Remembering Bruce Todd and Sarah Weddington

The legacies of two Austin legends

Bruce Todd in 2018 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Two important figures in modern Austin history – one, also in American history – have gone on ahead this week. Bruce Todd, mayor of Austin from 1991 to 1997 and a Travis County commissioner both before and after, died Christmas Day of complications from Lewy Body disease, a form of dementia, aged 72. Sarah Weddington, the prevailing plaintiff's attorney in a case called Roe v. Wade and then an Austin state representative, a White House aide, a UT professor, and an anchor of the "Great Austin Matriarchy" and mentor to countless women in public life, died the following day, Dec. 26, after several years of declining health, aged 76.

Todd was born Dec. 17, 1949, in Breck­en­ridge, Texas, which is not too far from Abilene, where Sarah Weddington grew up, or from Paint Creek, where former Gov. Rick Perry grew up. This is the Last Picture Show generation of West Texans – not the characters in the story, which takes place right after they were born, but the same age as the characters when the book and movie came out – who experienced premodern rural poverty and small-town aspiration. They all got outta town as fast as they could.

In Todd's case, that meant arriving in Austin in 1968 with $500 in his pocket, which was supposed to cover his UT education. He worked his way through school, mostly as the supervisor and then the actual municipal court clerk of the city he later led. It wasn't as big of a job as it is now, but it was a hella big job for a 21-year-old. He then switched over to corporate work as a prominent accountant, as was his future colleague and then successor Gus Garcia. By the mid-1980s – that is, right as this newspaper was getting to cruising speed – he fit the profile of a local elected official, which is how you were basically anointed as one by white Travis County leaders, who were then as now largely center-left.

He was elected in 1986 to Precinct 2 on the Travis County Commissioners Court, covering the northwest quadrant of the county and not weighted as much by Central Austin as it became in the intervening years when Karen Sonleitner, Sarah Eckhardt, and now Brigid Shea held the post. It required more exurban county-side infrastructure like roads to support what is now an extensive suburban hinterland, some of which was built in natural areas that could have been better protected in the process. Commissioners had a lot of stroke to build physical infrastructure (they kinda still do), and Todd became known hereabouts as one of the "Road Warriors."

Yet everyone also knew that Todd was a wholly decent and caring man who had no ambitions beyond the town he loved, and a generally trustworthy, credible, and intelligent local official who was acceptable to much of his political left, as the contours of that binary began to map locally onto the ongoing land use and environmental battles of metro Austin's western edge. He was elected mayor (and Garcia to Council) in 1991, in the wake of the mother of those battles – over the Barton Creek golf course community – which spawned the Save Our Springs movement that in August 1992 resoundingly prevailed at the ballot box with its environmental protection ordinance. Shea, who led that campaign, was elected to the old at-large Council in 1993 alongside Jackie Goodman.

Sarah Weddington in 2011 (Photo by John Anderson)

Todd stood for reelection the following year (the old council terms were three years) having not wholly alienated the broad Austin center at a time when sides were definitely being chosen. That changed when this newspaper's political editor, Daryl Slusher, ran against him in an odd 1994 local cycle that featured a right-wing initiative to undo Council's tentative granting of domestic partner benefits to city employees, thus mixing up the local electorate. Slusher and Todd ended up in a run-off that Todd won by less than 2% of the vote. The string of city elections from SOS to the Todd/Slusher run-off saw higher turnout than any for the next 20 years, until the 10-1 reboot in 2014.

These were two of the Last Picture Show generation of West Texans, who experienced pre-modern rural poverty and small-town aspiration. They all got outta town as fast as they could.

Todd spent his second term as mayor on what became the losing side of that great divide, but because he remained a credible public servant, he well-handled some worthy and complex, though a bit less polarizing, items on Austin's to-do list, such as finally nailing down the site and logistics for building a new airport at the old Bergstrom Air Force Base. After handing the keys to Kirk Watson in 1997, Todd and his wife, Elizabeth Christian, whom he married in 1994, became powerful operatives in Austin's civic elite, with side-by-side public affairs and public relations firms.

As decent Austin-loving people, his career in office and her career as heir and successor to her also-elite parents (Dad was LBJ's press secretary; Mom was a major player in the civic arts scene), made them valuable guides for many as Austin transitioned into the different city it now is. A severe bicycle accident in 2005 slowed Todd down but did not stop him; by 2013, when Eckhardt needed to vacate Pct. 2 to run for county judge, Todd was appointed to complete her unexpired term, returning to private life in 2014 until his death.

Getting Into Good Trouble

Sarah Weddington got outta town even faster than Bruce Todd, finishing high school and college at Abilene's McMurry University before landing at UT Law at the tender (hah!) age of 19. Seven years later, she would argue her first case at trial. It was before the U.S. Supreme Court. She won.

The symmetry of both Roe v. Wade and Weddington's own life coming to an end at the same time is just a bit too much to really process right now, and her role as a figure in American history, and in the defense of human rights, will come into greater relief as we mourn. During the seven years leading up to the landmark Roe ruling to defend abortion as a right, Weddington had basically become a hippie, as so many in Austin did, but also became a lawyer, and then a law professor because the firms wouldn't hire her, and herself had an abortion, traveling to Mexico to do so. As her student, colleague, and friend Susan Hays, who first announced Weddington's passing, wrote on Twitter, the sexism of the law world gave her "lots of time for good trouble."

She was part of a team with Linda Coffee and others that built the bridge from the Bill of Rights to the reproductive rights of the women and others both pregnant and not. Her own starring role in the case may be magnified retrospectively by the amount of goodwill, good work, and good trouble she leveraged into being, and the number of people she helped, in the 50 years after Roe, mostly spent here in Austin. Even before the final Roe ruling, she was elected to the Texas House of Representatives from her new hometown and served with distinction for most of the 1970s before joining the Carter administration as a hotshot lawyer (in the U.S. Department of Agriculture) and then the White House political director.

She was a valuable enough player to stay in D.C. to represent the official interests of Texas during the early Reagan years, under Gov. Mark White; thereafter, she came home to UT Law, and also to Texas Woman's University in Denton, and became part of an era of local game-changing Democratic women, alongside Ann Richards and Molly Ivins and Liz Carpenter, who had been Lady Bird's press secretary when George Christian was LBJ's. "That Great Austin Matriarchy never failed to lead by example, serve by example, and always help a sister out," Hays wrote on Twitter. "May we all try to follow their example."

Services for Bruce Todd will be Thursday, Jan. 6, at 2pm at Covenant Presbyterian Church, 3003 Northland Dr. At press time, services for Sarah Weddington had yet to be announced.

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Bruce Todd, Sarah Weddington, Austin mayors, Travis County Comissioners Court, Roe v. Wade, Great Austin Matriarch, Texas House of Representatives, U.S. Supreme Court, abortion rights, Gus Garcia, Save Our Springs, Daryl Slusher, McMurry University, Texas Law, Linda Coffee, Susan Hays

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