'An Independent Person'
A conversation with Randi Shade
We spoke with Council Member Randi Shade at her Clarksville home on Friday, May 20, the day after she announced she would stay in the race for Place 3, in the June 18 run-off with Kathie Tovo. At her announcement, Shade said she believed she needs to highlight the "stark differences" between herself and Tovo on several issues: water resources, public safety, and land use, among other things. That's where we began our conversation the next day.
Austin Chronicle: With such a difficult lead to overcome, why did you decide to stay in the race?
Randi Shade: It's foolish just to look at the percentages [of the vote]; you've got to look at raw votes. And there were just so many people who felt so strongly about the need to really differentiate myself and Kathie. There are some pretty significant differences between us, so that was something that really weighed heavily on me. In other words, if you looked at a race like with Lee [Leffingwell] and Brewster [McCracken, for mayor in 2009], ... it's become kind of a common theme for people to bow out if they're behind. In that situation, there were tens of thousands of votes between them [Leffingwell with 27,500 and 47% of the vote; McCracken with 15,613 and 27% of the vote], and their philosophies were not that different; what they represented on the council was not that different. They had different styles and different approaches, but it wasn't that stark.
I think what you see in this race – especially when you see even the council is divided over this – [is] that it's just become an issue of [whether] council [is] going to go to one extreme or stay more balanced. I think that's where I got so many calls from people; I'm somebody who really brings a balance to the council. I have a good track record on a number of things, even to the community that is opposed to me. I stood with Council Member [Laura] Morrison – I have a quote from Bill Bunch that verifies that I was instrumental in making sure that the Wildflower PUD did not get developed over the aquifer. I didn't believe that it was superior, and I definitely have a high bar when it comes to land over the aquifer. And I've been a very staunch supporter of acquiring land over the aquifer. I certainly have done a lot in the clean energy world; I was instrumental in insuring that the Pecan Street Project was launched, and it may very well put Austin on the map in a way that we haven't been before. I have a good track record when it comes to issues that are pretty important to the environmental community. When it comes to neighborhoods, I have the strongest record of any council member, I think, other than Laura Morrison. When it comes to supporting valid petitions [against zoning changes], when it comes to getting neighborhood contact teams standing, I was there to sponsor the legislation so that they could have standing to appeal. Laura ended up co-sponsoring, I believe. I have a good record on supporting neighborhoods and neighborhood associations.
When it comes to parks, which are incredibly important to neighborhoods but also to people who aren't necessarily associated with the neighborhood association, whether it's Downtown or whether it's in surrounding areas, I've been a really important force on improving park maintenance citywide, partnering with nonprofits so that the department could do more than they've done before; whether it's increasing our tree canopy, whether it's the partnership with the YMCA, whether it's the partnership with [the West Austin Youth Association].
That's where it feels like there shouldn't be those differences [between me and Tovo]. But on a couple of votes that were really important votes ...
AC: You've also been criticized for the potential cost of a run-off.
RS: Well, the way democracy works is you've got to get 50 percent to win. My opponent did not do that. There were a lot of distractions, and [it was] very challenging to have three opponents – it's a much different race. As I was saying, although we do share some of the same values, this seat ends up being the tie-breaking vote on Water Treatment Plant 4. Tovo represents the opportunity to have two people on the council from the Austin Neighborhoods Council world – PUDs, planned unit developments will need a supermajority; that will be different. [Ed: In certain circumstances, two negative votes can reject a proposed planned unit development.]
There are so many people who contacted me who just believe that [Tovo] is going to make the council swing too far to the extreme, that Randi is about the middle-ground, balanced approach. She doesn't do everything that any side really wants – because I'm always trying to be really measured, and so that means nobody ever gets 100 percent, but it also means everybody has a voice at the table. It would be really great if the centrist approach to the nuts-and-bolts [of] operating the city and making sure that all the voices are heard – whether you're active at City Hall or whether you're not – I think that would be great. But that's not something that necessarily motivated voters [in the general election]; we're going to see if we can do something different about that in this race.
