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Bentzin squeaks into runoff with Howard

Wednesday, January 18, 2006 by

Democrat nearly wins House District 48 outright

Democrat Donna Howard will take a surprisingly wide vote margin into a runoff election next month with Republican Ben Bentzin to fill the vacant District 48 seat in the Texas House of Representatives.

The unofficial results of Tuesday’s special election gave Howard 49.47 percent of the 13,555 votes cast; just 73 short of an outright win. Bentzin took 37.80 percent of the votes, with Democrat Kathy Rider polling 10.45 percent and Libertarian Ben Easton with 2.29 percent.

“I think that this is a clear statement that this is a community that wants changes,” Howard said. “They do not want the same failed leadership at the Capitol. This is a community with strong values in public education and they want to see somebody in there who’s going to make that happen.”

Bentzin led by a five-point margin in the early voting returns, but that trend quickly reversed in Howard’s favor when boxes from Tuesday’s voting came in.

“I think it was a combination of a lot of things,” Howard said. “The endorsements from the American-Statesman and the Chronicle were very helpful, as were the endorsements from the teachers, nurses and other groups . . . but the biggest thing was the real support I had from across the community.”

Bentzin was not dismayed by the fact that nearly 60 percent of the people who chose to go to the polls voted for a Democratic candidate. "I'd say at this point, we're thrilled to be in the runoff," he said.

Bentzin pointed to the small number of voters participating in the election as one factor in his second-place showing. "When you consider the context…which was that we were campaigning through Christmas and New Year's, and our outstanding Longhorns won the Rose Bowl, this was a time when it was hard to get voters' attention," he said. "That's what we'll be doing in the next four weeks, letting voters know that now is the time to vote and to vote for a strong voice of leadership in the upcoming special session on public school finance.”

The Travis County Libertarian Party, despite its candidate only getting 99 votes took some credit for the outcome.

"Ben Easton made it clear that he is a fiscal conservative, while Ben Bentzin did not,” said Wes Benedict, chair of the Travis County Libertarian Party, ”Ben Easton unequivocally supported school choice, while Ben Bentzin danced around the voucher issue. We think that caused a lot of frustrated Republicans to stay home."

Democratic campaign consultant Kelly Fero told In Fact Daily that this election will get the attention of the highest levels of both major parties.

“The voters rejected Tom DeLay’s style of politics here in Austin,” Fero said. “It’s a stunning defeat for (Gov.) Rick Perry, who came in here yesterday to pull Bentzin over the top. It’s a rejection of failed leadership at the Capitol.”

Fero also thinks its harbinger of things to come in Texas. “You have two Democrats splitting the vote here,” he said. “Almost two-thirds of the voters in this election voted against the Republican Party’s hand-picked candidate. We keep hearing how this is a Republican leaning district, but even though the Republican leadership at the capitol stacked the deck as much as they could . . . she (Howard) came within 73 votes of winning the whole thing."

Money could be a major issue in the runoff election. Bentzin claimed last week to have amassed some $320,000 in contributions, but as far as official campaign reports go, Bentzin reported on January 14 that he had $65,000 compared to Howard's $6,000. Final numbers will be available later this week.

Asked about how she might counter Bentzin’s war chest, Howard said money doesn’t always make the difference.

“Well, he spent a lot of money in this campaign,” she said. I think that makes the statement that you can’t necessarily buy elections when you have people who are standing up for what they want.”

Perry is expected to announce the date of the runoff election sometime this week.

Wynn far outraises all other candidates

If early money really is like yeast, then Mayor Will Wynn seems poised to bake a really big loaf of bread. Wynn’s campaign finance report, filed Tuesday, shows he raised more than $40,000 and loaned himself an additional $10,000 in his race for re-election. Reports filed yesterday cover the time period beginning in mid-November and ending on December 31. His opponent, Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas, by contrast, showed total contributions of only $300 during the same timeframe.

Thomas spent last week in St. David’s hospital with a circulatory problem. A spokesperson in his office said he would be recuperating at home this week and returning to the office next week.

In the race to replace retiring Council Member Raul Alvarez, firefighters president Mike Martinez and Eliza May of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce were neck-and-neck in their first finance report. Martinez reported raising $11,680 and May reported bringing in $10,145. Former state senator Hector Uribe’s report indicated that he raised $3,000 during the same time period.

In Place 6, the seat currently held by Thomas, attorney Sheryl Cole far outstripped her two male rivals, DeWayne Lofton and Darrell Pierce. According to Cole’s report, she raised $13,060 and loaned her campaign $20,000 more. The most notable thing about Lofton’s report was that he continued to claim Hazel Obey as his campaign treasurer. Longtime Democratic and civil rights activist Obey died on Dec. 30.

Lofton said he raised $3,250. Pierce reported raising only $140 for the race.

Place 5 Council Member Brewster McCracken, who is so far unopposed in his re-election bid, reported raising no funds during the reporting period. Perennial candidate Jennifer Gale, who is pursuing her dream by running for Mayor again, reported raising less than $4.

