Point Austin: Levy Steps Back ... and Shoots Long

Running the city is easier campaigned than done

Point Austin
When Mike Levy told me last fall that he was considering a run for mayor of Austin, he added that he would not be beholden to fundraisers, because he could afford to finance his own campaign. "The courts say that's legal, you know," Levy added.

"I know," I replied. "You can't outlaw insanity."

Levy didn't find my attempt at humor amusing, but he's a resilient fellow and quickly got over it. It took him a few months longer to get over the idea of running at all. This week he finally distributed a lengthy e-mail to thousands of Austinites, announcing his decision not to run, citing "very personal and family considerations, intensified by the recent death of [his] mother" (Florence Ruth Levy passed away Feb. 3, at the age of 94). Levy insisted that his candidacy would have been "more than just viable," although in a crowded field the former Texas Monthly publisher with a well-honed gift for invective would have been a volatile long shot. (Setting aside potential qualifications for office, Levy's demurral leaves the campaign trail measurably diminished in entertainment value.)

Unsurprisingly, Levy took a couple of parting shots at City Hall, based, he wrote, on his exploratory conversations. He had confirmed his belief that local officials are "out of touch" with Austinites' needs and priorities and that "local government simply is not working to serve the more important needs and interests of most citizens, especially those living paycheck to paycheck." The reason 90% of Austinites don't vote in local elections, Levy says, is "primarily because they believe city government doesn't work for them, and so naturally they don't bother voting." (One counterargument, nationally demonstrated last Novem­ber, is that people are more likely to vote when they're angry.)

More specifically, Levy accused city government of being too much in thrall to "single issue groups" (read "environmentalists," a longtime obsession) and "downtown developers," who in his judgment are attempting to foist on the city "the high-ticket downtown trolley car system [for] the downtown area at the expense of [other] neighborhoods."

One Man's 'Basic'

More than one observer will be confounded by Levy's identification of Downtown developers, on the one hand, with their implacable enemies, on the other. More generally, however, I think many citizens share Levy's vague but heartfelt notion that city priorities are askew – although when you ask any one of them what those priorities instead should be, you're likely to get a different answer every time. And there's the political rub.

I took the opportunity to ask the sitting council members/mayoral candidates what they thought of Levy's criticisms. Brewster McCracken and Lee Leffingwell each praised Levy's commitment to Austin but were unper­suaded by his arguments. McCracken – often the target of Levy's sarcastic e-mails, particularly for his support of a Downtown circulator ("trolley car") – indulged in a little sarcasm of his own, saying: "What a great idea, let's listen to the voters – we haven't heard that before. If someone had just clued us in and told us that that was the way to get elected and serve the public, things would be a whole lot better."

I had caught McCracken en route to a San Antonio forum on clean energy, where he was hoping to enlist support for a regional economic partnership. While he noted that for city officials, the budget shortfall is "the overwhelming focus" right now, "It's not going to be a surprise to anybody that renewable energy and this technology stuff is an area I've been focused on for five years now." What was once largely an environmental motivation has become an urgent economic priority. Citing cutbacks at Spansion and Applied Materials, McCracken said: "The elephant in the room right now is that we're seeing the bleeding away of good middle-class manufacturing jobs that have provided a good living in this region for a generation. ... These are the $50,000- to $80,000-a-year jobs that people could go to [Austin Community College] and get trained [to do] and have a good life. I personally believe that has to be our top focus."

Via e-mail, Leffingwell similarly disagreed with Levy that City Hall isn't listening to folks living "paycheck to paycheck – and some have already lost that paycheck. It's clear that the nation's economic crisis is hitting home in Austin." He argued that the city in fact is focused on what he and Levy agree are "prioritizing the basics – jobs, traffic, public safety, social services, and environmental protection," and he praised the "thousands of city employees at work right now who are focused exclusively on the most important needs and interests of the people of Austin."

Both men pointed to the current, ongoing budget-cutting discussions as reflecting the city's inevitable focus on basic priorities.

Finding the Sweet Spot

The much-maligned "downtown developers" weighed in all on their own, in a spirited press release by Tom Stacy, chairman of the Downtown Austin Alliance. Calling Levy's claims against Downtown "misdirected," Stacy points out that Downtown generates roughly $4 billion in tax base, thereby generating "about 80 percent of its taxes to the benefit of the entire city (outside the Central Business District), with recipients including the Austin Independent School District, Travis County, the Travis County Healthcare District, Austin Community College and, of course, the City of Austin."

In public discussions of the abundant evils of development, it's seldom acknowledged that – like it or not – in financial terms, Downtown carries more than its own weight; according to the city's calculations, residential neighborhoods routinely cost more in public services than they generate in property taxes. The more quarter-acre and sprawling we are, the more Downtown subsidizes our little pieces of Texas heaven.

If that sounds like an argument for density and mass transit, Stacy makes it, itemizing thusly: "[T]he proposed urban rail system would connect downtown (65,000 jobs), Capitol Complex (13,000 jobs), UT (67,000 students, faculty and staff), Mueller (10,000 jobs, 10,000 residents), University Medical Center Brackenridge, Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas, the Long Center for the Performing Arts and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (8 million passengers per year). This rail system also would promote compact development (as opposed to auto-dependent sprawl) and present development opportunities in the city's Desired Development Zone." Maybe there's something to the trolley folly, after all.

I'll let McCracken, often the target of Levy's sharpest barbs, get the last word on finding the balance of city priorities. "Definitely Mike has had a consistent take," McCracken said. "'We're not spending enough money for public safety, we're not spending enough on libraries, we're not spending enough on roads – and we're being taxed too heavily.' Something's got to give, under that analysis."

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city election, Mike Levy, Brewster McCracken, Lee Leffingwell, City Council, Tom Stacy, Downtown Austin Alliance

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