This mayoral candidate has given significant time, energy, and money to numerous important causes
Part 2 of a series
Stephen Ira “Steve” Adler has for decades been an attorney specializing in eminent domain cases to protect the rights of property owners in condemnation proceedings.
But what has he done to demonstrate he has the skills needed to lead Austin into a new era of grassroots governance, in which for the first time every area of the city will have a representative seated on the council dais?
Plenty, according to the leaders of numerous significant organizations.
Adler started law school at the University of Texas in summer semester 1978, fresh out of Princeton, and immediately jelled with fellow law student Eliot Shapleigh, a future Texas state senator.
Shapleigh said in a recent interview that after serving three years in the Peace Corps he entered law school at the same time as Adler. Both were slow to graduate, Shapleigh in 1981, Adler in 1982.
“We took off a year and worked for Procter & Gamble,” Shapleigh said. “One of his friends in Princeton had a connection and Steve and I went over there and learned how to take a product and market and got an experience in life.”
For Adler, earning money was essential: “I took off a year-and-a-half after my first year to make some money to finish law school,” he said.
Shapleigh said, “We got to be really good friends, played on the touch football team against a guy who defended (President Richard) Nixon, Charles Alan Wright. … Our team was set up to defeat Wright… (but) I broke my thumb so we got beat pretty bad.”
Adler and Shapleigh formed a lasting bond that included being best man at each others weddings. Adler married Melany Maddux in 1989 and they divorced in 1995. In 1998 he married Diane Tipton Land, president and CEO of DT Land Group Inc. The couple celebrated their 16th anniversary last month.
In 1996 Adler helped Shapleigh, an El Paso Democrat, achieve a come-from-behind election victory for a seat in the Texas Senate, then served as his chief of staff and later general counsel during the legislative sessions of 1997 through 2005.
“He wanted to do pubic education and in a few short months he was the expert on school funding formulas and how that works,” Shapleigh said of Adler’s quick mastery.
Wayne Pierce, EdD, executive director of the Equity Center, an organization that since 1982 has worked to correct gross inequities in the state’s school finance system, is also enthusiastic about Adler’s work on educational issues. Pierce has led the Equity Center since June 2000, a period that coincided with Adler’s service on Shapleigh’s staff for several legislative sessions.
“He’s brilliant, he’s extremely intelligent, he’s very logical in his approach,” Pierce said of Adler. “He’s soft spoken. He can talk with people who have different opinions about things and he can sit and talk with you in a way that’s not confrontational. If you had a problem that was really thorny he could … analyze it and come up with a rational fair way of getting though it.”
Adler’s work during legislative sessions provided a demanding seasonal job in addition to keeping up his law practice.
Shapleigh recalls, “He said, ‘I’m not here for the pay.’ He would work in his law office till about 11am, and then Steve would show up at the Legislature around noon when the committees cranked up and he’d do his work.”
“During (legislative) sessions he would come give us 10 to 12 hours a day,” Shapleigh said. “I don’t think the guy slept.”
About Adler’s pay? Steve Adler’s Pay Record as Texas Senate Staff Member obtained through a public information request indicates that Adler started at $3,000 a month in January 1997 but quickly ratcheted down so that by the 1999 session, and for the rest of his time serving Shapleigh’s office through the 2005 legislative session, he was paid $50 a month. His biggest perk: a parking place.
Shapleigh credits Adler for being a superlative problem solver. In one of the last legislative sessions Adler worked, two behemoth financial interests were at loggerheads over how a gas pipeline company could get authority to run lines under the railroad tracks intersecting the pipeline route. Railroads had owned fee-simple title since the 1850s, Shapleigh said, and were going to charge gas companies unheard of sums to allow the pipeline to cross under their tracks.
“These were equally powerful interests, 500-ton gorillas looking at each other,” Shapleigh said.
“Steve said, ‘If we give them the (gas company) ability to do condemnation on the square of land where the pipe crosses the railroad, you’ll get this done,’” Shapleigh said. Permitting the gas pipeline company to exercise the power of eminent domain allowed the case to go before an independent tribunal that set the price at fair market value. “That was the genius of it,” Shapleigh said.
“He came into the room with 40 people and worked it out, and had Democrats and Republicans hugging.”
