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Watson, Wynn and Thomas win election while avoiding a runoff

Monday, May 8, 2000 by

Television, money, and continuing low voter turnout

In the 1967 hit movie, The Graduate, the tip for success for a young man fresh out of college was the word "plastics." For the 2000 City Council elections, the surefire winner was wrapped in the word "television." Those who had it– Mayor Kirk Watson, Place 5 candidate Will Wynn, and Place 6 challenger Danny Thomas–won big. Those who didn't got thumped. The only race that didn't use it resulted in a runoff.

In Place 2, the only council race devoid of television advertising, leading money raisers Rafael Quintanilla and Raul Alvarez fought their way out of a field of six candidates to win a berth in the runoff, placing well ahead of third-place finisher Gloria Mata Pennington, whose $1,000 spent on TV was a drop in the bucket compared with the $50,000 spent by Mayor Watson and $45,000 spent by Place 5 winner Wynn.

Place 6 winner Danny Thomas hardly had two nickels to rub together for his uphill battle to unseat incumbent Willie Lewis, raising $6,000 to Lewis $26,000, round figures. Thomas' television ads came courtesy of Texas lottery winner Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, who spent $23,400 on television to boost Thomas. Thomas also benefited from $9,800 in independent expenditures paid by the Austin Police Political Action Committee for campaign signs and direct mail pieces favoring Thomas.

Turnout remains depressingly low

With only 8.97 percent of 425,052 registered voters bothering to cast ballots, the turnout was nearly as bad as turnout for the 1999 council elections in which 8.36 percent made it to the polls. Election day was sunny and warm, and there were many competing attractions that most people apparently were a lot more important than trudging to the polls.

Mayor Watson broke the all-time record for gaining the highest percentage of votes in a mayoral election, netting 84.02 percent against a field of three nobodies that collectively raised a meager $190 between them. That bested the 78.88 percent pulled by Carole McClellan in 1979. But Watson because of the lousy turnout, Watson's 29,777 total votes fell woefully short of the 43,753 attracted by Roy Butler in 1973.

Watson said despite the fact his race was not hotly contested he participated in candidate forums, ran televised adds and even had phonebanks operating. "Because I was in a position where I raised some money, and I wanted to help turn out a vote," he said.

Nevertheless the impact of Watson's efforts were negligible. "I think it's (due to) a combination of a number of factors," Watson said. "One is having a mayoral race that had no significant opposition. Overall I think people are feeling good. People tell me they think we're on the right track. But I also think we need to have some campaign finance reform. I think we need to have reform that focuses on how do we get information to the people. I think when you have a system like we have right now where it's difficult to get information to all the people in Austin, I think that it depresses voter turnout. Frankly, I think single member districts would help us in that regard. It would make it easier to get information to the people."

Normally a low-turnout election favors candidates with a hard core of constituents who care more than the average Joe or Jane about council races. In the past, that's typically been candidates on the environmental slate. Place 5 candidate Clare Barry and Place 6 incumbent Council Member Willie Lewis, however, came up the environmental endorsements but fell short in results.

Setting aside the outcome of the Place 2 runoff, which will be held June 3, the election victories of Wynn and Thomas represent a swinging of the pendulum, and marks the first election since 1994 in which candidates with all the environmental endorsements did not win. Longtime political consultant David Butts said, "It's a blip on the radar. I don't think anyone believes they can go out and rape the land now. This was an anomaly. This city is strongly committed to environmental protection and council members need to follow that direction of they want to be around very long."

Grant Godfrey, staff attorney for the Save Our Springs Alliance, was careful to point out that his nonprofit organization does not make endorsements. (That's a job left to SOS Action, which has a different board of directors). "We want to work with whoever's in office because we think the community wants us to protect Barton Springs," Godfrey said, "and hopefully all the candidates understand that."

Political consultant Dean Rindy of Rindy/Miller/Bates said some of the erosion of support for environmental candidates was due to the way SOS Action handled endorsements. "The faction running SOS Action PAC committed the act of endorsing Willie (Lewis) without endorsing (Mayor) Kirk (Watson)," Rindy said. "They were going to teach the mayor a lesson and all they did was make themselves look weak, and they confused our voters on the environmental side."

Money a big factor

There's more to the council elections than environmental candidates losing. The quality of candidates factored heavily in the outcome, but above everything else money remains the mother's milk of politics. Due to the campaign-finance reforms approved by voters in November 1997, fund-raising was capped at $100 per contributor. The three incumbents who staved off challengers in 1999 had the same limitation, but none faced well-funded or personally wealthy opponents, none were hammered by independent expenditures supporting their opponents, and all raised respectable amounts ($85,000 for Beverly Griffith, $62,000 for Daryl Slusher, and $50,000 for Jackie Goodman, who would have no doubt raised more if she had a credible opponent). The $26,000 raised for this election by incumbent Willie Lewis pales in comparison.

