Point Austin: Campaign Trailing

A few notes from the run-up to your own participatory government

Point Austin
Are you more – or less – willing to vote for Lee Leffingwell because he's been endorsed by Eastside activist Susana Almanza, bigfoot attorney David Armbrust, and Tobe "Chain Saw" Hooper? Does the nod for Carole Strayhorn by former UT System Chancellor Bill Cunningham or Dem kingmaker Lowell Lebermann Jr. make you consider (or reconsider) her candidacy? Will Brewster McCracken's big names among the local filmsters – Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Tim League – cast you as a Brewster booster or chase you running to the exit?

The city election endorsement game is in full swing, raising the perennial question of just how much positive or negative influence a given endorsement might have on the overall campaign. As Wells "Hustling" Dunbar detailed last week, Leffingwell has garnered essentially all of the major group endorsements – Dem clubs, union groups, neighborhood associations, and the like – while McCracken is attempting to counter that virtual clean sweep by gathering a host of local luminaries – I haven't counted, but it looks like he's winning the battle for literal celebrities. Strayhorn's handful of named supporters are heavy on "formers" – former officeholders and former generations – suggesting that a "Strayhorn administration," as she calls it, would be heavy on more of the same.

It's difficult to know how much importance to grant these endorsement lists. While film mavens don't necessarily set my own heart aflutter, I'll admit to a soft spot for Jon Dee Graham (he's backin' McCracken) – should I consider his accomplished musicianship a sign that he knows more about what needs doing at City Hall than, say, Armadillo founder Eddie Wilson (among Leffingwell's band)? If you're looking for reasons not to vote for somebody, does the presence of development attorney Richard Suttle on Leffingwell's list cause you more alarm than, say, power broker Pike Powers on McCracken's? Decisions, decisions.

The point is, for every real estate mogul or environmentalist on one candidate's list, I can spot you a developer or conservationist on another's. So while it makes sense to draw some broad judgments about a candidate's citywide support from his or her endorsements, a more accurate method is to consider the records, watch the campaigns, and try to come to your own conclusions.

A Brace of Candidates

In the continuing absence of single-member districts, the various public forums across the city still provide the best opportunity to see the candidates up close. (For what it's worth, the prevailing sentiment among candidates is that SMDs or a hybrid system is a good idea that can't seem to get sufficient public traction.) Among the various special-interest forums in the last couple of weeks were the Better Austin Today Political Action Committee March 22 event and the March 25 Austin Neighbor­hoods Council forum.

The BATPAC forum included all but a couple of the council candidates: Strayhorn (who's been a persistent no-show except at her own press conferences) and Place 2 challenger Jose Quintero (generally invisible). If they had shown up, it would have been hard to find room for them on the stage; newbie-for-mayor Realtor David Buttross barely found a spot at the end of the long table. (At her next-day presser to announce her support for an Austin medical school, Strayhorn said she had been "out with the people.") With nearly a dozen candidates answering questions, the substance was wide but not terribly deep. For the record, all the candidates declared themselves in favor of "more transparency," "more citizen engagement," and "government by the people." Glad we got that settled.

The news of city staff recommending an out-of-state contractor to redesign the city's website had just hit the council agenda and thus (thanks no doubt to the same website) the campaigns and questioners. Despite all the immediately preceding talk of "transparency" – including explicit demands to "make the city website more user-friendly" – only sitting Council Members Leffingwell, Mike Martinez, and Sheryl Cole showed any inclination to actually spend money on the project, while McCracken said he would insist on a local contract and more online services. (The council vote was subsequently delayed to this week; see "City Counseling.")

The Wisdom of the Crowd

Much of the discussion proceeded in similar fashion; incumbents explained why they've acted as they have on various questions – planning, environment, billboards, animal welfare, etc. – and challengers responded that they would do all of these things, only better. Other highlights? McCracken and Leffingwell continue to disagree on whether the city's economic development emphasis should be on recruiting "new green economy" industries (a McCracken mantra) or on sustaining and supporting local business (Leffingwell's position). There were (brief) fireworks when Eastside activist Daniel Llanes shouted that Leffingwell was "lying" for saying bond voters approved the move of the animal shelter to the Levander Loop site (the site was addressed at bond hearings, but only the unspecified move was on the ballot). And Place 6 challenger Sam Osemene, after spending most of his allotted time denouncing the current council and city government as a whole, promised he would bring to the council "the common sense of Laura Morrison, the sensitivity and humility of Mike Martinez, the energy of Randi Shade, and the maturity of Lee Leffingwell." I guess that would make a majority of saints on the dais; Martinez laughingly remarked that he couldn't recall ever being praised for his "humility." (He also noted that he found "mind-baffling" that morning's Statesman editorial describing him as criticizing City Manager Marc Ott on the campaign trail; afterward, he said, "I have absolutely no idea what they're talking about – it would appear they're trying to make a controversy out of nothing.")

The Austin Neighborhoods Council forum, while full of policy talk, was largely notable for its absences. Of the mayoral candidates, only Leffingwell appeared – and of the major candidates, only he had bothered to answer the ANC questionnaire that was the basis of the forum questions. That made for a friendly but wonky discussion – if you don't know what a "1704 claim" is (re: rezoning matters), you probably weren't there. And the Place 1 discussion, between Chris Riley and Perla Cavazos, was its own good argument for expanding the size of the council via SMDs or whatever. Why are the best candidates always running against one another?

Before you endorse – make an effort to see these folks in person on the campaign trail.

For a list of upcoming forums, see "City Hall Hustle."

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City Council election, Lee Leffingwell, Brewster McCracken, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Better Austin Today, Austin Neighborhoods Council, election

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