City Hall Hustle: What Time Is It? It's Brewster Nation Time!
The McCracken week that was
As of this writing, his over-the-limit haul on out-of-town contributions earned him a criminal complaint from opponent Lee Leffingwell, the exasperation of the local blogosphere, negative press from the TV newsers, and – never one to resist a pile-on – a verbal berating from Carole Keeton Strayhorn. All this, for a measly eight grand that could've been his for the asking the minute after the polls closed. Even if Team McCracken truly believes it's in the right – that it's legal to raise money for a run-off election before the run-off's official, much less begun – the optics on this one still should've been a no-brainer: Return the money. Not even as an admission you screwed up but because you don't want the hint of impropriety to linger. McCracken would've become the bigger man, and his campaign claims that Leffingwell's complaint was cheap political theatre would've had some heft behind them. But they've since dug in and doubled down, which – regardless of their argument – looks bad. All this, again, for some 50 contributions that would've been theirs May 10 anyway (if McCracken does in fact make a run-off).
While the finance follies are McCracken's own, he bears little direct blame for the Brewster Nation fiasco that imploded this week. It began in the last few weeks, with Facebook ads that linked to a YouTube video of Leffingwell supposedly dropping a bombshell: that he supports charging for now-free Downtown parking at night and on the weekends. Despite some obnoxious – oops, we mean "creative" – intertitles like, "What the Leff?" and sub-morning-zoo-style sound effects hyping the charge, there was no there there. In the video, filmed at a candidate forum, Leffingwell acknowledged he suggested the transportation department "take a look" at possible charges. That noncommittal remark was twisted into an attack that Leffingwell is promoting such a change and was printed on hundreds of now-infamous "violation" fliers stuck on windshields last weekend throughout Downtown. The fliers, like the online versions of the parking smear, lacked any identifying details or disclaimers about the anonymous org, and late Monday afternoon, both the YouTube video and the Brewster Nation website had been taken down. The McCracken campaign has said it did not design, write, or post the fliers or website; spokesman Colin Rowan says, "Brewster found out about the 'tickets' this last weekend when he saw one on a car during the Pecan Street Festival."
However, McCracken did drop the nascent Nation an encouraging note, posted to the site's since-scrubbed blog, calling its work "creative and cool." Once again, the campaign appears tone deaf – in the same spot, he might easily have posted some variation on, "I appreciate your support, but please make certain you're complying with all Austin's campaign finance laws." Not a priority?
Having backfired spectacularly, the "Brewster Nation" is more accurately a failed state. "Spread the word," says the flier. "McCracken gets it." Obviously his boosters don't.
Lastly, we'd be remiss not to mention McCracken's Web video, "The Austin Model," and the viral uproar it engendered from here to Missouri. In the clip, McCracken presents St. Louis as a cautionary tale of what happens when a city rests on its laurels. Noting the city's early 20th century prominence, he says, "Today, St. Louis is not among the nation's 50 biggest cities" and "entire sections of St. Louis' urban core have been abandoned for decades." His warning of Austin's potential "St. Louis-style decline" didn't go over too well in Gateway City. St. Louis news station KMOV, in a masterpiece of incredulous, "Tonight-at-10" sensibility, sampled the unfavorable opinions of McCracken's ad at a frozen custard stand, then got a spokesman for St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay to call McCracken "a goof." (Once it spread to Twitter, the most common rebuttal online went something along the churlishly endearing lines of: "Well, do you guys have the St. Louis Cardinals? Then shut the hell up!") The campaign ultimately seized on the video's viral spread, calling it "a legitimate historic case study of what happens when a city sits still" and e-mailing supporters that "The Austin Model" was now "the most watched YouTube video in Austin election history." But by that metric, isn't the KMOV report – ripped and uploaded to YouTube, with the original video still on the station's website after an untold number of viewings – the second most watched?
Obviously, these three foul-ups aren't the message you want out there entering the home stretch. Lest the Hustle be seen as piling on, it should be said that if Leffingwell or Strayhorn had suffered similar recent wounds (self-inflicted or otherwise), it would be duly reported here. Strayhorn has had a long and pockmarked political career, and we've certainly had some fun with it, and Leffingwell has sometimes justifiably been criticized as too careful and compromising by half. But the pitfalls on the campaign trail – some steeper and deeper than others – don't always arrive fair and balanced.
"Point Austin" returns to this space next week. For the Hustle's vloggy-style coverage of the campaigns and lengthy interviews with the mayoral candidates, visit austinchronicle.com/hustle.