Staunch neighborhood advocate Barry didn't declare her intention to succeed Bill Spelman in Place 5 till Feb. 16 and even then she was still working full-time and campaigning nights and weekends until about the time she made her formal announcement on March 16. While she attracted the campaign team that put Spelman in office, fund-raising falls primarily on the candidate and Barry raised only $14,000, or just 17 percent of the money Wynn had at his disposal. Wynn, who lives on a West Austin estate valued at more than $1 million, simply wrote a check for $45,000 for television ads to supplement the $36,000 in contributions he garnered after announcing his bid for the office on Feb. 14, the same day Spelman made public his intention to step down.

The contest to see who steps into the big shoes left by the departure of Council Member Gus Garcia pitted two fairly evenly matched candidates. Alvarez, 20 years younger than Quintanilla, age 53, overcame the $100 limitation mainly by starting his campaign far earlier than other candidates. In Fact Daily reported his trial balloon July 27, 1999. The early start had netted him $8,000 by the time the Jan. 15 contribution reports came in and $45,000 by the time the election was held. "I got started extremely early and that allowed me to put my campaign infrastructure in place," Alvarez said. "That allowed me to raise more funds and volunteers no other campaign was able to match."

Quintanilla's balloon went up with In Fact Daily Oct. 5, 1999, but he didn't make his bid official to start raising money till Jan. 10 (In Fact Daily Jan. 11). Quintanilla raised $56,000 at a fast clip, making him second only to Mayor Watson in total contributions.

Although Alvarez and Quintanilla will be trying to raise as much as they can for the June 3 runoff election, neither will be hurting. They will split $58,000 from the Austin Fair Campaign Finance Fund for having signed and complied with the campaign contract, assuming City Clerk Shirley Brown certifies they have indeed complied, based on their contribution and expenditure reports.

Alvarez and Quintanilla to face off in four-week campaign for Place 2 seat

Both camps strong and eager for voters' decision

Rafael Quintanilla and Raul Alvarez broke out of the pack of six candidates to earn the right to spar for four more weeks before voters decide who will sit in the Place 2 seat on the council dais. Quintanilla took 13,040 votes for 39.04 percent, while Alvarez picked up 10,946 votes for 32.77 percent. Gloria Mata Penningto n finished a distant third with an even 11 percent.

The other three candidates in the race–none Hispanic–trailed even further back. All were handicapped by age, or lack of it. Monty Markland at age 22 and conservative, pulled 2,344 votes for 7.01 percent. David "Breadman" Blakely, age 78, pulled 1,701 votes for 5.09 percent, while Raymond Blanchette, age 69, pulled up the rear with 1,694 votes for 5.07 percent. Both Blakely and Blanchette are long-retired U.S. Air Force majors.

Quintanilla raised more money than any candidate save Mayor Kirk Watson and he ran a tightwad campaign that allowed him to pour virtually everything into direct mail and professional telephone help. He sent four separate mail pieces during the campaign and employed Montgomery & Associates to identify probable supporters, then scraped up enough extra money to also use Montgomery to make election-day calls to remind people to vote. "We called a lot of people and asked them to vote for me, so we had a lot of connection to the voters," he said.

Alvarez was pleased with the results of his efforts, long before the final numbers were posted. "For awhile I thought we were going to overtake him," Alvarez said of Quintanilla. "We had a strong get-out-the-vote effort. We had 80 volunteers out there blockwalking and phone banking. That's why we're in the position we're in now. We focused on the central city in calling and walking, although our direct mail was broader than that."

Right at 10 p.m. both Alvarez and Quintanilla began working their way down the row of television cameras for each local news station at Palmer Auditorium, and the crowd noise was deafening as a small army of Alvarez supporters brandished campaign signs and shouted "Ra-ul, Ra-ul." Place 6 challenger Danny Thomas' supporters were no less vocal, interspersing their yells of "Dan-ny, Dan-ny" between the "Ra-uls," in a point-counterpoint. Though there were no fewer Quintanilla sign-wavers in jammed into the melee, they stood quietly. Quintanilla's wife, Diana Borja, stood a short distance behind the crowd looking bemused by it all. "What does this yelling have to do with the quality of services?" Borja told In Fact Daily. Nevertheless the Alvarez crowd kept the raucous chant going without a break throughout the television interviews that took about 15 minutes to complete.

