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Rafael Quintanilla out to represent Hispanics on Austin's City Council

Thursday, February 17, 2000 by

He brings 35 years in Austin and loads of community service

Rafael Quintanilla wants to convince voters he's the best candidate to succeed Gus Garcia on the City Council and be the de facto Hispanic representative. Quintanilla's been slow and methodical about how he approaches the campaign. Supporters were urging him to crank up his candidacy as early as last summer, but he deliberately held off making a decision till after the year-end holidays. By early January, Manuel Zuniga–who lost council races in 1996 and 1997–was fed up with waiting, figured Quintanilla wouldn't run, and decided he would try again. Quintanilla then jerked the rug out from under Zuniga by making known his decision on Jan. 10 and Zuniga, keeping his promise not to oppose Quintanilla, backed out. Real estate agent John Hernandez is Quintanilla's campaign treasurer and friend. He says he had to do a lot of explaining when Quintanilla delayed his announcement so long. "I kept encouraging him and he said, 'It's too early.' People kept saying, 'Why won't he announce?' and I'd tell them he's not ready."

Now that Quintanilla is off and running, he's being just as deliberate in holding off hiring a campaign manager and consultant. He has agreed to live within the $75,000 limitation under Austin's Fair Campaign Ordinance and wants to conserve funds till the right moment. This strategy is a legacy of the 1994 campaign when he ran unsuccessfully for president of the board of trustees of Austin Independent School District. He says he raised and spent $30,000 for that race. "I learned one can quickly spend their money on campaign managers and consultants, and I'm being very careful this time not to spend my money early," he says. He doesn't plan to spend much money on TV ads. "I think we could. The question is should we? Given the real low voter turnout we've been having, most of the money will go to direct-targeted mailouts, phone banking and, if there's money left over, television." He is indeed raising money. Quintanilla held a kickoff announcement and fund-raiser Feb. 8, drawing a claimed crowd of more than 150 people, including State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos and former Mayor Pro Tem John Treviño ( In Fact Daily Feb. 10). His finance chairman is Glenn West, former president of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Quintanilla's been a lawyer since graduating from the University of Texas' Law School in 1973, but like opponent Raul Alvarez (profiled by In Fact Daily Jan. 11) Quintanilla grew from modest roots. He was born in El Campo in 1946. His family moved to Victoria when he was about two, and he was raised there. He has sisters born in 1941 and 1948. Quintanilla's father was a laborer in construction, his mother stayed home and took in sewing, and they picked cotton in the summer to earn money for school supplies and clothes. "We lived with an uncle, one of my mother's brothers, till I was about 12 and my parents bought their own home," he says. He wanted to be an Aggie engineer but a government class as a high-school sophomore turned him in another direction. John Kennedy was president and Quintanilla was impressed by the Peace Corps, the New Frontier and the idea of putting a man on the moon. "I fell in love with the idea government could be a positive factor in people's lives," he says. "Up to then it hadn't mattered." He graduated second in a class of some 350 seniors at Victoria High School and headed for the state capital. Dirt-cheap tuition and books, a WW II barracks room shared with three others, and five dollars a week from his parents got him an undergraduate degree in government and economics from UT in 1967, he says. He was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving from September 1969 through April 1972. Though a college graduate, he shunned a commission to serve as an enlisted man. "I wasn't interested in being an officer. I just wanted to serve my time and leave," he says. He was a company clerk and his tour in Viet Nam was at Cam Ranh Bay, a nice safe place near Saigon.

In a lengthy interview Tuesday, Quintanilla did his best to dispel the idea that his race against Raul Alvarez is going to be another battle of business people vs. environmentalists, as In Fact Daily had characterized it Feb. 10. In reality, he says, "I know people want to put every candidate in this box. This community has gotten very good at that, and I don't fit." His history would in part indicate he could be the tool of business interests, for as a sole-practitioner lawyer he has lobbied the City of Austin for big companies, such as Time Warner's cable franchise, for AMD's attempt at a housing credit deal, and for tax abatements to keep Dell Computer Corp. from moving its operations to Round Rock (which it did anyway). He's vice president of Ocañas Printing (formerly WinTex International), the company that prints the on-line lottery tickets. He represents clients at state agencies on regulatory matters such as teacher licensing and certification. Yet he also has a long history of community involvement that shows he cares for those less fortunate. He reels off a long list of community organizations that he's served in, including the Greater Austin Chamber since 1980 (vice president for economic development in 1994), active in the League of United Latin American Citizens, president of the Austin Area Urban League, president of Child and Family Services (now LifeWorks), and until recently Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas. He's served on an immunization and wellness task force and he's been a mentor. He served on the city's Planning Commission from August 1981 to December 1985, including a brief stint as chair toward the end. He chaired the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce from 1991 to 1993. He currently serves on the board of Austin Community College. "I'm really a candidate who's been involved with a lot of organizations and activities to try to give people a better life," he says. "If I win this election it will be because of my community service record more than anything else."

