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Lack of money critical factor in Shea’s loss to Mayor

Monday, May 14, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Although only about 10 percent of Austin voters bothered to cast ballots either during Early Voting or on Election Day, their votes mean four incumbents will be able to return to their offices today and pick up as if the last six months had not even happened.


But the Mayor’s race, in which incumbent Lee Leffingwell beat former Council Member Brigid Shea, the only one with even a bare minimum of publicity, offers some lessons. Leffingwell ended the evening with 52 percent, Shea with 37 percent of the vote and Clay Dafoe with nearly 11 percent.


In Fact Daily talked with two veteran political consultants, David Butts and Peck Young, about what happened in Saturday’s election. Each has worked in many campaigns over the past 30 years. Butts consulted for Mayor Lee Leffingwell in this race. Young, who is director of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies at Austin Community College, did not work for any of the candidates but said he supported the incumbents.


Young told In Fact Daily that, despite the wins for the incumbent slate, “there is some concern among voters about what’s being done and what’s happening at City Hall.”


Young cites Shea’s ability to cut Leffingwell’s lead by five percentage points – from 55 percent to just less than 50 percent — between early voting and Election Day. Young points to Shea’s television ad chastising Leffingwell for his vote to allow the Formula 1 track to locate in Travis County, thereby giving F1 access to the state’s economic incentives package. “(She) kicked over a hornets’ nest,” Young said.


Young blames the city’s strict financial contribution limits for most candidates’ inability to raise enough money to mount an effective campaign. If Shea had been able to start her TV ad sooner, it might have cut Leffingwell’s total in Early Voting too, forcing him into a runoff, he says.


“Just bringing that specter up gave (Shea) some movement,” he said. “Think what’s going to happen if the specter of that thing turns into a reality.”


For what happened at the precinct level, we asked Butts for his analysis. He said, “In the Mayor’s race, Lee was able to hold the establishment precincts while biting deeply into the central city. Brigid was not able to get enough in the central city” to win. Also, he noted, there were “some defections going to Dafoe.”


Butts said he talked to Shea before the election and pointed out the difficulty of running against Leffingwell. ‘I told Brigid …he’s got a foot in your camp…he can get votes out of Central Austin that (former Council Member) Randi Shade could not get…its not all going to be there for you…and you don’t have $300,000.” Shea ended up loaning herself $65,000. She will be able to seek more donations to pay herself back but it won’t be easy. Leffingwell entered this race with a $60,000 debt from 2009. It is not yet clear whether he will be able to pay himself back.


Butts also said, “There seemed to be an interesting correlation between how well Brigid did and how well Laura Pressley did” in various precincts. Pressley is the anti-fluoride candidate who supports Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. She got 44 percent of the vote against incumbent Council Member Mike Martinez.


“Pressley did surprisingly well in the southeast,” Butts noted, especially for an Anglo running against a Hispanic candidate. “Pressley and Brigid did pretty well in the far north but Leffingwell carried the city’s largest Democratic precinct, 342 in Barton Hills. Leffingwell “split Bouldin pretty evenly, and Zilker went for Brigid,” he said, “but not by the kind of margin she would need. (There were) only 694 votes cast on Election Day.” 


Butts disagrees with Young’s solution to the campaign finance problem, which would be to loosen restrictions and allow larger contributions to go into the races. “I really think we need to have city financed elections (but) now we have Citizens United,” he noted, which allows unregulated Political Action Committees to put unlimited money into any race. “Plug up the hole and it comes out another place,” he said. The bottom line is that only wealthy candidates and those supported by those with deep pockets have a chance at winning.

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