The mostly older crowd supporting Quintanilla had cleared out of Jalisco Bar before midnight election night, but Alvarez supporters jammed the back room at the Filling Station way past 1 a.m. Alvarez' mother and aunt were from Rio Grande City, as was his sister from Houston. Wave after wave of laughter rocked the room as volunteers whooped it up. It is those volunteers that Alvarez is counting on to carry him to victory on June 3. "Because we're in the only runoff we'll be able to draw on a pool of volunteers and that will make it easier to get our message out," he said.

Wynn declares more green space to be his top city council priority

Wynn overcomes bad press in waning days of the campaign

Will Wynn and a fat bankroll beat back four other candidates to snare the Place 5 seat on the City Council. Despite negative publicity in the last week of the campaign over complaints that he is not an architect, as he claimed in campaign literature and in his TV ads ( In Fact Daily May 3), Wynn took 16,914 votes for 50.53 percent, just squeaking out the majority needed to avoid a runoff. At 8,454 votes and 25.25 percent Clare Barry was too far back to make the cut. Linda Curtis netted 4,402 votes for 13.15 percent, Amy Babich got 1,873 votes for 5.59 percent and Chip Howe received 1,829 votes for 5.46 percent.

In Fact Daily interviewed Wynn just moments before he got the final vote tally, which declared him winner of Place 5. Wynn said protecting the environment was the best way to ensure Austin's economic future. Wynn said, "We're going to have to be real creative, real aggressive and real collaborative about addressing our traffic and housing affordability while we protect this environment we so dearly love."

Wynn said, "I think we need to dramatically expand our green space in the Barton Creek watershed and the nearby Hill Country. We can do that both publicly and privately and I think the private sector conservation buyers should step up to the plate–like we did with the Nature Conservancy of Texas in the Davis Mountains–and dramatically expand our green space…I'd love to lead this council in the concept of private conservation buys."

Conventional wisdom said businessman Wynn and neighborhood activist Barry would split the majority of the vote Saturday and then head into a runoff for the Place 5 City Council seat. That seemed to be the case when early voting totals showed Wynn at just under 44 percent of the vote and Barry at 24 percent, with Linda Curtis pulling down nearly 17 percent.

The next report, with 10 percent of the vote counted, gave both Barry and Wynn a slightly higher percentage and Curtis, who mostly campaigned against Mayor Kirk Watson, less than 16 percent. Howe and Babich together only managed to muster about 13 percent of the vote.

For campaign consultant David Butts, who helped steer Wynn to victory without a runoff, it was a nerve-racking evening. In the past, the city has posted each precinct's individual vote totals. Those who have studied election history know the way various precincts vote. Some local consultants have sophisticated computer programs that predict the outcome of elections based on a few sample precincts–just as the national networks do. Butts carries at least some of that information around in his head.

Saturday night Butts was trying to coax information from a city-provided computer at Palmer Auditorium, so he could figure out which precincts had been counted and which were still out. When Butts saw that votes from conservative precinct 256 had not yet been counted, he said there was a good chance Wynn would take the election outright. But with only 49 percent of the vote counted, Butts couldn't be sure. At that point, Wynn had about 47.5 percent to Barry's 26.5 percent.

Barry was nonetheless keeping a stiff upper lip. Shortly before 11 a.m. she told In Fact Daily, "it's not over till it's over. If I do make it into a runoff, I'm comfortable because the other candidates will throw their support to me." At least one other candidate in Place 5, was ready to do that. Babich told In Fact Daily she would support Barry in a runoff.

The tide suddenly turned when Wynn reached 49.3 percent. Butts said his candidate needed only about 200 more votes to cross the finish line with more than 50 percent of the vote. A few minutes after 11 p.m., final results showed Wynn at 50.53 percent.

Barry left the auditorium looking shell-shocked, with tears welling in her eyes, and declined to comment. As they walked out her consultant, Mike Blizzard bitterly complained, "Money can buy you votes." Barry could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Police officer Danny Thomas smacks incumbent Willie Lewis with hard defeat

Lewis says voters gave him an unsatisfactory report card

Incumbent Council Member Willie Lewis didn't just get beaten, he got royally trounced, losing by an amazing 20 percentage points to become only the second minority incumbent seeking reelection to lose. Lewis himself beat Eric Mitchell in 1997 to give Mitchell the dubious distinction of being the first so rudely unseated, but even then the abrasive Mitchell went down on a margin of less than 10 percent (54.37 percent for Lewis, 45.62 percent for Mitchell). Danny Thomas garnered 18,968 votes for 56.18 percent. Lewis got 12,309 votes for 36.46 percent. The third man in the Place 6 race, Nelson Linder, pulled a meager 2,481 votes for 7.34 percent.

