May 12 Municipal Election: The 'Chronicle' Endorsements
The Chronicle "editorial board" – in this instance, the News staff and the publisher – have considered the records, campaign statements, and policy positions of the City Council candidates and concurred on the candidate endorsements listed here. An endorsement does not necessarily mean we are all equally enthusiastic about a particular candidate or agree with all of her or his positions, but it does reflect who we believe to be the best choice on the ballot to serve in that office. We were unable to agree on a unified endorsement in the mayor's race, but on all sides we believe that this race is crucially important for Austin's future. So in that race, we are issuing a "split endorsement," with each side providing an argument in favor of either Lee Leffingwell or Brigid Shea.
All of us are united in the conviction that it is important for Austinites to take part in local government and to vote in this city election. Early voting begins April 30 and ends May 8; election day is May 12. Please vote.
Austin City Council Ballot
• Lee Leffingwell*
• Brigid Shea
• Richard "Clay" Dafoe
• Mike Martinez*
• Laura Pressley
• John Duffy
• John A. Rubine
• R.A. "Bo" Prudente
• Audrey "Tina" Cannon
• Bill Spelman*
• Dominic "Dom" Chavez
• David Y. Conley
• Sheryl Cole*
• Shaun (Dylan) Ireland
Mayor: Lee Leffingwell
Lee Leffingwell has been an excellent mayor.
That's the bottom line for those us at the Chronicle supporting Leffingwell's re-election, and despite the inevitable campaign noise, we don't find the counter-arguments persuasive. While the mayor is only first among equals on City Council, he deserves considerable credit for setting the progressive tone at City Hall, and for establishing the entire public agenda for the administration. Austin has weathered a severe economic recession in much better shape than the rest of the country, and while city government is not wholly responsible for that resilience (and we're not out of the woods, here or nationally), the mayor and council deserve credit for being proactive on economic development and job creation, and for delicately balancing budgetary economies with public needs when other levels of government have been imposing irrational and counterproductive austerity.
Creating good blue-collar and high tech jobs remains a major city priority, and under Leffingwell's leadership, the city has done that while maintaining our commitment to environmental protection. One way of keeping a city affordable is to try to hold prices artificially low; a stronger way is to support the creation of more living-wage (or better) jobs. Not only does the much-debated new Apple campus project accomplish that, it also helps reverse the national corporate practice of moving call centers and accounting locations overseas.
On transportation, Leffingwell's led the move into multimodal planning and funding, and he's currently working with council and city staff to establish potential funding for urban rail – while exercising caution on bond funding as long as the economy remains sluggish. He's simultaneously worked to encourage and sustain greater central city density – which defends against urban sprawl and the accompanying environmental degradation and without which long-range mass transit plans will founder. He was also quick to declare that Austin Energy's rate proposal would have to be redesigned with affordability as a primary standard. That reaction, and the ongoing rate revisions, refutes the charge that he and the council only rubber-stamp staff proposals.
On social issues – affordable housing, health care, marriage rights for all, economic inequities, etc. – the mayor has led in voice and in action, including his latest initiative, a task force on aging to address the special concerns of the area's expanding senior population. He was also forthright in supporting the proposal to move city elections to November, which would engage more people and a broader demographic in city government; the opposition was disingenuous and self-serving, and with city voter turnout at appalling and unrepresentative numbers, we believe it was a mistake to let that decision be on hold for what may now become two more years.
From water conservation and redevelopment protections to regulatory protections like the tobacco ban, he has also led on environmental issues – including those most contentious, when leadership means taking the heat rather than the credit. Austin "progressive" politics is far too often defined in single-minded, self-marginalizing terms – e.g., abstract and absolute "environmentalism" against every other progressive interest, even including economic opportunity for all Austinites. By contrast, Leffingwell has supported the broadest range of progressive values, and he has found ways to reach out and engage the whole community (e.g., the water conservation task force, the Save Our Springs redevelopment initiative, even the charter revision task force) instead of simply talking (and listening) to the same self-appointed voices who repeatedly prefer polarizing the city into warring factions to working together to solve common community problems.
Indeed, concerning the two decisions for which Leffingwell's received the most criticism – Water Treatment Plant No. 4 and the Formula One project – we believe the first is a necessary (and environmentally sound) investment in Austin's infrastructure, and the latter should become an engine of economic development, whatever the outcome of the state's overeagerness to provide public funding. Leffingwell made it plain from day one in the Formula One discussions that city funding would neither be provided nor put at risk. Similarly, he led the council in reviewing and revising the publicly established standards for economic development deals – he specifically and publicly opposed incentives for retail projects – and he has consistently maintained that, to uphold those standards, any such deals must be cash-positive, be performance-based, and provide good jobs.
