Brigid Shea served a tumultuous three years on the Austin City Council ending in June 1996, a period marked by Mayor Bruce Todd’s push to sell the city’s electric utility amid the nascent legislative restructuring of the electric industry in Texas and the birth of her first son, Eamon Brennan Umphress, on December 18, 1995, when Shea was 41.
Now Shea is considering challenging Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who announced his reelection bid November 16.
“I’m telling people this is a discussion worth having,” Shea told The Austin Bulldog. “The community is capable of having competing visions and that’s what I’m exploring.”
Leffingwell campaign spokesman Mark Littlefield said, “I think Brigid Shea’s been a stellar advocate and stakeholder and we look forward to hearing from her on the campaign trail.”
Shea declined to get into specifics about her differences with Mayor Leffingwell, saying, “I don’t want to get into the campaign until I’ve made a decision, but there’s a very sharp contrast in our leadership and vision.”
Shea filed a statement with the city clerk’s office late yesterday to appoint Danette Chimenti as her treasurer. Chimenti supported Kathie Tovo’s campaign that unseated Council Member Randi Shade this year, as well as the re-election campaign of Council Member Laura Morrison.
The Austin Chronicle posted a report online this afternoon about a poll conducted last night that included questions asking respondents to compare Shea, Leffingwell, and Council Members Bill Spelman and Sheryl Cole. The latter two were at one time considered possible mayoral candidates but they have since declined to run for mayor and are running for reelection.
Shea told The Austin Bulldog that she was “not confirming or denying” that she commissioned the poll.
Pollster Jeff Smith, owner of Opinion Analysts, said his company conducted the poll but he was not at liberty to disclose who paid for without permission, and he had not obtained it yet.
Shea’s treasurer, Chimenti, cofounded Logical Information Machines Inc., a company that grew out of the Austin Technology Incubator initiative of the University of Texas. The company was to be sold to Morningstar Inc., a leading provider of independent investment research, for a reported $51.5 million, according to a PRNewswire report of December 11, 2009. At the time of the sale the company’s largest office was in Austin and employed about 80 people, the article stated, with locations in Austin, Houston, Chicago, New York and London.
Chimenti is past president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council and has served on the city’s Parks and Recreation Board. She is currently a member of the city’s Planning Commission, to which she was appointed by Council Member Bill Spelman in July 2009.
Shea, who turns 57 on January 9, won her political spurs as founding director of the Save Our Springs Coalition formed in 1991. The Coalition successfully petitioned to get the SOS Ordinance on the ballot and won voter approval in 1992 by a two-to-one margin.
During the run-up to the SOS Ordinance election in 1992 Shea often traded barbs with Freeport-McMoRan Inc. CEO Jim Bob Moffett, who was threatening to bankrupt the city with litigation of the SOS Ordinance passed.
She also crossed swords with Circle C developer Gary Bradley during the SOS Ordinance campaign. One memorable videotape of Shea and Bradley in a cramped radio studio showed an obviously angry Bradley trying to debate the proposed ordinance. The Austin American-Statesman published a lengthy feature article October 23 noting that Shea and Bradley had quit fighting, something emblematic of the maturing of both these individuals and the environmental movement.
Shea won her council seat in 1993 in a runoff election against incumbent Bob Larson, who had been part of the narrow 4-3 council majority that opposed the SOS Ordinance.
Mayor Leffingwell has environmental credentials, too, having served on the city’s environmental board for five years before being elected to the city council in 2005. He served as a council member till he was elected mayor in 2009.
But the mayor has angered many in the environmental community for pushing construction of half-billion-dollar Water Treatment Plant 4 that the SOS Alliance and others said was unnecessary, and for supporting the Formula One race track.
To see The Austin Bulldog’s background investigation on Leffingwell published December 2, click here.
Shea’s council term and later work
As a council member, along with Jackie Goodman of the Save Barton Creek Association, who also was elected to the council in 1993, the balance of power shifted enough to kill a $3 million contract already awarded and stop construction of a major sewer project that would have boosted capacity to serve areas over the environmentally sensitive aquifer.
In 1995, however, Shea was on the losing end of a battle to stop the extension of service over the aquifer to provide water to the Lantana tract owned by a Freeport-McMoRan subsidiary.
In 1995 while on the council, Shea and family moved into the Rainey Street neighborhood that is now home to a number of thriving bars, including one in the first home they lived in there, which they leased to the Clive Bar at Davis and Rainey streets. They own another residential rental property in the neighborhood at 73 Rainey St. They currently live at 2604 Geraghty in north central Austin. (To see the property records click here.)
After leaving the council in June 1996, Shea returned to the Save Our Springs Alliance as executive director. She gave birth to her second son, Charles, at age 44, and stepped down as director to become a part-time communications director. She left that job in September 1999 under the strain of having two young children and passion for a job that was making too many demands on her time.
Shortly after leaving the SOS Alliance Shea started an environmental consulting practice, Brigid Shea and Associates, a green consulting practice. She acted as a consultant to the city on its Austin Clean Water Program that lasted about seven years, a project triggered by EPA’s reaction to a massive sewage spill on Brushy Creek that contaminated well water and sickened some 1,400 people, Shea said, as well as almost daily spills in other parts of the city’s sewage system. She said she helped acquire $5 million in federal funding for the project that eventually won an EPA award.
Shea said she also worked for a mitigation plan for Green Mountain Energy’s offices near Barton Creek and a plan for Vignette Corporation, a software company, to complete a project like River Walk adjacent to its planned new offices on Waller Creek. That project was shelved after Vignette hit a slump. The building was never constructed and the company was subsequently acquired.
More recently She co-founded Carbon Shrinks LLC, a company that helped Texas Lehigh’s Cement Company’s kiln convert to eco-friendly fuels of wood chips and shredded tires that replaced coal and petroleum coke and radically lower carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.
In 1999 Shea was one of the leaders of the PIPE Coalition (Protecting Individuals, Protecting the Environment), which fought the Longhorn Pipeline that eventually won approval with stronger environmental safeguards to pump gasoline through large swaths of South Austin over the aquifer.
While off the council Shea stayed politically active. She was on the SOS Political Action Committee but resigned in 2000 over the board’s inability to muster a two-third’s majority to support the reelection of Mayor Kirk Watson.
Shea was in the forefront of two battles against giant retailer Walmart, first when a mega-store was proposed over the aquifer and again with Responsible Growth for Northcross, a group that resisted and won major downsizing of the new Walmart store built in the aging mall at Anderson Lane and Burnet Road.
Shea’s husband, John Umphress, works for Austin Energy now. But in the days before political contributions were vastly reduced by the 1997 passage of campaign finance rules, Umphress himself was a pipeline for huge sums of money from rock ’n’ roller Don Henley, who funneled major sums to environmental candidates for the Austin council. Henley gave $30,000 to Daryl Slusher’s 1994 attempt to unseat Mayor Bruce Todd’s re-election. In 1996 Henley gave Slusher $40,000 for his council race and Beverly Griffith $20,000 for hers. In 1997 he gave Bill Spelman $35,000 and Willie Lewis $25,000 to help their campaigns.
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