When Thomas entered Palmer at 8:15 p.m. with a small contingent of sign-carrying supporters, his campaign manager, Linda Dailey, was wearing a million-dollar smile. "As a Christian woman, the way things have moved in this election is putting a big smile on my face," she said.

Thomas himself attributed the victory to hard work. "The people want a change," he said. "I want to contribute to the hardworking people of Austin." His wife, Janis Thomas, noting the big lead, said, "Bless the Lord." Thomas was confident all evening, and his supporters were positively electrified from the moment they saw the absentee vote had given Thomas 49.63 percent to Lewis' 40.78 percent.

The Thomas campaign supporters grew more ecstatic as the evening wore on. At 9:35 p.m., the results scrolled on the TV monitor showed that with 49 percent of the precincts reporting Thomas' lead had grown to 53 percent. When Deborah Anderson saw this she danced a jig and hopped up and down with a fervor that would have put high-school cheerleaders to shame.

Campaign consultant Dean Rindy of Rindy/Miller/Bates said, "I was surprised by Danny Thomas. It was a low-turnout election and he didn't run much of a campaign. I attribute it to Willie pissing people off." Campaign consultant David Butts, who was not involved in the Place 6 contest, said "Voters don't know anything about Danny Thomas. This is a referendum on Willie. Willie Lewis was elected in 1997 because he was not Eric Mitchell. That's a weak position, being an alternative to someone else."

Lewis was blunt in his own assessment of the outcome. "The voters spoke," he said. "They spoke three years ago and they spoke again tonight. The voters have a right to speak their piece and my report card came back unsatisfactory."

Richard Fawal of Blizzard Fawal & Associates, campaign consultants for Lewis, said of his candidate, "He was a little too secure in his position, and maybe didn't go out and fight too hard for votes. As a council member he probably thought people understood what he had done, but he should have put more effort into explaining to people what he had done."

Detective Mike Sheffield, president of the Austin Police Association, referring to the pro-Thomas television ads, said, "I don't think ( Thomas) "Hollywood" ( Henderson) turned the election. I think Willie's mouth got him. Saying, 'I'm going to fire the city manager?' What kind of a campaign is that?"

Charges and countercharges fly as Camp trounces Gray for aquifer board seat

Craig Smith hopes to be elected board president

Conservationist Jim Camp easily defeated Ben Gray in Saturday's election for the Hays County seat on the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District's board. Camp was ahead by only a five-vote margin in early voting, but overwhelmed Gray at boxes in Hays Hills, Hays High School, Dahlstrom Middle School and the Buda City Hall on election day, taking 62 percent of the vote overall.

Camp, who works for a company that publishes college textbooks, is co-founder of the Hays County Water Planning Partnership. Gray is owner of a company that offers repair and maintenance service for rural water and wastewater systems.

Precinct 5 Director Craig Smith is currently vice president of the board. He said Sunday he hopes to be elected president on Thursday, the date of the next monthly meeting. Smith declared, "I'm very happy about Jim Camp's election. I think Jim will be a fine board member." Camp's election, Smith said, demonstrates "that there really is a broad consensus, including people in Travis and Hays County, that the aquifer must be protected to continue to serve as a drinking water supply." The recent drilling application of T.J. Higginbotham to pump 50 million gallons a year has highlighted some of the hard issues that the board needs to face in allocating a scarce resource, he said.

Buda was expected to be Gray's stronghold because he lives there and his brother, Billy Gray, serves on the Buda City Council. Hays County Judge Jim Powers, State Representative Rick Green, and the mayors of Buda, Kyle and Creedmoor endorsed Gray.

Gray sent out campaign literature telling voters that Camp had broken a campaign pledge not to take money from developers because Hays County rancher Ira Yates gave Camp $2,000.

On Saturday, Yates stood near the Buda polling place with a large sign, which read in part: "Vote for Jim Camp. Ben Gray has lied and continues to lie." Yates said he is not a developer, although he was once a partner in a real estate investment company with Circle C Ranch developer Gary Bradley. Gray's campaign literature accused Yates of developing his own ranch, Oconomowoc. Yates said he sold Oconomowoc East to an another rancher, who then sold the land to the City of Austin for conservation. Oconomowoc West is still Yates' property and he has sold the city a conservation easement for it, he said. Yates said he and Gray talked on Saturday and Gray promised to set the record straight if the developer label turned out to be inaccurate.