Part of that community service was serving on the Austin Moves Together political action committee (PAC) that helped win passage of all 12 bond propositions, totaling $712.3 million, in the November 1998 election. Attorney Robin Cravey helped organize the PAC and Quintanilla co-chaired the publicity committee ( In Fact No. 159, September 1998). They raised more than $32,000 for the campaign. An even bigger force in that election was the backers of retrofitting Palmer Auditorium, who formed Renovating Auditorium Shores and raised more than $130,000. "He was very much a team player," Cravey says of Quintanilla's efforts for the bonds. "I think the role he played was really valuable. He's a really easy guy to get along with."

Being aware of the environmental camp's decisive victories in City Council and mayoral races in 1996, 1997, and 1999, Quintanilla has recanted his opposition to the Save Our Springs Ordinance that voters approved by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent in 1992. "Even though I did not support SOS I will endorse it," he says now. "That's the will of the people. I'm not the enemy of SOS." He also says that he voted for $65 million in bonds in May 1998 to preserve land for protection of water quality. "I think that it's an opportunity to protect the environment while protecting land owner rights," he says. SOS Alliance Chair Robin Rather says, "I have great respect for Rafael and I certainly approve of his change of heart. I don't hold it against him that he wasn't with us from the git-go, but I'm certainly more comfortable with Raul and I'm supporting Raul. I wish they weren't running against each other because both could serve the community well, but in my mind Raul is unquestionably the better environmental candidate."

At root, what environmentalists want is not a neutral force but a champion, someone who will be strong when tough decisions have to be made. That may not be Quintanilla. Asked to name three gut issues that he will work on as a council member, Quintanilla mentioned accessible health care, traffic, and protecting the integrity of our neighborhoods. "I want to make sure our public health clinics have accessible hours during which people can go, and that they provide a broad array of services," he says. "I want to see State Highway 130 built along the eastern route. I want to build additional streets as long as they're in the preferred development zone," he says. "There is a significant fear among neighborhood leaders that Smart Growth as envisioned so far might mean some huge impacts on neighborhoods. They think they're going to see huge projects dumped on them, particularly along the thoroughfares, and they will be disproportionately impacted."

Venola Schmidt of the Gray Panthers is a steering committee member of the Austin Travis County Citizens Health Care Network, an umbrella group of some 40 organizations. "Rafael has been very interested in indigent health care," she says. "Rafael for years has attended these meetings and supported these issues. He's lobbied the City Council for improved budgets. He's attended public hearings. He's done all the things that are tedious and not popular to do." Quintanilla is just the person to put health care at the top of a City Council agenda that has supported health care but not put it on the front burner, Schmidt says. As to Quintanilla's personal traits, Schmidt says, "He is not arrogant in any way. He returns phone calls and he's a good listener."

Hernandez, Quintanilla's campaign treasurer, met the candidate through the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce when Quintanilla was chair. "He is someone I like to model myself after," Hernandez says. "He's a consensus builder. He finds out everyone's concerns and works with them. He's able to analyze the issues and get people to agree."

Hector Villegas, a certified public accountant, formerly operated the Austin Minority Business Development Center and says he still helps minority firms. He strongly supports Quintanilla. "It's extremely important for Hispanics to have a candidate who understands the issues…He's the person we would like to have follow Gus Garcia. We're meeting almost daily to find ways for him to win."

What's are Quintanilla's weaknesses? "I have a strong desire to get to it, to get to where we're actually doing something instead of continually planning to do something and at some point I lose interest and say, no more planning, let's make a decision and move on," Quintanilla says. Villegas says of Quintanilla, "If he has a weakness, it's probably that he's not aggressive…That doesn't mean he's not pursuing that issue, but he does it without a lot of emotion. Sometimes emotion plays a part in moving things forward." Villegas adds that, "In a campaign, you've got to get yourself heard, you've got to get your message across." Quintanilla, who earns part of his livelihood as a hearings examiner for the Texas Education Agency, puts it this way: "I've got a judicial temperament."

