The Mayor's Story
Three contenders try to write the personal tale that will convince the voters
By Michael King, Fri., Oct. 10, 2014
Every political campaign is an attempt to tell a story.
A candidate and a campaign team have a limited amount of time and space to reach the voters and create a "message" – that message being some particular version of "This is who I am, what I stand for, and (if elected) what I intend to do," within a narrative that is sufficiently engaging and persuasive to win a majority of votes.
So it is with Austin's current mayoral campaign. Each of the eight declared candidates is trying to tell an effective and convincing story, with varying levels of persuasiveness. The three major candidates – Steve Adler, Sheryl Cole, and Mike Martinez – have been running the longest and with the deepest resources, and have (unsurprisingly) separated themselves from the rest – the rest including a couple who declared for office at the last possible moment and, with less than a month until election day, have barely begun to campaign. (See "The Long Shots," p.30.) As a group, however, they may succeed in garnering sufficient votes to force a December run-off – and a new, high-speed story.
For the big three, it remains to be seen which narrative – and which set of positions – will at least win the day, Nov. 4.
The Early Drafts
The broad outlines began taking shape in the spring. Steve Adler, an eminent domain attorney and partner in the Barron & Adler law firm, got a running start early in the year, when two other deep-pocketed rivals, Bill McClellan and Patsy Woods Martin, abruptly bowed out, long before the filing date but shortly after Adler entered the race. Adler says he still doesn't know why that happened, but at the time it was widely rumored that he had already gathered sufficient support to cause the others to quietly concede. He soon began campaigning hard – physically and financially – and by early summer it seemed a day didn't go by without an Adler flier hitting Austin mailboxes. "I needed to make myself known," Adler says, "as I was running against two candidates who were already well known to the voters."
That would be Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and City Council Member Mike Martinez. Both were generally assumed to be running, although they didn't declare quite as early as Adler, and Cole waited to file officially until the last possible day, Aug. 18. (In the end, at July 21, Martinez filed earliest of the entire field.) For similar reasons, Adler explained his big initial self-loan to the campaign as necessary in running against City Council incumbents, but his stuffed cashbox also derived from supporters all over the city, and especially among Downtown business sources who have often felt a bit battered (at least rhetorically) at City Hall.
From the beginning, Adler has campaigned as something of a contradictory figure, both insider and outsider – clearly an establishment presence, but promising "A New Way Forward" at City Hall, while also touting his experience in the law, as a legislative aide to former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, and in his work with many local artistic and social justice nonprofits. The implication has been that he's not tainted by the failures or inactions of "the last eight years" – i.e., coinciding with the tenures of Cole and Martinez on Council – and that he knows how to solve the problems that the others have not.
By contrast, Cole and Martinez retain both the advantages and disadvantages of actual records on the dais. Martinez has campaigned strongly on his specific record of reshaping the city's economic incentive policies, on focusing on labor and safety standards both for incentive programs and in city contracts, and on the successful turnaround under his chairmanship of Capital Metro from near bankruptcy. Cole's response has been to point particularly to her work on affordable housing – taking primary credit for a successful bond campaign that reversed an earlier defeat – and her leadership in maintaining momentum on the Waller Creek Project, a combination flood-control and economic development effort in which she partnered with the Downtown business community, i.e., Adler's supposed base.
Those basic narratives were established early in the campaign, and have persisted in the months since, although adjusted here and there from forum to forum. More recently, all three campaigns have developed slightly sharper edges – partly from the need for the candidates to distinguish themselves, and partly from the sheer relentlessness of campaigning.
The Self-Made Lawyer
All three candidates deliver a version of the American Dream narrative, wakened in Austin, and Adler's is that of a man from middle-class roots, the first in his family to attend college, the scholarship kid who worked his way through Princeton and came to Austin because it had (in 1978) the cheapest law school in the country. Visiting Barton Springs ("within 45 minutes of my arrival"), he fell in love with the city and its unique atmosphere. "When you tell people around the country you live in Austin," he says, "it still means something special, and we can't afford to lose that." On the stump, he reiterates that the city is "at a tipping point" – if he is not elected, there will be no "new way" at City Hall, and problems ready for the solving – affordability, transportation, environmental resources – will remain unaddressed.