Dennis Kearns was a government affairs attorney for the BNSF Railway (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) and was directly involved in what had been an impasse. Kearns agreed with Shapleigh’s account.
“Steve was an excellent facilitator of the compromise language,” said Kearns, who retired from BNSF in late 2013. “I believe his skills as a negotiator and facilitator would serve him well as Austin Mayor.”
Early law practice
“When I graduated from law school (in 1982) I spent the ’80s doing civil rights law on cases here in Austin,” Adler said in an April 14 recorded interview. “I did probably more Title VII EEOC (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 established the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) cases than anybody else in this city, so the hearings examiner told me in the ’80s.
“I was in federal court suing on behalf of workers. Hispanic workers that were being … denied the opportunity to go to the heavier pieces of equipment, and the heavier pieces of equipment brought with it the promotions and the additional pay. I was in court for sexual harassment cases, equal pay cases on behalf of women, and handled a lot of cases at the administrative level, both at the Austin Human Rights Commission and the EEOC in San Antonio.”
“He didn’t start as condemnation attorney,” Shapleigh said of Adler. “He was doing Title VII. He would go up against Kirk Watson as defense lawyer and Steve was plaintiff’s attorney.” Watson in 1997 was elected Austin’s mayor. He ran for state attorney general in 2002 (losing to Greg Abbott), and in 2006 succeeded Gonzalo Barrientos as state senator. Back then, in Adler’s Title VII cases, Watson was Governor Ann Richard’s appointee to head the Texas Air Control Board, one of the agencies that merged into what is now the state environmental agency.
Senator Watson did not return calls requesting comment that were left at his Husch Blackwell LLP law office and Capitol office.
Shapleigh said, “He become one of the best condemnation lawyers in Texas. One of the two or three best in state, and then he would go to Legislature and work on one of the most complicated things, school finance.”
Education a continuing focus
In Part 1 of this series, Adler stated his intention to make education a priority if elected mayor, hardly surprising given the numerous nonprofit organizations he’s been part of that focused on education.
Even before leaving Senator Shapleigh’s staff in June 2005, Adler, along with Michael Nixon and Jonathan L. Collins, in November 2004 formed a nonprofit corporation called the Citizens Commission on Educational Excellence Inc., “to support various programs and policies beneficial to the educational goals of the people of Texas.”
In October 2005 the name was changed to The Citizens Commission on Educational Excellence Inc. and the board was expanded to include Adler’s wife, Diane Land, and Ann Kitchen (who served in the Texas House 2001-2003 and is currently a District 5 candidate for Austin City Council).
The effort was short-lived, as the charter was forfeited in September 2006.
“Texas was last in (school) funding, paid teachers poorly, had high dropout rates, a regressive school-tax-finance system and we were trying to promote a fair system, a better funded system, a more equitable system,” Austin attorney Fred Lewis said of this initiative.
“Steve and I tried to start up a nonprofit to better fund education to raise teachers’ salaries and quality of programs in public schools and create a fair tax system. I was temporary executive director. We never raised enough money to make it viable.”
Lewis is supporting Adler for mayor, he said.
“He is a big-picture person but he’s got the skills to be practical and he brings people together. … He cares about quality, equity, and fairness to those who have less.”
(Disclosure: Lewis is a friend of Bulldog editor Ken Martin.)
Girls Empowerment Network
Also related to education is Adler’s work with the Girls Empowerment Network of Austin, a nonprofit originally formed in 1997 as The Ophelia Education Foundation. Its purpose was to work with local school districts to implement programs for greater self-esteem and career awareness for adolescent girls. The name was changed to GENaustin in 2001 and the corporation involuntarily dissolved in April 2008.
Two years later, in April 2010, GENaustin was restarted with board members including District Judge Darlene Byrne, Linda Benge, Christie Horne, Richard Bennett, Jane Chambers, Steve Adler, and 11 other directors—one of which is Diane Land, Adler’s wife.
Since reforming, GENaustin has expanded to provide a number of programs including clubGEN for girls in grades 4-8, the We Are Girls Conference, girlTALK, girlCONNECT, and the 180 Program for prevention and intervention to reach girls in middle and high school at high risk of becoming involved in the juvenile justice system.
Rossana Barrios is the immediate past chair of GENaustin and has been involved in the organization for more than a decade, she said. As such, she worked with Adler.