The 53-year-old Quintanilla came to Austin as a college student 35 years ago–longer than Raul Alvarez has been alive–and has seen the city grow from a sleepy college-state town to a metropolis. "My focus will be trying to plan and manage our growth better, trying to preserve our neighborhoods, while at the same time trying to deal with issues of traffic, air pollution and the fact that we have a lot of people in this community who are not reaping the benefits of this economic boom."

Does Quintanilla and the Brown Machine of politicos and business owners and professionals and community organizations stand a real chance of beating the Green Machine that is lining up behind opponent Alvarez? Villegas bristles at the fact that it's necessary. "I'm a little offended environmentalists would take in on themselves to name a Hispanic candidate for us." Quintanilla says, "The Hispanic community is just like any other community. We're not one community and no one can say, 'This is the way we will go.' There are lots of constituencies, but there still should be more collaboration between the environmental and Hispanic communities. I would like to be the voice to bridge that gap. Gus Garcia has tried, but we're not there yet."

Some astute political observers say that a candidate who reflects the prevailing community sentiment can win without the machinery that has dominated council elections. They think maybe Austin is ready for candidates who will connect to the elusive thing that Austin is becoming, rather than relying on the alliances of the past. Whether that's dreamy idealism or becomes hard political reality will be known after an aggressive campaign is waged to succeed Garcia and the votes are counted May 6.

Where does Quintanilla stand on the key political issues?

The new candidate states his positions

Whether Rafael Quintanilla can get elected rests on the backing he drums up and the message he gets to the people who bother to vote. Where he stands on key issues will play a central role. The following is a list of issues and his positions, which were edited for brevity:

Self introduction: "I'm very collaborative. I'm a very good listener, I've been told. I try to build win-win situations."

His vision: "I am very concerned that we not lose what we have left of the so-called Austin quality of life." He wants to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots. "This is mainly about education. That's why I believe the city has to forge even stronger ties with Austin Independent School District to…help strengthen schools." When AISD is designated a wealthy school district and has to return money to the state, "that will have a huge impact in our schools situated in poor neighborhoods…In neighborhoods already suffering from lack of parental involvement that concerns me and I hope we all try to help."

Key issues: Accessible health care, traffic, and protecting the integrity of our neighborhoods.

Strengths: "My ability to build collaborative relationships, my legal background, and my background as a hearings officer."

Weaknesses: "I'm impatient at times."

Obstacles to election: "I need to raise funds. I have some name recognition but I think it's fairly low in terms of the number of people who vote in a city election."

Campaign finance: Quintanilla says he voted against the November 1997 measure put on the ballot by the petition of Austinites for a Little Less Corruption, which brought about $100 limits on campaign contributions and other restrictions. But he says he plans to abide by those restrictions. "Even though I think they're illegal I don't think I want to divert my attention to a legal battle from my main effort, to get elected."

Fair Campaign Contract: He says he has agreed to it, limiting his total fund-raising (before a runoff) to $75,000.

Fund-raising goal: "I hope to raise the limit, $75,000."

Women's right to choose: He says that as a council member he would vote to provide continued funding for women's reproductive health services.

Political preference: "I'm a Democrat. Not this (kind of) Democrat or that (kind of) Democrat. I'm just a Democrat."

Voter history: He says he first registered to vote in 1967 or 1968. He was on the Austin Moves Together committee that helped pass all 12 bond propositions in November 1998, totaling $712.3 million.

$75 million bond proposal: Mayor Kirk Watson wants this on the ballot with light rail, with $65 million for roads and the rest for sidewalks, bike lanes and similar improvements. Quintanilla says he supports this proposition.

Holly Power Plant: Should the council have kept its promise to shut down two units in December 1998? "I think the council should have followed through with the initial resolution…which was to build or purchase substitute power for Holly. Once they failed to do that, they left themselves in the position to have no choice but to leave Holly open."

Mueller Airport redevelopment: "I think it has to be a mixed-use development because it's next to the freeway but it does back up to some very nice neighborhoods…I would want to provide employment opportunities, educational opportunities, workforce training facilities and multifamily and single-family housing."

Preventing nonattainment: "I'm being realistic when I say we may already have lost the ability to stay nonattainment. But among the things we need to do are build roadways that will move traffic faster. Too many cars are sitting in traffic polluting the air. That is our big problem with air quality. I think we need to get alternative fuels in here…We need to get more people using Capital Metro and commuting with other individuals to cut down the number of cars."

Light rail: "I support light rail but don't know exactly what's in their plan. I want to know more about the impact on neighborhoods."

Not a full-time council member: "No, I will need to maintain some limited law practice on the side."

