He views the 10-1 system as a gift and an opportunity to restart, revitalize city government
Part 1 of a series
It may have been inevitable that Stephen Ira “Steve” Adler, a soft-spoken attorney, would one day want to lead the City of Austin into a new era of governance.
Adler is one of three children born to Lee Elliott Adler and Selma Adler. He was born in Washington. DC, March 23, 1956, and raised in that city and in Maryland, where he went to public schools. He grew up steeped in the culture of national news and political coverage broadcast from Washington by CBS television, where his father worked. As a boy he sometimes found himself in the studio with legendary journalists Eric Sevareid, Roger Mudd, and White House reporter Dan Rather, with an occasional visit from New York-based Walter Cronkite.
As a budding 17-year-old high school senior Adler clerked for Congressman Gilbert Gude, R-Maryland, in the Capitol. It was 1973 and the Watergate hearings were underway that summer. Adler said he sat in on the Senate hearings on the only day, June 27, 1973, when John Lennon and wife Yoko Ono also attended the hearings. At the time Lennon was appealing a federal deportation order that sprang from President Richard Nixon’s disdain for Lennon’s political views and influence.
Forty years later, in an exclusive interview with The Austin Bulldog, Adler said, “That was one of the highlights of my life. I sat behind John Lennon and Yoko Ono. It was pretty cool.” (Unfortunately he didn’t get into the widely circulated photo shown here.)
Adler arrived in Austin in 1978 to attend law school at the University of Texas. He was fresh out of Princeton University with a bachelor of arts degree. “I worked and they gave me a scholarship, which is the only way I could go to the college I went (to).”
Over the ensuing decades Adler has spent a lot of time, energy, and money supporting nonprofit organizations and political causes. (The next story in this series will provide an in-depth examination of these community service endeavors.)
Now he wants to be Austin’s next mayor.
“I think that when you find yourself in a city that you love that has been so good to you, that’s facing the challenges that it’s facing with a new government restart, making it an absolutely crucial moment in time, and you are able to be able to help, I don’t know how you don’t do that. I don’t know how five years from now you look back and say, ‘I was in a position to be able to do something and I didn’t do it.’ That’s why I’m running.”
A new mayor for a new government
There has perhaps never been a time when electing the right mayor is more important.
Come January 2015, a new form of government will be implemented with council members elected from 10 geographic districts drawn by a nonpartisan commission.
Whoever is elected mayor will have the Herculean task of leading a City Council that will have no fewer than nine new members—most if not all of whom will have no experience in elective politics or making the momentous decisions that will affect our future.
All registered voters can cast ballots to decide who will be Austin’s next mayor, but only the residents of each district will decide who represents them on the council dais.
Only two incumbents now serving on the City Council—Chris Riley and Kathie Tovo—are eligible to run for reelection, and they will face off in District 9. The mayor and all other council members currently serving are term-limited and can only get on the ballot through a petition drive. None have initiated that effort.
Much depends on whether these new officeholders will coalesce behind a new mayor to do what’s best for the 11th most populous city in the United States—and one of the fastest growing.
The two leading announced mayoral candidates are current Council Member Mike Martinez and Adler.
Martinez, a council member since 2006, kicked off his campaign April 5.
The Austin Bulldog published an in-depth background investigation about Martinez on February 25, 2012, when he last ran for reelection as a council member.
Adler launches his campaign at 3:30pm Sunday May 4 at City Hall.
Council Member Sheryl Cole is also contemplating running for mayor. Like Martinez, Cole has been on the City Council since 2006.
Aircraft maintenance technician Randall Stephens has appointed himself campaign treasurer to indicate his intention to compete as well.
The campaign that brought about a new system of electing people to the Austin City Council was years in the making.
Austinites for Geographic Representation formed a broad grassroots coalition, completed a six-months-long petition drive, and waged a vigorous campaign to win voter approval. And win it did in November 2012—despite an attempt to override the citizens’ initiative with a last-minute alternative ordinance placed on the ballot by council members who preferred something else.
Adler said he voted for the 10-1 plan (Proposition 3 on the November 6, 2012, ballot) and did not vote for the alternative 8-2-1 plan (Proposition 4). (Voters were able to vote for or against either or both of these propositions.)
Why is Adler running?
“There are a lot of wonderful things about Austin,” he said, “but I think there are challenges we face that are risking what makes Austin special, (which is) the reason that I stayed here when I got here in ’78. I think that we need to get long-term solutions to some of these issues.
“The need to do that’s happening at the same time that we’re moving to the 10-1 (form of) government and I think that the 10-1 government is a gift to the city, and provides an opportunity for a governance culture restart, a whiteboard. And I think that it provides us the dynamic to actually be able to meet those challenges in ways that we haven’t been able to in the past.
“I think that it’s critical that we get this right as we start because however it happens … good or bad, is going to get institutionalized and set for the next five, ten, 15 years.”
