Place 5: An Easy Walk for Spelman

Spelman brings his public-policy knowledge to council

On the humid patio at Joe's Bar and Grill, there was supposed to be an election-night party for Bill Spelman. But the unopposed Place 5 candidate and his best bud, unofficial strategist Mark Yznaga, were found sitting relaxed and virtually alone. Yznaga glanced at the time. It was 6:58pm. "Bill wins in two minutes," he said with lazy glee.

Spelman's was the first uncontested race ever for an open seat on City Council, remarked Yznaga, at least during the two decades he could remember. "Who wants to run against Bill?" he asks rhetorically. "We don't usually get a Harvard Ph.D. with 20 years as a public policy specialist on City Council." With no drama in this race (or even a TV on the patio), the chatter among the trickle of partygoers ran to the mayoral race and early-voting numbers. Familiar faces making the rounds – Council Members Laura Morrison and Randi Shade, attorney Stephen Drenner, neighborhood activist Danette Chimenti – said "hi" to Spelman and friends, then departed for the more exciting parties. Morrison, slightly tongue-in-cheek, delivered a pro forma testimonial: "I'm really, absolutely looking forward to working with Bill! Just think, we'll have a mathematician and a policy analyst sitting next to each other. Wonky but pragmatic – to really hit the issues facing Austinites today!"

Asked why he conscientiously worked the campaign trail, Spelman said: "At the campaign forums, the candidate gets to find out what the people are thinking. That yields some useful information." Among his discoveries: "A surprising level of support for single-member districts among people who are politically interested."

Once the patio was reasonably populated, Spelman thanked his family present (wife Niyanta, kindergarten-age son, mother-in-law) and his staff and volunteers, then called for Austinites to pull together to tackle the challenges the city faces. "I'm going to need all of you and your friends – and your friends' friends – to have a better conversation than we have traditionally had in Austin. About the budget and affordable housing and everything else." Among those thanked by the LBJ School of Public Affairs professor were former student Barksdale English, for organizing research into best practices in other cities; David Kobierowski, who ran the campaign's town hall meetings; and campaign manager Ian Davis, who will join Spelman's council staff.

"Bill's brain is filled with knowledge of municipal systems all over the world," Planning Commissioner Dave Anderson observed. He said he looked forward to a Spelman Planning Commission appointee with a similarly broad perspective.

Spelman said he plans to continue teaching two courses at the University of Texas, noting that he taught during his last council stint (1997-2000) – plus ran an institute, which he's not doing now, with less staff. From the course description for Spelman's fall 2009 class, Policy Making in Cities: "[A]t some point in your life you will ask, 'How could the city be so stupid?' For better or worse, this course attempts to explain some of that stupidity." The faithful at Joe's on Saturday night appeared confident that with Spelman on council, we won't have to ask that question quite so often.

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