He made his fortune here, in property law – primarily eminent domain cases seeking sufficient compensation for government land condemnations, in a booming region – but as a young attorney he also accepted civil rights and workers rights cases, suing contractors and companies in employment discrimination cases on behalf of minority and women workers.
He points to his legislative work under Shapleigh, especially on public school funding, as uniquely qualifying him to address Austin's school conundrum under the recapture law, as a "property-rich" district serving a majority of poor and minority students. And he promises that his "skill-set" as a litigator, negotiator, and consensus-builder make him the best choice to usher in the new 10-1 future. "We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform our system of government, and the first 18 months are crucial to that transformation."
At first, the "new way forward" was mostly rhetorical. More recently, Adler's begun to issue policy papers on various city issues – traffic, affordability, education, etc. – and he's made specific proposals that advance his larger agenda while also evoking counterattacks from his opponents. The most prominent has been his advocacy of a 20% homestead exemption on property taxes, to be phased in over four years (to allow a budget adjustment), lately accompanied by recommending a return to an earlier Cap Metro policy of free bus rides for the elderly and disabled (ended a few years ago under budget constraints and Sunset Commission directives).
Adler acknowledges that neither policy would have a dramatic effect on affordability – but he insists "we have to use the tools that we have" while the city works on things like increasing housing supply and better traffic alternatives. Simultaneously, he has suggested an effective property tax swap with AISD, where much more of the current burden resides – by lowering the district rate by, say, two cents per $100 and raising the city's by one cent (which wouldn't be half-lost via recapture) and using those city funds for after-school and similar supplemental programs now carried by the district.
Setting aside whether that strategy can avoid potential legal and political hurdles, wouldn't the city (and the mayor) be accused of taking back with one hand the exemption it granted with the other? "But we'd be getting the full use of that money," Adler says, "and I believe Austin voters would understand that."
Adler has often described what he believes are inefficient or wrongheaded city procedures (including the perennial complaint about permitting), more recently those being criticisms of last-minute Council agenda items and late-night meetings. He would end both, he suggests, by insisting no proposal reach Council before it has passed muster not only with the relevant boards and commissions but also newly dedicated Council subcommittees. How that can mean either faster or more efficient government – especially on matters arising without such lead time – is frankly not clear. And more often than not, those late-night meetings are due to citizens' groups insisting on extended Council face-time for their dedicated issues – a pattern hardly likely to end with the ascension of 10 new "grassroots" Council members.
Adler insists these are problems of design, and his proposals will have the effect of integrating the newly elected Council members into the city's policymaking processes. Pointing to his legal experience, and even his wealth, he says, "I have nothing to gain" from public office, that he has no ambitions for higher office, and "I don't want anything" from special interests. If elected mayor, Adler argues, he'll be able to act impartially, on behalf of the whole city, and to act as an arbiter of the public interest. In a somewhat unlikely metaphor, he concludes, "I'll have the freedom to call balls and strikes."
The Working-Class Hero
That's as good a spot as any to shift to Martinez, perhaps the Council member least likely to adopt an umpire as a role model. Martinez's origin story is the poor boy from Rockdale, arriving in Austin with $50 and a trumpet, planning to make it big as a musician. That path didn't quite work out, as he went from construction worker and Austin Community College student to firefighter, eventually becoming president of the Austin Firefighters Association, entering a long career in public service. A successful campaign for Council – not incidentally supported by the AFA, which has unsurprisingly endorsed him again – brought his "working-class values" to City Hall, and among other things, he's championed union rights, labor standards, affordable housing, animal welfare (he is an avid supporter of the city's "no-kill" shelter policy), and – especially from his board chairman's seat at Capital Metro – mass transit.
As the Martinez campaign has progressed, "middle class" has largely replaced "working class" in the lexicon, perhaps a reflexive concession to the American cultural resistance to what is considered left-wing rhetoric, even in liberal Austin. But the candidate's style hasn't changed, and as Adler has continued his attacks on Council's recent decade, Martinez has increasingly defined himself in contrast to the wealthy lawyer. ("He's spent his career suing government," Martinez said recently, "and suddenly he wants to join it?") He's denounced his opponent's homestead exemption as simply a "tax cut for the wealthy," arguing that because state law effectively prohibits a flat exemption, a 20% break means that the big winners will be the wealthiest homeowners. (Adler concedes the point, but argues that cutting an inherently regressive property tax inevitably makes local taxes slightly less regressive, and again, "we use the tools we have.")