And there really are a lot of people who would not have a voice at City Hall if I wasn't there. My involvement in the city is so much broader than anything I've done at City Hall in the last two years – in the LGBT community, the Jewish community, the work I've done at Zach [Theatre] over the years, the work I've done at PeopleFund over the years. Just because I launched AmeriCorps when I worked at the governor's office [Ed.: Shade launched AmeriCorps in Texas as aide to Gov. Ann Richards, beginning in 1993.] meant I had a tremendous amount of contacts and support from the health and human services arena. I came to the council with a real strong desire to make a difference in our ability to get more done for the poorest people in our community. I think the work that I did to get the Go Repair! program, that was a new way to partner with the Urban League, Meals on Wheels, American YouthWorks, etc. – now it's called [Interfaith Action of Central Texas] – which is Hands on Housing. [Ed.: The Go Repair! program uses affordable housing General Obligation Bonds to help underwrite housing repair for low-income residents; Hands on Housing is a community-wide volunteer effort, sponsored by iACT, that matches volunteer teams to homes needing repair.] These were groups
that didn't have a tradition of working with the city in the ways that they currently do. It was so easy for me to get involved in those ways because I had all those relationships with those organizations.
So my time with City Hall-focused organizations is definitely much less than Kathie's, but I don't think that should be a bad thing. And I think there were a lot of people out there [on Election Day] who said, "Wow, I really didn't think you'd have any trouble, so I didn't go to vote." If I didn't get a lot of phone calls from people saying they didn't vote and I didn't see the numbers to prove it – when you see the areas that normally have twice the turnout, which are areas I would do well in, it made it seem worth it staying in.
AC: Can you highlight what you say are the stark differences between you and Kathie Tovo?
RS: I think our approach to decision-making is different because I come to the table with the idea that I have to get information from everybody, whether they show up at City Hall or whether they don't. So I'm not there to represent a special constituency, and I do believe that she is. I've gotten plenty of feedback from the people who work with her, that she starts from the place of the Austin Neighborhoods Council perspective, and then sees how maybe she can incorporate some of these other ideas. My starting place is always [that] all sides have equal opportunity to make their case. That seems like what the job should be, but that's how I've always approached it. That's a big difference.
We can talk specifically about how it plays out in terms of our priorities. You have my statement – say on Water Treatment Plant 4 and public safety – those examples already. She wants to reduce funding for public safety. She hasn't really said one way or the other what she'll do about Water Treatment Plant 4, but she's been very clear about her opposition to it, so I have to assume that if she's not going to say one way or the other, that she's probably going to slow it down or stop it if she can. Certainly [with] the votes that my colleagues have taken who were in opposition to it, it's pretty easy to imagine that she would then become the fourth vote to help them stop or slow down the process. Unless she says otherwise, I'm assuming she would want to stop it.
Certainly she would have opposed it. She says there are experts who say we don't need it – we can conserve our way out of it. Frankly, I didn't find any experts that said that. I think there was a lot of debate about when we needed it, but we were certainly within the window when we will begin to need it. If we need it in 2019 as opposed to 2014, then it becomes a question of risk – if you're ready too early versus if you're ready too late. I haven't found any experts – I think the longest-out date that I saw was 2021, and that's assuming that we hit every conservation target. So I think that it's a very different approach. Just because a group of activists who don't want it to get built say, "Let's don't build it," that's not expert information.
I think it just shows a philosophy which is "If you don't build it, they won't come" – they talk about it in the context of "the growth machine" – that's what I hear Brian Rodgers [of ChangeAustin.org] call it, that's the way Jeff Jack [of Better Austin Today PAC] talks about it, that's the way Roy Whaley [of the Sierra Club] talks about it. I think there are a lot of Austinites who feel that that's been a problem in Austin's past – not planning for the future. To me, when the experts – all the different analyses that we got a chance to see – show that we're now on the horizon of when we're going to need it. The difference between the debate in the 1980s and the debate now is that we've got two water treatment plants that are both 40-plus years old, and we don't have the 100-year-old one any more; it's closed. When we had the Town Hall [at the Palmer Events Center] and there was this discussion about what happens if one of them goes down – we're in this window where we need to be planning, because it's not just about conservation and growth; it's also about just managing the needs we have right now.
AC: You've said that should the council turn around and stop WTP4, it's going to cost more.
RS: That's right – also related to the relative cost of the election. You could also say, "Why did we spend the money on the election that we had on May 14 since so few people showed up?" There were certainly some candidates who didn't do very well – should we always let candidates who don't receive more than 1,000 votes run?
