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Reflections from Austin City Council Election Night

Monday, May 14, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Mayor Lee Leffingwell had his party at Scholz Garten, along with Council Member Mike Martinez. The mood was festive from the outset since it seemed likely from the minute the early vote was counted that all four incumbents would be returned to office.

 

Dressed in blue jeans and a shirt with rolled-up sleeves, the 72-year-old Mayor was introduced by his son Frank. Leffingwell thanked his wife, Julie Byers, and his family, as well as the more than 30 assorted groups and unions that endorsed his candidacy. Those on the stage with him included U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett and State Representative Eddie Rodriguez.

 

In his speech, Leffingwell recognized the tone of the race he’d just won. “I know that this has been a tough election. I know that there were tough decisions to make. I want to thank the voters of Austin for the confidence they’ve shown in me tonight,” he said.

 

Indeed, after his remarks, Leffingwell told In Fact Daily that this election had been his toughest yet. “I think it’s definitely been the most contentious race I’ve ever been involved in,” he said. “At times it was, frankly, a little bit nasty. But I guess that goes with the territory: If you’re in politics you’ve got to learn to expect that.”

 

Still, Leffingwell took the opportunity to acknowledge his most viable challenger. “It wasn’t always pleasant, but I want to thank my opponent Brigid Shea for running her campaign, for raising so many issues that we talked about and will continue to talk about,” he said. “What makes Austin great is its diversity of opinion and our City Hall will always be a place where everyone’s voice should be heard.”

 

Leffingwell then turned to the future. He promised to bring more jobs to the city before getting in to what could be a challenging six months.  “We’ll put urban rail to a vote, when it’s right — we will do that,” he said, seeming to hedge a bit. “We will change our city government to allow for geographic representation and we will move our elections from May to November.”

 

Both of those questions — along with a host of other bond issues and charter amendments — could find their way to this November’s general election.

 

Longtime Austin political consultant David Butts, who worked for Leffingwell,  gave his take on the election. “In the Mayor’s race, Lee (Leffingwell) was able to hold the establishment precincts while biting deeply into the central city. Brigid (Shea) was not able to get enough in the central city….and there were some defections going to (Clay) Dafoe.

 

Shea told supporters gathered at Mexitas Saturday night that they had already made a difference with their campaign. “This was not in vain. We’ve already altered the conversation in this community around affordability. We have changed the conversation around incentives…We did that, you guys,” said Shea

 

Dafoe, who took nearly 11 percent of the vote in both the early vote and on Election Day, spent very little money but belongs to a group of citizens who while alienated, are still willing to work within the democratic system.

 

“I’ve been very impressed by all of the backing we’ve gotten,” he said. Dafoe told In Fact Daily that he planned to stay involved “Regardless of the outcome, I’ll continue to be involved in our government,” he said.

Council Member Bill Spelman defeated six challengers, none well-funded, to win with nearly 58 percent of the vote. He told In Fact Daily:

On low turnout:  “Early voting was lower than expected but Election Day voting appears to be higher than expected. It’s about 10 percent. And obviously that’s pathetic and it needs to come up. If we can move Election Day from May to November that number should come up a lot. But it won’t come up to 60 percent. A lot of people will go the polls in November and see all these names and decide they don’t know anything about city government and won’t vote. But a lot of people will think, ‘I have to vote in the city election now too; I’ve got to do some homework.’”

 

Why are the numbers so low? “There are no grand schisms in Austin. Those schisms we had 20, 30 years ago have largely healed themselves. People turn out for elections because they want to be on one side or another of a big issue that will determine the future of the city. One reason people are bored by city elections is because they don’t feel the need to exert themselves too much.”

 

Why did you win, and by such a large margin? “I think people recognized that all the incumbents did a very difficult job over the last three years, and all of us have voted for things that some people didn’t agree with. And what they had to ask themselves was, ‘Can I get over this one issue where we don’t see eye-to-eye, or is this so important to me that I have to vote for somebody else?’ I think the vast majority of people said, ‘We can get over it. I don’t like how he voted on this one thing, but that’s not the whole ball of wax, and that’s not the way you move a city forward. We’ll forgive him that and try to work with him again.’”

 

In Fact Daily talked with Dominic Chavez, who took 19 percent of the vote against incumbent Bill Spelman and five other candidates.

 

Chavez said, “It was a good race. We jumped in pretty late. We raised less than a fifth of the other candidate, but we also reached out to neighborhoods that have never been approached before in a Council race.

 

“We ran a positive campaign. We’ve got a lot of good positive feedback. The low turnout didn’t work in our favor, but I don’t really know how we crack that night, other than moving the election to November and going to single-member districts.