“I just think we need to be able to nail it.”
Later in the interview Adler said, “I think that I … have the skillset to be able to maximize the potential that 10-1 has. And at this point in our lives, Diane (Land, his wife) and I are in a position where we can do this.”
“I think that the new council and the new mayor have the opportunity to create something new and something that can more boldly and directly deal with the challenges that we face. When the citizens of Austin approved 10-1 they approved it with the expectation that it would work—and not that that government would seize and stop. So, I think there’s an obligation to make sure that that happens. As I go around and talk to the candidates that are running for city council. … I am real encouraged by the caliber of people that are running for those roles. I think it’s important for us to set this new government in a deliberative way, (a) thoughtful way. I have full belief that we can do it and do it well, and it’s the reason I’m running.”
What about Martinez, Cole?
Both Cole and Martinez, who also chairs the board of Capital Metro, have eight years of experience in managing city government from the dais. What does Adler think he can offer as mayor that neither one of them may be able to offer?
“I think I can offer a fresh eye and a new perspective, a new way forward,” Adler said. “I have been in and around government and city government for a long time. I’ve been in this city since 1978, but I think that moving forward we need to figure out a new and different way to deal with some of the challenges we have that we’ve been dealing with for the last eight, 10, 15 years and don’t seem to really be able to get a handle on.”
Of Cole and Martinez, Adler said, “I’m not running because they’ve done me wrong. I’m running because I think with the 10-1 system we need to be able to think forward. We need to take the fullest advantage of a cultural restart. We can’t be comfortable with how we’ve done things in the past. You know, we run the risk of reflexively going back to what we know best because we’ve done it before.
“But the traffic issues we face are issues that we’ve seen for a long time. We have issues with respect to affordability. We have issues with respect to the disparity and wealth in this city. We have issues relating to public education and funding in this city with AISD (Austin Independent School District). These are not new issues that we have. We just maybe need to look at them differently or move on them differently.”
Q&A on Adler’s priorities
The following exchange took place in a March 14 meeting with the candidate. Adler’s statements are direct quotes from the recorded interview.
Bulldog—What are your top priorities if you’re elected mayor?
Adler—I think the top priorities are dealing in a long-term way, setting a direction that we can follow consistently, implementing solutions to the challenges of traffic congestion, public school funding and programs, affordability, poverty, water, the environment.
Bulldog—Public education is a huge problem, but the city doesn’t have a direct impact on it. What would you do with respect to education?
Adler—I think one of the roles of the mayor is to use the bully pulpit and the power to convene in order to address the biggest issues facing Austin as a community. I think education is one of the biggest issues that we face as a community. I think it’s in the mayor’s portfolio for that reason alone. If you look at other cities, there are mayors that are getting involved in helping communities to address those issues.
Bulldog—Are those cities that have a strong mayor (system) or a (weak mayor) system like we have?
Adler—Both. San Antonio did. That’s a weak mayor system is my understanding. There are things that a mayor can do in terms of helping to set a community agenda and setting community focus. The funding formulas that redistribute the money once the state collects it are not being equitably applied at the City of Austin. There are Pre-K programs that we should have in the City of Austin and potential federal and other funding sources that we need to go after and seek. I understand that we have multiple independent school districts in the City of Austin but I think that the mayor and the City Council ought to be working with them and with the county to address these issues that cross jurisdictional lines and interests.
Bulldog—On March 27, Mayor Lee Leffingwell sent out an e-mail update in which his quote of the week was, “I think it’s undeniable that incentives have played a key role in Austin’s economic success in recent years. Incentives have proven to be an effective tool that actually result in a benefit to the taxpayer.” Do you see a benefit to the taxpayer?
Adler—I think incentives are a tool that a city has and I think that the city ought to be able to have in its toolbox as many tools as (it) can in order to be able to succeed in its mission. My concern with the incentives application in the City of Austin is that we focus too much on rate of return, and the formulas that the city uses to assess those, and not enough attention on a return on values. I think that the use of incentives, if they were driving jobs that were in the 50-, 60-, 70-thousand-dollar range for people that live here, and incentives would enable us to get those jobs for those people where we wouldn’t have gotten them otherwise, then I could see using that tool in that kind of situation. I don’t see incentives themselves as being evil. I just think we have to be judicious on how we apply them.
Bulldog—But when you talk about changing from return on investment, which is the formula the city uses for what it’s giving up in order to get these jobs in here, and you talk about basic values it seems sort of squishy. You’re getting into good things but maybe intangible. How do you measure those things? How do you know that you’re making a good deal if you’re basing it on values instead of return on investment?
Adler—I don’t know exactly how you enforce those metrics but it would seem to me that there’s got to be a way to be able to tell whether or not people are bringing in jobs that are in that range, for example, and whether the people who are entering those jobs are people that already lived here. … I think it’s one of the things we should find out.
