City Hall Hustle: McCracken's Downfall

What was the big idea?

"I am here first and foremost to commend Mayor Pro Tem McCracken."

That's what Will Wynn said Monday at the press conference called for Brewster McCracken to bow out from the mayoral run-off, thereby making Lee Leffingwell Austin's next mayor. "His ideas the six years I've served with him have had a very positive impact on this city," Wynn continued, citing efforts such as the energy-grid think tank Pecan Street Project. "And, dare I say that those ideas are clearly going to last a lot longer than his service or my service."

McCracken's crew will tell you they ran a campaign of ideas, and it wasn't just of the renewable-energy variety. By necessity or design, McCracken fashioned a campaign unlike the political norm. While it provided some advantages and promise, due to problems internal and external, it was not enough:

• The Constituency's Not There Yet: At the press conference, McCracken said he hopes "the folks who supported me will stay involved with civic affairs." Those folks would be the players from Austin's film, tech, and music communities, and as McCracken's 27% showing made clear, those quarters of support haven't delivered on their promise just yet. McCracken tried to harness music community support – a younger, cooler crowd by default – by pumping his personal endorsements from folks like Mohawk's James Moody. But the perennial problem of getting fickle younger constituents to turn out cost him. A friend attending the recent Second Sun­day Sock Hop – the hip monthly dance and social event at Eastside bar Shangri-La – found that the false knock on Leffingwell as plotting to charge for free Downtown parking had in fact taken hold; however, none of the people complaining about the imaginary threat bothered to vote for McCracken. Plus, by the end of the campaign, McCracken's oft-repeated statement that he earned the endorsement of "practically every working musician" was engendering a backlash. Another problem involves how these people are actually supposed to show support; you usually see Richard Linklater or Robert Rodriguez when they have a film to promote, not a candidate. Factor in the apolitical nature of many of these entities – solar-cell manufacturers, the Alamo Drafthouse, or whoever – and it's clear that the excitement for McCracken in these quarters was real but difficult to build on.

• On Message, at Cost: McCracken's contracting of a professional messaging team (I&O Communications) to run his campaign was an interesting, unconventional approach that steered clear of the usual local talent. Many race watchers were surprised that McCracken, who has a reputation for flitting from issue to issue, stayed as focused and on message as he did this election: promoting future-growth industries and opportunities in renewable energy, digital entertainment, biotechnology, and the like. But as the race wore on and the economy worsened, it became clear McCracken's message was increasingly restrictive and didn't provide an easy point of entry to those who weren't already fired up about the issues. In contrast, Leffingwell's basic message – to "focus on the fundamentals" – covered jobs and growth but also any number of other issues: public safety, the economy, neighborhoods, open government, and more.

• Tone Deafness: Another aspect of McCracken's campaign discipline was that when missteps occurred, they were dramatically compounded by the campaign's inability to recognize them as such and adjust accordingly. The most glaring was McCracken's over-the-limit haul on out-of-town campaign contributions. What would've been a one-day nonissue – if the campaign had returned the funds in question – instead dominated the last week of campaigning once the team announced it would keep the funds, citing a questionable interpretation of the City Charter. The same went for McCracken's seemingly harmless note to the "Brewster Nation" responsible for the illegal "violation" fliers hyping the Downtown parking smear – instead of disassociating himself from the disclaimer-free, anonymous group, he instead thanked it, tying himself to its tactics.

Perhaps the largest error in judgment was the campaign's early dismissal of several endorsing Democratic and neighborhood clubs. While a family emergency understandably kept McCracken away from some forums, he still didn't reply to several of the questionnaires from the endorsing groups. Even if they assumed that Leffingwell's campaign, closely aligned with the local Democratic organizations, was a lock for their endorsements, by not even bothering to engage them, McCracken made it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

• The Lee Team: Lastly, Leffingwell's crew excelled in the tested and true operations of field campaigning: canvassing, pamphleting, calling, and the like. Don't underestimate that.

In a few years, it wouldn't be surprising to see candidates adopt and perfect the workable aspects of McCracken's model. Consistent messaging is always a plus in campaigning, and whoever succeeds in forming new coalitions distinct from Austin's existing political powerhouses could play kingmaker for a new generation of politicians. Aside from the achievements Wynn cited, this could be the coda to McCracken's visions.

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More Brewster McCracken
An Ethical Pecan to Crack
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Former City Council Member Brewster McCracken hits a Pecan Street Project roadblock

Katherine Gregor, Aug. 14, 2009

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Brewster McCracken, Campaign, election

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