Former Council Member Packs Threadgill’s For Rousing Mayoral Campaign Kickoff
The big crowd that came to hear Brigid Shea announce she will run for mayor showed she has a strong core of supporters willing to help her try to unseat incumbent Mayor Lee Leffingwell.
She has 100 days before the May 12 election to expand her support and build a winning campaign against a well-funded, deeply entrenched incumbent who has won three previous elections and been on the city council for seven years.
While time is short for Shea to rally a winning campaign, Kathie Tovo got an even later start last year by not appointing a treasurer—a prerequisite to soliciting campaign contributions—until April 1 for a May 14 election. Yet Tovo bested incumbent Council Member Randi Shade 46-33 percent in the May general election and then won a thumping 56-44 percent victory in the runoff.
Leffingwell was first elected to the City Council in 2005 and re-elected in 2008, winning both elections without a runoff. He got 47.23 percent of the vote in his first mayoral contest in 2009 but avoided a runoff when opponent Brewster McCracken withdrew.
Like all who were serving on the City Council in January 2011, Leffingwell is being investigated by the county attorney for possible violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act. The outcome of that investigation, now in its second year, could have an impact on Leffingwell’s re-election chances.
Some who attended Shea’s kickoff—including Shea herself—contributed money to Leffingwell’s mayoral campaign in 2009.
In her speech, Shea touted accomplishments during her three years on the Austin City Council, 1993-1996. She said she championed consumer, electoral, and environmental issues and was proud that she helped usher in a political consensus that “preserving our environment is essential to the economy and our future.”
“I am running for mayor because we need new leadership and new direction at City Hall. This race is about the future,” Shea said. “We need leadership that’s true to Austin’s unique character and the interests of all the people who live here. We need a city government that works for all of us—not just the insiders and the influentials.”
She said as mayor she would have two main priorities: “Protecting Austin’s quality of life and keeping our city affordable, for the people who live here and pay taxes here.”
Shea said our current city leadership is falling short on both counts, focusing more on making big development deals than maintaining the quality of life and affordability of the city.
“Property taxes have increased year after year, to the top level allowed by law,” she said. “City fees have gone up. Water rates have soared. Electrical rates are rising. These increases strain our families’ budgets and are proportionately higher for average homeowners and small businesses than they are for big businesses.”
Some of these increases might be necessary, she said, but many could have been avoided through better management, better oversight, and better vision.
“The city has also been irresponsible in spending our tax dollars,” she said. “There have been too many giveaways, too many bad deals, and too much bad management.”
“We’re operating with an old-school model that gives away city assets because we think we need to pay people to come here. I’m running for mayor to put a stop to that,” Shea said, drawing strong applause.
As examples, she cited a $4 million subsidy for a high-rise hotel “the owners were going to build anyway” while the city could not afford to keep open all community swimming pools, and okaying a $250 million state subsidy for Formula One racing when our school district was considering closing some neighborhood schools.
“And now we find out that New Jersey was able to negotiate for a Formula One race without any subsidies,” she added. “It’s a sad day in Austin when we have to say, ‘Why can’t we be more like New Jersey?’”
She said Austin needs a new economic vision that “get’s it,” that protecting the city’s unique qualities is key to attracting new business.
“We need economic planning that makes Austin more prosperous but also makes new development pay for itself instead of being so heavily subsidized by current residents.”
She said that despite Austin’s rapid growth our poverty rate in increasing.
“As mayor I’ll pursue a vision that keeps Austin unique, and beautiful, and shares the fruit of prosperity with all of our citizens,” she said.
Shea vowed to work closely with the Austin Independent School District to save neighborhood schools, which she said are key to healthy property values and strong neighborhoods.
“I will organize mayors across this state to send that same message to the Legislature,” she said, “and urge full funding of our schools.”
She noted that Austin is frequently one of the most traffic-congested cities of its size in the nation and promised to find creative ways to get traffic moving—but not by adding toll lanes to the MoPac Expressway.
“I want us to be the most water-wise city in the nation,” Shea said, “and with the drought we need to be.” She promised to pursue ways to better use and conserve water and to fix the city’s leaking water lines.
As mayor Shea said she wanted to create a culture at City Hall where all citizens, regardless of their status, are welcomed and listened to, a remark alluding to the council e-mails published last year that showed some council members were not respectful of all who came to speak.
“I want to cut back the influence of lobbyists, and special-interest campaign money. It corrupts the process when those who are financing the incumbents’ campaigns are the same ones who are reaping millions in city contracts and deals. I’ll introduce true transparency and tougher contribution limits.”
She said she wanted to preserve green space, open space and neighborhoods.
“There’s nothing personal in this” Shea said. “I’ve known Lee Leffingwell a long time. We’ve worked on projects together. But City Hall needs a new direction.
“I see this election as the opportunity for an honest discussion about the future of our city.”
Shea closed with a call for support and contributions that was met with loud, sustained applause, before the crowd broke out in a chant reminiscent of what winning candidates typically hear on election night: “Bri-gid! Bri-gid! Bri-gid!”