 

“They ran some last-minute hit pieces, a lot of which the Statesman knocked down. It’s hard to compete with that and run city wide with a budget of $20,000.”

 

Chavez said he knew this would be a though uphill battle. He said he was pleased to see the city has announced it will review its incentive pay policy. And that the city will soon start addressing the governance issues over at Austin Energy, possibly by creating an independent board. Chavez said he discussed both during his campaign.

 

“If those two things get addressed, then I think we added something to the conversation,” Chavez said. “Sometimes winning isn’t everything. We had the opportunity to shape people’s mindsets and shape future policy.”

Martinez v. Pressley

 

Incumbent Mike Martinez addressed his campaign workers and supporters Saturday night:

 

The former firefighter thanked family, staff, campaign staff, and a handful of union reps — including Austin Firefighter Association head Bob Nicks and AFCSME’s Jack Kirfman – for their help in his reelection bid.

 

After the obligatory thank-yous, Martinez began to look ahead. “The reporters are asking me and some folks are saying ‘so what do you do know; it’s your third term what are you going to do?’ Tomorrow we’re going to celebrate Mothers’ Day – we’ve got a baby coming on Sept. 3 – but on Monday, we go right back to work at City Hall,” he said. “We have really tough decisions facing this community and the Mayor and myself and the rest of the Council are prepared and capable of making those tough decisions.”

 

For Martinez, these include the lingering Austin Energy rate case, the city’s FY2013 budget, and his continued focus on Austin‘s status as a no-kill shelter city. “All of the things that we worked on last week and the week before are still here. The commitment that I make to you is that the work won’t stop and our efforts won’t change,” he said.

 

Martinez beat former semiconductor professional and anti-fluoride crusader Laura Pressley, who managed to score 45 percent of the vote in spite of clear organizational difficulties. When asked about the margin of victory, Martinez told In Fact Daily that he wasn’t surprised. “We wanted to win and it looks like that’s going to happen, so we’re pleased,” he said. “You know, voter turn out is abysmally low again. I still believe we need to move our elections to November to have more people participating, but we feel good about…the results.”

 

The Council member, who will begin his third term in the Place 2 seat, continued to point to lingering issues. “We’ve got so many issues that are pending right now that need our attention,” he said. “I really want to get through our Austin Energy rate case, I want to make sure that we balance the budget, try to hold the line of raising taxes, and then we’ll start talking about a longer-term vision for the three years ahead of us.”

 

Pressley thanked her supporters via email on Sunday, saying:

“Thanks to all that donated, volunteered, organized, block walked, phone banked, advertised, stuffed envelopes, sent emails, interviewed and endorsed us. It paid off and we’ll do it again! The attack on Austinites with regard to affordability, our small businesses, our health, and environment are real and more are seeing it every day. I’m here to stop it and will be back the next election!  

 

“We planted seeds that will continue to grow and we’ll harvest them the next election cycle. Thanks again for all the love and support!   Stay tuned…This was a great warm up!”

 

Butts commented “In the early vote, I had my campaign folks look at the new voters. In the Early Voting, amongst those who had a party primary affiliation, it was almost 2-1 Democrat voting for the first time. There was not a big Ron Paul surge.  (Laura) Pressley had the unique position of being able to cobble together support from the left and the right: some neighborhood, some Libertarians, sort of a classic coalition like Daryl Slusher put together in ‘94….and Daryl came within a few thousand votes of beating (Bruce) Todd,” who was elected Mayor that year.

 

“She, unlike Dominic Chavez, made a pretty good splash. He’s a bright and articulate person, but he stands for the wrong things. Saying you’re a Republican is the kiss of death,” in an Austin City Council election, Butts concluded.

 

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole addressed her supporters Saturday night:

 

“For all that we might do wrong, we as a community are doing something right. It’s been a challenging year, and people look at the Council and say, ‘It looks like you all don’t get along,’ but let me tell you something: This is the hardest working group of people I have ever seen before. After all the speculation about Bill Spelman being in a runoff, I am so glad he’ll be back to watch Laura (Morrison),” referring, presumably to the Austin Energy rate case.

 

“We have a lot of challenges ahead of us. With the charter election, we know that there’s a lot of opinions about which one we’re going to put on the ballot – the 10-1 plan or 8-2-1 – but I know we have that angst on the Council because we don’t want the charter election to fail. We don’t want the community to have to go through that. But democracy takes time. I’m glad that we have these challenging issues and I’m glad that we have a Council that can address them. It’s not just Mike and I that have to take on the rate issue; it’ s not just Bill and Chris that have to take on the environmental issue; it’s not just Laura and Kathie that have to take on the neighborhood issue. We all get in there together and we fight to move the city forward. We have to work on strengthening the community bonds to move all of our city forward.”

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