I'm not gonna go there – but as far as the cost associated with Water Treatment Plant 4 goes, we've got over 700 people who I know as of this week are safety-trained, which means they're on the job working now. I know that there are many other contractors working on it, so we've got hundreds if not thousands of jobs that are lost immediately. There's no question that we would have the costs associated with terminated contracts, whether those involve litigation or just the costs that come from those clauses concerning getting out of the contracts. There's definitely money associated with canceling of contracts, legal and otherwise.
And then there's all these other sunk costs. If you go out there, you can see it – the earth is turned, the digging is happening, it's well under way. For that kind of just sunk costs for just sitting out there dormant until 2019 when we do need it, instead of having it ready in 2014, I just think that's .... And again, we know we're in the window where we're not too far off. We may be a little further ahead.
AC: This race has exposed tensions among the sitting council members. What do you make of those tensions? Are they affecting this race, and what do they mean going forward?
RS: I think it has been very tense. We talked about Stonewall Democrats, where [staff from] Laura's office was there to block me from getting the Stonewall Democrats [endorsement]. [Ed: Reportedly, Morrison staff members worked for a split endorsement including Tovo; Shade received the Stonewall endorsement.] I think the tension comes from this idea to really make sure that the segment of the community that Council Member Morrison and Council Member Spelman come from – I've been told they want to take control of the council.
AC: When you say "the segment of the community," who do you mean by that?
I'm being really candid here – but so many times I'm in a meeting, and I hear this from Laura: "I'm representing the community; the community has spoken." I challenge that because I don't think the community is only the people who show up at City Hall or only the people who are active in the neighborhood association, and certainly not only the people who are active in the Austin Neighborhoods Council. So to say that the "community has spoken" – it doesn't work for me, and it doesn't work for a lot of Austinites.
I'm there to represent those people who are not otherwise represented at City Hall. I think it's really easy while you're there to stay really busy with a lot of people who are always there – but you have to remember that the vast majority of Austinites have never heard of any of us. None of us have name recognition. More than half of Austinites don't know who any of us are, nor do they care. And they really should, because this is our Austin. But I think that's where a lot of the tension comes from; it's just that I've never wanted to fall into the trap of only listening to the people who are there to speak. It's not that I don't listen to them, because I think I have a good track record on many of their issues of importance. I guess that's been my challenge.
There are personalities [on the council], and there's no question that I sit next to Mike [Martinez] and Chris [Riley], and Sheryl [Cole] sits next to Laura and Bill [Spelman], and that is where the dividing line has been in this race. But you know, from a philosophical standpoint, I've probably agreed with Sheryl Cole on more issues than I've agreed with [Mayor Pro Tem] Mike Martinez over the period of my entire career on the City Council. Lee and I have developed a close personal friendship, but that's because we've been working together. It's still a working environment. I have the most tension, I suppose, with Laura, but I think that's just because we see the world differently. We live in the same neighborhood, even, and we're on two sides of our own neighborhood association in terms of how this neighborhood does things.
I think that's where the tension is. But as long as I'm on the council, I will work as hard as I can to work well with my colleagues, and I hope that the tension that's been created by this campaign will be resolved when that's over, because there's no question that it's been hard on everybody. We've got three council members actively supporting me [Leffingwell, Martinez, Riley] and three council members now actively supporting Kathie [Morrison, Cole, Spelman]. But I think that's more about control of power and that sort of thing, [rather] than about actual philosophical or even personal relationships.
And the fact that there's a mayor's race in 2012 – I think it's more about that, actually.
AC: As the most actively contested incumbent in this election, you've been made to bear the burden of anyone who has any beef of any kind with City Hall – if you're a voter who wants to "throw the bums out," you're the designated bum.
RS: Oh, there's no question of that. I got beat up on the email scandal more than the others now, and I've borne the brunt of just any anti-incumbency, or just those people who are just going to vote against the incumbent under any circumstances. That happened in the other races, too. There wasn't a whole lot of attention [for] the other races, but clearly, Laura's base are the same people who are supporting Kathie, so their two campaigns dovetailed really nicely and they have the same consultants, and now, everyone who was on Laura's campaign is now on Kathie's campaign. Jim Wick was running Laura's campaign, and now he's running Kathie's campaign.
