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Two-page ad attacks political consultant Butts

Monday, December 1, 2014 by Jo Clifton

A two-page color ad in Sunday’s Austin American-Statesman, headlined “Invisible man controls the Austin City Council,” attacks political consultant David Butts and calls on voters to reject some candidates Butts supports in the Dec. 16 runoff election.

The ad says, “Did you ever wonder why, no matter how much we vote for change in the way city government works, nothing ever seems to actually change? The biggest reason: David Butts, the Invisible Man. Hiding in the shadows, he has kept mayors and council members under his thumb for decades. But it’s time for him to go.”

The ad also includes a shadowy photo, purported to be Butts, but it might just be a man wearing glasses.

It is not clear who is behind the ad, but the targeted candidates are Greg Casar in District 4, Leslie Pool in District 7, Ed Scruggs in District 8 and Mandy Dealey in District 10. The fine print at the bottom of the ad indicates that it was paid for by a group calling itself Coalition of Austin Neighborhoods, although it is not related to the Austin Neighborhoods Council.

Ian Marcotte, who is described as a political researcher on LinkedIn, is the treasurer. The treasurer information is on the Texas Ethics Commission’s website, but there is no further information on the group or who is funding it, either on the TEC site or on the city clerk’s page of election-related contribution information.

The ad claims that Butts is a “puppeteer” who controls the votes on the Council and that he works with the “Big Four Fixers,” described as lawyers who work on zoning, tax incentives and “other special considerations for their clients.” With no names attached, the Monitor simply picked the names of four of the most successful attorneys who work as City Hall lobbyists. No one around City Hall calls them the “big four fixers,” but David Armbrust, his partner Richard Suttle, Steve Drenner and Michael Whellan successfully handle numerous zoning and business matters before the Council and various boards and commissions.

Each of the four denied being one of the top lobbyists. Except for Armbrust, all of them also denied having worked with Butts on any issue or endeavor at City Hall. Armbrust said he had worked with Butts to organize neighborhood opposition to a landfill/recycling center in Northeast Austin last year.

Butts said he was personally opposed to the waste facility, which would have been located close to his neighborhood. He added that if he were able to pull strings at City Hall, he would have had the Council reject Water Treatment Plant 4. He said he also worked to save a heritage tree downtown, and that the tree was eventually moved to another location to make way for development.

Butts told the Monitor that while the ad is largely untrue, he considers it good publicity and intends to frame a copy. Casar said he went out and bought two copies of Sunday’s Statesman so he can keep one for his scrapbook.

At one time or another, Butts has helped Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Members Laura Morrison, Kathie Tovo, Mike Martinez, Sheryl Cole and Bill Spelman. Asked whether he had ever helped Chris Riley, Butts responded that he had “one campaign meeting with Chris in his second race in 2012.” Of course, Butts worked for Tovo and her campaign against Riley this year. Butts has helped numerous candidates over the past 40 years, but has never worked as a lobbyist and is more in sync with the environmental community than the business community the lobbyists represent.

Three of the candidates targeted by the ad are Democrats running against Republicans, while Pool is running against fellow Democrat Jeb Boyt. Butts said although he has offered advice to Pool, Casar and Scruggs, he has not received any payment nor does he expect any from them. He added that Dealey has not paid him and might not do so if she does not win her race.

Butts noted that he was hired by mayoral candidate Steve Adler and Tovo, and that they have paid him for his services. The ad does not mention Adler, who is Butts’ biggest client at the moment, in terms of both money and publicity.

In trying to figure out who might have funded the ad, the Monitor called former Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy, who has not been shy about expressing his political point of view. Last month, Levy helped fund another Statesman ad opposing the city’s bond proposition on urban rail. But he declined to comment on whether he helped fund the anti-Butts ad, saying, “I’m just telling you I can’t say anything.”

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