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Kirk Watson's only challenge setting new record for getting mayoral votes

Thursday, May 4, 2000 by

When an election is not an election, it's a coronation

We're down to the wire for the 2000 City Council elections to be held Saturday, May 6. Absentee voting has ended with 9,337 ballots cast, says City Clerk Shirley Brown. That's 56 percent more than the 5,988 early votes cast in 1999. Whether that foreshadows an increase in voter turnout in this election is difficult to discern, as Brown notes that there were 70 percent more absentee voting places operated during this year's joint election, 29 this year vs. 17 in last year's council election. So whether we'll beat the lousy 8.36 percent turnout in the 1999 general election remains to be seen.

Normally the mayoral contest would be expected to create heightened voter interest to go out and cast a ballot for the supreme city leader. This year's mayoral "contest" isn't going to pump up the turnout one iota. Mayor Kirk Watson is standing on a strong record and facing three nobodies who have collected an underwhelming $190 between them. This hardly motivates people to go vote. While many will no doubt mark a ballot for bearded and miniskirted transvestite, Albert Leslie Cochran, as a way to poke fun at Watson, few people are going to rush to the poll to vote for Watson out of fear Cochran (or perennial candidate Jennifer Lauren Gale or cab driver Dale Adrian Reed) would actually get elected.

This is the year that Watson has a shot at breaking the all-time-high number of votes cast for a mayor of Austin, a record set by Roy Butler in 1973, when he netted 43,753 votes. (See In Fact Daily Jan. 27, 2000.) For the winning mayoral candidates it's been all downhill ever since–despite the fact that the number of registered voters has more than doubled since 1973. However, only 34,211 votes were cast in the 1999 council elections and turnout will have to climb considerably this year for Watson to top Butler. Even if Watson took 80 percent of the vote he would need for 55,000 ballots to be cast to pull 44,000 votes. (To date, no mayor has obtained as much as 79 percent of the vote. Carole McClellan pulled 78.88 percent in 1979.)

More realistic for Watson is that this time around he will actually win a term with a majority. Right now he holds the dubious distinction of being the only Austin mayor to serve without having won a majority. This due to Ronney Reynolds throwing in the towel after he placed well behind Watson in the general election of 1997, foregoing the runoff-election berth he had earned.

Alvarez battling Quintanilla, while all other Place 2 candidates also-rans

Both major contenders betting there will be a runoff to succeed Gus Garcia

Although there are six candidates on the ballot in Place 2 only two have a shot at victory. That's a simple mathematical fact governed by the money they've raised: Rafael Quintanilla's the money leader at nearly $56,000. He has undoubtedly run one the leanest campaigns in recent memory, demonstrating both the ability to generate adequate sums and to manage it with the skill to stretch its effectiveness: no consultant, no office, but lots and lots and lots of mail pieces.

Raul Alvarez finishes as the runner-up in the dollar derby with about $45,000. While he does carry the burden of the overhead for paid (however meagerly) campaign consultants, campaign manager and office rent, Alvarez has produced a credible volume of mail pieces and a blizzard of fliers delivered door-to-door that probably surpasses that of any other candidate this year.

Speaking of mail pieces, the latest ones from Quintanilla and Alvarez hit mailboxes the same day this week and both focused on traffic problems. "Traffic is really a hot issue out there–you don't need a poll for that. Just talk to people; that's what's griping them," Quintanilla says. Following up that point he says, "The difference is I'm willing to build roads, and Raul has not committed to that."

Alvarez counters that he has been working on traffic problems already, not talking about them, such as serving on the Mayor's Mobility Task Force and doing neighborhood transportation plans. "I've been in the trenches working on issues that everyone else is talking about. I would be able to hit the ground running on key issues the city is facing."

Quintanilla's coffers were fat enough for him to hire Montgomery & Associates to make thousands of phone calls needed to identify his likely supporters. Jeff Montgomery says these calls typically would identify the candidate for whom the calls are made, provide some information about the candidate's background and endorsements, and ask if the candidate can count on their support. The voter ID calls typically cost 75 cents to a buck apiece, Montgomery says, and usually the minimum up-front cost would be $5,000, though special deals sometimes are made to start with $2,500 to $3,000–but always paid in advance. Even at that price, Montgomery says he puts a disclaimer on voter ID calls. "They're not reflective of the voter pool on election day," he says. "As many as a third will say they're for a candidate and they're not–they're just being polite."

