The Death of a Candidate

What happens when the alternative becomes mainstream? As the city of Austin delves further into its live music and hipster vices, with $200 ACL-fest ticket and plethora of skinny jeans, suddenly grunge is luxe. In tonight's Hustle for Mayor, hosted by the alternative weekly newspaper the Austin Chronicle, the two mainstream candidates Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken sipped coolly on Lone Stars and Miller Lites while answering softballs in front of a youthful, sweaty crowd at The Mohawk.

Strangely absent from the stage -- but not the venue -- were lesser-known mayoral candidates David Buttross and Josiah Ingalls. Nevertheless, Buttross managed to distribute glossy push-cards to attendees and Ingalls, a janitor at the Downtown Hilton, stood awkwardly in a poorly fitting suit and tie at the back of the audience. He was, as one Chronicle staffer put it, "uninvited."

The Chronicle, representative of Austin perhaps now more than ever in its scenester popularity, seemed unapologetic for eschewing an alternative voice in its Austin mayoral debates. A questioning of senior staff writer Michael King resulted in him saying "I don't think he's a serious candidate - do you?"

Political workhorses, journalists, or even local activists, will make the argument that a candidate's viability -- and when they say this, beloveds, don't think for one second they aren't actually meaning the word "electability" -- can and should factor into these debates. Those who do not have a chance of being elected stand to be shut out for the sake of...what? Time? Public interest? For the sake of the desire to feature those more like "the others?"

Nevertheless, a quivering Josiah Ingalls took the stage, saying as he went up "I've got to go up there, they let me talk for two minutes." I asked him if he'd been invited to the forum and he said "No," smiling in a way that showed many years of covering sadness, "but I crashed the party."

As he spoke on stage, I saw not a hobby candidate or someone with nothing else to do but make a name for himself. He was not an unemployed transient looking for a new gig. He was an earnest, minimum-wage earning candidate, perhaps more like all of the youth at the forum there, trying to push his agenda of mental health services and poverty. He said that when he talked about affordability, he was "not talking about $1000 a month for rent." As he spoke, I realized that people were not simply cheering for him -- they were agreeing with him.

The same could be said about the once unknown voice of an alternative paper, not a "serious" newspaper, of course, but a quiet, uncomfortable reminder that the world does not only revolve around the mainstream. Hands wringing, under and unfunded, Josiah Ingalls stood at the back of the Mohawk, uninvited, but there nonetheless.

The ultimate viability of any entity is not in its corporate support, or its over-stocked qualifications, or even its electability, but its ability to be there, real and alive. Our variety of mayoral candidates are not much different from what was once our alternative weekly: a representative voice -- speaking for the lesser few, pushing the agenda of the oft forgotten, and changing the conversation to promote those who go unpromoted.

18 Response to "The Death of a Candidate"

  • tali Says:

    This is a great editorial piece. Thanks for sharing.

  • Wells Dunbar Says:

    Aside from the rhyme-off, what would you qualify as "softball" questions? When I got Lee to defend Brewster's positions & vice versa, or when I asked Brewster refute the meme he's an opportunist, and Lee to similarly refute charges he works too much around the edges? Please, I'm curious to know.

  • el_longhorn Says:

    This is a great post, Rachel. Why is everyone afraid to put a candidate onstage that is not mainstream, that isn't part of the political or business establishment? What do they think he or she will say that is so threatening? What is wrong with getting the perspective of a person that is a longshot to win but wants to share their views?

    I barely read the Chronicle anymore because I already know what it will say before I open it. Whenever I feel that way about a magazine, I stop reading it.

  • Mean Rachel Says:

    Thanks, Tali.

    Wells - it was mainly the rhyme-off and the overall feel of the event that I was referring to with "softballs."

    Keep in mind, I'm not saying I didn't think it was a good event -- in fact, a good thing I could say about it was that there was a large crowd of youthful people there who I would be willing to bet had never been to a candidate forum before. I think it was a huge success, in that you were (of course!) funny, Brewster & Lee were funny, and good questions got asked and answered.

    But I think the Chronicle on a whole set a bad precedent by excluding Buttross and Ingalls -- fine, if Strayhorn is invited and doesn't show, but to ignore someone because they're viewed as a "hobby candidate" is, in my opinion, not in the spirit of which the Chronicle presents itself.

  • Mean Rachel Says:

    longhorn - thanks. I don't think the Chronicle was afraid of what Ingalls would say, but they were just trying to keep it "interesting" by only having the main two candidates (three, if Strayhorn had chose to show up).

    Nevertheless, I think their argument that they didn't see Buttross or Ingalls as serious candidates, which is why they weren't invited, is a weak one. Buttross was serious enough to hand out push-cards, Ingalls was serious enough to show up and stand through the whole thing, good-naturedly, in a suit and tie. How much more "serious" does one need to be to make the cut-off? After all, this is a paper that co-endorsed Dan Grant and Larry Joe Doherty in 2008. One could argue that Dan Grant wasn't "serious," by their suddenly exacting standards. Grant was trampled in the primary, yet he got the same respect from the Chronicle that LJD did. The logic, to me, just doesn't work.

