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‘Godfather of progressive politics in Austin’ dies

Friday, August 17, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Ken Wendler Jr., who has been described as the “godfather of progressive politics in Austin,” passed away on Aug. 13 at the age of 88.

Wendler served as chairman of the Travis County Democratic Party from 1972 to 1980.

Two of his friends, former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and Peck Young, director of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies at Austin Community College, described for the Austin Monitor Wendler’s outsize influence on local politics.

Barrientos said the progressive movement that Wendler helped to birth was “the first major advance for the city of Austin and Central Texas in terms of electing individuals of a philosophy of serving everyone equally.”

Young, a longtime political consultant who worked for progressive candidates before taking the job at ACC, and Barrientos, a Democrat who served in the Texas House of Representatives for 10 years and in the Texas Senate for 21 years, are among those who credit Wendler with pushing Travis County Democrats toward diversity.

In 1972, Young was a student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Barrientos was a young organizer running for public office for the first time. Young met Wendler, who hired him to run the get-out-the-vote effort in East Austin. “He wanted a dynamic organization that was committed to diversity and electing people of all political stripes and minorities,” Young said. Wendler also wanted precinct chairs who were political activists, which had not been the case previously.

Barrientos was part of the new crop of candidates who had worked in efforts for civil rights, farmworkers, the labor movement, equality for minorities, and protection of the environment and against the Vietnam War. Those groups decided that they needed to work together to help each other, Barrientos said, and they helped elect Wendler, “who would give all those groups an equal hearing and advice on how to move forward with the Democratic Party.”

Among the people that Wendler helped were Richard Moya, who became a Travis County commissioner; John Treviño, who served on the Austin City Council; Wilhelmina Delco, the first African-American legislator elected at large in Travis County; African-American Council members Berl Handcox and Jimmy Snell; and Barrientos.

“Back in those days, not many of us had very much money,” Barrientos remembered. In fact, Barrientos did not have a suit. So, he said, Wendler sent Barrientos out with the money to buy a suit and an attorney to help him pick it out.

Wendler had a construction business and conducted party business in the same South Austin office. After losing a primary election in 1972, Barrientos said he was not eager to run again. However, Wendler got Moya, Treviño and some other friends to talk Barrientos into running against the incumbent in 1974. He still recalls that there was a runoff, which he won by 84 votes, which became 94 votes after a recount.

“I used to say to Wendler, ‘Hey, thanks for the $600-a-month job,’” he quipped, referring to the standard pay for Texas legislators.

Young said Wendler was also instrumental in helping U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett win his first race for the Texas Senate in 1973 and helped Jeff Friedman win the race for mayor in 1975. Friedman was the progressive candidate running against the establishment represented by Roy Butler and Bud Dryden, Young noted.

“Ken just had an enormous influence in making Austin a different kind of town. He provided the opportunities, the resources, and the guidance a bunch of Young Turks needed in order to take on the establishment and win,” Young said.

Wendler is survived by Cathy Bonner, his partner of 42 years; five children from his marriage to Ann West Wendler; eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his brother, Ed Wendler Sr., the best-known lobbyist at City Hall during the 1980s.

Cathy Bonner is hosting a celebration of Wendler’s life on his 89th birthday, Sept. 11 at 6:30 p.m. (time revised) at Chez Zee, 5406 Balcones Drive, 78731.

Photo by Kumar Appaiah [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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