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RECA candidate forum entertaining, if not informative

Friday, April 18, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

It may not have been the most informative Council candidate debate to date, but it certainly was one of the more entertaining ones this campaign season.


From Jennifer Gale’s inspired audience-led rendition of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” to Council Member Lee Leffingwell’s zinger as to opponent Jason Meeker’s lack of a vote in the city charter election in 2006 to Randi Shade’s closing statement – in which she was so confident of the support in the room that she encouraged people to pick up yard signs – it was an interesting hour.


The Real Estate Council of Austin hosted the candidate forum, which included all the incumbents and challengers in Place 1, Place 3 and Place 4, with the exception of Allen Demling. Lee Leffingwell (Place 1) and Jennifer Kim (Place 3) are seeking second terms. Place 4 is open to due to Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley’s departure under Austin term limits.


Some of the zingers included moderator Mike Rosen – currently a reporter at KTBC but soon to be Congressman Michael McCaul’s press secretary – asking Laura Morrison whether she would ever support a developer over the objections of a neighborhood association. That drew laughs from the RECA audience.


“I appreciate that question,” Morrison said. “I was the president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, but the fact of the matter is that I haven’t always supported everything they have done. As the president, I have been a resource for facilitating conversations and also making sure everyone understood each other, that we were having the same conversation.”


Asked to pose a question to an opponent, incumbent Leffingwell asked Meeker whether he had voted in support or against the Clean Government/Clean Water charter amendments back in 2006 and to explain his reasoning for his vote. After a long pause, Meeker said he had voted in favor of the two charter amendments and then shift talk to the Domain subsidies, another topic Leffingwell had raised in his comments.


In his closing remarks, Leffingwell noted Meeker “didn’t vote at all” in the 2006 election, despite his claims to the contrary. “One of the most important things you can do as an elected official is to tell the truth,” Leffingwell said, chastising Meeker. In his closing remarks, Meeker never directly denied he had failed to vote in 2006 but did say he had been precinct chair for six years.


Meeker later told In Fact Daily: “To be truthful while I contemplated (voting for the amendments), the fact is that I didn’t vote in that election. While I did support the initiatives, my guess (earlier) that I was dealing with my wife’s pregnancy was dead on.”


Support of the business community – at least financially — has shifted from Kim to Randi Shade in Place 3. Kim hit her topic of affordable housing hard – talking about her desire to see an affordable housing master plan for the city. Shade chided Kim for the blog comments of a campaign worker who labeled that financial support – including some from people in the room — to be “a bad sign,” which drew some guffaws from the audience. Kim said that campaign worker was no longer writing on a blog and that the support was in reference to financial support from businesses connected to toll roads.


Cid Galindo and Morrison are the two strongest candidates in the Place 4 race, although Robin Cravey also has a track record in the community. Galindo has strong support from the real estate community. He talked about his plans for growth, with an emphasis on the need to use land use planning as a tool to address the mounting traffic congestion issues.


When Galindo asked Morrison directly about her plans to address traffic congestion, though, Morrison rebounded well, talking about short-term plans such as working with major employers to create 4-day workweeks, staggered work hours and telecommuting.


Morrison accused Galindo of promising new programs she had tallied at a cost of $60 million. Galindo said he would like to meet Morrison’s CPA, denied the comments and said he supported nothing more than a single-year 10 percent budget subsidy for the social service agencies that are suffering under United Way cuts.


Samuel Osemene may not be the leading candidate in the race, but he certainly was the most striking contrast among candidates in Place 4. A Navy veteran and graduate student at the University of Texas, Osemene was a Ron Paul supporter and clearly a Libertarian-leaning candidate, with promises of minimal government that drew a smattering of applause from the business audience.


“This nation was founded by individuals who believed in themselves and not in the government,” Osemene said. “The difference between me and the other candidates is that I believe in you. They believe that government can solve all your problems. I believe that government is the problem.”


And, of course, Jennifer Gale always provides entertainment, even offering to pose for pictures with RECA members after the luncheon. She talked about universal health care, bringing both a medical center and an NFL football franchise to Austin and both opening and closing her remarks with song. Her sing-along was such a hit that RECA President Tom Terkel noted that he hoped Gale did get her wish to live to 200 so RECA would always have her at their candidate forums.


The candidates also were allowed closing remarks. In Place 1, Leffingwell talked about new ways to handle Austin’s growth, while Meeker spoke of people shut out of the policy-making process at City Hall.


In Place 3, Kim stressed her commitment to creating an affordable housing plan for the city, while Shade stressed her diverse and varied background. Ken Weiss, also running Place 3, clearly was overshadowed in the Kim-Shade debate but spoke about bringing “common sense” to city and said he supported keeping green space and opposing toll roads if he was elected to Council.


In Place 4, planning for growth was the theme among candidates. Galindo spoke about his rational planning effort to address traffic congestion through land use planning. Morrison spoke of a need for a comprehensive plan to move Austin forward for the next 30 years. And Cravey added even more detail to that goal, saying he supported something more than Galindo’s plan – an actual large-scale planning process such as the one to create the original Austin Tomorrow plan.


Cravey’s three goals were a great metropolitan parks and trails system; bringing back affordability to the Austin housing market; and a walkable and bikable community with a good public transit system. He also spoke about using public land to produce affordable housing for the city.


Osemene promised to cut waste. And Gale said she did not support density and encouraged everyone with an interest in her campaign to write a check or give her a call.

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