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University Dems make no endorsements in Place 5 and 6 races

Monday, March 26, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Saturday was a good day for Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Mike Martinez as they won endorsements from both the Central Austin Democrats and University Democrats at a forum held on the University of Texas campus. That means the Austin Progressive Coalition will work for Leffingwell and Martinez, leaving flyers on voters’ doors in Central and University area neighborhoods, among other things.

Not so for the other incumbents, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Council Member Bill Spelman. While all four won the official support of the Central Austin Democrats, members of University Democrats declined to make an endorsement in the races for seats 5 and 6.

Failing to get this endorsement could be a problem for Spelman, who faces five opponents on the May 12 ballot. The same is not true for Cole, however, who has only one opponent.

Mark Yznaga, a political consultant and friend of Spelman’s, downplayed the importance of the progressive coalition’s endorsement, saying the endorsement of such groups as the South Austin Democrats and Black Austin Democrats was much more significant.

All of the incumbents had to defend some of their most notable legislative decisions from the last three years, from Formula 1 to the recent economic development agreement with Apple. In the end, it was two particular issues – affordability and Council’s response to State Senate Bill 100, which gave them the opportunity to move city elections from May to November, an opportunity they didn’t take – that caused the most debate. Spelman and Cole joined Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo in the vote to keep this year’s election in May. Leffingwell and Martinez were among those dissenting.

Some observers believe that the May/November election question was the most crucial issue for the University Democrats in deciding not to endorse Spelman and Cole, but the group’s president, Huey Fischer, had a more nuanced view. In addition to the question of when City Council elections should be, Fischer said the group was not satisfied with various positions Cole and Spelman have taken – including Cole’s failure to endorse a 10-1 plan for City Council districts. The Council has not voted on what kind of plan or plans to put on the November charter election ballot.

Spelman told In Fact Daily he sees the Council endorsing whatever plan is most likely to be accepted.

“What I’ve said is that we need some kind of single-member district representation,” he said. “What it is ought to be determined primarily by what will pass. So what I think we need to do is back a plan the public will go with. Whether it’s 10-1 or 10-2-1, we need to be on the side of whatever is going to pass.”

As for the lack of an endorsement by University Democrats, he said, “Frankly, I was really disappointed.”

Fischer also said the two were not sufficiently supportive of Smart Growth and planning for mass transportation, which he said “is hugely critical to the student population.” Spelman said he was very much in favor of mass transit but that the group did not ask him about it.

Also not winning any friends here was mayoral challenger Brigid Shea, who questioned the premise that November elections would necessarily be a positive thing for the city and its governance.

“I don’t understand why there’s an objection to people who do turn out for city elections,” in May, said Shea. “To me the people who turn out are the ones who are paying attention, who want to participate. It seems odd to me to make them wrong because they turn out. It’s a criticism that those people turn out and other people don’t? I’ve spoken to several political consultants who’d say you’d have more people turning out in November who knew less about city elections and who pay less attention to city elections.”

Regarding SB 100, most of the candidates, both incumbents and challengers, came out in support of both a move to November elections and a move to a 10-1 single-member system, the better, they said, to ensure true representation and increase voter turnout for municipal elections.

“There is no equality on City Council because of the at-large system,” said Place 6 challenger Shaun Ireland, a sentiment shared by Place 5 hopeful John Rubine, who said, “I support 10-1 because that’s going to get voters out; I support November elections because that’s going to get voters out. How can we call ourselves a democracy when only 7 percent of registered voters vote?”

Rubine’s fellow Place 5 challenger Tina Cannon put it even more succinctly – “Seven percent is an abysmal number” – and Martinez even questioned the democratic bona fides of those opposed to such a move: “If you don’t want to move elections to November,” he said, “you don’t want more people voting.”

During another part of the discussion, Shea said, “I want a prosperous and beautiful city where our children and our grandchildren and our elders can still afford to live, and that’s not the path that we’re on. Decisions at City Hall have made Austin more expensive, and the cost of development is passed on to us. There have been too many giveaways, bad deals, and bad management. This Council hashed an old-school model where we’re giving away our assets and our revenues because we think we have to pay people to come here. New development should pay for itself.”

Domenic Chavez, who is also challenging Spelman for Place 5, sounded a similar note, saying working families are being pushed out of the city by rising property taxes and utility rates.

“I believe working families in this community are not being represented,” Chavez said. “They’re being squeezed more and more. The day we can’t have our school teachers; our city, county, and state employees; our small business (owners) and working families actually be able to live and thrive in this community is the day we lose Austin. And we’re getting pretty darn close to that.”

Cole responded to similar criticism from her only challenger, Shaun Ireland, by saying she and her fellow incumbents had made affordable housing a priority over the last three years.

“Affordability is the hardest question facing us,” Cole said. “All of our Transit Oriented Development, all around the stops of the Red Line, they all have affordable housing requirements.”

Leffingwell, meanwhile, pointed to a recent Austin American-Statesman article the reported Austin has been the No.1 city in the country for job creation since 2004 as proof that the city has been in good hands, even during hard times.

“We’ve brought thousands of jobs to Austin,” he said. “We got through the recession without laying off a single city employee, maintained our basic city services, and we maintained our AAA bond rating.”

For Place 2 challenger Laura Pressley, one of the many ways City Council members have proven they’re “out of touch with regards to affordability in our city” is their repeated use of incentives and exemptions to attract businesses from out of town.

“We need to buy local, and all these subsidies are outrageous,” she said. “We think the Council should buy local, not send millions to contracts for companies from outside the city.”

Mayoral candidate Clay Dafoe echoed that sentiment, saying the best way to keep Austin affordable is by “cutting corporate welfare … Massive corporate subsidies and tax breaks for large corporations.”

Martinez responded by defending his recent vote to grant $8.6 million in tax rebates for Austin over 10 years in return for more than 3600 jobs.

“I supported the Apple deal but not before adding an amendment that required them to provide living wages, improve safety considerations and access from our Workers Defense Project to employees on the site,” Martinez said.

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