Point Austin: Nuts to You!

Enjoy the 11-ring political circus

Point Austin

We've reached full Bull-Goose Loony stage in this year's municipal election season, which as a voter I consider a bit dismaying – but as a reporter, I can't deny is mostly manna from heaven. Where to begin? We've got at least two true "Tea Party" Repub­licans with a real shot at the City Council dais, including one – Don Zimmerman in District 6 – whose credentials are not metaphorical: He once personally led a literal tea-dumping march to Lady Bird Lake. Then there's the District 3 race, where in the first round, the normally soporific League of Women Voters forum devolved into a shouting match among candidates and audience, and the run-off is rapidly breaking down into a three-way standoff: Susana Almanza vs. Pio Renteria vs. Anybody but Almanza.

Over in District 4, Laura Pressley has attempted to run a stealth campaign as a garden-variety fiscal conservative – despite the fact that she's long haunted Citizens Communications denouncing fluoride, smart meters, gun regulation, airport security, etc. In fact, she's long been an Alex Jones-style libertarian and 9/11 "truther," which finally became too much even for the somnolent editors at the Statesman, who grudgingly reversed their Pressley endorsement last week. (As they sing in Avenue Q, "Schadenfreude!")

Some of the comedy is undoubtedly due to the length and breadth of this year's campaign, which began more than a year ago and initially totaled 78 candidates – we won't see the likes of that again. Unleashing 10-1, while it will make for more localized representation – eventually – in the short run is fairly unpredictable, and it will be interesting to see just how much of the foolishness climbs onto next year's dais.

Stop That Man!

This week's prize for electoral looniness goes to a two-page Sunday ad in the daily, funded by a heretofore unknown (and likely short-lived) political action committee calling itself the "Coalition of Austin Neigh­borhoods," and singling out for attack one person – longtime campaign consultant David Butts – as the "Invisible Man" who "controls the Austin City Council" by means of his "total control over who runs for office and who wins elections," and then keeps "mayors and council members under his thumb for decades." Four other shadowy but unnamed lawyer "fixers" are alleged to be Butts' accomplices, making certain that their clients' projects get done, and nothing in city government "ever seems to actually change." Everything wrong in Austin, says the ad, is the fault of David Butts – and how do we stop his nefarious plans? "It's easy: Stop electing David Butts' candidates"!!!

To summarize: An unknown organization, sponsored by unidentified funders, attacks Butts (whom most voters have never heard of) and unnamed co-conspirators for ruining Our Fair City, and then names four "Butts" candidates to vote against – simultaneously omitting the one person who is Butts' primary client (and biggest payday) in this particular campaign: mayoral candidate Steve Adler. All this in the name of revealing the big secrets behind Austin politics.

Open the Asylum

I rush to add that I'm not saying Adler had anything remotely to do with this nonsense, and he's not tainted by omission. It just means that the mysterious ad sponsors (whoever they are) apparently have a soft spot for Adler (and one other unmentioned Council candidate), so thereby make a complete hash of their argument that at all costs, Butts has to be stopped. (To his credit, Butts has laughed off the ad, while noting that if he truly had the Council under his thumb, many of their decisions would have been different.)

The public buzz (in the Austin Monitor, Austin Business Journal, and social media) has focused mightily on "Who are these guys?" who bought the ad. Suspicion has fallen on retired Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy (famous for similar late-campaign screeds in the past, generally in his own name). Levy insisted to me that he didn't buy the ad, although he implied (very coyly) that he might know who did. For myself, "Who did it?" is not a very interesting question (except perhaps to Butts, who is guilty primarily of being very good at what he does: specifically campaigns, not policy). Considering how completely lunatic the ad is, whoever paid for it thoroughly wasted upwards of $22,000: Is this really how rich people contribute to the public debate?

The ad reenacts a conspiratorial perspective that already infects too much of Austin politics, including the Manichean nonsense that polarized the campaign for single-member districts. Ten-one was going to throw all the bums out, fumigate City Hall, and (always) get Evil Money out of our politics. Now that 10-1 has produced another round of actually human politicians – some of whom are supported by David Butts – some of the very same folks are rending their garments and gnashing their teeth in horror. The notions of finding better candidates, or running better campaigns – or even making better policy arguments, for God's sake – seem to be beyond them. It's a whole lot easier to blame everything on David Butts.

Welcome to Bull-Goose Loony Time.

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City Councilcity elections, City Council, November 2014 run-off

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