“Steve was very instrumental in establishing a strategic plan for the board. He was extremely proactive. He would sit down with you individually,” said Barrios, who previously served more than four years as chief of staff for then-Council Member Brewster McCracken.
“When I first came on the board there wasn’t as much interaction among the members. He made us a much more collaborative board. I just admired his style of doing more one-on-one with the board members to see what you as an individual would bring to the board” Barrios said. “He’s a great listener, great at collaborating.”
Breakthrough Austin is another nonprofit organization focused on education with which Adler has served.
Breakthrough was incorporated in February 2001 for the purpose of conducting tuition-free programs including but not limited to summer and after-school programs for middle- and high-school students. Its programs were designed to improve student capabilities, especially those from low-income and diverse ethnic backgrounds, for academic success in college preparatory classes and to encourage them to become teachers.
Adler joined the Breakthrough board of directors in September 2009 and is still on it. He served as board chair in 2012 according to the organization’s IRS Form 990 tax return.
Today, Breakthrough’s mission is to create first-generation college graduates. “Our philosophy is built on the belief that there are no quick fixes and that early, long-lasting interventions can make the difference between dropping out of high school or going to college,” according to its website.
“Breakthrough admits students in middle school and provides intensive, academically rigorous programming for three to four summers, year-round case management, and personalized, long-term support,” the website states.
Micheal Griffth, executive director of Breakthrough Austin, and board members Taylor Sisson and Brian Roberts, did not return calls for comments about Adler’s service with Breakthrough.
Adler has long been a local leader with Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Austin and also played a significant role at the national level for the organization.
Karen Gross is now a criminal defense attorney but for three years, 2009-2012, she was executive director of ADL Austin, when Adler chaired the board.
“One major accomplishment has been the growth of the No Place For Hate Program, which provides preventive education in schools,” Gross said. “Right now (Austin Independent School District) is working to make sure every school earns that designation.” Schools wanting to participate must create a student-led coalition that selects and implements three programs to promote respect for individual difference while challenging bigotry and prejudice. “We hit a tipping point when Steve was chair. … Now it’s directed from the top, the superintendent.”
In the wake of a beating of two gay men who were leaving Oilcan Harry’s bar in Austin’s warehouse district, the ADL Austin was asked to come up with a way to address the issue of hate crime. As a result, ADL was one of the conveners of the Austin/Travis County Hate Crimes Task Force that officially launched in December 2010. Other conveners were Austin City Council Members Sheryl Cole, Laura Morrison, and Randi Shade, and the Community Justice Council led by Travis County Attorney David Escamilla and District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg.
“The intent (of the Task Force) is to take groups our of their silos and bring them to the table three times a year to talk about issues related to bias and hate, and look at what our community can do to make Central Texas more welcoming and inclusive,” Gross said.
Gross noted that Adler’s wife, Diane Land, was on the ADL Austin board at the same time he was. ‘When looking for good board members you look for people who can give us their time, who can reach out to their networks to fundraise, and who can give us their talents,” Gross said. “And rare are the board members who can give all three. Steve and Diane are those rare gems.”
Kirk Rudy, founding principal and chief executive officer of the Endeavor Real Estate Group, is still on the ADL Austin board and served when Adler chaired the board as well.
“He made ADL the go-to civil rights organization in Austin,” Rudy says of Adler. “He was instrumental in creating the Hate Crimes Task Force.”
“There are few people I know who have the smarts and the compassion and the listening ability and the wise counsel that Steve has. He has the whole package. I’ve always thought of him as a convener of people with different interests. He has a unique ability to bring people together and move them in a positive direction,” Rudy said. “He’s one of the leaders I’d follow to the ends of the earth.”
Like everyone interviewed about Adler, Rudy remarked on the mayoral candidate’s quiet way of speaking. “I used to make fun of him because he talks softly to get people to listen to him,” Rudy said. “He makes you move closer and work harder to listen.”
Adler’s work for the Anti-Defamation League extends far beyond Austin and in fact has had an impact nationally and internationally, according to Barry Curtiss-Lusher, ADL’s national chairman.
Curtiss-Lusher said that the ADL Austin office started as a satellite of the organization’s Houston office. “Steve grew it and launched it as an independent office,” he said.
He said that Adler serves on ADL’s national executive committee and chairs the Washington Affairs Committee, a job that Curtiss-Lusher requested he take.
