Most politicians have an internal clock tuned to the day, month, and year that they should begin thinking about their next official run. For at least three members of the Austin City Council – Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, Council Member Mike Martinez, and CM Laura Morrison – that season has now apparently changed to Go. That likely means nearly two years of politically tinged maneuvering on the dais.
The calendar was made visible this past week as Cole, Martinez, and Morrison debated a couple of Council items. Both – the lingering issue of whether to partner with the Texas Facilities Commission on that agency's master planning effort, and the big red target offered by a proposal to allow lobbyists to participate formally in the rewrite of the city's Land Development Code – were already hot topics. But it was impossible to ignore the flavor of mayoral ambition that accompanied each discussion.
The TFC item goes back a while. In short: The state of Texas owns a lot of land in and around the city of Austin. A 2010 Council action that was never fully consummated aimed to set aside $200,000 that would have bought the city a role in TFC's planning efforts. In December, Cole brought back the idea and asked for an additional $200,000. Some Council members balked at what they saw as a $400,000 price tag for the right to be ignored by a state agency likely to give only lip service to city collaboration, but the measure passed.
Meanwhile, there were signs that TFC's plans themselves were hitting the skids. The state's Sunset Commission tore the TFC a new one in a scathing report that compared the agency to a wayward child (see "State & City Redevelopment? Hold That Thought ...," Dec. 7, 2012). The Commission's action was limited: a simple request for a six-month moratorium on public-private partnerships (aka P3s). The Legislature, however, is gearing up for more. Council Member Martinez suggested that legislation from Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, will render the discussion moot with specific instructions for the TFC to limit its purview and specifically its work on P3s. Martinez (whose wife Lara Wendler works for Sen. Whitmire) proposed redirecting the funding earmarked for the TFC partnership to Austin Energy's low-income weatherization program. But after a testy exchange with Cole at Council's Jan. 29 work session, Martinez pulled the item from that Thursday's agenda – pending state action.
Setting aside the immediate issue, the exchange over the TFC agreement seemed to sharply foreshadow next year's politicking. Martinez could simply have waited until the Legislature took out TFC and its chair, Terry Keel. Why the theatre?
Considered with another dose of melodrama last week, the context becomes clearer. Council Member Bill Spelman had proposed allowing registered lobbyists to be appointed to the task force that will oversee the rewriting of the Land Development Code – a complicated, high-stakes task that will demand Buddha-like patience, as well as broad knowledge of the existing code. Spelman's argument was that some members of the lobbying community, steeped as they are in the stuff that's about to be rewritten, are just the type of folks who belong on the committee; including lobbyists would also widen the small pool of ethnically diverse, zoning-savvy candidates. Initially, Spelman support from Cole, Leffingwell, and CM Chris Riley anticipated, at least, four votes out of seven.
It wasn't enough. The specter of everyone's favorite political villains "writing the rules" catalyzed a broad coalition of angry residents who, in roughly three days, sank Spelman's effort. CMs Morrison and Kathie Tovo were there every step of the way. By the time meeting day rolled around, Cole was waffling, and Riley was saying he hadn't ever really favored it.
On Thursday morning, before withdrawing the proposal "for lack of support," Spelman took seven minutes to excoriate the opposition's campaign. "If you think about the kind of rhetoric that's been applied to this problem for the last 48 hours, I think it's wildly different from the situation that we experience every day.
"This is not about [The Matrix's hive-spawn bad guy] Agent Smith," he continued. "This is about Nikelle [Meade]. This is about Alice [Glasco]. This is about Michele – both Micheles [Lynch and Haussman]. This is about Jeff [Howard]. This is about Steve [Drenner]. This is about David [Armbrust] and Richard [Suttle]. And most of you know exactly who I'm talking about; I don't need to use last names, because these are people you are all familiar with."
Afterward, Spelman was blunt about the uproar. "It was a symbolic political argument rather than a real political argument – and the real argument ought to be how many of each kind of person do we want to properly advise as to what the land development code ought to look like," he said. "Instead we got the symbolic argument about 'they've been screwing us over for years, and it's time for them to pay.'"
Spelman said he thought the real subtext was the 2014 mayor's race, with "the silly season starting two years early." "It was directed largely at Sheryl [Cole]," he said, "for being willing to consider talking with developers." As for his own ambitions, Spelman told us that in light of his recent surgery for pancreatic cancer, "I'm not running for mayor, I'm running for well." (His doctors tell him he's in remission, but going forward there are no guarantees.)
Also on the list of potential mayoral candidates is state Rep. Mark Strama, who said he is "considering" a run. "But considering means considering," said Strama, adding that he'll make a decision sometime after the legislative session.
It looks like the fuse has been lit for the next city election season.
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