While Montgomery says his firm has done no polling on behalf of council candidates this year, on the basis of voter ID calls he concludes, "Voters don't seem to be all that interested. Nothing has caught their attention that candidates are yelling and screaming about." For candidates, there is even worse news: "People are not only not sure who's who, they're also not sure who's running against who," he says.

Whether Quintanilla uses Montgomery to make the E-Day calls to herd people to the polls, Quintanilla says, "depends on how much money comes in this week. I'd rather have Jeff's people do it. They're set up for it." Speaking of money, Quintanilla says, "We've raised about $1,000 a day during April and we're still doing well."

Montgomery says even calling voters on election day to motivate them to cast a ballot is often fruitless. "We find that voters have become more sophisticated. (They know) if they tell the campaigns they voted early, the campaigns quit calling back."

While Alvarez isn't even contemplating the luxury of hiring professionals like Montgomery to run phone banks, he says, "We've been doing volunteer phone banks. We'll be doing some paid on election day." He adds, "We'll identify key precincts and get folks in place to make those calls that need to be made. We have a whole bunch of folks who have signed up to walk precincts and do volunteer phone banks and hand out literature. We'll have a very strong presence over and above what others do."

The other four candidates in Place 2 are literally out of the running with campaign spending topping out at $4,000 and no organizations to speak of. A picayunish $1,000 spent on TV commercials don't win elections (sorry Gloria Mata Pennington). Web sites don't win elections (sorry Montgomery Lee "Monty" Markland). Whining at candidate forums about a perceived problem with low-flush toilets doesn't win elections (sorry David "Breadman" Blakely). Talking at forums about how you will solve the city's problems with experience gained in an U.S. Air Force career that ended in 1972 doesn't win elections either (sorry Raymond Blanchette).

Wynn-Barry contest classic match-up of money vs. grass-roots firepower

Other candidates will pull some votes but won't make the expected runoff

Mr. Moneybags in the Place 5 race is William Patrick Wynn, who has poured more of his own money into the race ($45,000) than he has raised ($36,000, round figures). More importantly, Wynn has the spending power of 70 percent of all money in this race, through the March 28 reporting date. The other four candidates together had put together less than $34,000.

Bicycle activist Amy Juliet Babich won't pedal far on $390. The other three candidates in the Place 5 race are closer together, moneywise, with Mary Clare Barry at $14,000, Linda Jean Curtis at $10,000, and Roger Paul "Chip" Howe at $9,000, round numbers. But the numbers are deceptive in that Barry has a quarter-century in this town and has been in the trenches of neighborhood activism for eons. As a result of her work with the Austin Neighborhoods Council and Texas Neighborhoods Together, she has friends all across town who trust her to protect neighborhoods by putting her body on the line, and who will get out and work to see a true neighborhood champion put on the City Council. This separates Barry from the herd by light years more than money would indicate. Curtis is a well-known hell-raiser but started too late and simply can't match the organizational savvy of the consultants behind Barry. Howe spent half his money getting advice from former Council Member Max Nofziger, which doesn't buy direct mail or campaign signs or fliers.

Wynn's concern–and one reason he's spending like a drunken sailor on shore leave, is Barry's also got the environmental endorsements that translate into pure gold volunteerism–diehards that have demonstrated election after election they will get off their butts and work for a candidate endorsed by environmental groups, and Barry's got them all: Austin Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, SOS Action, and Texas Environmental Democrats. Wynn's mail pieces try to counter by sprinkling "SOS" all over them via the personal endorsements of former Save Our Springs Alliance Chair Robin Rather and founder Brigid Shea. While these high-profile leaders lend credibility to Wynn, their support, while no doubt heartfelt, could also be read by skeptics as quid pro quo for Wynn having bestowed the Chair Emeritus Award on the SOS Alliance last year while chair of the Downtown Austin Alliance, rather than for any significant ongoing contribution Wynn has made to the environmental movement.

