Municipal Death Match!

With five council seats open, mayor and Place 1 look like the headliners

The main event in Austin politics is here once again: the 2009 City Council elections. And compared to bouts past – in 2003 and 2006, when the featherweights challenging Will Wynn were punching above their weight class – this year's fight for mayor is a real contest. And while two incumbent council members face token or no opposition, the seats freed by mayoral contenders Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken mean new blood for the council – and a real throwdown for Place 1. Get ready: You've got a ringside seat to the political brawl of the year!


MAYOR


Lee Leffingwell "The Quiet Man"
Signature move: Steady-Hand Sleeper Hold

Lee Leffingwell
Lee Leffingwell

Having served on the City Council for four years, Leffingwell is a known political quantity. After a professional career spent flying – as a Navy pilot and for Delta Airlines – Leffingwell entered city politics, joining the city Environmental Board in 1999. He became board chair before running for his current Place 1 City Council seat in 2005. He was re-elected just last May, so it's up or out – this run for mayor effectively vacates his council seat, to be filled by his successor.

Leffingwell readily jokes that he's not the most charismatic political figure in town, that, as he said at his campaign announcement, he's "not exactly regarded as Mr. Entertainment by most people." But he's tried to turn his lack of glitter to his advantage, spinning it as gravitas. He will have to assure voters his judgment, experience, and age will be a steadying, positive force for troubled times and not, as rival Brewster McCracken's campaign put it, drearily "trying to hunker down and weather the storm for a few years."

Partly to that end, Leffingwell has issued several new policy proposals, posted on his website, www.austinleadership.com. They include the creation of AustinCorps, a new citywide volunteer and internship program for youth; calling for a rail/mass transportation bond election by 2010 "or sooner"; offering optional carbon offset credits to eco-conscious Austin Energy customers; holding council meetings outside of City Hall; and more.

There's a handy cynical response to all these proposals: Why now? Leffingwell has undeniably been an effective council member. He's overseen a fledgling but so far successful water-conservation program, worked to modernize development agreements over the Edwards Aquifer (under heavy political pressure on all sides), and spearheaded the consolidation of all city police forces under one roof. (On these policy projects, he's often partnered with Mike Martinez.) Yet it's also true that on each of these projects, the edgier strains of Austin liberalism/environmentalism/neighborhood association-dom have castigated Leffingwell, accusing him of insufficient aggressiveness or overcompromising or both.


Brewster McCracken "Golden Boy"
Signature move: Green-Energy Elbow Counter

Brewster McCracken
Brewster McCracken

A man of strong and volatile passions, McCracken, the current council's mayor pro tem, elicits strong emotions. Elected to Place 5 in 2003 after an unsuccessful run the previous year, then re-elected in 2006, he's prohibited from running for the same seat this year under city term limits – not that his ambition would keep him there.

That word – ambition, in all its positive and negative connotations – inevitably comes up in discussions of McCracken. No one could argue that he hasn't been a proactive council member, undertaking ambitious initiatives such as crafting commercial design standards and promoting vertical-mixed-use and transit-oriented development and similar New Urbanist principles. At the moment, McCracken's similarly amped-up about green energy, trumpeting the nascent Pecan Street Project – a public/private endeavor to reinvent electric power systems – every chance he gets. He compares it to SEMATECH, a semiconductor research concern Austin fought to host in the 1980s which attracted tech companies and university researchers. McCracken hopes the Pecan Street Project – a collaboration between private companies, environmentalists, Austin Energy, the University of Texas, and others – will similarly kick-start renewable energy development and jobs locally. He's similarly enthused in attracting digital entertainment companies – filmmakers, musicians, and programmers – and boosting those already here: He was a staunch proponent of the $5 million upgrades for Austin Studios in the 2006 bond election. By promoting growth in such high tech areas, he seeks to drive a "21st century economy" of new jobs. He also invested in social equity initiatives, having successfully led the effort to repeal a ban on benefits for domestic partners of gay city employees.

McCracken's detractors, however, ask how deep his commitment runs to any one issue. Last summer, for example, he was strongly supportive of a November 2008 rail bond election. He's been far less supportive since, downplaying the prospect of an early bond election, apparently as a wedge to differentiate himself from Leffingwell. McCracken has similarly reversed himself on toll roads in the past, coming out strongly against them following initial, tentative support. As a result, voters might wonder whether his campaign posture swerves too much from his policy track record.


