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Tejano Democrats split between Spelman and right-leaning Chavez

Thursday, April 5, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Members of the Tejano Democrats are so disenchanted with Place 5 City Council Member Bill Spelman and his position on the 10-1 single-member district plan, apparently, that the group came within a single vote last night of taking the rather curious political step of endorsing a candidate who has voted more often in Republican primaries than Democratic ones during the last decade. An even-split run-off vote between Spelman and challenger Dominic Chavez (who voted Republican in the 2006, 2008, and 2010 primaries) is all that kept the Tejano Democrats from doing so.

After learning there would be a run-off for Place 5 (after none of the seven candidates was able to secure 60 percent on the first ballot), one member of the Tejano Democrats admitted to In Fact Daily off the record that he didn’t realize Chavez had any Republican leanings.

Perhaps he would have if the audience had bothered to ask Chavez the question they had asked Place 2 challenger Laura Pressley earlier in the evening: Do you support the re-election of President Barack Obama? Pressley was met by loud grumbles after admitting that, no, she would not be supporting Obama because of his position on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It wasn’t the only contentious exchange Pressley would have with the crowd.

“Why aren’t you honoring the gentleman’s agreement,” a man asked the candidate, referring to her decision to challenge for the seat traditionally set aside for a Hispanic Council member. Her answer – that she had gotten the go-ahead from District 12 representatives from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and that she wouldn’t have done it “without their support and their permission” – prompted questions from LULAC representatives from other districts, such as district 650, about why she didn’t approach them as well. 

“I wasn’t aware of that district,” Pressley said, prompting mumbling from the crowd. “It’s the truth. What I do know is that people in East Austin are very unhappy at how they’re being treated, and I’m here to represent everybody, and I’m not going to give your money away to a bunch of rich people.”

Still, it was clear that the issues of single-member districts and the 10-1 plan were the ones most on the minds of the voters in attendance. Each of the candidates was asked if he or she would support:  Putting single-member districts on the Council agenda; creating an independent redistricting commission; and voting for the 10-1 system. 

All of the challengers said yes to all three questions, but the Council incumbents – perhaps more acutely aware of the difficulties inherent in making such proposals a reality, were more measured in their answers.

“I cannot in good faith tell you that I will vote for 10-1 plan,” Spelman said, perhaps dooming his chances at the Tejano Democrats endorsement. “And the reason I can’t is because I want single-member districts so badly that I want to put (the proposal) on the ballot that is most likely to pass. If 10-1 is the most likely to pass, I will vote for it. If it turns out a hybrid system is more likely to pass because we can get more votes from west Austin, if we can get some votes from Asians who would vote for a hybrid but not 10-1, if it turns out a hybrid is the one that can pass, that’s what I will vote for.”

Place 6 incumbent and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole also held back on endorsing any particular plan.

“In Place 6, you have the gentleman’s agreement, what is traditionally the African-American seat,” said Cole. “So I’ve always approached this from, Is what’s in the interest of the African-American community in conflict with what’s in the interest of the greater community, and tried to make a decision that way. There are racial implications to my decision, and I’m not ready at this time to publicly commit on that.”

One candidate who had been reticent about her beliefs until last night, mayoral challenger Brigid Shea, came out in favor of the 10-1 plan despite political consequences she said came up as a result.

“I lost some very powerful political supporters over the decision,” Shea told the crowd. “And that’s part of the reason I believe the mayor won’t commit. One of those very powerful political supporters said he was not going to support me as a result of my decision and he went over to supporting the mayor. But this is what leadership looks like, folks: It’s taking a stand on something that you believe in and then working with the community to make it so.”

Though Shea wouldn’t say who that powerful political figure was, political insiders say that person is political consultant David Butts. He has not been involved in either campaign until recently, when he began to work for Leffingwell. That said, Butts has worked for Leffingwell in the past.

Despite their no-endorsement in the Place 5 race, the Tejano Democrats did throw their support behind Leffingwell, Cole, and Council Member Mike Martinez for re-election. The South Austin Democrats, who were co-hosting the forum, gave their endorsements to all four incumbents.

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