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Impressive percentages in his boxes overwhelm Clarke's forces

Monday, June 9, 2003 by

Brewster McCracken overwhelmed opponent Margot Clarke to win the Place 5 runoff election through superior organization and overwhelming financial resources. His victory was the result of heavy turnout in conservative boxes in West and Northwest Austin coupled with low turnout in most other areas of the city. While Travis Heights saw less than 15 percent voter turnout, the Highland Park Baptist Church saw nearly 31 percent. McCracken finished with 64 percent of the vote. Citywide turnout was below 10 percent.

In winning, McCracken strengthened the hand of associations representing police, firefighters and EMS employees. All three employee groups were involved in putting out 57,000 pieces of slick mail advertisements touting McCracken as the best choice for public safety in a race that featured two novice Democratic candidates struggling to differentiate themselves from each other. Additionally, the Austin Police Association (APA) bought four days of radio advertising beginning on Wednesday. According to Mike Sheffield, APA president, his group used an automated phone bank to contact a total of 25,000 voters on Friday and Election Day.

The campaign also attracted a multitude of volunteers. Campaign co-manager Matt Curtis said, “What amazed me is the grass-roots effort that came together both through fundraising and just the field work. The number of people who walked in—the variety of people—to do phone banking, block walking and field work.” He said he would pull up to the headquarters on Lavaca and see a variety of vehicles: “Somebody had a Bush ‘04 sticker and a McCracken sticker . . . as well as a car with Howard Dean and Brewster McCracken stickers . . . a nice Mercedes…and junky car with Brewster McCracken sticker. I’ve never seen such a wide variety of people come together to support a candidate with such force.”

McCracken’s campaign co-manager Mark Littlefield, said, “In the last three weeks he and his volunteers worked 16-hour days—working past midnight during early voting. He and the volunteers walked door to door and dropped 6,000 fliers in 36 hours. Brewster signed them all himself.”

With all that prodding, only 9.68 percent of Austin’s 401,673 voters took time to vote during the 11 days of Early Voting and on Saturday.

A histor ical perspec tive

Given recent election history, however, 10 percent is an impressive showing. When Raul Alvarez beat Rafael Quintanilla for the Place 2 seat on June 3, 2000, only four percent of the city’s registered voters came out for the election. That dismal showing followed a seven percent turnout a month earlier when Mayor Kirk Watson beat three unlikely politicians—cross-dressers Jennifer Gale and Leslie Cochran and cab driver Dale Reed .

On May 31, 1997, 12 percent of the city’s registered voters—at that time the number was 369,203—voted in the runoff election. The year before that, Daryl Slusher beat Jeff Hart and Beverly Griffith trounced Rick Wheeler—in a runoff that inspired 14 percent of those eligible to vote. That was the last election run without the $100 limit on campaign contributions.

In 1981, just as the big boom was beginning to hit Austin, there were only 188,000 registered voters, but thirty-six percent of them cast votes to elect Carole Keeton McClellan (now Strayhorn) Mayor in a runoff. Larry Deuser and Charles Urdy were also elected in that runoff. Urdy captured 62 percent of the vote—or 41,358 votes. Clarke and McCracken together generated 38,687 votes.

A different strategy

McCracken said Sunday that his campaign strategy changed slightly between the initial race and the runoff. “We at first thought (the vote) was going to be pretty static. But we block-walked in Travis Heights and found younger voters were up in the air.” That told campaign managers Curtis and Littlefield that they could find undecided voters in Central Austin, so they got the candidate into the Barton Hills and Bouldin Creek neighborhoods of near South Austin, as well as traditionally Democratic and liberal Clarksville. “We didn’t go to precincts where I got totally creamed,” he said, but picked up support “in precincts where she got 50 percent and I got 35 . . . We knocked on the doors.”

Many politicians would have skipped Clarksville, but McCracken’s strategy proved efficient. At Matthews Elementary, Precinct 250, voter turnout was 25 percent in the May election, dropping to less than 17 percent this weekend. Clarke took 68 percent of the vote—344 votes—during the first round. But on Saturday, she dropped to less than 58 percent, only 243 votes.