Carole Keeton Strayhorn "The Dynastic Dynamo"
Signature move: Rhetorical Rope-a-Dope

Carol Keeton Strayhorn
Carol Keeton Strayhorn

Strayhorn is a wild card in this campaign – and judging from her storied political history, it's a role she's comfortable playing. She's also the only candidate who has actually served as mayor, having been elected in 1977, then re-elected twice. In her political ascent, she then was elected railroad commissioner (1994) and state comptroller (1998, 2002), before her unsuccessful run for governor in 2006. (She finished third out of the top four contenders.)

Rather than her various races, voters may remember Strayhorn for less flattering reasons – such as her politically expedient switch from Democrat to Republican to independent, likely creating a hard sell among Austin's most-voting liberal bloc. Additionally, her long political record hands her opponents ammunition – particularly Austin's investment in the South Texas Nuke Plant during her time as mayor, a costly and unpopular energy choice. Moreover, voters should be alarmed by the recent liberties Strayhorn has taken with city budget analysis in her campaign to depict city spending as out of control: She describes the ballooning city budget (from $1.84 billion to $2.77 billion over six years) as reflecting overspending, when the largest city department is Austin Energy, which actually generates revenue (lots of it) for the city.

There's no reason to think Strayhorn won't enliven the election, propelling the two strongest candidates to a run-off: Stronger-than-expected early fundraising numbers signaled that she still has a broad fundraising base. The question is: Will she be one of the two strongest contenders?


Mike Levy "The Lingerer"
Signature move: Response-Time Roundhouse

Mike Levy
Mike Levy

While never holding public office, Texas Month­­ly founder and former publisher Levy has been on the political periphery for some time, inveighing on issues through his legendarily long e-mail list and occasionally via direct mail to Austin voters. (His self-financed letter personally attacking Brewster McCracken's 2003 primary opponent Margot Clarke remains an infamous example.) While he's served on numerous volunteer health, hospital, and social service boards, his political presence has increased in recent years, primarily from his perch on the council's Public Safety Task Force.

There, he's continued to bird-dog the issues he's most passionate about – fire and EMS response times, adequate fire crews for a rapidly expanding Downtown, police staffing, and more. At this point, Levy is not formally declared for mayor and insists he hasn't decided if he'll run. "I am still studying the possibility of entering the race," he says. "Right now I'm engaging citizens, asking them what issues matter to them and what their own vision for Austin is. Being mayor of Austin is serious stuff, especially in these challenging times, and I'm taking it real serious before I make a final decision one way or the other." Levy's been twisting in the wind publicly as far back as October; voters might not appreciate the indecisiveness, should he decide to run.


Josiah Ingalls "Vlog the Impaler"
Signature move: YouTube Strike

Josiah Ingalls
Josiah Ingalls

"People may wonder why, at such a young age, I will be running for such a position with no previous political experience, so I will just be upfront and brutally honest with you," writes Ingalls on his YouTube profile (www.youtube.com/josiahingalls) that hosts the prolific vlogger's video posts. "Most of the people in City Hall have so much money that they don't have the problems of us regular citizens, and since they don't have those problems, they can't imagine what it will take to fix these problems, so instead, they spend all of their time trying to fix what is not broken." He cites a "severely neglected" public-transportation system, increasing homelessness and mental illness, and schools "being flushed down the toilet." Toll roads don't please him either.


Jason Morales "Mr. Fantastic"
Signature move: Fake-Out Combo

Jason Morales
Jason Morales

Morales isn't a political unknown – he's unknown, period. His website relays his purportedly fantastic personal history – including his wildly successful early childhood business, record-breaking baseball career, and high grades at an unnamed college, with glowing quotes from unsourced professors and coaches. It also lists his modest set of interests: "cancer research, national government reform, a cutting edge plan to help America compete in the Global economy of today and of the future, national financial reform, a national and global energy crisis solution, innovative school reform, Healthcare reform, and numerous environmental issues." A Whois domain search of the unsettlingly professionally designed site (www.jasonmorales.com) lists Mor­al­es himself as a contact, with an address in Plantation, Fla. Despite the obliqueness of Morales' candidacy, there's already some backstage discussion of what spoiler effect a Hispanic name on the ballot could have in a close election.