An anomaly (especially in Texas) of municipal races in Austin is that for many years, to one degree or another, virtually all candidates have been Democrats. (For good or ill, that's another change under 10-1.) Indeed, Adler, Cole, and Martinez all identify with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, but Martinez has sought to portray Adler, and specifically his homestead exemption proposal, as effectively Republican. (Adler bristles at the comparison, calling it "just politics.") Beyond the campaign dispute, the debate has allowed Martinez to call attention to the often-neglected fact that a majority (roughly 60%) of Austin residents are renters (with higher percentages on the east), who are unlikely to be helped and quite possibly could be hurt by the exemption, if it has the side-effect of shifting more of the tax load to landlords and therefore their tenants. Martinez's campaign estimates that the cut of an average $190 to homeowners would shift $80 onto renters.
On both sides, these amounts are not negligible, but they're not dramatic either. They do highlight a separation in the city's body politic that hasn't been readily apparent before. Most of the attention for this election has been on "The New 10-1;" it might well turn out that the more profound change is the move from May to November, when a 50,000-member electorate becomes (in a nonpresidential year) a 200,000 one. That change was voted down at Council – or more precisely, referred to the voters, who approved it overwhelmingly – and it will no longer be automatically true that the Council makeup will be determined by central-city voters, most of them homeowners heavily influenced by neighborhood association priorities. (On the dais, Martinez strongly supported the move to the fall, which lost 4-3.)
The November electorate will not simply be much larger, but it will be younger, less affluent, and less Anglo – all trends which would presumably work to the advantage of Martinez (and less so, of Cole). Martinez has also been a strong proponent of 10-1, for the historical reasons, but also because Austin's Hispanic population has long since outgrown the "gentleman's agreement" that unofficially restricted Hispanic candidates to a single seat. But in policy terms, renters have suddenly become much more visible in the current campaign – and Martinez has advocated that the real target of budget adjustments should be increasingly regressive utility fees, which have become a means for Austin Energy, Austin Water, and the Council to work around limits on property taxes as well as the volatility of sales taxes.
The occasionally combative Martinez has also been more willing to visibly oppose city staff on budget matters – in the last couple of cycles, the whole Council has been more prepared and eager to drill down into budget detail (experience that we will largely lose under the continuing churn of term limits). Martinez has pointed out his leadership on reducing the number of "vacancies" held in the budget for unfilled positions – what staff considers flexibility, budget hawks consider fair game. In addition to removing pressure from the property tax rate, it's meant more funds available for social services – a budget category that recently all three candidates told Austin Interfaith they want to increase.
Most centrally, Martinez has argued that the fledging 10-1 Council will badly need experienced leadership in the ways, by-ways – and inner politics – of City Hall, and that he is the candidate most qualified to provide it. Lately, he's taken to describing Adler's proposals as "cotton candy and unicorns" lacking a grounding in the knowledge of the contrast between what a candidate can promise and city government can actually deliver.
The PTA Mom
Sheryl Cole formally kicked off her candidacy across the street from Lee Elementary School, emphasizing not only the importance of education but the roots of her public service – learning how to build consensus among moms and dads, like herself, concerned about their children. PTA engagement, she likes to say, "is not for the faint of heart," but adds it provided her a grounding in grassroots politics that she carried to the dais in 2006, when she joined Martinez as a freshman Council member. Adler has campaigned as the confident litigator, Martinez as the forthright advocate; Cole, visibly more comfortable in conversation than on the stump, has a quieter style than both, and has portrayed herself as a conciliator looking for ways to avoid non-negotiable, "either/or" policy positions.
She takes considerable credit for compromise positions on the dais, trying to find ways to mediate, for example, between "entitlement" demands by developers and red lines on "community benefits" (e.g., affordable housing units) from advocacy groups. (For her troubles, she is sometimes criticized by both sides.) In perhaps her most visible accomplishment, she took the lead on the Waller Creek Project, a lengthy process to put together a city/developer/neighborhood partnership that would both lift a sizable portion of Downtown (10% of the land, she reiterates) out of the historic flood plain, tunneling flood waters away from a large area, and eventually to provide both economic development and considerable public amenities. (The Project received a setback earlier this year over a construction conflict with a Capital view corridor; it was briefly a headline matter, but Cole insists that the problem was sensationalized and readily resolved.)