Clarke was working hard too—but with many fewer resources. She had two paid campaign managers, but the remainder of those helping out were volunteers. And her volunteers did not, in general, show the degree of dedication as the young McCracken team did. The Austin chapter of the Sierra Club endorsed her early, but did almost nothing for her in the race, aside from putting her name on the front of the monthly newsletter. The Save Our Springs Political Action Committee was invisible after announcing that she had won its endorsement. The environmental community also was divided over the issue. Brigid Shea and Robin Rather, both of whom have been associated with SOSA, endorsed McCracken, and his war chest of more than $232,000 gave him the ability to get out that information, both through the mail and on TV. Clarke raised only about $54,000.

Clarke took Precinct 276, the Hyde Park United Methodist Church, on Saturday, with 67 percent of the vote. But the turnout dropped from 22 percent to 15 percent during the month between elections. She also won Central South precincts like 332, Zilker Elementary School, but her 60 percent margin there could not make up for the numbers McCracken piled up in the North and West.

Where they voted in droves

McCracken’s northwest precincts turned out in heavy numbers. Nearly 26 percent of voters in Precinct 253, Mangia’s Pizza, 8012 Mesa Drive in Northwest Austin, voted Saturday. McCracken took 604, or 81 percent, of the 744 votes cast there—the highest number of votes cast in the city. The highest percentage turnout was at Highland Park Baptist Church, 5206 Balcones, where more than 31 percent of those registered voted. More than 65 percent of them voted for McCracken. Spicewood Elementary School, Precinct 334, gave McCracken another 520 votes, or more than 93 percent of those voters. At Casis Elementary School in West Austin, McCracken picked up another 501 votes, winning more than 69 percent of the bellwether box known as Precinct 256. McCracken’s own voting box, Precinct 230, delivered nearly 90 percent of its votes to him.

The bottom line: those who were really interested found the time to vote. They will be looking to McCracken as their representative on the Council.

No time to rest . . . In Fact Daily asked Brewster McCracken what he would like to do as soon as he unpacks in his new office. He said, “I know there’s been some work going on the Waller Creek Tunnel project. I think we could get everybody together and get some decisions made.” He said both Senator Gonzalo Barrientos and Commissioner Karen Sonleitner had been working on the project. “I want to play a role in that too, see how I can be helpful. But mainly I’m going to be immersing myself in the budget” . . . Clarke . . . Margot Clarke said she plans to take a brief vacation to visit her family in California next month. But before that, “I’m going to clean my rainwater collection system, work on the composter and buy more dog food.” Clarke also said she intends to look for a job. As for her future political plans, she said she is uncertain. But she expressed great appreciation for the work done by her two campaign coordinators, Paula Nielson and Heidi Gibbons. She noted that McCracken “had more money and there was sort of a powerful machinery supporting him . . . We ran a good campaign. We didn’t have as much money and we didn’t get the message out as much as I would have liked to . . . It would have been nice if the runoff hadn’t been so late with summer and vacations being so distracting . . . But it’s a pretty amazing job without a lot of money. We had a campaign staff of two” . . . Plaza Saltillo rally for Dean . . . Supporters of Vermont Governor Howard Dean, a liberal presidential hopeful, will gather at 8pm tonight at Plaza Saltillo, 5th and Comal, just East of I-35. A phone call invitation from the campaign said, “Dean has reinvigorated the Democratic party by living up to the old Paul Wellstone slogan of ‘Representing the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” . . . Mayor to address SBCA . . . Mayor Terry Cowan of Sunset Valley will speak to members of the Save Barton Creek Association tonight at the Filling Station on Barton Springs Road. Cowan will discuss the effects of legislation passed last month on the Edwards Aquifer and Barton Springs . . . CAMPO to talk about clean air and bike lanes . . . The Transportation Policy Board, formerly known as the Policy Advisory Committee of CAMPO will meet at 6pm tonight at the Joe C. Thompson Conference Center. Supporters of bicycle and pedestrian improvements plan to attend in response to a proposal that would combine the approximately $1.8 million/year that CAMPO currently sets aside of STP federal funds for bicycle and pedestrian projects with funds for congestion reduction to create funding for clean air initiatives.

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