Laura got the benefits of incumbency and of raising money and laying down the groundwork, and did not have strong opposition. Now, that made it pretty easy for Kathie to enter late, and have all the benefit, because Laura's core of support is the exact same as Kathie's. They come from the same world, and there's a lot of issues that are really important to that world that need two votes, and they need a second vote. That would stop PUDs, that would change the dynamic. With that happening, it provides a different opportunity for somebody like Council Member Spelman to be ... more moderate – he'll end up having to shift his role in a way that provides him a leadership opportunity that's probably pretty good for him if he's considering a run for mayor.
Chris Riley and I have said this publicly – we joke about it – we're the "Not Running For Mayor" caucus. We're the only two people on the City Council who don't have any interest in running for mayor, aren't vying for anything. So we call ourselves the Not Running for Mayor caucus.
If things really shift, it will be interesting. That's what most people are saying is going on. But I have absolutely no interest in anything but just doing the job, and that's perhaps one of the mistakes that I've probably made. I didn't run a real campaign, which is what I'm doing now. I've assembled a team; we're running a campaign. Over the last several months I've basically been doing my job and not been as much focused on running the campaign.
AC: Do you have any further comment on the Open Meetings Act or email controversies?
RS: I know that it's still being investigated by the County Attorney, and there hasn't really been anything that's been turned up yet that shows [a violation of the OMA]. But there's been juicy gossip that's been to some people not really nice, and to some people it's been really interesting. I suppose it depends on what you like to read. The emails themselves: I've turned over thousands and thousands of emails, and one email and a related conversation really became the crux. It really speaks to the challenge that I felt – I've been involved in so many of these nonprofit organizations, I'm really interested in achieving a balance [on the council]. That generation-plan email, with Robin Rather and me, it was a moment of anger the next morning, and then the subsequent email that they keep using in the advertisements, about "turning the page" ["on the role the Enviro City crowd plays"] – it was all related to the same conversation that we had, related to the Wildflower PUD.
In that one, I have an email from Bill Bunch [of the Save Our Springs Alliance] saying, "Thank you – thanks to your office, that development didn't happen." I can share it with you, but that's his quote. But you know what happened in that. That probably laid the groundwork [for the argument] – that I just didn't go far enough [against the PUD], that I didn't put enough of a stake in the ground, even though I got done what needed to be done. Then with this generation-plan email, [it was] after what we'd experienced the night before. The city manager asked me my opinion, and I gave my opinion – and it was only to him, but the perception, based on the media coverage [of the email criticizing Rather] was that I was writing about her while she was in front of us [at a council meeting] and I was sharing that impression with colleagues. And I was really not, but I had been engaged in a conversation with Marc Ott about the role of the environmental community and how many segments it now has, because it's not just defined by one group anymore.
It's much broader than that now. It's a conversation I had with Bill Bunch when I was running in 2008. So that continued conversation is the same conversation. First I reacted, overreacted probably, to the Robin Rather email – her mean email about [the council] and me overreacting. But then I continued to think about it. And I said, "Marc, here's what's really going on there." And I had given him a copy of the book Environmental City [by William Scott Swearingen] – which is what I'm referring to [i.e., "the Enviro City crowd"] – but that's a constituent [email from Ed Wendler Jr.] talking about when SOS took over City Hall everything went to hell in a handbasket, why do the Catholic Charities have to be one to come forward and say don't go too far [on the cost of the generation plan]?
I had forwarded that to Marc Ott to say, "Here's what's happening, and maybe it is time to turn the page." We've got to talk about this differently. That was the point of it. Not that I disregard those people, and not that I don't have a good environmental track record. But the whole conversation – they don't want to show you the whole email, because the other part of the email is a constituent saying, ever since SOS took over – not that I agree with it – but I was sharing the perspective, to give historical context. That's also why I bought a copy of Scott Swearingen's book to even give it to Marc Ott, as a gift. I paid for it myself.
I don't know how to get in front of that, and to turn it – but I really feel badly about it, because out of all the emails, that's that one string. The others? Nothing came of any of that. But I think because I was associated with the Mike and Lee emails [concerning the Austin Fire Department controversy], which were much more personal and much more negative, I think, I got lumped in there too – which also gave the public a perspective that I'm much closer to both guys. I have a personal friendship with them, but I disagree on many policy matters. We have different personalities as well. I'm an independent person, and I've always been independent, and maybe that's threatening to people as well.
AC: It also feeds people's suspicions that the "real story" is behind the scenes somewhere.
