Herman: Political consultant Mark McKinnon leaves town

10:26 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018 Opinion
In this May 1, 2016, file photo Mark McKinnon, executive producer and commentator on Showtime’s “The Circus,” waits to address the crowd in attendance at the Democracy Awakening rally at the Texas Capitol. After living in and loving Austin since 1976, he and his wife have moved back to Colorado. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

That wish you wish when you’re in cranium-exploding traffic has been granted, albeit on a micro basis: Two people have gone back to where they came from.

After living in and loving Austin since 1976, Mark and Annie McKinnon have moved back to Colorado, where they met in high school many years ago.

Mark is a longtime political consultant who’s worked with a who’s who of high-profile politicians — John McCain, Ann Richards, Bob Bullock, Lloyd Doggett, Mark White, Charlie Wilson — and was a key cog in getting George W. Bush into the White House and advising him while he was there.

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Mark McKinnon has also been an advocate for campaign and ethics reform. His varied civic activities include stints on the boards of Livestrong and the Austin Film Society and as a presidential appointee on the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Many years ago, he was editor of The Daily Texan at the University of Texas.

This week, McKinnon got his Colorado driver’s license and voter registration card. There are two prime reasons the McKinnons opted to move back to Colorado. Both are common reasons: Austin isn’t what it used to be. And grandkids.

“After spending a few years in guest bedrooms and couches in Denver,” he posted this week, “we are finally pulling the trigger and selling our Austin house so that we can buy this perfect Nonnie and Pops bungalow in (Denver’s) Washington Park.”

“The most important thing about the move is our grandchildren,” McKinnon, 62, told me of grandson Sawyer, 3, and granddaughter Lucy Lou, 1. “They are the magnet, for sure.”

The grandkids are the children of Sam and Brita DeStefano. Brita, a physical therapist, is the McKinnons’ daughter. Kendall, their other daughter, is a screenwriter in Los Angeles.

The McKinnons came to Austin in 1976 after Mark’s aborted, though not totally unsuccessful, attempt at a music career in Nashville.

“It wasn’t long after that that I figured, in the arc that I was on, I’d end up as the second act at the Pflugerville Holiday Inn when I was 50,” he recalled.

Fun fact: He won the songwriting competition at the 1975 Kerrville Music Festival. But politics replaced music as the McKinnons became confirmed Texans, something that was furthest from their minds in their earlier Colorado days. Mark is Boulder-born and Denver-raised.

“To my great surprise, Austin was just this amazing oasis in Texas,” he said. “And then to my even greater surprise I grew to not only love Austin but to love Texas as well and everything about it — its history, its swagger — everything about it.”

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The McKinnons lived in Austin through the great years of change seen by those of us who’ve been here more than a minute. And he feels like many of us do about Austin. It’s still a great city but great in a different way.

“I’ve never been a hand-wringer about the growth in Austin,” McKinnon said. “I’ve never wanted to pull up the drawbridge. I think it’s the coolest city in America and people have discovered that. So it’s no surprise that it’s become one of the most popular destinations in the country.

“But I also feel like it’s kind of jumping the shark and it was a good time to get out,” he said.

See if his thoughts align with yours: “I originally came and a lot of people originally came to Austin because of the culture. And I think the culture has been kind of diluted now in a sense. I mean it’s still a crazy cool place, but I think a lot of people now come for the commerce as opposed to the culture.

“It’s a place where people can come and find work in technology. I think it’s not so much a slacker city any more. It’s more of a go-go town,” he said. “And that’s fine.”

Austin, he said, has changed: “It’s got good food now. It’s different, and I still think it’s great in a different way. But it’s not great in the old way.”

And then we both chuckled at the notion of reaching that point in life where, as he said, “Everything used to be better, of course.”

More than enough behind-the-wheel time on MoPac helped persuade McKinnon “it was time to get out.”

“I just feel like we hit the perfect chapter (in Austin) and love it and will always love coming back,” he said. “But it was just time to come home.”

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Like many longtime Austinites, McKinnon bemoans the fact that, though growth was inevitable, the city did not do what was necessary to keep up with or, perish the thought, get ahead of it.

“We didn’t plan for expansion and that created all kinds of problems — like MoPac — which makes it not the place we once knew and loved,” he said.

In recent years, the McKinnons have spent less and less time in Austin, opting increasingly for a place in Blue River, Colo., they bought about 15 years ago.

His prime project now is the “The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth,” a Showtime series that will be back in April for more of its intriguing behind-the-scenes looks at the even-weirder-than-ever political world.

Other than that, McKinnon spends his time back-country skiing, mountain biking and public speaking. And grandfathering.

Best of luck to Nonnie and Pops as they settle in back where they came from.