The Austin Chronicle

City Hall Hustle: Who reads the 'Statesman'? Not its editors.

Hit job on Leffingwell wrong on facts

By Wells Dunbar, March 13, 2009, News

Reverse engineering – used for such noble purposes as cracking software and transforming torture survival techniques into water-boarding – has now entered the mayoral race. As applied in this capacity, reverse engineering is a technique familiar to regular Austin American-Statesman readers: A scribe is assigned a topic, the feature runs, then, using the supposed newsworthiness of the story as an excuse, the editorial board weighs in with a searing indictment. (You may recall similarly manufactured crises, such as toxic chemicals poisoning Barton Springs; Will Wynn the jet-setting, do-nothing mayor; or Jennifer Kim, the airport prima donna – the latter won a news/editorial/John Kelso trifecta!)

The story in this instance, "Leffingwell suggests city revisits tax breaks" (March 5), says Council Member Lee Leffingwell, running for mayor, "said at a recent debate that the city should pursue new deals" with incentive-receiving businesses like the Domain "before asking the city's police, firefighters and EMS unions to give up any pay raises they have negotiated." Quotes from Brewster McCracken and Carole Keeton Strayhorn attacking the idea follow, along with the obligatory reminder that Leffingwell's been endorsed by all three public-safety unions.

Having set that frame, the next day the editors pounced – with the inexplicably headlined, "Help an Austin cop. Help a firefighter. Burn our bridges." Declaring that Leffingwell's suggestion "can't be separated from political aspirations," the editorial gets more personal: The eds depict Leffingwell and Mike Martinez as willing to "endanger jobs" to "score political points," as wanting unions to "have their millions of dollars in raises and overtime at any cost," and more. "That's leadership?" the article whines. "Please. What they are proposing is absurd" and an "outrage."

It's an angry screed – and a reminder why one shouldn't let anger cloud judgment. Facts are retrofitted, contorted, and mauled to agree with a predetermined position – thus the promotion of Leffingwell to "union leader" (a longtime union member, he's never led one). More foolishly, the eds embarrass themselves on local political knowledge, contending that Leffingwell "strongly supported" the Stop Domain Subsidies-sponsored Proposition 2 (in last fall's campaign). All Arnold García or Alberta Phillips or David Lowery or Bruce Hight had to do was glance at the Statesman's own SDS coverage to learn Leffingwell was one of the public faces of the anti-Prop. 2 campaign.

The Statesman ran a half-assed correction the following day, which only further clouded the issue by collapsing the incentive history. ("Leffingwell said at the time he was against the subsidy but opposed the proposition because of its potential for litigation.") The candidate was, at least, afforded an op-ed to point out the larger factual inaccuracies. Starting by comparing the States­man and the National Enquirer, he recounts essentially what he said at the debate: that before any union members would agree to reopen their contracts to have their pay decreased (as McCracken had just suggested), "I believe the city would have to demonstrate a willingness to revisit its other contractual agreements, too – including its tax incentive agreements."

Leffingwell's exact words at the debate – captured by the Hustle's cameras – were (more completely): "First, we cut the pay of every senior city official from department-head level up. ... We take the cut first. Second, we go to those businesses and companies that we currently have economic-development incentive programs with and say, 'We're in tough times; we want to renegotiate your contract too, to reduce it, to add some more money to our budget.' When we've done those two things, then I think we have credibility when we go to the police and the fire and EMS unions and say, 'Hey, we've done our bit, now we want to ask you to do yours.'" As articulated, Leffingwell's is a negotiating tactic – and a specific response to those who would simply say, "Let's cut employee pay."

This is the first real patch of campaign turbulence, and the McCracken team is now looking to make a larger wedge out of the issue. (McCracken is opposed to touching economic agreements, preferring instead to revisit salaries if needed – but with many of those salaries under contract, it's easier said than done.) McCracken's campaign adviser, Colin Rowan, charges Leffingwell is subtly "changing what he said," positioning himself as wanting the whole city "to share in the sacrifice" in his Statesman op-ed, when what he said at the forum demonstrated a "clear progression of chronological priority" in hitting up the unions last.

Leffingwell responds that a big cost driver of public-safety salaries was 2003's "public safety premium," a now-maligned agreement that guaranteed public-safety responders 2% above civilian city-employee raises – a step that occurred before he joined the council. "I don't want to disparage my opponent in this contest, but he was the proponent of that. So he actually advocated for that. ... It backfired on the city and ended up costing us a heck of a lot of money over the next few years."

As for the editorial, Leffingwell said he "assumed that Alberta Phillips wrote it," although he isn't 100% certain. "There's a couple of really serious cop-haters down there, and several of them are real serious union-haters, too. I know David Lowery's really strong on that. ... They can have a point of view, but to be downright abusive is one thing, and then to tell things that are completely untrue is another."

So much for the Statesman endorsement, Lee.

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