PLACE 1


Chris Riley: The Commish

Signature move: Downtown Drubbing

Chris Riley
Chris Riley

Riley brings a long résumé to the Place 1 race, addressing issues important to Austin voters. Among other achievements, he's served on the city's Downtown Commission and Plan­ning Commission, chairing both, founded the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Associ­a­tion, and co-founded Austin CarShare – a service he himself uses, as bike-boosting Riley has no car of his own.

Riley hews to the forward-looking prescriptions favored by most progressive candidates, and his website has position papers on most issues. On the economy and environment, he sees growth in green energy and efficiency as intertwining to aid both; he favors the city building its own materials-recovery facility to recycle locally, instead of out of town, as it has been doing. Environmentalism also pervades his transportation suggestions, as he favors expanding rail (signaling willingness for an early bond election), mass transportation, and bicycling. He also promises greater citizen involvement through revitalizing the city's boards and commissions system and neighborhood planning process, as well as greater government transparency.


Perla Cavazos: Lege Legend

Signature move: The Glass Ceiling Shatter

Perla Cavazos
Perla Cavazos

Cavazos comes to the contest with a rich background and connections in politics here and at the Texas Legislature. She worked for the Texas Association of Community Develop­ment Corporations before joining state Sen. Eddie Lucio's office as a policy analyst. Later, she entered city politics by serving on the Planning Commission and acting as vice chair of the city's Commission for Women.

Cavazos, 33, seems not as deeply steeped in the intricacies of local issues as Riley. But she's trying to outflank him by taking the lead on more direct, pocketbook matters. She proposes "immediate steps to make Austin more recession-resistant" through broadening financial literacy classes and programs such as microlending (small loans targeted to small businesses). She also proposes broadening affordability by cutting insurance costs, which she hopes to accomplish by creating alliances to pool expenses for small businesses, and wants to strengthen Austin's economic future through infrastructure repair, promoting tourism, and calling for "a state-of-the-art medical school and research facility in Austin that will help lower health care costs and cement Austin's role as an industry leader."


Rick Cofer: TKO

Democratic activist and vice-chair of the Solid Waste Advisory Commission, Rick Cofer was an early contender for Place 1, but bowed out in late January. Noting his approval of Riley and Cavazos, Cofer said, "This is not the right time or right race for me."


PLACE 2


Mike Martinez: The Closer

Signature move: Four-Alarm Arm Twister

Mike Martinez
Mike Martinez

Former firefighter Martinez is unopposed thus far in his re-election bid, and it's easy to see why: He's been one of the council's most effective members. Known as an effective legislating partner with Leffingwell, he's teamed to strengthen the independence of the city auditor and called for tighter spending controls on city staff. He's also been a strong voice on the Capital Metro board of directors, working tirelessly to resolve the agency's most recent drivers and mechanics' strike (with little help from his board colleagues). He also chairs the Public Safety Task Force, making recommendations on police, fire, and EMS policy. He's been an advocate for the Live Music Task Force and its recommendation for a city department; his chief aide, Robert Garza, served on the task force. Martinez may not have overseen any grand policy creations in his time on the dais, but his no-nonsense political style (and finely calibrated BS-detector) has been well-utilized in the council's week-to-week actions. Should Leffingwell be elected mayor, their closeness would likely continue a policy alliance; if McCracken is elected, the two could often be at odds.


PLACE 5


Bill Spelman: The Professor

Signature move: Left Hook

Bill Spelman
Bill Spelman

Like Strayhorn, Spelman is running for an office he's previously held – and there the similarities end. Unlike Strayhorn, liberal, progressive candidate Spelman turned away from elected office to focus on other intellectual and academic pursuits. Elected in 1997, Spelman, then as now a professor at UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs, decided not to run for re-election in order to focus on an ambitious police training project for which he suddenly received federal funding. Now, several years later, Spelman says he wants to serve his second term. Spelman iterates a laundry list of concerns for progressive Austinites – greater government transparency and strengthening the local economy through aiding small business, for starters. While likely a reliable vote for neighborhood concerns, his willingness to address affordability through promoting garage apartments and "granny flats" at existing homes signals he could buck the Austin Neigh­borhoods Council density-anxious orth­o­­doxy. Between Spelman's vision and his experience, he had prog Austin agog as its dream mayoral candidate earlier this year, before he decided instead to run for Place 5, citing the cost and divisiveness of a mayoral race.