Wynn's mail pieces talk about what he wants Austin to be like in 20 years. While vision is certainly important, talking about the future doesn't demonstrate contributions equivalent to someone who has worked for 20 years at it already.

Despite Wynn's awesome firepower of personally pouring $45,000 into TV ads (which after a complaint was filed with a state agency had to be changed to stop saying he's an architect, because he isn't), Wynn doesn't expect total victory May 6. "With that crowded a field, it'll be highly unlikely for somebody to win it outright," Wynn says. "I'm projecting a runoff and I hope to be in it."

Barry couldn't be reached last night but her political consultant, Mike Blizzard of Blizzard Fawal & Associates, agrees with Wynn about the probable outcome of Saturday's election. "In an open race, even with Wynn's amount of spending there will be a runoff," Blizzard says. "I think Clare will trail Will by 10-12 points because of the spending differential."

Willie Lewis bugged by Danny Thomas and deep-pocket Thomas supporters

Both predicting victory without a runoff while Linder plays role of potential spoiler

Since Berl Handcox was elected as the first minority council member in 1971, only one minority council member who sought reelection has ever been knocked off the dais by a challenger. Willie Lewis accomplished that in 1997, besting incumbent Eric Mitchell. Now Lewis faces the tangible possibility of the defeat. Lewis' fund-raising is anemic at $26,000, round figures. That's barely half what the least well-funded of three incumbents who won reelection last year raised, and they had the same $100 contribution limits. So why can't Lewis attract the kind of support garnered by Jackie Goodman, Beverly Griffith and Daryl Slusher?

"I can't raise no money," Lewis tells In Fact Daily. "Everyone says, 'You don't have a problem, you'll win.' I'm saying, 'Look, I still have to run a campaign.' As quiet as this election's been, they figure it's not a big thing."

Well, maybe they did think that, but the $20,000 in television ads that were supposed to begin airing on every local station starting yesterday–courtesy of lottery winner Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson's independent expenditures–may tarnish the perception that Lewis' reelection is a given. Henderson already rang Lewis' bell by publishing a full-page ad in this week's Austin Chronicle (page 25) and a quarter-page ad in May 2 Austin American-Statesman (page A9). Henderson's print ads posture Henderson as an Save Our Springs supporter and then rips into Lewis' record of service to East Austin as "poor and divisive." This message, especially published in the Chronicle, must be read as an appeal for liberals and environmentalists to abandon the endorsements garnered by Lewis, and as an appeal to conscience to vote instead for Danny Thomas. "Danny Thomas will protect the environment, preserve the rights of all individuals no matter their preferences, serve our youth and represent East Austin with the soul and passion it deserves," the ad states. Lewis didn't even run an ad in this week's Chronicle.

Thomas also benefited from nearly $10,000 in campaign signs that seem to have popped up everywhere in the central city–courtesy of the Austin Police Political Action Committee (AP PAC). But these TV ads sponsored by Henderson are going to hurt like hell, and a flat-busted Willie Lewis–who is still carrying $17,000 in campaign debt from his first election–isn't going to be able to get on TV and tout his record. He's standing in the ring, Henderson's beating him up, and he's defenseless as far as mass media goes.

Thomas netted endorsements by the Circle C PAC, University Democrats, El Concilio, and of course AP PAC. And he hit a home run by winning the Statesman's endorsement, which directed harsh criticism to Lewis as well. Lewis got all the other endorsements, simply swamping Thomas with supporting groups. Thus, Lewis' hopes of salvation are pinned to the inveterate support of volunteers who will follow the endorsements and not pay attention to the badmouthing by Thomas Henderson.

Thomas is seeking deliverance from churches and not just African American churches. Former Hyde Park Baptist Church minister Ralph Smith helped Thomas (himself a minister) with entree into mega-churches like Great Hills Baptist with a congregation of thousands and Promiseland and Saint Stephens, where pastors noted candidate Danny Thomas during services, says Linda Dailey, campaign manager for Thomas. Kenneth Phillips, the Promiseland pastor for a congregation that Dailey estimates at 2,000 to 3,000, "talked to the congregation and told them to vote," Dailey says. "He told them he was going to vote for Danny."

