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SOS picked a fight it could not win

Monday, May 15, 2006 by

What can community do to heal split?

The SOS Alliance, the community’s best-known environmental group has suffered a staggering defeat at the polls. Voters on Saturday rejected Proposition 1 by a margin of three to one, and Proposition 2 by more than two to one. An estimated 14 percent of Austin voters cast ballots on Proposition 1.

Ann del Llano, the volunteer spokesperson for the Clean Water Clean Government PAC, told In Fact Daily, "We're very disappointed, of course, but we do feel like this campaign has spotlighted some important issues for the city. One of the common foundations of the two campaigns, both opposition and supporters, has been that there has been a problem here in the city…with open government, police accountability, with clean water…and so we would like to continue the dialogue about how to solve those problems that we all agree are here."

The reason for the SOS’ lopsided defeat, according to political consultant David Butts, is that the organization picked a fight it could not win. "I think that almost all battles are decided before they're ever fought. I think this one was lost before we ever had the battle," he said.

For Butts, who worked for winning City Council candidates Sheryl Cole and Mike Martinez, "it’s a matter of positioning. I think the environmental side positioned themselves badly and allowed the other side to drive a wedge into the environmental progressive community and played off of that."

The leadership of SOS, he said, engaged in an important battle but failed to include a lot of people who were needed to succeed in such a campaign. In his opinion, "The SOS people, well-intentioned and committed to doing the right thing and frustrated by what they see as the inaction of the city government to protect the Southwest quadrant, tried to take it into their own hands and run with it but (the campaign was) not well-constructed and not geared towards building a big tent for lots of people to be in."

Whatever the reason, SOS’s message failed to resonate with those who have in the past been most likely to respond. One of the city’s most liberal voting boxes, Pct. 250, votes at Matthews Elementary School in Clarksville. Only 34 percent of voters there cast ballots in favor of Propositions 1; and 44 percent voted in favor of Proposition 2.

Forty-nine percent of voters at another liberal box, Zilker Elementary School in South Austin, favored the Open Government amendment, but 59 percent supported the Clean Water amendment. This is the home box of SOS Executive Director Bill Bunch and neighborhood activist Jeff Jack.

Govalle in Hispanic East Austin, where tensions between residents and the city have been high, produced only 148 votes. They were evenly split on Proposition 1. About 53 percent voted in favor of Proposition 2. But at the Pecan Springs Elementary School, Pct. 132, in Northeast Austin, only 29 percent of voters favored Proposition 1 and 37 percent favored Proposition 2.

By contrast, nearly 600 voters showed up at Kiker Elementary School in Circle C. Ninety percent of them rejected Proposition 1 and more than 88 percent said no to Proposition 2. Likewise, at the Hampton Branch Library in Oak Hill, more than 81 percent rejected Proposition 1 and nearly 78 percent rejected Proposition 2. More than 540 voters cast ballots at that box.

In Northwest Austin, at Highland Park Baptist Church (Pct. 237), 15 percent of voters wanted to enact the Open Government amendment, compared to 62 percent who said they were in favor of Proposition 6. Proposition 6, which won widespread approval, removes a section of the city charter prohibiting the city from allowing domestic partners of gay employees to have city health insurance.

Now some are asking whether SOS has also lost the faith of some of its own members. After castigating several well-known environmental leaders like former Council Member Daryl Slusher for failing to support Propositions 1 and 2—the so-called Open Government and Clean Water Amendments—can SOS still claim its position as Austin’s premier environmental group?

Consultant Mike Blizzard and Seton HealthCare’s Greg Hartman were both opposed to the two propositions. Blizzard worked for EDUCATE PAC, a group of moderate environmentalists and representatives of social service organizations which opposed the amendments.

"Obviously people in Austin care deeply about open government and even more so about Barton Springs but they weren't convinced that these amendments would address those issues" Blizzard said. "I think that this clearly shows that the process was bad, the amendments were poorly and confusingly written but that doesn’t take away from the fact or suggest in any way that this community doesn’t care about those issues….This community just voted 66 percent in November (the 2005 bond election) to preserve Reimers Ranch to preserve water quality in the Pedernales and Colorado Rivers.