RS: I think there are two problems. One is that the emails are also over a very long period of time, so you're reading conversations in April, and the conversations are very different eight months later. And I don't think the media has covered that at all. I think in deliberations, and especially in hard deliberations [things change]. It's almost like, "What's the point of anybody coming [to City Hall]?" – and I'm not just talking about their public communications. People come to meet with us all the time. And politicians and elected officials do change their views over time, and if you don't think they should, and if you're going to beat them up for what they did on a previous vote – then what's the point of the whole process?
So these [emails] are over long periods of time, and generally speaking, I'm a pretty moderate person. I'm not conservative enough, or liberal enough, I guess – basically what I think is pretty consistently with the majority of Austinites. I'm pretty fiscally responsible, want everybody to have an equal opportunity, "free to be you and me" [laughs], independent, and that's how I operate. On individual cases, your values are called into question – or cases, I shouldn't say, but votes – and on the generation plan, we were ready to move forward and we got a lot of push back, and that really caused us to stop, pause, and figure out how to do it differently. But at that time, probably in April, I was like, "We've got to take the time to do this, and how dare these people who – they're going to make decisions for everybody else but will not allow these people to be heard." We can't do it [that way]; so we slowed down. And the saddest thing about the Robin Rather email is that by November, she was part of coming up with what we ultimately voted on in February. You don't see that – because we had to have the argument – or the disagreement – for it to come full circle. That's the deliberative process.
AC: I gather you've also gotten criticism for your approach to the historic zoning program?
RS: Yes, they say I've kicked sand in it. That's a big ANC issue, again. I've called people down, some of the most active of the neighborhood activists, who say I've wanted to "dismantle" the program, and I've called them on it. I think the Hyde Park historic district as well as the Bradford-Nohra house [historic zoning decision] were very painful to deal with, and I've ruffled some feathers with some of the folks there, but mostly because I was calling them on things that weren't true. There were a couple of cases – and those were some of the most ardent supporters for Kathie. They don't like my personality, don't like how I've conducted myself on historic zoning. My goal was never to dismantle the program. I'm for the program; I'm for changing the program so that it meets our overall community needs better than it has.
When you look at all the other taxing authorities pulling out of a program that you're supposed to be the gatekeeper on, it should be a wake-up call. And these were people who did not want to see any changes to the program and they're powerful politically, which was the same thing going on with the Bradford-Nohra house – very powerful people involved with the advocacy for that [to be historically zoned over the wishes of the owners]. If it doesn't meet the criteria or if our criteria [are] too subjective or not easily demonstrated to the public what they're getting for these tax abatements, I think you have a problem that needs to be addressed. But that's definitely an area where I've gotten a ton of criticism.
But I really tried, again, to take a moderate approach. So I didn't fix the problem fast enough for the people who did want us to just get rid of it – put a moratorium on it or just end it. I didn't move fast enough for that group, and I didn't move slowly enough for the group that really doesn't want to make a change and is using historic zoning more as a neighborhood-planning tool than as a program for our community to actually preserve neighborhoods. I really have hated the cases the most that pit neighbor against neighbor or the small-business owner – homeowners or business owners – who are just trying to do something with their personal property, how the strength of the organization of the voice of the neighborhood association can be very [strong].
For somebody who had not been around City Council, it was very surprising for me to find out that the Austin Neighborhoods Council is not even a democratically elected organization. If I'm in the Highland Neighborhood Association and I want a voice at ANC, I don't automatically get one. It's not like all the neighborhood associations are legs of the body. If you're on that ANC board, you pick your successor. [Ed: According to its bylaws, the ANC forms a nominating committee to choose candidates for its executive board.] It is a very small group of people, in my opinion, when you look at the whole city, calling for very important changes to our land use, and it affects your personal property and people's homes, and of course it affects our tax base. That's one of the most jarring things for me, and then these cases when you have neighbor against neighbor, small-business owners against neighborhoods. When we had our small business [endorsement] forum, it was the number one concern raised by the independent businesses.
Bird's Barber Shop – talk to Amy or Steve Simmons [of Amy's Ice Creams] – and it's changed the way the city operates. The staff can't make a single mistake, or the XYZ person from so-and-so neighborhood who would be on the committee [will use it to object].
AC: You've also been criticized on the Nathaniel Sanders settlement decision, for refusing to agree to the negotiated settlement; you and Riley proposed a lesser amount, which was rejected by council, and then you voted against the $750,000 settlement.
