McCracken to Martinez to Cole
Dispatches from the campaigns
In the flurry of activity since Brewster McCracken announced his bowing-out from the run-off Monday morning, the weekend already seems ages ago. On Saturday night at Cuatros, a newly established West Campus sports bar and grill, it was hard to tell where the tanned and moneyed (and apparently, in many cases, surgically augmented) campus crowd ended and where McCracken's boosters, there to watch election returns with their candidate, began. (Either way, his supporters were visibly less wrinkled.) Yet the scene there about 7:45pm election night, after the release of early-voting totals, was no frat-row bacchanal. Crawling across the bottom of a huge HD television screen, the results – McCracken's 27% to Lee Leffingwell's commanding 47% – seemed to taunt the attendees.
Another margarita, please.
McCracken spokesman Colin Rowan acknowledged that the campaign had serious ground to make up. Other members of the core McCracken crew were also accumulating but not yet the man himself. When he did show, about 8:30pm, he still hewed rigorously to his message when speaking to the media – job creation through growth in clean energy, digital entertainment, and the like – but carried a sense of acceptance. "I've got friends here, and I'm blessed," he said, speaking about the party but sounding more generally resigned to his fate. "I'm looking forward to spending time with my friends and my family."
The scene couldn't have been any more different at Hill's Cafe – the craggy South Congress institution is as Old Austin as Cuatros' sleek lines are New Austin. But despite Leffingwell's handy lead, an uncertain vibe hung in the air there, as well. It was a decidedly more upbeat affair than McCracken's gathering, but having come so tantalizingly close to the 50% majority required to win the election outright – sans run-off – Leffingwell's staffers and supporters were somewhat unnerved. Despite having made upward of 10,000 calls ("live dials" in shoptalk), along with plenty of block-walking and voter targeting, campaign manager J.D. Gins said, "I'm taking full responsibility for this city's special election." Would the mood have been lighter if Leffingwell hadn't come quite so close – perhaps with a slimmer lead assuring a spot in the run-off but not so close to winning completely? "Not at all," said Leffingwell. And despite blogger-fanned rumors that McCracken was considering conceding that evening, Leffingwell was girding himself for the next campaign. Messaging- and fundraisingwise, "we start all over Monday morning," he said. By Monday, that would all change.
Some time after Carole Keeton Strayhorn's concession speech – which several onlookers clamored around a television to watch – and the 10pm news live shots, newly re-elected Council Member Mike Martinez, also partying at Hill's Cafe, introduced Leffingwell. Promising Leffingwell would lead "one of the best city councils we've ever had in Austin, Texas," Martinez said, "We may not get that 50.1 percent of the vote tonight, but it's only a formality." Taking the stage flanked by wife Julie Byers and son Frank, Leffingwell joked, "I'd be happy with 50.001 percent." Kicking off a short speech, he said, "For a good old boy from South Austin, this is almost too much for me." He reiterated his familiar campaign themes of trust (as in, trust me, not the other guy) and consensus-building (ditto), concluding, "We're gonna succeed in the run-off, and come the end of June, we're gonna be in the mayor's office."
With Leffingwell's 20-point lead holding all night, the question at the end of the evening was whether McCracken would soldier on through a run-off, hoping for an unprecedented comeback but inevitably with far fewer donors. Back at Cuatros, McCracken had departed, leaving behind all but a few beery Brewster boosters and Rowan. He told the Chronicle the run-off was still on. "There's a lot to learn about Lee – things that he disclosed in the last financial report," he said, foreshadowing the attacks McCracken would've had to make. "He's taken donations from Clayton Williams, and we haven't," Rowan said, repeating a claim made in an election-eve robo-call purporting to have come from nearly moribund Responsible Growth for Northcross. "Brewster ran a campaign of ideas, and I do think that part of what you saw tonight was the result of what happens when you run a campaign of ideas in local politics – you get kicked in the teeth and suffer the consequences."
After Rowan left, I chatted briefly with some stragglers – younger messaging and media professionals, already dissecting what had gone wrong with his campaign. As we left, a golf cart adorned with McCracken signs (the "Brewster Mobile") pulled up to take them away to the next party.