LCRA water line to Dripping Springs: "I don't think it's a good idea. I'd have to know a lot more to justify it. I just think the LCRA should be directing its resources along the route of the river and communities on that route."

Single-member districts: I do support single-member districts (SMDs). I'm not sure I support this particular plan (to have 10 council members elected from geographically drawn districts in which they live). I support SMDs because I like very part of the city having someone they feel more closely related to, who understands their part of town, and I think it would decrease the cost of running for office significantly."

Sunshine Project for Police Accountability: "I certainly support the part of the reforms to (limit) executive sessions. I'm not for releasing disciplinary records. I'd have to know a little bit more about that."

Civilian oversight of police: I support that plan they're coming up with. It seems to have broad support and I think it would help the public gain additional confidence in their police department."

Capital Metro: "I'd hate to change it right away but I really have a hard time understanding how council members and (county) commissioners who already have tremendously busy schedules (have time) to do a really adequate job on the Capital Metro board."

Serve on Capital Metro board: "I would not ask to serve on it. As a new council member I would want to spend as much time as possible on City Council business."

Neighborhood planning: "I think the concern is how do we actually incorporate these plans into the Land Development Code (LDC). I think the plans need to be incorporated into the LDC to give them the force of law and credibility."

Smart Growth incentives: "I'm in favor because I really believe that it's important. In the case of Computer Sciences Corp. it was important to get them to come downtown instead of MoPac and 360. This is a much better fit. They don't hurt the environment and I like the idea of really trying to stimulate a lively downtown where people work, where people live. Really great cities have great downtowns."

Gotham condo project: "I probably would have voted no. There just seemed to be an overwhelming resistance from neighborhood and (downtown) design people and when that happens there's something wrong and it needs to be sent back."

Changes to SOS Ordinance: "Absolutely none. Did you hear me? Absolutely none," he repeats, pointing both index fingers at In Fact Daily.

Favor mitigation: "No…If you're going to apply (the SOS Ordinance) you need to apply it consistently."

Longhorn pipeline: "The EPA ( Environmental Protection Agency) should take the most restrictive option in order to give time for Longhorn Pipeline to reflect and find some other way to get their product to El Paso."

East Austin: "My concern about East Austin is if we don't come up with a way to limit valuation and rising taxes it's going to be increasingly difficult for families of modest means to maintain a home in East Austin. The solution is to come up with a tax moratorium to keep taxes from rising even higher. I'm not sure how to do that but I would want to work on it."

Resign from board of Austin Community College: He will resign if elected to the City Council, as he must.

Closing statement: "We've covered it. We've exhausted it."

Heavenly power promoted…A celebration 1-4 p.m. today will mark the kickoff of Rebuild Austin, as the East Austin Economic Development Corp. and Ebenezer Baptist Church become the 250th Rebuild America partnership. Austin Energy will provide a 6 kilowatt, solar photovoltaic system for the roof of Ebenezer's Child Development Center. Volunteers from the Texas Solar Energy Society, with help from Meridian Energy and Janet Electric, are installing the system, which provides enough energy to power a single-family residence. In return, the church has agreed to promote Austin's GreenChoice program ( In Fact Daily Jan. 13) to the East Austin community. "Many places of worship believe there is a spiritual aspect to harnessing energy from the forces of nature and preserving finite resources for posterity," Mayor Kirk Watson said in a prepared statement. "This partnership helps us spread the good word about renewable energy." The daycare center's system will be Austin Energy's 28th solar installation… Everybody in the pool…A fund-raiser is being held Saturday, Feb. 19, 1-5 p.m. at Barton Springs Pool, with all proceeds going to the Barton Springs Pool Maintenance Fund. Billed as a Tibetian-Chinese New Year of the Dragon Celebration, suggested donations are $5 to $20. Introductory remarks by former land commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Garry Mauro will be followed by "an afternoon of entertainment, education, fun and friendship in honor of the first full moon of the Tibetian-Chinese Year of the Dragon. The focus of the event is the link between the health of the Austin ecosystem, its water resources, and its relationship to our own physical, spiritual and emotional well-being. Participants are asked to bring refreshments or a dish to share… Be a lawyer…No, not really. But you can learn about legal proceedings at the 6th Annual People's Law School, Saturday, Feb. 26, 8:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. at UT School of Law, 727 E. Dean Keeton St. It's free. After orientation at 8:30 a.m. you can attend a variety of classes at 9, 10:30 and noon. Register via e-mail to or fax to 473-2720. Sponsored by the Travis County Bar Association, UT School of Law, Ikon Legal Document Services and Austin American-Statesman.

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