West Austin church’s zoning request on hold

Neighborhood group says proposal would set a bad precedent for area

Westminster Presbyterian Church on Exposition Boulevard requested a zoning upgrade for the expansion and update of the church’s 60-year-old building at last night’s Zoning and Platting Commission.

The irony of such a case – shades of Hyde Park Baptist Church – was not lost on Commissioner Clarke Hammond, who alluded to the long-lingering neighborhood zoning case by asking, rather slyly, whether Westminster had plans to grow its congregation. While Chair Betty Baker mildly noted that any church has the intention of growing, Greg Strmiska of Bury & Partners noted that the church’s construction plan was simply to update the current building.

George Somerville, who chairs the church’s building committee, also addressed commissioners, saying the oldest building in the church compound was built the same year he was born and, like him, was beginning to sag and show some wear. He noted that the church had gathered neighborhood input not once, but twice, to discuss the expansion and zoning changes. Still, the West Austin Neighborhood Group opposed the zoning change, a concern that did gain some support from some ZAP members.

Strmiska requested a zoning change on the church’s 4.6-acre property, from SF-3 to SF-4A. Staff recommended the change, saying the proposed residential classification was compatible with existing residential uses. Westminster also proposed no change in use on the land and had no intention of using the land for future residential uses. The church was willing to agree to SF-4A zoning to get to 65 percent impervious cover, while stripping out any of the less attractive SF-4A uses.

Janis Pinnelli, who lives in the neighborhood, agreed with WANG’s charge that upzoning would set a precedent for Exposition. Every piece of property along Exposition from 35th Street down to Enfield is SF-3. Blake Tollett of WANG argued that upzoning would set a precedent, an unwanted intrusion in a neighborhood where the state had the option to sell excess land and could argue that SF-4A was a more appealing zoning category.

WANG and Pinnelli supported a variance request to the Board of Adjustment – a measure that could increase impervious cover on the site, since that was the only adjustment the church wanted – rather than a zoning change. But Baker argued against that alternative, saying that variances are only used when all other alternatives have failed. In this case, the church did have an alternative – the use of SF-4A.

Joseph Martinez joined Pinnelli in her opposition, saying that the neighborhood was now adjacent to downtown and that it was clear that the development pressures would only increase in future years. It could be only a matter of time before a Spring-like tower was proposed for the area.

“I can’t wait for that meeting,” Hammond quipped.

Baker made the motion to defer further discussion on the zoning case until January 31, when a full commission would be present. In the meantime, Commissioner Melissa Hawthorne urged the church and neighborhood association to try to meet in the middle. If the church persisted in pursuing the zoning change, the only viable solution to address neighborhood concerns would be a private restrictive covenant between church and neighborhood, she said.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Cell phone tower raises additional questions . . . In the wake of a zoning case on Spicewood Springs Road for a cell phone tower, Zoning and Platting Commissioner Joseph Martinez has proposed a ZAP subcommittee on the issues surrounding rezoning for telecommunication issues. Martinez said the confusion over requirements made it an obvious topic for further discussion. Chair Betty Baker said she would take it under advisement, while Commissioner Melissa Hawthorne suggested such issues should be referred to the Planning Commission for possible code review. The commission recommended approval of zoning for the tower . . . Today’s meetings . . . A design charrette to consider changes to the Seaholm plant starts at 8:30am at the old power plant. About 10:30am, the group will move to the Austin Lyric Opera . . . ULI hosts affordable housing forum . . . Keynote speaker, John McIlwain, ULI Senior Resident Fellow, will join the City of Austin’s Paul Hilgers, and local housing advocates Heather Way and Jim Walker as well as development community representatives Harry Savio and Terry Mitchell during a panel discussion at Four Seasons Hotel today. The panel begins at 11:30am . . . LCRA meeting . . . The Lower Colorado River Authority is slated to approve a contract for potable water with the Deer Creek subdivision. Deer Creek, a community of 350 houses, will be the first subdivision to benefit from the $1.4 million Hamilton Pool Road waterline. The Hamilton Pool waterline is a five-mile 16-inch line that was approved by the LCRA Board of Directors last fall over the objections of some neighbors and environmental groups . . . Toll road panel. . . The Steering Committee for the Mobility Alternative Finance Study will hold its initial meeting today at City Hall. The committee will set the scope of work for study, initiated by Council Member Brewster McCracken, to do a cost-benefit analysis of the Phase II Toll Road Plan approved by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) and to suggest alternatives, where warranted. The controversial toll road plan includes proposals to toll addition to some roadways that have already been built with tax dollars, Today’s meeting, set for 10am in room 1101 at City Hall, is billed as an organizational affair, but when toll roads are on the agenda, meetings can get loud . . . The Environmental Board meets at 6pm tonight in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Downtown Commission meets at 5:30pm in room 1101 at City Hall . . . The Capital Metro Board of Directors meets in a work session at 2pm at Capital Metro headquarters at 2910 East Fifth St.. . . Fit for a re-fit . . . Speaking of the Seaholm Power Plant, it has been designated as “ready for reuse” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The agencies issued the country's first Toxic Substances Control Act "ready for reuse" designation to the former power plant on Cesar Chavez. (See item above)

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