Supporters dislike status quo
Robin Rather, a longtime environmental activist who as one-time board chair of the Save Our Springs (SOS) Alliance worked with Shea as executive director, said she “absolutely” supports Shea to be the next mayor of Austin. “She’s not a career politician,” Rather said. “Brigid is a person of great conviction and she is getting into public service to serve her principles. I feel we need more of that.”
“I don’t think Lee (Leffingwell) is an environmentalist. He doesn’t have a passion for that. I think he’s a caretaker mayor,” said Rather, who currently serves with Shea on Liveable City’s board of directors. “People who like the direction Austin is going will stick with Lee. We can do a lot better than that. … Brigid will clean Lee’s clock on vision.”
Bill Bunch, executive director of the SOS Alliance, noted that the Alliance does not endorse candidates but he personally supports Shea in the mayoral race. He noted that when Shea was on the City Council, “she was solid on environmental and affordability issues.” More recently, “She spoke out against Water Treatment Plant 4,” Bunch said of the major construction project that Mayor Leffingwell voted for and was authorized by a narrow 4-3 margin. Randi Shade also supported the project, a factor that may have contributed to her defeat by Kathie Tovo.
Longtime environmental and community activist Mary Arnold, herself a one-time member of the SOS Alliance board, is glad to see Shea enter the race. “I’m very strongly in favor of someone running against Lee,” she said.
As a member of the board of the Better Austin Today Political Action Committee (BATPAC), Arnold said she could not support a candidate until the PAC makes an endorsement. But she went on to praise Shea, a former NPR journalist, for being good at “listening to the issues and putting together arguments in a very concise, understandable, and powerful way in terms of a message.”
Jeff Jack is an architect who once served as a policy aide for then Council Member Beverly Griffith. He currently chairs the BATPAC board and isn’t able to endorse a candidate yet. On how Shea differs from Leffingwell, he said, “Brigid is not entrenched in the status quo. She listens to organizations on both sides and does not take positions based on the usual people at City Hall. She has a good sense of skepticism.”
Cory Walton, senior communications specialist at Emerson Process Management and an Austin resident for 20 years, said, “I’ve seen too much of the way City Hall works, and it needs to change. … “The council’s priority is developing and building for the next 750,000 residents instead of thinking of the current 750,000 people who are invested in this community.”
The Reverend Sterling Lands II, pastor of the Greater Calvary Baptist Church, said, “I think Brigid is a person of high integrity. We need someone honest and transparent and I think she’s the one.” Asked if he would bring his congregation along to support Shea, he replied, “Of course.”
Former Council Member Jackie Goodman, who was first elected to the council along with Shea in 1993, said of Shea’s mayoral race, “Really determined people can make it happen, but it’s not going to be a walk in the park.”
Jim Franklin, artist and long-time Austin resident, said, “I like the things (Shea) has done in the past in regards to environmental concerns. She knows how to get things done.” He said he likes that Shea is a candidate with experience in politics but won’t support “mindless developments.”
Mike Sloan, president of Virtus Energy Research Associates Inc., is heavily involved in shaping energy policies. He attended to support Shea and said, “Austin Energy has not gotten good guidance from the mayor and City Council.”
Sloan said Austin’s decades-long policy of embracing conservation and energy efficiency is being phased out, noting that in the last budget cycle the City of San Antonio massively increased funding for energy efficiency and rooftop solar while Austin Energy focused on the short-term and reduced funding for these initiatives. “We built new gas plants, fixed our coal plant, and pre-bought natural gas. Austin Energy is not good at dialing down fossil fuels.”
During Shea’s time on the City Council she helped to stave off then Mayor Bruce Todd’s initiative to put the city’s electric system up for sale, and took a strong stance in guiding the city’s consultants hired to help make the utility more competitive.
Another energy activist, Karen Hadden, executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, said she personally supports Shea’s mayoral bid. “Brigid has the vision for the City of Austin and the energy needed to make positive changes. She’ll be a great leader.”
Paul Robbins, writer, energy consultant, and publisher of the Austin Environmental Directory, said “The city’s water and electric utilities are in bad need of supervision. We have the highest combined water and wastewater rates of any Texas city. The electric rates proposed are well in excess of what they really need. I want someone who will stand up to the bureaucracy.”
Neil Carman, clean air program director for the Sierra Club’s state Lone Star Chapter, said he supports Shea, “Because I want to see a change at City Hall. … “Instead of putting money into a new water treatment plant, we should have invested in conservation and reuse to get the most out of the water we’ve got.”
“We spend a $100 million a year on coal from Wyoming,” Carman said. “That money could be spent on green jobs in Austin.”
Roy Waley, vice chair of the Austin Regional Group of the Sierra Club, said the group will be going through its usual process to determine which candidates to endorse. But he offered an observation of the distinction between Lee Leffingwell and Brigid Shea: “It’s the difference between ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘The Music Man.’”
Reporter Rebecca LaFlure contributed to this article.
Open Meetings Investigation a Year Old Today, The Austin Bulldog, January 25, 2012
Brigid Shea Exploring Run for Mayor, The Austin Bulldog, December 6, 2011
Background Investigation: Mayor Lee Leffingwell, The Austin Bulldog December 2, 2011
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