"So, we care a lot as EDUCATE PAC about those issues and want to see them adequately addressed but these amendments didn’t adequately address them and would have harmed them in a lot of ways," Blizzard said.

Hartman was treasurer of the Committee for Austin’s Future PAC, which sponsored hard-hitting TV ads opposing both propositions, but focusing on the "online in real time" aspects of the Open Government amendment.

Hartman said his group, which got most of its money from real estate development interests, spent more than $500,000 on the campaign. EDUCATE PAC spent about $65,000 to oppose the amendments. The Clean Water Clean Government PAC, funded mostly by SOS and wealthy supporter like Kirk Mitchell, also spent several hundred thousand dollars but the final total is unknown.

The Clean Water Clean Government PAC got an early start on its ad campaign, which was orchestrated by one of Austin’s best-known TV ad men, Dean Rindy. The two slick ads rotated throughout local news shows without opposition for more than a week, leading some observers to think that voters would naturally vote for the propositions.

But both the American-Statesman and the Austin Chronicle came out strongly against the amendments. The two papers are frequently at odds on civic matters, but not this time, somewhat to the surprise of supporters.

Hartman said all the credit goes to the citizens. "I think Austin voters are smart. One thing we kept saying is ‘Read these things.’ And I think once they realized it was not a slam-dunk, but it really did require reading this. It wasn’t a question of are you pro-environment or anti-environment—once that message got out—I think it turned it around."

How will the wounds be healed? Hartman said he believes that those who disagreed on these issues can still work together for the common good. He said there were "honest disagreements" over the issues. "I think this was a good battle, a good policy debate," he concluded.

But Blizzard, who was personally vilified for his role in opposing the amendments, is not so sure. Blizzard said it would be difficult to patch up the split within the environmental community.

"I've received emails from people I don’t even know that have attacked my integrity, accused me of being bought off, a whole myriad of things and….other people have experienced the same things….and I'm sure there’s going to be a lot of hard feelings on the losing side as well, so I'm sure its going to take a lot to bring that back together," he said.

Blizzard concluded, " What we’d like to see to some degree is a realignment. There used to be an Earth First where people who were Earth Firsters had a place to go and be Earth Firsters and not try to get a majority of support. We don’t have that in the community anymore; and SOS has become the kind of receptacle for that person who feels that way but SOS also has a lot of other people involved who are lawyers and business people and others who’ve been involved a long time in the community."

Del Llano, the volunteer spokesperson for the Clean Water Clean Government PAC, said, "Everyone on our side is really interested in getting together again in a renewed, unified spirit with everyone else in the city. And that's, I think, what makes Austin special. We've got all these really good, smart people who want to solve these problems. And so we're really optimistic about doing that together in the future. It may be a very good time for us to work together on the bond package. That is a thing where it could make a difference."

Martinez pulls out victory

In the only race Saturday night that kept anyone in suspense past 7:30pm, a strong Election Day turnout pushed Austin Association of Professional Firefighters President Mike Martinez victory to nearly 57 percent of the votes to an outright win of the Place 2 Council seat.

Martinez defeated challengers Eliza May and Wes Benedict, but it was not until a sufficient percentage of ballots had been counted, shortly after 10pm, that it became certain that he would win without a runoff.

Martinez addressed a large crowd of supporters at Azul on East Cesar Chavez, thanking various members of his campaign staff and other supporters, then explained why he decided to get into politics.

"The reason why I went into politics and why I still think there’s a lot of good that can be done in government was because of one person, my mother," he said. "She fought really hard when I was a kid to prove a point: that government is not going to push you around, that mean people weren’t going to push you around. Government is supposed to support us, stand with us and help us."

The crowd that spent much of the night chanting "I like Mike! I like Mike!" every time the TV lights came on included current Council Members Jennifer Kim and Lee Leffingwell, who will share the east side of the Council dais with Martinez. The crowd included an eclectic mix of Eastsiders, firefighters, and Central Austin political operatives. Former SOS Board Member and City Council Member Brigid Shea was there too.

When early voting numbers were posted, Martinez had 49.79 percent of the 15,132 votes, with 28.22 percent for May, and a surprisingly strong 21.22 percent showing for Benedict. Martinez said his campaign advisors went into Election Day concerned how close the races seemed, and mobilized a last-minute push to get supporters to the polls on Saturday.

"We had a huge turnout on Election Day," he said. "Folks who were phone banking, working the polls. We really got our message out and really stepped it up, knowing that we were close to winning this without a runoff."

The effort paid off. Of the 30,841 ballots cast on Saturday, Martinez polled 60 percent, with May dropping to 25 percent and Benedict to 15 percent. That showing put Martinez solidly above 50 percent in the total, keeping him out of a runoff with May.

May was philosophical about her showing.

"I went up against the institutional structures, if you will, and the institutional structures prevailed," she said. "Part of the institutional structure includes the PACs, and what David Butts as a consultant brings to the table. When you have all of the factors that create winning campaigns in this city, the odds are definitely against you."

She also said Benedict had a hand in her defeat.

"I think he clearly hurt me," she said. "I think he got some votes that would have come our way. It’s his name recognition because he’s been on the ballot at least two or three times. There are voters out there who want to feel like they have a different option, and those are the votes Benedict takes."

Martinez Campaign Manager Amy Everhart, who ran Jennifer Kim’s successful campaign last year, said her candidate’s experience in working with the Council before as president of the firefighters union helped him understand people’s concerns.

"The issues that are facing the city at the time you are running are the issues you have to deal with," she said. "You can’t make your own issues. Propositions were big issues this year; tolls roads, surprisingly were not. It’s how you handle what’s in front of you."

Martinez came to prominence as the face of the Austin firefighters, as they engaged in a marathon session of collective bargaining with the city for the new contract. He has said he plans to resign his post with the union and withdraw his money from the pension fund so there will be no question about a conflict of interest.

Cole collects surprisingly strong win in Place 6

Sheryl Cole relished her victory on Saturday evening, by turns elated and overwhelmed, as she granted media interviews and thanked the supporters who gave her a win in Place 6 on the Austin City Council.

Cole, a long-time Austin school district volunteer, was both surprised and thrilled by her victory. While Cole had gathered the endorsements of environmentalists and a number of high-profile employee associations, her opponent Darrell Pierce had garnered the coveted endorsement of the Austin American Statesman. Cole expected, at the least, a runoff on Saturday night but won the Place 6 race with a 60 percent margin at the polls. Pierce had about 32 percent of the vote and DeWayne Lofton got less than 9 percent.

"My opponents ran a spirited campaign, and I look forward to working with them," said Cole from her victory party, while her husband attorney Kevin Cole stood nearby, snapping photographs.

As the evening progressed, many made their way to Tony’s Southern Comfort on East Sixth Street to congratulate Cole. Council Members Raul Alvarez and State Rep. Dawnna Dukes spent much of the evening with Cole. Lee Leffingwell stopped by, as well as former council members Bill Spelman and Brigid Shea, former State Rep. Ann Kitchen and a broad cross-section of racially diverse supporters.

Cole, both a CPA and attorney, came into the race thinking that transportation would dominate the candidate forums. She also considered police relations and the economic vitality of East Austin to be her issues. But what Cole found, in forum after forum, was a focus on the need for affordable housing for the community, she said.

"People were talking about everything from gentrification to property tax relief to the displacement of the elderly, people who didn’t want to move," Cole said. "I think it’s important to look at each as a separate issue that we need to address."

Cole, who specialized in economic development and taxation issues when she served as general counsel at the Texas Municipal League, is a strong proponent of concepts such as mixed-use development, affordable housing set-asides and community land trusts. The city needs to explore, and use, the tools at hand to deal with rising costs, Cole said.

As a council member, Cole wants to bring her background as a CPA to bear when looking at issues such as the city budget and bond packages. Most people are going to agree that the bond package is needed, Cole said. The real issue is looking at the way the bond deal is structured and making sure the city can afford the debt.

Council Member Betty Dunkerley is also a CPA and Council Member Brewster McCracken is an attorney.

"I think the voters appreciated my background," Cole said. "They wanted to have someone who can both grow the pie and reduce expenses in creative ways."

For example, Cole is a strong proponent of the JJ Pickle Elementary campus, which shares school district and city facilities. She would like to see more use of joint facilities, or possibly joint city-school district parks. Collaboration is key, Cole said.

Opponent Darrell Pierce said he was disappointed by the low voter turnout on Saturday, an estimated 14 percent overall, saying it made it all the easier for a candidate with backing from political action committees to win at the polls. Until more people take an interest in the election process, it will be difficult to get more independent candidates to step forward. Pierce said he was proud of the support he had received and the momentum his campaign was able to accomplish.

Opponent Dewayne Lofton, who ran third in the Place 6 race, said he was not discouraged by his loss and was eager to work with Cole in the future in whatever role she might envision for him. Lofton said he wants to stay involved, and the goals he set for his campaign – working to make Austin affordable, streamlining the budget, improving city services in East Austin, addressing traffic issues – all are things he intends to pursue as a private citizen.

Re-election easy for Wynn, McCracken

Proposition 6 passage means more health care coverage

Austin Mayor Will Wynn won an overwhelming victory Saturday in his re-election bid, with 78 percent of the people who went to the polls backing his quest for a second three-year term. That's just under the 84 percent margin of victory that Mayor Kirk Watson earned in his re-election bid in May of 2000.

Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas received about 15 percent of the vote and perennial candidate Jennifer Gale got less than 7 percent.

The mood was upbeat at Wynn's election-night party at Mother Egan's Irish Pub, as the early voting returns released just after 7pm showed the mayor with 75 percent of the vote. He addressed supporters shortly after 7:30pm, although he took care at that hour not to declare victory. "It's very flattering and very rewarding to be here with you," he said. "I just want to thank Danny Thomas. He's run a very positive, issue-oriented campaign and I appreciate that and I think the voters responded well to that. I also want to thank him for six years of service. I promise, I am a better Mayor today, I am a better person, and I am a better father because I have served alongside Danny for six years."

Thomas called Mayor Wynn Saturday evening to offer his congratulations. "I don't regret anything I've done," Thomas said. "I've been blessed to have my wife stand beside me. We ran a clean campaign." Thomas, who will remain on the Council until new members are sworn in on June 27, said he would take advantage of the next six weeks to work with Council Member Raul Alvarez to name a park near the Holly Power Plant after long-time east Austin activist Robert Donley.

Thomas also said he would like to form a commission to follow up on the recommendations made in the city's African American Quality of Life Scorecard last year. Once he leaves office, Thomas said, he will likely focus on his work as a pastor at First Baptist Church.

Shortly before 10pm, Wynn addressed his supporters again, this time for his official victory speech. "I'm just so honored to have served for three years, and I'll be very proud to serve these last three years," he said. "There's no more aware and engaged citizenry anywhere in the country. I know that we talk about how low the voter turnout is in municipal elections, and that seems to be a trend nationwide, but the flip side of that coin in Austin is that the people who vote are remarkably aware and engaged, disproportionately more than in any other city. It is people that are aware of the issues, have read the propositions."

Despite the pressures of his own campaign, Mayor Wynn also spoke out during the final days before the election to ask voters to reject Propositions 1 and 2, the "Open Government" and "Clean Water" charter amendments. Saturday night, he expressed relief that those propositions had failed. "Sadly, the fact is we didn't have a bond election this May because of those propositions…that were so divisive, and we had to get our arms around the cost and the analysis of them. Now that that's behind us, two things should happen: one, we should take advantage of the momentum that those two issues created…let's definitely move forward on improving accessibility, and let's continue to move forward on environmental protection. Meanwhile, not having those two issues to fund, we can move forward on a November bond election to invest in our future."

The other propositions on the ballot all passed by significant margins. Proposition 6, the charter amendment repealing the ban on offering health insurance for the same-sex partners of city employees, won support from 67 percent of the people who voted. "The voters are saying that that they understand that health care is an important issue, and every little step that we can take, including allowing city employees to extend benefits to their loved ones in their homes, is an important step," said Josh Allen with the Health Care for Austin campaign. "This is really about what's fair for city employees." The proposal, reversing a 1994 ban on health care for city employees' domestic partners, was supported by the Austin Police Association and AFSCME, six members of the City Council.

Council Member Brewster McCracken joined Proposition 6 supporters at Jo's Coffee on 2nd Street near City Hall for his election night watch party. "We're a fair city, we've come a long way…I think it's a very positive statement about who we are as a community," he said of Proposition 6. "We've got some city employees who really need to buy health insurance for their loved ones." McCracken said he would try to have an item officially changing the city's policy on health insurance coverage added to this week's City Council agenda so that those employees would be able to obtain insurance benefits as soon as possible.

McCracken easily won re-election, garnering 72 percent of the voter over his three challengers, all political novices. "The voters of Austin told us they want us to continue on a forward-thinking path on emerging technologies, urban revitalization, clean energy, film and independent media," he said. "These are really where the future of our community is. It's a really exciting path for Austin."

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

City Manager takes a little time off . . . In Fact Daily joins those offering best wishes for a speedy recovery to City Manager Toby Futrell, who was hospitalized over the weekend for an emergency appendectomy. "The good news is, it’s a procedure that’s very well-practiced," said Mayor Will Wynn. "I trust that Toby will make a full recovery. We need her back as quickly as possible. She runs a spectacular organization, and I wish her well." . . . Gross planning a change . . . Karen Gross, one of Council Member Brewster McCracken’s two aides, has been accepted to several law schools. She is currently considering which of the schools—likely one on the West Coast—she will attend. Before she leaves, Gross is determined to finish up work on design standards. McCracken is currently interviewing for a new aide . . . Code changes proposed for roads. . . County commissioners will host a hearing tomorrow on proposed code amendment changes to the county’s policy on unaccepted substandard roadways. The changes would give the county more latitude to determine site-based design requirements based on current conditions of existing roads – rather than requiring existing roads to meet new road standards – and to provide more latitude for public-private agreements. Local residents have asked Travis County to accept another 100 miles of existing roads in the county, but the county estimates bringing those roads up to the county’s current roadway standards on drainage, paved surface and base thickness could cost upwards of $60 million. If the county commissioners hear no concerns about the changes, the code changes will be approved on the consent agenda Tuesday. . . Garcia celebrates election . . . Former Mayor Gus Garcia, heavily involved in several campaigns this election, sent a message Sunday to those who had opposed Propositions 1 & 2 on the Saturday ballot: "Congratulations to all of you on a job well done defeating Props. 1 and 2. Simply stated, they were bad public policy. Maybe this time, … Kirk Mitchell learns that his $$$s cannot buy Austin. I think he should be deported to The Woodlands. I could not make it to the party but I heard all of you, including Council Member Slusher, had a great time. At least that is the impression I got from looking at the picture in the paper. Enhorabuena! (Congratulations) Tavo" . . . Meetings . . . The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board of Directors will hold a work session at noon at 2910 East Fifth St. . . . The Arts Commission meets at 6:30pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Austin Community College Board of Trustees plans a work session at 6pm at Highland Business Center, 5930 Middle Fiskville Rd. . . . Groundwater meeting . . . A special community meeting tonight, hosted by Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and the Hill Country Alliance, will discuss of various considerations in the potential extension of groundwater conservation district (GCD) protection to Trinity groundwater users in that part of western Travis County. The area is currently in the Hill Country Priority Groundwater Management Area but not in an existing GCD. Representatives from the LCRA, TCEQ, Barton Springs-Edwards Aquifer Conservation District and the Hays-Trinity Groundwater Conservation District will share their expertise about forming a district and the importance of scientifically studying the health and sustainability of the aquifer. The meeting will be held at Star Hill Ranch, 15000 Hamilton Pool Rd (about one mile south of SH 71) at 6:30pm.

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