Farewell and “Gracias” to Gus Garcia, Austin Trailblazer

Hispanic activist, former trustee, Council member, mayor died Monday, at 84

Gus Garcia in 2013 (Photo by John Anderson)

For a thorough introduction to the life and political career of Gustavo "Gus" Garcia – who passed away Monday, Dec. 17, at the age of 84 – every Austinite should read former City Council Member (and former Chronicle Politics Editor) Daryl Slusher's "The Life and Times of Gus Garcia" (June 2, 2000), marking (inaccurately) the moment of Garcia's "retirement" after "30 years of public service." Garcia went on, of course, to be elected mayor, succeeding Kirk Watson (who had moved on to the Texas Senate), serving from 2001 to 2003. Slusher, who served with Garcia on Council, now laughs at his story's short-sighted "Garcia retires" subhead – "It was another moment of irony on Gus' part."

Slusher's Chronicle profile summarizes a daunting list of city accomplishments in which Garcia had a central hand. Among the list: "expanding youth employment and recreation programs"; an "anti-graffiti program that included a family counseling component designed to break patterns of poverty and alienation"; "long-needed East Austin facilities like the Zavala Recreation Cen­ter, the Cepeda Branch Library, Plaza Sal­tillo, [and what eventually became] the Mex­ican American Cultural Center"; "increased wages and benefits for city workers"; "a worker-managed day labor center" ....

All of these accomplishments took place before Garcia became mayor, and after he had already blazed the trail on the Austin ISD board of trustees (as first Hispanic trustee and then chair), where he helped initiate Austin Community College, serving as well on ACC's first board. (For the record, Garcia is cited as the first "elected" Hispanic mayor because his Council predecessor, Mayor Pro Tem John Treviño Jr., served as acting mayor for three months following the resignation of Carole Keeton [then-McClellan].)

Asked about his longtime colleague and friend, Slusher first recalled Garcia's "great sense of humor ... that just made him fun to be around." The personality trait was also useful, Slusher said, in Garcia's approach to political conflict. "It helped him defuse tension and to get things done. He could be firm and gentle at the same time – eminently respectable, firm, and gentle." (Slusher also recounted a comical dispute with Garcia over the best tequila: Slusher said Herradura, Garcia held out for Patrón.)

Slusher credits Garcia with bridging the political gap that had grown between the city’s Eastside minority communities and West Austin environmentalists.

Slusher recalled Garcia's decisive Council vote to appeal a 1994 court ruling overturning the Save Our Springs Ordinance, eventually sustained at the Texas Supreme Court. "That vote on SOS just can't be overestimated. ... Without Gus, SOS would just have faded away." In that context, Slusher credits Garcia with bridging the political gap that had grown, between the city's Eastside minority communities and West Austin environmentalists, over economic devel­opment. "Gus was significant in putting that voting coalition back together," ensuring progress on both minority advancement and environmental protection.

Slusher said the two council members first became direct allies in a fight against a staff move to privatize city departments – Garcia, who had at first been wary of Slusher as a journalistic critic of City Hall, co-sponsored Slusher's resolution to require any privatization policy to come first before Council. "After that, we were allies," Slusher said. He added to the list of Garcia's accomplishments his outreach to the Asian-American community. "He worked hard to get Asian-Americans more involved in local politics, and he was beloved for doing that."

In writing the story of Garcia's life, from border town Zapata, to his marriage to Marina, to UT-Austin, to a professional career (as Austin's first Hispanic CPA), and then an "accidental" drift into politics, Slusher reported that Garcia's politics were grounded in his family. "Garcia says the family believed in the importance of good government and that it makes a town a 'better place.'... 'I'd rather be middle-class or lower-income in a city like this [Austin] than a millionaire in a dump. Bad government breeds contempt by the citizens.'"

Earlier this week ("RIP Gus Garcia, Austin's First Elected Hispanic Mayor," Dec. 17), retired state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos recalled with affection his longtime friend and ally. "For those of us who had come from that era," Barrientos said, "if you happened to be a Mexican-American, there were many obstacles to success. Gus dealt with all those obstacles, and came to a point of serving the entire community. Some leaders find it hard to make that transition, but Gus was a professional, and a leader for the whole community."

Among the many social media tributes to Garcia – from Mayor Steve Adler, Watson, state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, Rep. Lloyd Dog­gett, and many others – was a brief and eloquent tweet from attorney and activist Lulu Flores: "Rest in peace Gus Garcia ... Your legacy lives on. Gracias por todo."

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