Gray tells In Fact Daily that he told Yates he "would make it right. He and I are going to sit down and get it resolved."

Asked why he lost, Gray said, "It doesn't make any difference what I think. Mr. Camp prevailed. He outmaneuvered me. He out-campaigned me and he beat me, and I have no hard feelings. That's just the way it is."

Camp said Gray's supporters, particularly Judge Powers and Phil Savoy of Murfee Engineering and Take Back Texas, "were desperate to win this election because they wanted to keep their developer majority on the board, which favored a more rapid growth, high-density development agenda." Camp said he thought Gray's attacks backfired. "I think they (Gray's supporters) didn't realize that people in northern Hays County really do pay attention to the issues on a local level, in their back yard. And they knew about almost 20 years of involvement on my part in water and planning issues. They knew that I was not supported by developers. They knew I didn't just care about the Barton Springs Salamander, but also about our drinking water and quality of life. I'm sympathetic to people in Dripping Springs that need water," Camp said. "But I want meaningful environmental review and strategies in place to protect the aquifer from development," before a water pipeline proposed by the Lower Colorado River Authority is built. Camp will be sworn in on Thursday at 9 a.m.

Dress for success… Mayor Kirk Watson wore his red plaid shirt Saturday. It's the shirt he wore in his first campaign commercial when he was first elected three years ago, he said. People responded so well to the shirt that the commercial became known as "plaid shirt," he said. The mayor said he thought of buying a feather boa for his election night appearance at Palmer Auditorium, but his wife nixed the idea… Good-bye Jenny…The journalist who for two years has written the Council Watch coverage for the Austin Chronicle put in her last night of work Saturday at election central. Jenny Staff Johnson is moving to Houston. Chronicle Politics Editor Amy Smith says Council Watch, which has long had its own page, will be folded into the Naked City section of the newspaper, with bigger stories on the council running every couple of weeks. Kevin Fullerton will be handling the chores for now, Smith says… I need help…An unidentified woman spotted at Palmer Auditorium on election night wore a tee-shirt that spoke for many, no doubt. It was emblazoned with the message, "Stop me before I volunteer again."… Babies for Alvarez… Smiling supporters of Place 2 candidate Raul Alvarez, David and Blanca Gonzalez, handed Alvarez their baby daughter, Alexandria Marie Gonzalez, and snapped a picture while Alvarez performed the traditional politician's duty of kissing the baby. "The baby did not cry," Blanca Gonzalez noted with pride… Rindy tells all…While he wasn't involved in the Place 2 campaign, political consultant Dean Rindy of Rindy/Miller/Bates was nonetheless impressed by the strong campaign of the younger surviving candidate. "Alvarez did well and I predict he will win the runoff," Rindy said… Second opinion…In the runoff for Place 2, Detective Mike Sheffield, president of the Austin Police Association, said, "There are two good candidates there, but we believe that Rafael Quintanilla has more experience and is the better candidate." He said the Austin Police Political Action Committee would continue to assist Quintanilla in the next month… Who's a radical?…Place 5 candidate Amy Babich placed a distant fourth in the five-candidate field, barely edging out Chip Howe who finished last. While waiting for the results to come in she said, "It's weird to be considered a radical because you're asking for sidewalks, and for cars not to park in bicycle lanes."… Labels no longer needed?… Though he was not involved in the council races this year, Sandy Dochen, corporate community relations program manager for IBM Austin, had an observation. "What's good about this council election is Austin's maturity," Dochen said. "It's not us. vs. them or business vs. the environment. You can be a developer and not be a scoundrel, and be an environmentalist and not be a weirdo."… Happy cops… Detective Mike Sheffield, president of the Austin Police Association (APA), was smiling broadly Saturday night. The work and money of the Austin Police Political Action Committee paid off. With three the PAC's four endorsed candidates winning outright– Mayor Kirk Watson, Will Wynn, and Danny Thomas–and a fourth leading into the runoff, Sheffield had every reason to smile. Sheffield said, "We worked harder, but I don't know that we put more money into (the races)," than in the past… Neighborhood news… Will Bozeman, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, was hoping that Clare Barry's win in Place 5 would be a springboard for further neighborhood organizing, but didn't take her defeat as a total loss. "Almost every council candidate came out pro-neighborhood," he said. "That's a good sign. We have a council sensitive to the needs of neighborhoods. And we have a mayor with the talent to pull a lot of disparate folks together."

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