Dailey says that hundreds of volunteers are being recruited to work the phones and stand at the polls for Thomas on election day, although organizing phone volunteers only began on Tuesday with procurement of the phone lists from Opinion Analysts. She says the goal is to use phone lists for households that have voted in the last two consecutive elections and to divvy the lists up with volunteers to ID Thomas supporters. The script will ask if people are tired of sitting in traffic and humbly ask for their votes for Danny Thomas in Place 6. Organizations supporting Lewis have had volunteer phone banks up for some time and they have the expertise of people who have worked the phones professionally and supervised phone banks professionally, such as Mike Blizzard, consultant for the Lewis campaign.

Both Thomas and Lewis are predicting victory Saturday without a runoff. The wild card is Nelson Elester Linder, who raised a couple of thousand dollars and contributed a few thousand more. He doesn't have a Thomas Henderson or AP PAC pumping money into the race, and thus isn't expected to draw many votes. Still, the odd man out could force a runoff by siphoning enough votes to deny either of the other candidates a majority. This is what happened in 1983 mayoral election when Max Nofziger forced a runoff between Ron Mullen and Lowell Lebermann in a three-man general election. Nofziger drew less than 12 percent of the vote and Mullen pulled up shy of a majority at 47.58 percent to Lebermann's 40.84 percent.

Dailey predicts her candidate will also emerge victorious Saturday. "I think Danny will win without a runoff," she says. "People will probably say I'm idealistic, but everybody tells me they voted for Danny."

Lewis says he sent out a mail piece yesterday and another will go out today, both carrying first-class postage to hit mailboxes right before the election. While he's claiming he'll garner 55-60 percent of the vote, Lewis says, "I'm tired." In the first campaign he wasn't in office and could campaign full-time. Not he's got to pay attention to city business and campaign, too. "Plus, I don't have the staff I had the first time," he says.

in jest?

Only time will tell

Here’s my best guess for the May 6 elections:

Mayor

Place 2

Place 5

Place 6

Cinco de Mayo…The City of Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico will present a sculptural bust to its Sister City of Austin today at 4 p.m. at Plaza Saltillo, 412 Comal St. The bronze bust of Don Vito Alessio Robles, one of Mexico's most famous educators and historians, will be unveiled by Mayor Kirk Watson and Saltillo Mayor Oscar Pimentel Gonzalez. The bust will remain permanently displayed in the plaza. Afterwards from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Mexic-Arte Museum at 419 Congress will feature seven renowned chefs from Saltillo. For more info call Cindy Garcia at 499-2264 or Patty Gonzales at 499-2395… Election night parties…Restaurants close to Palmer Auditorium will be hosting a bevy of city council candidates Saturday night. So mark your calendars, party hounds: Mayor Kirk Watson will be relaxing at Threadgill's World Headquarters, 301 Riverside Drive from 8 to 10 p.m. Place 2 candidate Rafael Quintanilla will be across the street at Jalisco Restaurant & Bar, 414 Barton Springs Road, starting at 7 p.m. His main opponent, Raul Alvarez, will be at the Filling Station, 801 Barton Springs Road beginning at 8 p.m. Place 5 candidate Will Wynn will hold forth at Vinny's, 1003 Barton Springs Road from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Linda Curtis, also running for Place 5, says she and her troops will be checking in at Palmer Auditorium around 7 p.m. to see early vote totals. Then they will go to their party at Mexico Tipico, 1707 E. 6th St. until about 10 p.m. Clare Barry could not be reached for comment. In Place 6, incumbent Council Member Willie Lewis plans to wind up at the Victory Grill at 1104 E. 11th St. His chief opponent, Danny Thomas, will party at the L.H. Walker Center, 1905 Gaston Place, starting around 10 p.m… Vote for Leslie?… Council Member Willie Lewis tells In Fact Daily, "People say they will vote for Leslie ( Albert Leslie Cochran for mayor) to build up his confidence, so he'll put on pants."

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