Bulldog—The Lower Colorado River Authority has declared that we are in a drought of record. Lake Travis is drying up. The City of Austin and other jurisdictions in Central Texas are scrambling to find ground water. Where is the water going to come from to slake the thirst of our growing population?
Adler—I think we need to increase our reuse of water and I think we have to be prepared to increase our water conservation. I think those are the first two places we should look for increased water supply. I think we’re losing a lot of water in our infrastructure because it’s old. We should look at that.
Bulldog—If you had been on the City Council, would you have voted to build Water Treatment Plant 4?
Adler—I don’t understand spending that much money on a plant that at this point doesn’t seem to be something that we need or can use.
Bulldog—Our roadways are over capacity, the traffic in Austin is among the worst in the nation. What mobility solutions would you favor?
Adler—It’s hard for me to imagine Austin in 25, 30 years when we go from two million people in the (Metropolitan Statistical Area) to what they predict is four million people. But even if we don’t sustain that kind of growth pattern, (and only grow to) three million people, without some kind of mass transit interconnected system that we don’t have today, it’s hard for me to imagine a future without rail. It’s hard for me to imagine a future without significantly greater bus connections. In addition to that, I think that there are additional roads that need to be built. But if you talk to the urban transportation people they say that if you build all of the (roads included in the) 2035 CAMPO plan, you build all of the roads and you build all of the rail, and all of the interconnectivity, that the traffic congestion problem is worse in 20, 25 years than it is today. Which means that in the conversation about mobility and traffic congestion we have to be talking about how we live and where we live as well. Because some of those are long-term planning issues that we need to drive to. It’s the kind of thing that Austin historically has not done well with. So we need to figure out how not to send 28- to 30-percent, or whatever it is, of the region’s jobs that are downtown, sending that number of people to and from downtown, or through downtown, every day. We need to have places where people can live closer to where they work and we need those kinds of expanded centers so that the only option for people isn’t working downtown.
Then I think we need to do a lot more with things like telecommuting. We are the perfect community to be doing a lot more of that than we do now. We need to do things like staggering work hours, getting some kind of community vision and purpose around the congestion issue. I think that would also work in a city like Austin.
Bulldog—Do you think that you can get large government agencies here that employ thousands of people to stagger their work hours?
Adler—I don’t know. But I think there needs to be an effort to try to do that.
Bulldog—Do you support a bond election this November for an urban rail system?
Adler—You know, we have a deliberate process that the city’s involved in right now that’s just about to make its recommendations. I was at some meeting the other day where they were talking about what the recommendations could be. The person speaking said that the recommendations would come from a continuum of rail or tires and that they hadn’t made a recommendation yet. So, I don’t know what the recommendation is going to be. But I would certainly support us acting in November to move that project, a project, forward. We need to do that.
Bulldog—There are kids and old people and people who don’t own cars, or are too poor or don’t want to have a car. They can’t get around unless they have a public transportation system.
Adler—I agree. We start isolating people and then it starts happening in social-service impacts. It’s all related. The transportation system is related to the affordability issue. When traffic is bad everybody wants to move downtown to avoid it. Everybody moves downtown and you start raising property values and you start chasing people away. You start chasing people away without a transit system and that becomes anything they would save in terms of (housing) gets eaten up in the transportation costs.
Chamber of Commerce, RECA
Bulldog—Are you a member of the Chamber of Commerce?
Bulldog—Have you ever been?
Adler—No. Although the newspaper (Austin American-Statesman) said I was chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. … It came out when they posted it online … the night before and I called over and said, “Really?” So it didn’t appear in the print edition but it was in the first posting (online).
Bulldog—How about RECA (the Real Estate Council of Austin)?
Man in a hurry
Bulldog—From March 2009 through July 2013, you got five speeding tickets, took drivers education three times and paid $712 in fines. Is that correct?
Adler—Could be (blushing).
Bulldog—That’s what the municipal court records say.
Bulldog—The City of Austin has achieved aggressive goals in purchasing green energy for its contribution to fighting climate change. In fact, the city has achieved its green energy goals years ahead of schedule. Do you support setting new goals to purchase more green energy?
Bulldog—Do you have any idea how much more green energy? I think we’re shooting for like 35 percent and are right at it right now.
Adler—I don’t know what the specifics of the new goals should be.
Fayette Power Plant
Bulldog—What are your thoughts about shutting down our coal-fired power plant? We import some of the pollution from it right here in Austin and of course it’s allegedly causing deforestation in some orchards over there closer to the plant and all that kind of stuff?
Adler—I’d like to see us close it down.
Bulldog—Do you have any concept about how to go about it?
Bulldog—Do we need a new city manager?
Adler—I don’t know the answer to that question. I think when we have the 10-1 new council we’ll be able to see whether or not that relationship is productive going forward. If it’s not then it would need to be fixed.
Part 2 in this series of stories about mayoral candidate Adler will address his early legal career and extensive community service.