She has also been a passionate advocate of affordable housing, most specifically aimed at the chronically homeless, and has worked hard on "housing first" efforts aimed at getting those who need it into "permanently supportive housing" as a gateway to services and, eventually, economic independence. (Martinez, and the whole of the current Council, has been strongly supportive of these efforts.) She was a leader in the successful return to the voters for a considerable affordable housing bond in 2013, after a surprising defeat in 2012 – and there remains a split in the electorate on that issue, which may both help and hurt her in November, and be reflected on the next Council.
Describing what she sees as her thoughtful approach on the dais, she pointed to the recent decision to explore the possibility of the city buying a tract of state land at Bull Creek and 45th streets, brought to Council by the nearby neighborhoods but representing a $28 million purchase – even over time, and even as an investment that would be eventually recouped (or better) by the city, by a development over which the city could retain land-planning control much more directly – Mueller was the handy example – than if it were ceded to a private buyer. Council was divided and concerned about acting too hastily – Martinez was among those who preferred to reject the proposal outright rather than be rushed into it.
"We needed to slow down," Cole said recently. "I was willing to explore the possibility, but we needed to do our due diligence as buyers. We needed to review the environmental situation, the financial situation – all the things you would do in the normal course of taking on such a transaction." It remains to be seen whether the city will follow through with the acquisition (or, for that matter, whether the state will cooperate) but Cole describes the episode as the way she would approach such matters as mayor, when her opponents might be more top-down or peremptory.
She also recalls her default role as a conciliator after such crises as the Texas Relays controversy (over retailer backlash against African-American youths) or on community relations with the Austin Police Department, silently highlighting her role as the only elected black representative in a city that is slowly but steadily losing its black population. "I've tried to work on community healing," she said, "and I think I've been fairly successful at that."
The "PTA Mom" analogy indirectly calls attention as well to the fact that Cole is the only woman actively running for mayor (as well as the only African American candidate), historically an advantage in Travis County elections. Cole started late, she hasn't raised funds as well as her opponents, and Adler may have captured at least some of her anticipated advantage with the Downtown business crowd.
"I still have plenty of support Downtown," she countered, and before formally announcing, she organized a "House Party Tour" of all 10 districts as a step toward broadening her knowledge and her base. "One of the problems at City Hall," she said, "is that you tend to see issues only on a citywide basis. That's important, but you also need to see and hear, up close, the problems specific to specific areas – whether it's a housing issue, a nuisance issue, or a park or trails issue, or simply something that residents want to call to your attention that you otherwise might not be fully aware of."
Whether the voters choose the Consensus Builder, the People's Champion, or the Maternal Conciliator will depend as much on how well the candidates have told their stories as it will on their specific positions on the various issues facing Austin. As the campaign becomes increasingly edgy in the final weeks, it's also worth noting what the big three have in common. They all support a strong role for city government, they all believe Austin must work harder for equality and social justice, and they see those problems as equal in stature alongside more obviously practical (and often politically dominating) concerns like traffic and taxes. They all find troublesome the heavy hand of the Legislature on city policies and powers, and see part of their jobs as doing what they can with the tools they're allowed as they lobby to acquire more local authority. They even all support local Proposition 1 – the transportation (rail and road) bond (although Adler has cleverly contrived to endorse the proposition while blaming his opponents for all its shortcomings). Lately, they've also found themselves describing what they will do should the bond fail.
They don't talk much about race, per se – although it just so happens we're considering a white, brown, and black triumvirate – but they've all worked on racial and multi-ethnic equity in various ways, and can regularly engage in praising each other for those occasionally mutual efforts. That's a wild card more in the hands of the voters than the candidates, but it has been visibly and understandably present in at least some of the rallies held by each. How much of a factor it will be in the vote count, we won't know until Nov. 5 – or perhaps until the demographers start crunching the numbers in the weeks following.
All three are undoubtedly qualified for the biggest city job, which will certainly increase in relative importance next year, becoming the only office to be elected citywide. Who of the three is most qualified – or, who tells the story that best fits the voters' conception of the person most qualified to be Mayor of Austin – is a question they have (at least) another month to answer.
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