Top to bottom, these are broadly progressive values and interests, worthy of broad public support, and Leffingwell has consistently fought to expand and defend them. Moreover, he has done so with disarming good humor and engaging public outreach, providing a public voice and face for the city which he has always called his home.
In sum, we reiterate that Lee Leffingwell has been an excellent mayor and public servant, and we urge our readers to vote for his re-election.
Mayor: Brigid Shea
Newcomers to Austin are often informed that City Council races are nonpartisan. Anyone who's followed city politics for any length of time knows that's not true. There are indeed two political parties in Austin, known colloquially as the Developers and the Environmentalists. So when you know that Lee Leffingwell has the support of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, as well as a 91% approval from the Real Estate Council of Austin straw poll, while Brigid Shea is backed by the Save Our Springs Alliance, Sierra Club Austin, and the Austin Neighborhoods Council, you probably know everything you need to know to make up your mind in this race. Need more context? Read on.
Brigid Shea has been a strong and effective advocate for the environment, for economic equity, and for open and efficient government in Austin for more than two decades now. She was a founding member of the original SOS Alliance, served a term on the City Council from 1993 to 1996, and since then has been a consultant and policy adviser to the city and to a wide range of businesses and nonprofits.
But when there's an incumbent running for re-election, the race is always really a referendum on that incumbency. And it's on his record that Lee Leffingwell's campaign runs aground. While we don't doubt the mayor's sincerity, heart, or basic goodwill, he has simply been on the wrong side of virtually every contested issue that his council has faced over the past few years.
To name a few: the Domain, where he pressed hard for maintaining the tax subsidies in the development agreement ("a deal is a deal"), despite evidence that developers Endeavor Real Estate and Simon Properties were failing to keep up their end of that deal; the Barton Springs planned unit development; Water Treatment Plant No. 4; White Lodging/Marriott subsidies; rec center privatization deals, the Green Water Treatment Plant site development deal ... the list goes on. There are good reasons for that 91% RECA support, and for development attorneys to be aggressively bundling contributions for Leffingwell's campaign. They're not buying influence; they're showing recognition and appreciation for a mayor who has wholeheartedly supported their interests – which has not always been in the public's best interest.
The most egregious recent example concerns the city's contract with Formula One, when Leffingwell pushed hard for signing the original, developer-written contract which would have, among other things, committed the city to a $4 million annual payment that race organizers subsequently agreed to pay. And his solo protest vote, as the contract was being pulled for yet another clearly needed rewrite on a 6-1 vote, was uncharacteristically impolitic, but also clearly in character: Never mind the naysayers; full speed ahead. [Full disclosure from Publisher Nick Barbaro: My wife, Susan Moffat, was one of the citizens down at council chambers that day, pointing out loopholes and pitfalls in a document that clearly hadn't been vetted before being fast-tracked to council, in a process even the Austin American-Statesman called "sloppy, rushed." I've never been prouder of her.]
It's a shame, because it clearly didn't have to go this way. Leffingwell came to council with strong environmental credentials. He was endorsed by the Chronicle in the 2009 mayoral election and for his two terms as a council member before that. He's a good man. On many issues, we see eye to eye, and we admire and appreciate his good works. (Then again, on those issues, he and Shea agree as well; it's hard to envision any social program that would fare worse under her than him.)
But on core issues of city politics – how to shape the city's built environment, how to pay for that, and how to balance the needs of citizens with those of the business lobby – we have a serious philosophical disagreement: How much can the city expect to get, and how much does it have to give up – in money, green space, affordable housing, public spaces and amenities, and other design and planning objectives – in order to accommodate and support real estate development and construction? Time after time, we've seen that the status quo at City Hall is that we'll readily give up all those things if a well-connected lobbyist shows up with a building plan and a request for a zoning change or a city subsidy.
Somewhere along the way, Mayor Leffingwell swallowed that Kool-Aid, and the result is an economic policy – favoring tax breaks for the rich, privatization of public services and assets, and other big-business-friendly policies, even at the expense of social programs and the environment – that's considered reactionary right-wing on the national scale, yet accepted as business as usual in local politics, where critics may find themselves derided as "anti-growth" for having the temerity to suggest that developers play by the rules, that lobbyists not get special favors, and that private big business not get public handouts.
Here is where we believe Shea can bring significant change to the way business gets done at City Hall. She is an astute businesswoman (hardly "anti-business," she has very strong ties to Austin's small business community) with the energy, vision, and commitment to put the city's best interests ahead of special interests.
