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Shade has big hill to climb in runoff

Monday, May 16, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Austin voters may not have shown much enthusiasm for choosing their City Council members this year, but more than 32,000 showed up to cast a ballot in one race – that of incumbent Randi Shade and her three opponents. That’s just 7.27 percent of the city’s registered voters, but still 2,000 more than bothered to vote in the Place 1 and 4 races won handily by Council Members Chris Riley and Laura Morrison.


At the end of the evening on Saturday, challenger Kathie Tovo won 46 percent of the vote, giving her a 13-point lead over Shade, who polled 33 percent. Former Council Member Max Nofziger, who spent almost nothing on the campaign, still factored in the outcome, picking up 14 percent of the vote. 


Now, Shade has to make what may be a very hard decision: whether to move forward in the face of extremely bad odds, spending more money and political capital or whether to withdraw. Two years ago, Brewster McCracken decided the better course would be to step down rather than be in a runoff with Lee Leffingwell for the Mayor’s job.


Shade put her best spin on the outcome Saturday. “I wish that we could have won it outright tonight, but I’m ready to go forward, and I know we’re going to win in June. It’s a whole new campaign. We get to start raising money and we get to start hanging signs again and we get to really start moving forward,” she said.


Statistics from the city show that incumbents have a strong history of holding on to their seats in Council elections, but not when the race goes to a runoff. Since 1973, more than 80 percent of Council incumbents who ran for re-election held on to their seats. However, when those incumbent candidates were forced into a runoff, they lost 60 percent of the time. Mark Littlefield, a consultant to Shade’s campaign, provided the numbers.


And, historically, the turnout for runoff elections is dismal. In May, 2008, just a hair over 8 percent of registered voters showed up for the Council elections. In the June runoff between candidates Laura Morrison and Cid Galindo, a mere 5 percent bothered to show. The numbers were much the same in 2005, when 16.5 percent voted in the general election, but less than 9 percent came back for the runoff between Margot Clarke and Jennifer Kim.


Peck Young, who retired as a political consultant and is now director of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies at Austin Community College, said the result puts Shade in a difficult position.


“Normally, an incumbent who is trailing loses” he said. “I can’t remember a situation when an incumbent was behind and pulled it off. I’ve known of incumbents to win runoffs, but not trailing by 13 points. That’s just too big a hill to climb, especially because the next time the turnout won’t fill a high school basketball auditorium.”


Young said public safety endorsements didn’t seem to matter much in this race. “I don’t think the firefighters and cops have enough people who live in Austin to elect Shade,” he said. “Tovo has several of the neighborhood associations and environmental groups and Democratic clubs behind her.”


Shade was circumspect about the outcome, and told In Fact Daily she was going to gear up for the runoff.


“Going forward, it will be an election about just two people, so there will be much fewer distractions, and the focus will be what differentiates me from Kathie,” she said. “I think I bring a lot of balance to the Council that’s really important; I’ve been the tie-breaking vote on a number of issues. The rest of the Council is going to look exactly the same going forward, so it’s going to be a big focus on what would be different if I serve versus my opponent serving.”


Shade said believes that there would be major differences, such as “how we approach public safety, how we approach water security, how we approach infrastructure investments and transportation.”


Many believed that two factors were key to the outcome for Shade: her emails in which she made negative comments about Austin environmental activist Robin Rather, and her consistent support for the controversial Water Treatment Plant 4 project.


“There’s no question that all of those things combined, and having three opponents meant that I was attacked from a lot of different angles,” Shade said. “I knew that it would be challenging, but I’m not disheartened. I have great support, and I feel like I’ve always represented a much bigger cross-section of folks than my opponent, so I look forward to running and running hard.”




Tovo celebrated earning her way into the runoff with supporters at Scholtz Garten on Saturday, saying that her position on the issues propelled her past Shade in the polls. Tovo, who meticulously laid out those positions as she moved through candidate forums, clubs, and advocate organizations, talked about affordability, city planning, and neighborhood schools. 


And she also talked about her major point: “Restoring public trust to government,” she said. “I feel like with all that’s happened in this last six months, I think a lot of the folks that spend time down at city hall and put in thousands and thousands of volunteer hours really have a right to Council members who listen to them.”


Tovo told In Fact Daily that should she prevail in the June run-off she will make her constituents a priority. She calls that point “an easy one.”


“It’s the kind of leader I’ve been in my other roles and I think it pervades how you do business on a day-to-day,” she said. In addition to her seat on the planning commission, Tovo has also served on a handful of other boards, and has spent some time as Vice President of the Austin Neighborhoods Council. 


Tovo also offered up a few specific ideas behind the other three portions of her campaign. She suggested that she’d like to take a seat on the city-county-school district joint subcommittee. She added that she’d also like to put together a “blue ribbon committee of folks who have been working on schools issues.”


“I have some very good contacts in that area out in the community,” she said. Tovo took part in the recent Austin Independent School District Facilities Task Force.


During the campaign, Tovo has continuously referred to the city’s need to offer complete communities. She cited the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan as a good start on that effort. She also noted that she is “interested in … how other municipalities have interacted with, say, grocery stores, and trying to lure them to area where there aren’t (such) outlets.”


Tovo also offered up a cautious response to the question of whether she would vote to halt the ongoing fourth water treatment plant project. “What I’ve said all along is that I understand and am committed to making sure that we’ve got an ample water supply for Austin,” she said. “I would not have voted for the water treatment plant, I think it was the wrong decision – we need to focus on our water conservation programs.”


During the campaign, Tovo took flak when the Shade camp suggested that she had intentionally waited until the last minute to sign the fair campaign pledge. Tovo reiterated that she had followed the rules, and insisted that she had not exploited any loophole in the provision.


She said that she wouldn’t change the Fair Campaign Act. “I think that we’d all be much better served if everybody signed it,” she said. “I think we’d all be better served if there was less money involved in political campaigns.”


As it is, Tovo now stands to collect more than $60,000 to help her in her run-off campaign. And it now appears that Tovo will now have a bit more time to talk about her issues.


David Butts, campaign consultant for Tovo, offered up some reasons why he thought Tovo did as well as she did.


“One, the incumbent was not elected so much on her own popularity but on the unpopularity of the previous incumbent that she defeated (Jennifer Kim),” he said. “So, unless she went out and tried to build some kind of rapport with voters, they didn’t have any real connection to her and I know it’s hard for any politician, much less any Council Member, to become a household word. . . . I didn’t see her doing a lot of outreach in the community.”


“Second, when we did the initial polling, surprisingly, her re-elect was like 20-something and the “Prefer Someone Else” was 31(overall), city-wide. So, we know right then, plus 50 percent don’t know who she is, plus those who do know her, don’t like her. They prefer somebody else.”


Butts said the Park PUD vote may have hurt Shade, as well, alienating her from a small but politically active group of people in the Bouldin and Travis Heights neighborhoods.

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