“The Washington Affairs Committee deals with Congress and national issues that arise beyond the scope of any one region, and usually involves federal law, such as hate crimes, extremism, and issues such as discrimination and separation of church and state,” Curtiss-Lusher said. “We have professionals in Washington that work for and against legislation. Steve works with developing policy and how to execute on it, so we have the kind of leadership in Washington to deal with it.”
Adler’s work with the ADL on the international level grew out of his work as a board member of Ballet Austin.
Ruiz made it clear that as a nonprofit leader she never gets involved in partisan politics and was speaking as an individual who knows Adler well, given his service on the Ballet Austin board since the late 1990s.
Among Austin’s nonprofits, Ballet Austin’s board of directors may be one of the largest. “I have 65 board members every year,” Ruiz said. Of Adler, she says, “The impact he has left has been transformational. In a fairly short time of coming on the board, the board members pushed him into leadership.”
“I could speak honestly for hours about all the things he has quietly done. His passion for community revolves around equal access, to be sure everyone has access,” Ruiz said. “Our job is to address barriers,” she said. “We give 10,000 tickets to people who can’t afford the cheapest $15 tickets for ballet performances. And people come and enjoy it, and that is an honor to us.”
“To Steve that means if you can’t hear, we need amplification devices. If you can’t see, we have audio describers, and Spanish language.”
“He’s one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met,” Ruiz said of Adler. “He’s the best of the best. … He’s rigorous around fiscal responsibility and governance, and he’s rigorous about us doing all we can do.”
Less well known about the Ballet is that in 2005 it created “Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project.” “It’s a dance work of art but preceded by three months of community-wide collaborative conversation about protection of human rights against bigotry and hate,” Ruiz said. “Steve helped us build that project, and … the Anti-Defamation League nationally has been our partner in this project.”
The Project travelled to Pittsburgh in 2009, Miami in 2012, and Denver in early 2013. A three-city tour of Israel was conducted later in 2013.
“Steve was responsible for meeting people (in Israel), introducing us, creating open doors,” Ruiz said. The project spent three weeks in Israel “as a result of Steve’s two and a half or three years of work.”
Jon Ivester, senior vice president of operations for Silicon Labs, and a recent board chair of Ballet Austin, was similarly effusive about Adler’s work.
“He was a motive force to make that trip to Israel happen, and worked with the folks in Israel and Washington to clear the way for that, to get the funding for that in Austin and elsewhere,” Ivester said. “A lot of others were involved but in my mind, Steve was the guy who made that happen,” Ivester said.
Curtiss-Lusher said, “I was with Steve in Israel, to meet people in Tel Aviv to bring the ballet project to Israel. … When we first started talking to the Israelis, to tell them about a special ballet from Austin, Texas, that teaches a unique story about the Holocaust, and they’re saying, ‘Exactly how are you going to arrange that?’
“He was masterful,” Curtiss-Lusher said of Adler. “He’s a tenacious guy and got it done.”
The news organization that launched with great fanfare in November 2009 has had a tremendous effect on state politics, state policy, and state government, and has made a name for itself as one of the great success stories among nonprofit news organizations.
Steve Adler served on the Texas Tribune’s board of directors from the beginning in 2009. In fact, he was serving as board chairman when he resigned on January 12, 2014, to run for mayor.
Founder John Thornton, a longtime general partner in Austin Ventures, declined to be interviewed for this article, stating in an e-mail, “When we started the Trib, I retired from partisan politics. And I think that likely extends to commenting publicly on someone who is running for mayor. Other than to say that Steve was an early supporter, a fine board member, and briefly a fine board chair. I stepped back into that role on an interim basis when he decided to run for mayor.
As for being an early supporter, the Texas Tribune IRS Form 990s indicate that Adler and wife Diane Land contributed $50,000 to the organization in 2009, $10,050 in 2010, and $15,000 in 2012 (the latest return available), for a total of $75,050. The Tribune verified that Adler and Land contributed nothing in 2011.
Of all the nonprofits in which Adler has been involved that were researched for this article, only the Tribune made public a list of its major donors by reporting them on Form 990s.
The IRS does not require public disclosure of major donors and none of the other nonprofits interviewed would say how much money Adler has donated, although most did say that his financial support was substantial.
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