Place 2: Mike Martinez
In his second term, Martinez has emerged as a council leader on issues directly affecting workers' rights, worker safety, and working conditions. We applaud the whole council's attention to these matters, but Martinez has been the most outspoken and proactive member on goals like making certain that economic development agreements address wage protections, safety training, and related guarantees. From his position (now chair) on the Capital Metro board, he has also become increasingly active on transportation questions, not only on the vision and planning side (and in working with other jurisdictions), but also in the difficult task of remaking the agency after an internal reorganization and the changes ordered by the Sunset Commission.
On that score, while we understand the anger of Cap Metro's employees' union over the privatization directed by the Legislature, it was an outcome imposed upon the agency by the union's insistence on an external audit, as well as by the state's institutional hostility to unionism. We don't believe it can be blamed on Martinez, who has led the board's insistence that the agency protect its work force, as much as possible, from the negative consequences.
Indeed, his approach to that delicate balance has belied the occasional and unfair characterization of Martinez as somehow beholden to union or other special interest priorities on the council; we believe that overall, he has tried his best to balance competing interests with the goal of the broadest benefit for the whole city. (Already an advocate for more affordable housing, he has also become a leader on animal welfare issues.) Some of us still believe that he is among those members too willing to prioritize economic development over neighborhood quality of life, and some of us note our objections to his support for Water Treatment Plant No. 4 and the Formula One deal. But on the whole, Martinez has been a hard-working, insightful, and effective council member.
Place 5: Bill Spelman
Incumbent Spelman jokes that "karma" reverberating from his 2009 campaign – when he was unopposed – now has him facing no fewer than six challengers. He's got the reputation of being a policy wonk, and that's not just an academic stereotype; he does have a tendency to complicate arguments with layered charts and dais dissertations. But he also knows his stuff, and he has been indispensable on certain subjects, most particularly on pushing to rethink the city's public safety priorities, a subject on which he is in fact a national expert. (Moreover, he believes that there might be more effective and more efficient ways to combat crime than the reflexive "More cops!" and has not wilted under dismissive public criticism that suggests otherwise.) Some of us did strongly object to his vote against moving the election to November and its much higher turnout, which he defends: "I don't believe the Legislature had the authority to supersede the [city] charter."
Spelman's been generally effective on budgetary issues, and his alertness to significant detail on sometimes arcane council subjects (e.g., zoning) is a real asset. As for his own accomplishments, he points to progress on social equity – improving access to capital and regulating payday lending – as well as the city's nationally innovative regulation of crisis pregnancy centers, important not only for protecting women's rights and health care but also for upholding consumer protection. He'll also be a watchdog on transportation solutions; he's enthusiastic about mass transit but skeptical of quick fixes.
Of Spelman's half-dozen challengers, only Dom Chavez and Tina Cannon show any signs of actually understanding city policy issues and also comprehending that being a council member is a real job which requires hard work and substantive knowledge. Chavez, however, firmly opposes virtually all progressive or even nuanced solutions to city problems, especially on public safety and transportation – his mantras are more cops and more roads. Cannon is learning quickly on the trail, but as of yet, she still lacks sufficient knowledge of actual city policies and procedures to be ready to take on (for example) utility rates or bond priorities. We believe Spelman is the best choice for another term.
Place 6: Sheryl Cole
In 2009, we wrote: "We hope Cole chooses to become a more vocal and assertive leader – rather than staying in her comfort zone working quietly behind the scenes." Most of us (but not all) are convinced that change has happened, symbolically represented by her ascension to the post of mayor pro tem. Three years ago, she cited her leadership on the Waller Creek project as her proudest accomplishment. She's still engaged in that effort, but she now more immediately cites her work on (broadly speaking) alleviating the city's racial and economic inequities, ranging from job creation (e.g., the U.S. Farathane deal supporting employment for "the hardest to employ") to pressing the Austin Police Department to effectively address its problematic policing of minority youth.
It's worth noting that her leadership on such issues appears to have helped inspire non-minority council members to be more proactive as well. Especially if we finally succeed in moving to geographic representation, it will be all the more important to make certain that substantive attention to racially charged controversies does not fall by default to minority council members. (Cole remains cautious on single-member districts, due to the possibility that African-American citizens' influence could be inadvertently diluted by a new system that in theory is supposed to strengthen that influence. She also voted against moving city elections to November without a separate charter vote.)
Recently, she's been hard at work on the Austin Energy conundrum, and last week presided over council's first (consensus) vote for a substantive change – an adjustment of the AE's debt-to-equity ratio, which is not without risk but should serve to save considerable funds going forward. It's a first but important step. She's also been strong on advocating for public education, a role that will only grow in importance as we enter the next legislative biennium.
Cole's opponent, Shaun Ireland, while apparently well-meaning, has little knowledge and no experience of actual city policies and their real-world consequences.