Mayor’s second term seems likely

Samian Quazi

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell launched his re-election campaign Wednesday at Becker Elementary, his childhood school in South Austin. First elected in May 2009, Leffingwell elaborated on his role as a steady hand guiding Austin amid an anemic national economy. Although the mayor deserves praise for his sensible environmental policies, his initiatives on transportation have fallen short of expectations. Nevertheless, a confluence of factors in Austin’s political history leads Leffingwell to be the heavy favorite in next May’s election.

The mayor’s commitment to environmental issues leaves little to be desired. As a former chair of the city’s Environmental Board, Leffingwell can point to a litany of accomplishments on the campaign trail. During his tenure, Austin became the first major U.S. city to have its city government run on 100 percent renewable energy sources. He also supported a new City Council contract in August to replace nonrenewable energy sources with new wind farms.

In his re-election campaign announcement speech at Becker Elementary, Leffingwell promised to end Austin’s dependence on coal for energy. The city currently gets roughly 20 percent of its energy from the coal-powered Fayette plant in La Grange. Under Leffingwell’s plan, the city would set a target date to sell its shares of the plant and replace that energy source with renewable sources.

Austin voters, who have uniformly seen their energy bills rise this year, are justified in questioning whether a move away from coal will eat away at their paychecks. Leffingwell replied by stating, “Right now wind prices are competitive with fossil fuels, and that is critical.” He also pledged to make Austin coal-free in a way that keeps costs low for city residents. Since the prices of fossil fuels, including coal, are projected to climb over the next few years, the mayor’s investments in renewables will keep energy costs low in the long-term.

The mayor gets less sterling marks on transportation issues. Leffingwell touted his support for Proposition 1, which voters approved in November 2010, as his signature accomplishment on transportation issues. The proposition allows the city to issue $90 million in bonds for renovations on roads while heavily investing in bike lanes, sidewalks and crosswalks. Its price tag is also a decent bargain, since the construction costs were about 30 percent less than normal because of the recession.

Yet Proposition 1 is merely a red herring that provides little to no substantial relief to Austin commuters. Since the bulk of the city’s road congestion is concentrated on MoPac, Interstate Highway 35 and U.S. Highway 183, drivers stuck on these roadways won’t get home much faster because of a new East Riverside Drive bike lane. Leffingwell should have pushed the state for road expansion funds, including possible HOV lanes, for the major roadways. He should also recognize motorists’ frustration at abominably long traffic lights. Instead, the mayor has failed to adequately address Austin’s transportation problems.

Leffingwell is expected to easily coast to re-election. He faces no big-name challengers in his bid and further benefits from the City Council’s rejection of a proposal to move elections from May to November, thereby shortening the window of opportunity for a rival to raise funds against him. To his credit, Leffingwell displayed his principles in September when he voted to shift the elections to November, arguing that such a date change would save the city more than $1 million. Abysmal voter turnout coupled with Austin’s history of mayoral elections further seal his electoral fate. Roughly 7.4 percent of registered Austin voters showed up for this May’s municipal elections – a percentage not far from the 13.1 percent voter turnout in May 2009 that first made Leffingwell mayor. Austinites also have a record of rarely rejecting incumbent mayors: The last time an incumbent mayor was voted out was in 1988.

The mayor’s detractors claim Leffingwell is “too safe in his policymaking and lacks the vision and pluck to lead Austin in bold new directions,” according to the Austin American-Statesman. Yet in an era of nationwide economic malaise, Leffingwell’s leadership as a source of economic stability combined with serious environmental progress will likely lead him to a second term in office.

Quazi is a nursing graduate student.