Then There's This: Woman's Work

Trying to crack the copper ceiling at City Hall

Brigid Shea
Brigid Shea (Photo by Jana Birchum)

On Tuesday evening, a group of about 40 women and a few men gathered in the South Austin home of former state Rep. Ann Kit­chen, in the politically active neighborhood of Barton Hills, where campaign yard signs serve as colorful reminders that there are not one but two political contests on the horizon: the May 12 City Council election and the May 29 primaries for county, state, and congressional offices.

This particular event, promoted under the ungainly title, "City Hall Should Work for Women," was a fundraiser for mayoral candidate Brigid Shea, who is waging an aggressive, uphill battle against incumbent Lee Leffingwell. The women in attendance spanned a wide range of ages and included PTA moms, nonprofit leaders, grassroots activists, business professionals, and, fittingly, a couple of funny ladies who provided introductions for Shea – improv personality and social justice activist Julie Gillis and Esther's Follies co-founder Shannon Sedwick.

Theatre and Politics

Gillis, still riding the high of her role as emcee of the April 28 rally against the war on women – "one of the highlights of my career as a person!" – talked about the twin joys of theatre and politics, because they're both good pathways for building community.

Next up was Sedwick, who recalled the adrenalin-fueled fervor of campaigning for Ann Richards as part of the former governor's campaign bus entourage. Sedwick likened that excitement to the condensed, small-scale mayoral campaign of Shea, with the downside being that Sedwick lives in West Lake Hills and isn't eligible to vote for her friend of more than 20 years. Neverthe­less, she said, turning to Shea, "I hope like hell that you win."

Sedwick also recounted how she and Shea were among the hundreds of people who crowded into the City Council chambers for the famous all-night hearing that successfully turned back the Barton Creek planned unit development in the environmentally sensitive Barton Springs watershed. War stories like these may seem old hat for people who've been in Austin long enough to hear them again and again, but several in the crowd looked as though they were learning this piece of Austin's history for the first time.

Moving Ahead

"It was a different era then, but really not much different than what we're going through right now," Sedwick said, adding that she was happy to meet an "up-and-comer" like Shea at that time because she was "not afraid of anything."

Now, she went on, "we're into the next generation, we're into the next decade ... of Sixth Street, of South Austin, of Downtown, of every neighborhood ... I feel like Brigid will be a natural continuation of all that is good about Austin."

After the introductions, Shea stood up and launched into her stump speech, starting with how she landed in Austin in 1988 to start the Texas chapter of Clean Water Action. She hit all the right notes on affordability, quality of life, education. "This race is about what kind of city we want for the future," she said. "We all want a prosperous community, but we want one where our grandchildren and our elders and increasingly our middle-class families can afford to live."

And then the gender kicker: "I think it makes a difference where there are women in elected office. If I'm elected, it will only be the second time in the history of the city of Austin that we've had a woman mayor, and that's really why I'm running – we really need a change in direction at City Hall."

The Female Factor

Of the 1,248 mayors of U.S. cities with populations over 30,000, 217 mayors, or just over 17%, were women. That's according to a January 2012 roundup of the Center for Amer­ican Women and Politics at Rutgers Uni­ver­sity. Two of Texas' largest cities have women mayors – Annise Parker of Houston, the fourth largest U.S. city, and Betsy Price of Fort Worth, the 17th largest. Several smaller Texas cities also have women mayors: Port Arthur, New Braunfels, Beaumont, College Station, Euless, Flower Mound, Irving, and Tyler. But not Austin, the fourth largest city in Texas and 14th in the nation.

Should Austin voters elect its second female mayor this year, one of her most critical missions will be to leave a better legacy than the last one. When Carole Keeton Strayhorn, then Carole McClellan, was first elected in 1977, she rode into office as the liberal candidate. When she left office in 1983, she was widely reviled for sticking us with the South Texas Nuclear Project, among a number of other misdeeds. After switching to the Republican Party, serving as state comptroller, and making an unsuccessful bid for governor as an independent, she decided, in 2009, that she wanted to be mayor again. The voters said no, and she finished third behind Brewster McCracken and Leffingwell.

In political and philosophical terms, Shea bears little resemblance to Strayhorn. But the two do have a few things in common: unflagging energy, enthusiasm, and a highly competitive spirit. Those traits aren't too shabby.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council, Brigid Shea, elections, Lee Leffingwell

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