Pressley Settles on Martinez

Businesswoman Pressley sells rainwater and is an anti-fluoride activist

Laura Pressley at her Jan. 20 campaign announcement
Laura Pressley at her Jan. 20 campaign announcement (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Someone popping her head into the meeting room of the Terrazas Branch Library on East Cesar Chavez last Wednesday morning might be forgiven for presuming the 10 people gathered there were members of a book club, or perhaps a small community organization. There was nothing about the scene to indicate that they were actually a political team debating the finer points of City Council campaign strategy – no chain-smoking men in rumpled suits pounding their fists on tables or well-heeled professional political consultants whispering tactics into one another's ears.

Instead, around the table sat an unpaid, ad hoc collection of Hispanic community activists, libertarian rabble-rousers, professional protesters, City Council bugbears, and fringe political figures from the left and the right, representatives of Texans for Account­able Government and the Sierra Club and Fluoride Free Austin and the Greater East Austin Neighborhood Assoc­i­a­tion, owners of radical bookstores and hosts of right-wing public-access television shows and members of the Republican Liberty Caucus who with straight faces call themselves "industrialists." This patchwork coalition is politically bound together by almost nothing but a shared suspicion of City Council and a shared affinity for candidate Laura Pressley, who had gathered them there that morning to help her decide which sitting council member she should run against in the upcoming May election.

It didn't take long for the group to come to a consensus on Place 2 Council Member Mike Martinez. Pressley said Place 6's Sheryl Cole hasn't "done enough wrong, aside from sometimes ignoring citizens," and the group is convinced Bill Spelman will have the support of environmentalists and the Dem­o­cratic establishment. But Martinez is another story. They say he's come down on the wrong side of too many issues – from the construction of Water Treatment Plant No. 4 to the Nathaniel Sanders II shooting case to corporate subsidies. Plus, they say he has consistently advertised himself as the representative of the Eastside Hispanic community while doing little to improve the lives of Eastside Hispanics.

John Bush, former head of TAG, a self-described "liberty activist," and dedicated thorn in the side of Mayor Lee Leffingwell, thinks Pressley will have a chance to beat Martinez if she can convince East­sid­ers that all of his talk about representing them has been nothing more than talk. "On a variety of issues – from rising property taxes to environmental issues on the Eastside, social justice on the Eastside, police brutality as well – we'll be able to say to Martinez, 'You're supposedly representing this community, and you've failed,'" Bush said.

The only concern the coalition seems to have with Pressley running against Martin­ez is that doing so would defy the "gentleman's agreement" – the city's 40-year understanding that two of its six council places will be reserved for Hispanic and African-American representatives. Would Pressley, a white woman, be setting her campaign up for a public-relations disaster by ignoring the gentleman's agreement and challenging Martinez?

Allandale neighborhood activist David Orshalick put forth a simple strategy for dealing with that issue and for improving Pressley's chance of winning the election. "Based on the demographics of Austin, there should be more Hispanics on City Council," he told the candidate. "You should have the message that you're for more Hispanics on the council, more geographic representation. You can say to them: 'Vote for me, and I will push single-member districts down their throats, and we will get true representation.'" It's a risky strategy, but it may represent Pressley's best hope for an upset: convincing voters that the best way to ensure greater Hispanic representation on the council is by replacing the one Hispanic on the council.

Businesswoman Pressley – she sells rainwater, and her distinguishing political credential is as an anti-fluoride activist – recognizes a good pitch when she hears one. She decided to give Orshalick's strategy a try. Two days after the meeting, at a press conference held in the YMCA Learning Center on East Sixth Street, she announced that she has chosen to challenge Martinez because, she says: "If you look at the distribution of the Latino community, there should be two or three seats for the Latino community. If we could get real geographic representation in this city, and have a single-member system, it would fix what's really broken." The pitch seems to work, at least among the small group of Pressley supporters – some of them members of well-known Hispanic community groups on the Eastside.

In response, Martinez's campaign declared that its candidate also supports a single-member system, but that he's waiting to hear the recommendations of the Charter Revision Committee before he throws his support behind any particular plan. "The roots of the gentleman's agreement are deep, but we need a better representation of Hispanics on the council. That's why Mike is pushing for single-member districts," said Martinez re-election campaign manager Sylvia Camarillo. As for Pressley's announcement, Camarillo said Martinez is ready to take on any opponent who gets in the race.

"It was spin-the-bottle for Pressley, and in the end the bottle ended up on Mike," Camarillo says. "But she's going to find a force she didn't know was out there. Mike has strong, deep roots in the community, and the community supports him."

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