issue-type background – that's their approach to solving political or community problems. That's not my background. I'm more of a generalist. I come from the background of an appointed official that's been on the planning commission, that's understood that you have to find compromises to move forward. I think our styles will be very different in terms of how we approach issues, because of our backgrounds and our political experience."
Laura "Good Neighbor" Morrison
Team: The Happy Homeowners
Position: Front yard, back yard
Strengths: Winning the money game; versed in league rules
Weaknesses: Fears that she's batting only for the home(owner) team
Morrison won the early money race in Place 4 and the unexpected celebrity endorsements: Ray Wylie Hubbard played a recent fundraiser; Ed Begley Jr. has provided an approving nod to her energy policies. The headliner support is a reflection of the political capital Morrison accumulated as the head of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, the mother ship of neighborhood associations that has made homeowner concerns (like the McMansion Ordinance, on which Morrison consulted as task force co-chair) the acme (or nadir, depending on your point of view) of current Austin politics.
So while neighborhood planning and zoning concerns would likely be Morrison's strong suit, will she be able to address in detail other issues on Liberal Austin's checklist (housing affordability, traffic, quality of life, crime, etc., etc.)? "I started with issues in my own neighborhood, then broadened that to include a lot of different things: affordable housing, environmental issues, public safety, public health," says Morrison. She also points to her engineering expertise – formerly at Lockheed Martin and currently as a disaster-management consultant – as an asset: "I think that my candidacy really offers a significant difference because of my professional background ... an engineering and management perspective on the council will be unusual and I think very helpful. ... The other distinction I bring is being connected to community and having been in the trenches, working on so many issues we're facing right now."
Sam "Hook 'Em" Osemene
Team: 512 Boosters
Position: 40 Acres infielder
Strengths: Fierce local pride
Weaknesses: No available stats, no league support
With a website named www.vote4alonghorn.com, long-shot candidate Sam Osemene's proud of his UT education (a B.A. and a forthcoming master's in political science), and as his Navy uniform photo makes clear, he's also proud of his national service. (The website is full of quotes from Abe Lincoln and Alexander Hamilton.) Currently a Texas Department of Criminal Justice parole officer, Osemene proposes relocating the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless shelter from Downtown and providing permanent accommodations elsewhere, vows to fight eminent domain proceedings (albeit rare in these parts), and to cap property taxes for seniors. In language reminiscent of the Federalists, Osemene writes: "I believe this city will rise again! In order to move this city forward; let us discard the habit of low expectations that have been forced upon us by those that doubt our resilience." (We hadn't realized Austin had, in fact, sunk.)
Jennifer "Wild Pitch" Gale
Team: The Wanderers
Position: Way, way outfield
Legendary campaign gadfly Gale is a perennial presence in the local political scene: The transgender, homeless former Marine has previously run for just about every imaginable office: Senate, mayor, City Council, and school board (where she garnered an alarming 39%). She recently took a break to run for mayor of Dallas. Despite her abundant eccentricities, Gale does address concerns many Austinites share: for starters, affordable housing and a livable wage.
"The Locator" Ken Vasseau
Team: Crime Stoppers
Position: Nowhere near Highland Mall
Little Rock, Ark., native Ken Vasseau has spent half his adult life in Austin. He's currently an apartment locator and real estate agent. Vasseau has issued a seven-point platform for his campaign, including calls to "issue municipal bonds at low rates" in order to provide services and utilities required by sprawl, "against converting freeways into tollways," creating a "5-mile radius for disposal of analog TVs," "mixed-use city garages, retail, restaurant/bar etc.," and "find solutions for crime at Highland Mall."