RS: On the Sanders case; I still believe the case will settle, I still believe it should. I wish that we already had achieved a more neutral settlement than was proposed that night. I did not have the opinion of the mayor and the mayor pro tem, whose view was that we should pay not one penny more than what the cost of litigation would be. That was basically their stance. I also thought the proposed settlement agreement was one that would not heal the community – whether it was passed or not passed.
And that's the point of the settlement. I was proposing something more neutral, something that would bridge the community, and I think if we didn't have it become the campaign issue that it was, maybe we already would have reached that. I don't know. I think a settlement makes sense when they bring the thing together, and I regret that we haven't gotten to that place yet.
What Chris and I were doing I do not think was either "grotesque" or "callous"; it was actually trying to open the door to that discussion, and to make it very clear to the lawyer and to the family that there were five council members who wanted to find a settlement.
AC: As for the current social services funding process, you've taken some heat on this because you were the driving force on the committee and matrix process, and more specifically for the timing of the African-American Youth Resource Center funding decision. Any comment on that?
RS: Again, [the African-American Youth Resource Center decision] is an ongoing process, and it's been ongoing for almost a year now. The African-American Quality of Life Initiative was started before I was on the council, but we got a report last year on where things were. One of the major topics was supporting African-American organizations that helped youth. I remember asking the questions of Nelson Linder right there, at the dais, when they made the presentation, to give specific examples. We already had a contract with this organization; they do great things. They had a unique opportunity on a lease on the space that they currently have to expand through the health clinic – on the health department side, not a social service contract.
We amended their contract. If you look at last week's council agenda, there were other amendments to contracts – none that got that kind of scrutiny, but there are often times when we contract with an organization and we get an opportunity to amend what the scope of the work is. So this is one where we got an opportunity to amend what the scope of their work is. We already had a relationship and they've been presenting to the council for quite some time, and they had to move on the lease. It was time-sensitive to get moving this summer if it was going to happen.
So anybody that was against it didn't have to vote for it. I guess I'm kind of curious – they wanted to beat everybody up for it, but they voted for it. What is that about? I said, if you don't want to vote for it, don't vote for it. But they did vote for it – but they did it kicking and screaming. So what does that say?
There were several other contracts that day that we amended. And we did a sickle-cell anemia one in the fall, also, that Sheryl brought forward, also in the health department, and also part of the African-American Quality of Life Initiative. Not part of social services [funding], in spite of the fact that there is obviously a health and human services component. It's like the Meals on Wheels work where the contract may be through Parks. It's not through social services contracts. We do another thing with Meals on Wheels through social services, but some is not.
AC: The objection seemed to be the potential perception that you and Riley were doing this somehow to affect your election, although how many people actually follow the details of a work session is certainly debatable.
RS: That's what I mean. It's such an insider game. All I do every week is try to go there and do the right things for the right reasons. I have total independence, total freedom – I'm doing this essentially as a volunteer public servant. I have no political aspirations; I [had] lived in Austin 20-plus years before I was on City Council; I'm going to live here for 20-plus years after I'm on City Council. This is just a way of giving back to the community in a way that was different from my traditional volunteer work that I have a long history of doing in this community. There was nothing else going on there [with the contract], except that we needed to move this over the finish line. And every one of them voted to support it, but didn't want to be the one to make it happen.
I'm sure that on the political side of it – I'm sure that there are people in the African-American community who have heard that I "don't care about African-Americans." Yet I've served on our small-business committee and been extremely responsive to our black contractors. They know that's not true. Much like a lot of people in the African-American community appreciate the work that I've done with Marc Ott, because he's also been trying to get to know his way around [in Austin] and I've been very helpful on that front. I got a lot of feedback from the difficult review that he had last year, and clearly I was able to try to help bring that around. But I don't know, maybe some people don't like that I did that. But I got a lot of feedback from the African-American community; they appreciated that I had stepped in to help there, especially because there was so much tension at the time with the Sanders shooting. That was before we got anywhere close to the settlement agreement; that came before all that.
Anyway, I've got a lot of African-American leaders who are supporting me, but I think that maybe what was being implied – that because I was moving this thing forward and Sheryl, who's on the advisory board [of the youth center], had in fact asked me to meet with these folks, but they met with everyone on the council. And they could have voted against it if they were against it – they weren't. They were maybe just mad that I was the sponsor.
I'm also the sponsor of the Juneteenth stuff.
AC: The charge has also been made against you – really an old battle in Austin politics – that you're somehow the candidate of [the Real Estate Council of Austin] and the Chamber of Commerce. Any comment on that perception?
RS: Yeah, it's straight out of the Nineties playbook. It's one that the opposition has always said about me. I do have a business background; I'm not embarrassed by that fact. But I'm probably the only person who graduated from business school and then went to work in the Governor's Office to launch AmeriCorps. I don't fit into any box very easily, so I definitely think that if you were to ask RECA, "Who would your ideal person be, to be on the City Council?" it would not be me. They would not describe me. I have been against things that probably as a body they would likely support, I'm definitely too liberal for many of their members in terms of my politics and my lifestyle and everything else. But I've always been willing to listen, and I do have a business background, so I understand what they're talking about. I definitely favor economic opportunity and creating jobs; this city's been really good to me and I think it should be for the next generation. So you have to keep moving forward; you don't want to be a Detroit that's in decline. I love that we're a city where people want to be and people want to work.
You guys did the fundraising analysis. I don't think David Armbrust [of corporate and real estate attorneys Armbrust & Brown] raised more money for me than he did for Laura Morrison, in spite of the fact that [the] Kathie Tovo camp ran that ad. In fact, I think according to Wells [Dunbar's] analysis, he raised more money for Laura than me. Also, the other thing I like to say is that people who are business people – title company people or real estate people – they're more than just what they do for a living. They're also citizens, they're also parents and incredibly important community volunteers. People who work on the Chamber [of Commerce], it's a lot of volunteer time. So I'm happy that they like the fact that I have an open door to their concerns and I don't shut them out.
AC: Tovo has made an issue of the Formula One track, and potential city "subsidies." Do you have any comment on that controversy?
RS: They're looking at the voter turnout and the voter history in recent years. Again, it's straight out of the Nineties playbook – to pit development interests against the rest of us. I think Brian Rodgers calls it "the growth machine" – it all falls into that same way that Austin has been debating for years: "growth or no growth," "change or not change." It's like your general development question. I don't feel that I fit into that box. I've always felt that I love a lot of the old and am interested in preserving it. I think it creates the fuel for us to move forward, though, not to stay stagnant.
And I really see it from personal experience. When I left Austin in 1988 and came back in 1992, we had really bad economic times and Austin had really lost its luster for a lot of people. And I moved away and came back again in 1997, and it was such difference – I still really love a lot of my old places, but I was really excited by the new opportunities that I had. And when you're at different ages, different things are more important to you. But Austin's always been this really great place that doesn't get rigid; we're not supposed to be stuck in our ways.
So if some group of people want to build this racetrack in Austin, Texas, just like some group of people decided they wanted to create South by Southwest or [the Austin City Limits Music Festival], that's what Austin's about: creating the opportunities. And I don't really know the story about other cities that apparently competed for F1; the city did nothing to recruit F1 to Austin. We did not take any action, as far as I know, to encourage, facilitate, or drive those people to choose Austin as their site. The state did – the state got involved.
AC: Do you think the city should set aside any money for the purposes of the F1 event?
RS: Well, they're building the place, and the next part is the state kicking in its portion, and so, I guess the way – I'd have to see the proposal before I'd be able to comment on it, but if the proposal makes sense to me, then I would vote for it. If the proposal does not make sense, then I will not vote for it. But I am not opposed to F1 in and of itself because it's F1.
Obviously they have a huge audience, an international following, and I like businesses that draw tourism to the community. If we have an opportunity to expand our tax base without a whole bunch of new citizens moving to our community, I think it might be the kind of deal that I want to look at. If they achieve even half of the hotel occupancy tax revenue that they're talking about, even half of what they're projecting – sales tax, bar tax, rental car tax – these are all things that supplement the things that we want to fund in the city, and without it one of the problems that we have here is that we're so property-tax dependent, here in Austin but [also in] all of Texas. If the revenue is even half of what they're suggesting, I'm looking at that as how it's going to help other things that we need to fund here in the city. I have to look at it.