  • Wells Dunbar Says:

    So Maudlin Rachel thinks the "overall feel" of the event was "softball" but can't point to any specific question that was too soft. I think it says a lot about your analysis -- looking for easy potshots but unable to grasp any specifics.

    The idea behind the forum was always to do something out of the norm. Something that would be informative and fun, and would garner a crowd that might not otherwise show. Something that might suss out some real differences between the candidates. With 4 or 5 candidates on stage, you're going to get the same unrevealing bullshit a la "How we will balance the budget," etc … With two progressive, competent candidates
    with long voting records and deep understandings of how shit actually gets done at the city, I think we were able to have a real in-depth, revealing conversation. Oh, and it was fun. Oh noes!

    Moving on: Ingalls may be a well-intentioned dude, but that simply doesn't qualify him to be an instant mayor, nor even a competent candidate. Anyone can grab a microphone and make a passionate (and completely vague) defense of the homeless, but honestly, if he was elected tomorrow, do you think the homeless would be one iota better off, or would the entire city be thrown into disarray because he wouldn't know the first thing about what he was doing? (I'm sorry if that's harsh, but it's no worse
    than your condescending little bullshit about how he "stood awkwardly in a poorly fitting suit " or whatevs.) And Buttross, the guy is a total libertarian. There's no way in hell the stimulus-fund denying, ARCH abolishing Buttross would earn the Chron endorsement in a million years, so why should we have to pretend these people are viable – hell, even competent – candidates? So you can sleep a little bit better at
    night knowing the paper has lived up to whatever imaginary ideals you've ascribed to it? I don't know if you've ever seen a Chronicle, but we're outspoken, opinionated, and talk a little shit sometime. We're not the LBJ school, and we're sure as shit not the Statesman. So why would our forum be anything different? If you're hurting to see all the candidates, catch another forum, but I don't remember seeing you at any of the half-dozen or so I've been to.

    All that said: We interviewed Buttross and Ingalls as part of out new video interview series, The Hustle For Mayor. Those clips should be up starting Friday (McCracken's up now @ Watch them, and ask yourself - would I feel comfortable entrusting the city to these folks?

    Keep up the good work, etc. …

  • FUBAR Says:

    Wells, respectfully, your thin skin is causing you to miss the point. I never noticed that she said it wasn't a good event. Her central message was never that everybody should be included at all times. Her main theme was that the Austin Chronicle - of all institutions - would have better served its readers if the ALTERNATIVE newspaper could have included the ALTERNATIVE candidates.

    One can agree or disagree with that fundamental theme, but dude, your over-the-top attack, on all things about her post which you can latch onto for attack, sure seems to me to be indicative of an inability for the folks who are in the business of skewering people being very uncomfortable with finding themselves on the other end of the skewer.

    I applaud the Chronicle's event last night. Personally, I think you handled it pretty much the way I would have. But lets not get so righteously indignant when an event specifically designed to create buzz succeeds in creating the buzz, just because this particular piece of buzz makes you uncomfortable. And lets not pretend that the central point Rachel is making isn't, indeed, a very close call - it is. KXAN jsut went through the same strains on the exact same issues yesterday. And if something is arguable, don't be surprised and dismayed when some of the people arguing about it just don't come to the same conclusion you did.

  • $2 Says:

    Wells. You do realize her blog is called Mean Rachel right? It would be like if Lewis Black came to your event and ranted about it. It's what she does and is damn good at.

    Keep up the good works MR!

  • Lee Says:

    Okay, I'm not going to jump into this shit-storm quite to the extent that Wells did, but I'll back him up on a point: The candidates we invited weren't at random. Wells has been following the council race from the beginning, he's seen and heard all the candidates, and he decided that the ones we chose would contribute the most to the event. He did his prep work.

    Sorry Rachel, but that's exactly why your Grant/Doherty analogy doesn't work in the least – because we prepped long before endorsement time rolled around. I interviewed DG and LJD months before the primary, found both of them to be very thoughtful people with strong records of public service (and as all the Dem club endorsements that Grant racked up showed, he also did the legwork to build a constituency), and when it came time to meet with what we consider to be viable candidates, Grant easily made the cut.

    Under no stretch of the imagination could Grant ever have not been considered a serious candidate. If I had interviewed him and found him to be clueless, he never would have sat down before our editorial board and we would have ignored him.

  • Lee Says:

    One more on this, and then I'll shut up. Re: your claim about "electability" and my point about prep work.

