City Hall Hustle: ... Held an Election, and Nobody Came?

Cole's announcement for re-election dwindles the field again

For a time, it looked like the 2012 municipal contest would be a momentous election locally: four City Council seats, including the mayor's, up for grabs, and potentially far-reaching changes to the City Charter, possibly including a switch to geographic representation, for starters.

It's beginning to look a little less exciting.

Firstly, on the council election front: With Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole's announcement on Wednesday she would not seek the mayor's post, incumbent Lee Leffingwell won't be facing a colleague as challenger in May.

But you wouldn't haven't known as much from Cole's initial press release, her campaign signage at the Carver Center event, or even her speech, which exhausted over half its length before announcing she was running for re-election, not the mayor's office. Thinking big was the theme, with Cole touching on everything from 2009's Texas Relays controversy and Eastside redevelopment to her work on Waller Creek's redevelopment, as well as the even larger opportunity to re-envision the sprawling, underused area around the state Capitol complex.

Cole hit the traditional Austin bugaboos – growth, transportation, and what looks to be a hardy new addition: restoring faith in government. But she charted some interesting through-lines getting there. On gridlock, for instance, she noted: "The state and local government are sending us less and less resources to spread over more and more people. And when that happens, yes, we have transportation problems," problems that spread beyond rush-hour road rage. "You have less time to volunteer at your place of worship. You have less time to volunteer at a PTA meeting. You have less time to go to a neighborhood association meeting. And that is a threat, because that is a threat to our community bond. And without a community bond, we cannot solve any problems."

She plotted a similarly circuitous path along the topics of education and income, rightly noting: "Yes, we have opportunities, but we have a disparity in opportunities. We ignore this at our own peril. We have teen pregnancy and a drop-out rate that is close to the state average." That led directly to education, and "without education, you can't earn income, and without income, you do not have a tax base. And if you do not have a tax base, you don't have clean water, clean air, safe neighborhoods, and all the things that we treasure in the city that we love."

In turn, there followed the first of Cole's two most interesting pronouncements: Regarding schools, Cole envisions "a role for everybody," the city included. "We don't want to run the schools, but we don't want to let them fend for themselves." It sounds like more collaboration between the city and the school district – which council has made a few tentative moves regarding, so far – is on Cole's radar.

Her second most interesting aside regarded Austin's belabored Charter Revision Com­mittee and the potential switch to some form of geographic representation. While Cole made our "Quote of the Week," p.19, with her contention that "it is time to bury" the gentleman's agreement informally reserving two seats for minority candidates, she also noted, "We have not fully had an open dialogue about the process of changing our system of government."

Which brings us full circle to those dwindling prospects of excitement we were talking about earlier. As the Austin American-Statesman recently noted, the charter committee hasn't shown much enthusiasm for Leffing­well's preferred six-district, nine-seat scenario (nor some of his other suggestions, including changes to election timing and term limits). That said, the committee hasn't yet taken too strongly to any specific scenario. While the Hustle encourages your attendance at the revision committee meeting tonight (Thursday, Dec. 1), he's beginning to wonder if that lack of an "open dialogue" Cole lamented isn't for a lack of trying. (Of course, the easiest way to encourage greater participation – moving city elections to November – was handed to council on a silver platter, only to be rejected, Cole's nay among the four.)

Hopes for a fiery mayoral election are similarly dwindling, almost locked in a counterintuitive death embrace with the charter deliberation: With geographic representation on the horizon, but decidedly unsettled, some City Hall observers are wondering if most viable candidates will simply sit this one out, forgoing the trouble and expense of an election that, the switch to geographic representation permitting, would only see them on the dais for a year and a half.

But who knows. On hand at Cole's kickoff was former Council Member Brigid Shea, one of the post-Cole-announcement names bandied about for a potential mayoral run. "A number of people have urged me to think about it," said Shea, "and what I've said is I'm willing to think about it. I'm definitely at the inquiry stage."

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Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, Lee Leffingwell, Austin City Council, Brigid Shea, single-member districts, 2012 municipal election

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