Sandy Baldridge: TKO

Certified public accountant and Oak Hill advocate Baldridge was vocal about challenging Spelman for Place 5, but withdrew from the race without ever having filed to run. Announcing her decision, Baldridge said she would advocate for some form of single-member districts, in order to bring "fair geographic representation to Austin City Hall."


PLACE 6


Sheryl Cole: The Cruncher

Signature move: Single-Member-District Slash

Sheryl Cole
Sheryl Cole

Cole swept into Place 6 three years ago with a comfortable mandate behind a sizable centrist coalition, the first African-Ameri­can woman on the council. She hasn't made many waves; she's best known for moving forward the Waller Creek Tunnel Project – which will pull dozens of developable blocks Downtown out of the 100-year flood plain and likely irrevocably alter the Red River club landscape – by pitching it as a bridge between East and West Austin (although the creek never crosses I-35). She undertook that project with the guidance of retired Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley, who served as a mentor. With Dunkerley's retirement, the council has tried to position attorney Cole in Dunkerley's old role of financial oracle; she chairs the council's Audit and Finance subcommittee. Her Place 6 seat, along with Mike Martinez's Place 2, are informally "reserved" for African-American and Latino candidates in the archaic arrangement known as the "gentlemen's agreement." But Cole has been a staunch opponent of a switch to geographic council representation, or single-member districts, as she fears it means diminution of the black vote, which could raise the eyebrows of the Department of Justice.


Sam Osemene: Scorched Earth

Signature move: Limited-Government Leg Lock

"Osemene Sam," as he's taken to calling him­self (it rhymes with "Yosemite"), is a Navy vet, Department of Family and Protective Services investigator, and Austin Community College professor, best remembered for his acrimonious run for City Council's Place 4 seat last year. (Who could forget his curious admonition that a vote for Laura Morrison was a vote for Wal-Mart?) He's back, running for Place 6, citing the same set of quasi-Libertarian principles (streamlined permitting, an aversion to toll roads, supporting small business) that's made him a hit on Libertarian hobbyist public access TV program The Trailer Park Show. Osemene's also aiming at Cole: He's wary that the Waller Creek Tunnel Project will spur unwanted development, saying on his website, "the goal of Ms. Cole is to sell this property to developers to build condos."


CITY COUNCIL CANDIDATES

Mayor

Lee Leffingwell

Brewster McCracken

Carole Keeton Strayhorn

Josiah Ingalls

Jason Morales

Mike Levy*

Place 1

Chris Riley

Perla Cavazos

Place 2

Mike Martinez (i)

Place 5

Bill Spelman

Place 6

Sheryl Cole (i)

Sam Osemene

* not formally declared

(i) incumbent

  • More of the Story

  • PACs to Flack

    The city PACs work the background of the campaigns

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More City Council
Council: Can Social Impact Investing End Homelessness?
Council: Can Social Impact Investing End Homelessness?
Catching up with the dais as they bet on success

Mike Clark-Madison, March 29, 2019

Council: Child Care “Scandal” Highlights City’s Own Failures
Council: Child Care “Scandal” Highlights City’s Own Failures
CMs also mull fate of APL’s Recycled Reads

Nina Hernandez, Feb. 15, 2019

More by Wells Dunbar
Top 10 City Council Stories
Top 10 City Council Stories
Dais and months

Jan. 6, 2012

City Hall Hustle: The Hustle Bids Farewell ...
City Hall Hustle: The Hustle Bids Farewell ...
To the beating hearts of a great city

Dec. 30, 2011

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council, City Council Election, Election 2009, Lee Leffingwell, Brewster McCracken, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Mike Levy, Josiah Ingalls, Jason Morales, Chris Riley, Perla Cavazos, Mike Martinez, Bill Spelman, Sandy Baldrige, Sheryl Cole, Sam Osemene

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle