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Iconic political candidate Jennifer Gale found dead

Thursday, December 18, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Austin has lost a unique figure in the local political scene with the death of Jennifer Gale. She was discovered Wednesday morning outside a church near the University of Texas campus where she frequently camped. Firefighters performed CPR on Gale after receiving a 9-1-1 call from a staffer at the church but were unable to revive her. She was 48 years old.


Many at City Hall reacted with surprise and sadness upon learning of Gale’s death. “I just saw Jennifer last night at a holiday party,” Council Member Lee Leffingwell said.  “I am grateful that I had a chance to wish her ‘Merry Christmas’ before she passed away.”


Gale, who was present at almost every City Council meeting to speak during Citizens’ Communication, was at Tuesday’s meeting of the Council’s Health and Human Services Committee. In what was a typical speech, Gale covered several topics including the recent Presidential election, her campaign for Mayor in 2009, plans for a new health clinic in north Austin, the war in Iraq, and health care for the homeless. Gale even sang “Silent Night” for the committee.


“Jennifer’s passing saddens me. She was much more than a ‘perennial candidate.’ ” said Mayor Will Wynn. “She had a true passion for Austin and worked, in her own unique way, to make the city she loved more vibrant, caring, and of course, weird. She was an Austin original and she will be missed.”


Council Member Randi Shade said. “I was really saddened to get the news. She is a voice here at City Hall that we all recognize and will not soon be forgotten.” Shade, along with Council Member Laura Morrison, got to know Gale through campaign forums as part of this spring’s election cycle. “She was one of the six of us,” Morrison said. “She was a big part of the campaign and helped me keep a positive attitude. Her points were really important, about taking care of all of those among us, that’s what her point really was.”


As a homeless, transgendered former U.S. Marine, Gale frequently focused on benefits for veterans and services for the homeless during her presentations at City Hall. “She genuinely thought she was giving back to her community and in many ways she was, by challenging us as elected officials to look at ourselves and by constantly being in our face,” said Council Member Mike Martinez, “and by asking us to think about the homeless, to think about access to libraries and computers. She was a great advocate for the homeless.”


Despite being homeless and frequently unemployed, Gale managed to run for almost every elected position in Austin including Mayor, City Council, AISD Trustee, Congress, and even ran twice for Mayor of Dallas. She never considered her lack of a home or steady employment an obstacle to running for city leadership, instead saying that she preferred to devote herself full-time to the people of Texas.


Former Mayor Bruce Todd said, “Jennifer was a constant presence at various public hearings, forums and meetings in Austin and displayed a great love for and interest in our city. Her well-known catchphrase was ‘Keep Austin, Austin.’ While Jennifer no longer is here to physically trumpet that slogan, her personification of that expression will never be forgotten.”


Gale’s death is putting the focus of many at City Hall on the city’s level of services for the homeless. She regularly camped in the area where her body was discovered outside the First English Lutheran Church on Whitis Avenue. An official cause of death has not yet been determined. The National Weather Service reports the overnight low temperature at Camp Mabry just west of downtown was 37 degrees Tuesday night.


“The news of her passing reminds me that we have scores of Austinites spending some very cold nights without the benefit of heat or shelter,” said Council Member Mike Martinez. “Because of all she brought to the proceedings of the City Council, I hope her passing is a reminder to this Council that we have work to do in helping the homeless in Austin.”


The City of Austin does have a cooperative agreement with several local churches to provide emergency shelter for the homeless during severe weather conditions and when regular shelters are full. According to Richard Troxell with House the Homeless, that plan is normally implemented if the temperature is expected to drop below 32 degrees in dry conditions or 35 degrees during wet conditions. An inventory provided by the City’s Health and Human Services Department showed that the city’s regular shelters still had capacity Tuesday night.


Shade told In Fact Daily she was concerned that Gale’s transgendered status may have made it difficult for her to seek shelter. “It was not as simple as her going to a men’s shelter because she didn’t feel that was where she should be, or as simple as being easily accepted at a women’s shelter,” Shade said. “I know as a community we’re going to talk about homelessness, but that’s something that was an extra burden for her.”


Homeless advocate Richard Troxell said “there is a policy at the ARCH for transsexual folks. It allows them to use the facilities without too much disruption. But… there are always people that have concerns. There is an air of un-comfortableness,” he said. “Jennifer basically went her own way. There was availability to her. But obviously, a lot of our people are drawn to churches as sanctuary…a lot of people go to the churches and will stay outside just on the grounds.”


Troxell’s organization, House the Homeless, recently held its 16th annual memorial ceremony for people who died on the streets of Austin this year. While the city does not keep official statistics, Troxell said 93 homeless people died in Austin in 2007. The city’s current budget includes $5.6 million for homeless services, including funding for social service agencies that provide emergency shelter, transitional housing, and counseling.


Gale had signed up to speak at today’s Council meeting, listing her subject as “a new President and a new economy just in time for Christmas. Happy New Year Austin!” The Council will pause today to play the recording of Gale’s presentation at Tuesday’s Health and Human Services Commission meeting as a tribute. Funeral services have not been finalized. APD officials on Wednesday were working to contact Gale’s family. She had identified Wisconsin as her home state and had occasionally returned home to visit.

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