    Last year I don't think any of us on the Chronicle editorial board really thought Allen Demling had a chance in hell of winning his council race, but after seeing him on the campaign trail, we decided he was thoughtful enough to merit an endorsement meeting with us. So no, "electability" isn't the sole factor driving our decisions on who we take seriously.

  • Dan Trapp Says:

    Maybe, Lee. But Wells undercuts your point about "thoughtful" candidates with this quote.

    "And Buttross, the guy is a total libertarian. There's no way in hell the stimulus-fund denying, ARCH abolishing Buttross would earn the Chron endorsement in a million years, so why should we have to pretend these people are viable – hell, even competent – candidates?"

    Is he saying Libertarians cannot be thoughtful? It seems a candidate cannot be deigned thoughtful unless their political worldview is close enough to the Chronicle's. Anti-Toll Road Libertarians? Maybe...Anti-Stimulus Libertarians? Hell no!

    Furthermore, is Wells saying that ability to win the Chron endorsement is the key criteria to being a viable candidate? Or is he saying the purpose of the whole debate was to help the Chron figure out who it is going to endorse, rather than to educate the voting public?

    Either way, it doesn't make sense. These guys have made the effort to get on the ballot and are out there actively campaigning. They have positions on the issues, whether we agree with them or not. They should have been included. The Chron certainly has the right to exclude whoever it wants for whatever reason it wants, but I think it made the wrong call here.

    Plus, Strayhorn might have been a "viable" candidate twenty years ago but not in this race. I don't think there's a chance in hell you guys will endorse her either.

  • FUBAR Says:

    The notion of media "gate-keeping" is tricky business at best, and reluctantly one I would be in favor of if I were ever tasked with organizing a debate, assuming that the available time slot for the debate was limited, and the field of candidates large. The math is undeniable: if you have 90 minutes for a debate, if you include 3 candidates, voters will get 30 minutes worth of each candidate. If you include 10 candidates, voters get 9 minutes per candidate. It's a tough call.

    But if you're going to make that call, you better be right, when it comes to viability, credibility, and voter interest.

    Case in point: in 1996, 4 men ran in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. 3 of them were universally considered to be serious candidates. The 4th candidate, undoubtedly after being excluded from various debates, won.

    Victor Morales went on to get whupped by Phil Gramm - ironically after Morales refused to debate him.

    These are important considerations for anybody organizing a debate, and they are very close calls to make.

  • Lee Says:

    Dan: I think it would be best if I let Wells speak for himself.

    Harold: I think you're just proving my point about prep work. This event, and our endorsement meetings, was the product of advance prep work. (And to pat myself on the back: I covered that Senate race and jumped on covering Victor Morales from the get-go, although he was terrible at returning my phone calls. Even that great progressive vanguard The Texas Observer had to issue red-faced apologies to VM and Democrats ignoring him.)

  • John C. Says:

    I frankly haven't paid much attention to Ingalls and thus can't make judgments one way or the other on him — but Wells, your dismissal of Buttross is dumbfounding, for reasons well articulated by Dan. However far he may be from the Chronicle's progressive positions, and whatever qualifications he may or may not have, Buttross has run a legitimate campaign.

    Even as someone who disagrees with just about every one of his stances, I still think he's brought something valuable to the race by articulating a small-government, pro-business position that doesn't often get much representation in city politics.

    And with all due respect, your defensiveness and name-calling come off as childish, thin-skinned and unprofessional. You have a right to be incensed, since this was your baby, but this kind of snippy behavior reflects poorly on the Chronicle. Lee's been defending the forum thoughtfully without resorting to open hostility, so you ought to be able to manage it as well.

  • Phillip Martin Says:


    Rachel made a kickass point without any cursing. Just because a candidate is inviable doesn't mean the issues he is championing aren't. BOR isn't the go-to voice on all things policy, and we may lose in a debate w/ the Houston Chronicle and Dallas Morning News b/c we're not a viable source for all statewide information on all subjects. But it is important that we have a voice on issues that we know an awful lot -- like broadband technology, or solar energy, or Democratic primary politics.

    Your solution is to (1) curse a bunch for no real reason, and (2) act like you're the end-all, be-all of knowing what is important. Maybe one of these guys says something that forces Lee and Brewster to respond. Maybe the Austin Chronicle doesn't know everything about every issue, and one of these other candidates raises a public policy concern that you all don't think is important but another small yet important part of the community do. Just because someone is "inviable" doesn't mean their voice is invald.

    Also, Rachel never personally attacked anything you said, and you need to come out and directly attack her and her motives. Man up and take the constructive criticism or just ignore it -- but don't come around swinging a club like you're the cat's meow. That completely distracts from any other point you may try to make.

  • John Coby Says:

    Yea, but can he win? Afterall it is not the race that counts. It is the results.

  • Colin K Says:

    To seriously consider Brewster McCracken a "progressive" means you have to buy into his latest incarnationand his latest incarnation alone. And forget everything else.

    And, even then, it's still pretty iffy.