I know that not everybody likes F1. But a lot of people don't like so many of the festivals that we have. I love Fun Fun Fun Fest, but some people hate that. And it also depends on where you are in life, what things are fun for you. I think the perception is, like Max [Nofziger's] whine, that we're becoming a playground for the rich. Yes, F1 is not NASCAR, and some people don't like F1 because they think it's race car driving and it must be redneck, and some people don't like it because it may be the most affluent, high-tech [people].
But I do think [that] because of the way they do it, because this is Austin, it will be done differently. They're going to have an environmental aspect to it; I would like to see us even see if we can define some stream of the funding to support some specific thing we're trying to do with respect to social services. I have to look at it. I just think it's important for the public to know we did not spend a bunch of money to put together a team to recruit it here. It came to us, and now that it's here, we need to look at how we can seize the opportunity. The state may have done something different, but that's a different question.
AC: The voter turnout question: it's extremely low, and likely to be lower. Do you have any comment generally about what that means for city government and for this specific election?
RS: Well, for this specific election, it's very clear that the lower the turnout, the harder it is for me to win because the people who consistently and regularly vote in all elections will turn out. If you really want to see [that] the groups that are behind Kathie have more voice at council, they have a motivation to participate. The people who are in favor of maybe a more balanced approach, or more moderate – I listen to everybody – there's not a sense of urgency.
AC: Do you feel you have been effectively pushed to the right by this campaign against you?
RS: Yes [laughing], everybody laughs – all my friends anywhere else in the country, they're laughing because I'm the "right-winger." Last time, it was sort of the same approach. Again, I'm the Ann Richards [aide]; I've been persistently active in progressive causes in Austin, Texas. I'm a lesbian; I'm a mom. It's hard to imagine that I'm what they've said of me, if you look at what we've given in our charitable contributions and our volunteer time and our dollars to over the years. So that's really made people say: "Wow, you're the right wing of the council? What must that council be like?"
I'm for jobs, so that makes me a right-winger? I'm for reducing some of the regulatory burdens that affect people when they're trying to divide up their business or their homes, with development or land use regulations. I'm for public safety because it's one of the major functions that the city is responsible for providing, and in every citizen-satisfaction survey it's the number one thing people care about; next is parks. So again, it's very hard for me to understand how that works, but that's what this electorate has been trained to listen to.
And that's because the same people have been running these campaigns for decades, and they know how to do it. I'm the only person on the City Council that did not have David Butts work on any of my campaigns. He hasn't worked on my campaign this time or last time – and yet we share so many of the same values. It's kind of amazing.
AC: Any thoughts about what the declining turnout for city elections nationwide might mean? It's hardly just here.
RS: Well, perhaps people think their vote doesn't mean anything or doesn't matter or they don't think they have a connection to city government. If your trash is being picked up and your water turns on and your electric works, you may not feel a sense of urgency. But I think the big issue in Austin is that we don't plan sufficiently and we don't keep up with the growth that we're experiencing. The city's working to support growth or to hinder growth is not what's being talked about – the city's job is to make sure that we have the infrastructure in place and the services in place that are needed for people to have their needs met.
Right now we're behind on several things because the council's been more political[ly] than operationally focused, and I'm much more of an operationally focused person; I think maybe that comes from my background. I'm a lot more interested in how much better we approached our solid waste question, this new contract on the recyclables, our recycling contract. That should have been a story – the city was originally going to do it, versus now we've contracted with two really good local businesses, we've set it up so they have to be competitive pricewise. We've created new jobs, and people are not having their recyclables shipped to San Antonio. That's what you get when you have people – Bob Geddert, who's been in the business for 35 years, who has all kinds of expertise. We're a big enough city that we now have to plan for those things.
Instead, politically, we voted to have single-stream recycling before we had the expertise or the partners we could contract with or the city facility to manage it. Which is how we ended up trekking things to San Antonio; that was nonsensical. That's the stuff I really like, and that's what attracted me to city government in the first place.
Same thing with parks; cities all over the country are partnering with YMCAs so they don't have to run the facilities. Our parks department is not really in the business of running recreation programs; that is what the YMCA does, so it makes a lot of sense. The taxpayer gets a lot more for their money, and we're running a much better facility in North Austin than we would have otherwise built; we have a state-of-the-art swim facility. It's like, "Duh, why didn't we do that?"
Those are the problems I like to get into, but those aren't the sort of things that drive voter turnout. So again, it's partly because of the things City Council has been focused [on]; they wonder, what does that have to do with me?