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Shea enters race for mayor, promotes affordability, fewer subsidies

Thursday, February 2, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Former City Council Member Brigid Shea officially declared her candidacy for Mayor of Austin before a packed room at Threadgill’s Word Headquarters last night, putting an end to months of speculation and setting up incumbent Mayor Lee Leffingwell for what could be the most difficult fight any sitting Council member faces this election season.

In a brief speech, Shea said that if she is elected, she will focus her attention on protecting Austin’s quality of life and keeping the city affordable, two areas in which she believes the current Council, and its leader, Leffingwell, have dropped the ball.

“City Hall is more concerned with making big development deals than maintaining the quality of life and affordability of the city,” Shea said. She pointed to rising property taxes, electric rates, and city fees as proof of mismanagement on the part of the Council and what happens when the city spends as much money as it does incentivizing businesses from out of town to come to Austin.

“These increases strain our family budgets and are often proportionately higher for average homeowners than for big businesses,” Shea said. “Some increases might be necessary, but we could have avoided many with better management, better oversight, and better vision. … There have been too many giveaways (and) bad deals.”

Shea rose to prominence in Austin in the early 1990s, when she helped convert the city’s burgeoning environmental movement—whose members saw unregulated development over the aquifer as a detriment to not only Barton Springs but also to Austin’s way of life—into the Save Our Springs Coalition. That group then successfully campaigned for passage of the Save Our Springs Ordinance in 1992. Members of that coalition then formed the SOS Alliance, a non-profit charitable organization. She rode that wave of popularity into City Hall in 1993, where she served one term as a Council member before stepping down in 1996. In 2001 Shea co-founded the Austin quality-of-life nonprofit Liveable City.

The anti-development, anti-special-interest fervor of Shea’s early political career fueled her speech last night, as, she said, it would her campaign. Shea slammed Leffingwell and his Council colleagues for voting for $4 million in development fee waivers for White Lodging’s new Convention Center hotel that, she said, “the owners were going to build anyway.”

Council voted 5-2 in favor of the waivers after White Lodging promised to comply with the city’s regulations concerning both the use of (or good-faith efforts to use) minority- and women-owed businesses and to pay workers the prevailing wage. Council Member Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo voted no.

Shea also decried the deal Council approved to allow Formula 1 to get a $250 million state tax subsidy to build a racetrack at a time when “our school district was considering closing down some neighborhood schools.” But she did not explain how Austin’s rejection of Formula 1 could have helped the school district.   

“We need economic planning that makes Austin more prosperous but also has new development pay for itself, instead of being so heavily subsidized by current residents,” Shea said.

If elected, Shea sad she will pursue policies to help save neighborhood schools, cut down on traffic congestion, better conserve and reuse water, and “cut back the influence of lobbyists and special-interest campaign money.”

After her speech, Shea told In Fact Daily that she would be signing the Fair Campaign Pledge (which she helped  write as a Council member) because she believes the influence of big-money donations taints the election process.

“I feel really, really strongly about the need to limit special interest money in campaigns. I just think it totally corrupts the process when you have people who are getting all this money from city hall contributing large sums to Council members’ campaigns,” she said. “As much as possible we have to get rid of special interest money in campaigns.”

As for her own campaign money, Shea is currently sitting on very little, especially when compared to the man she’s looking to unseat. According to campaign finance reports filed last month, as of Dec. 31, 2011, Leffingwell’s campaign had about $80,000 on hand. Shea, meanwhile, only had $3,200. In addition, Leffingwell’s campaign listed nine bundlers – people who solicit or obtain contributions from others on behalf of a campaign – to Shea’s zero. Some might look at such a financial disparity and grow pessimistic, but Shea said she sees it as proof of the outsized influence money is playing in Austin politics and the need for her to get elected and do something about it.

In particular she pointed out that real estate attorney David Armbrust, whose firm has worked to bring Formula 1 to Austin, is one of Leffingwell’s most effective bundlers.

“People look at that and say, ‘How are we going to have a fair shake at City Hall when people are pouring so much money in and appear to be getting deals?’” Shea said. “I think it corrupts the whole process, and something needs to be done about it.”

Two Libertarians, Daniel Krawisz and Clay Defoe, and a third person, Nicholas Ryan Lucier, have also indicated they plan to run for Mayor by naming campaign treasurers.

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