Laura Morrison drops out of Austin mayor’s race, leaving potentially important constituency up for grabs

Laura Morrison, an Austin City Council member who has spent two terms delighting Austin neighborhood groups and questioning the city’s growth policies, announced Tuesday she will not run for mayor.

The decision means that Morrison, who cannot seek another council term, is done with public office when her term expires in early 2015. It also leaves the politically potent voting bloc of neighborhood groups and old-school environmental activists without a clear champion among the candidates shoring up support for the November mayor’s race, a race that many observers say will be the most important in recent memory.

“I see (Morrison’s) decision as one that leaves a very substantive constituency looking for a candidate,” said David Armbrust, a development attorney who is among Austin’s most influential political figures.

Morrison had been contemplating a mayoral bid for months. Her hesitancy led supporters to establish to encourage her to run based on her “love, commitment, experience, good judgment, hard work, and respect for Austin and others in serving as our elected city council member.”

Morrison — whose critics consider her an anti-growth obstructionist and often grumbled about “Council Member No” — said Tuesday that no single factor led her to opt out of the mayor’s race. But the commitment of up to five more years in the public spotlight was too much, she said.

“Having sat with the question for quite a while, after thinking about the idea of serving in City Hall until 2019, I think I really am ready for a different path,” said Morrison, 59. “That’s a long time.”

Morrison’s chances were also hurt by a change to Austin’s political system that voters approved in November 2012. The 10-1 system divided Austin into 10 City Council districts, as opposed to having every council member run citywide. More importantly for the mayor, who still runs citywide, the election was moved to November, when far more voters will come to the polls than in the May elections of the past.

Supporters of the new system said it would break the political homeostasis that high-turnout central-city neighborhood groups and environmental clubs — Morrison’s key constituencies — had reached with urban developers and public-safety unions. The new system was pitched as one that would allow a more diverse range of voices to be heard. But it diluted the base that had made Morrison such a formidable council candidate by moving the election to November, when many other voters will weigh in.

“I maintain that the voters wanted change, and Laura was as opposed to the change as anyone could be,” said Peck Young, an old Austin political hand who led the effort to change the system. “If there was a good side to the old system, Laura was the good side. But I think she was going to be seen as part of the old system.”

Others said that Morrison would still be a viable candidate in the new political order, largely because she had a history of siding with neighborhood groups throughout the city, beyond her political base.

“She would have gotten in a runoff, in all probability,” said David Butts, a political consultant who helped elect Morrison and most of council members over the last two decades. Though lacking in name recognition, “she had the strongest base, and it’s not an inconsequential base,” Butts said.

Morrison, an engineer by trade, was elected to the City Council in 2008, following a stint as president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council. She ran as the champion of established neighborhoods, mostly in the central city, who felt their funky, leafy surroundings were threatened by encroaching large-scale development. Urban planner Cid Galindo ran as the champion of a city using more densely populated pockets as a way to handle its rapid growth and avoid sprawl. Morrison prevailed in a runoff.

As a council member, Morrison was more thoughtful than she is often given credit for, said former Planning Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan. For instance, he said, she fairly mediated disputes between downtown music venues and the growing residential population without reflexively siding with her base.

But she was an unapologetic skeptic of Austin’s growth policies and clashed increasingly with Mayor Lee Leffingwell, the most outspoken council advocate of development as a necessity to handle Austin’s growth.

At a February council meeting, Morrison spent several minutes questioning Council Member Bill Spelman about the fine points of a proposal Spelman had drafted. Leffingwell asked if perhaps the rest of the council should get a cup of coffee while she talked. At another point in the meeting, Morrison said things would move more smoothly if Leffingwell hadn’t canceled a council work session two days earlier because of icy roads.

Morrison and council ally Kathie Tovo established a voting pattern on many growth-related cases: five council members in favor, Morrison and Tovo against.

But Morrison was also adept at battling in the bureaucratic trenches. A year ago, the council appeared almost certain to create an independent board to oversee Austin Energy. Proponents argued a board of experts would be better able to handle the complexities of the ever-changing industry. Morrison saw a board as potentially unresponsive to the public and an abdication of elected officials’ responsibility.

In February 2013, a council majority voted to create the board, the establishment of which was a complex task to happen in phases. But, in the following months, Morrison rallied environmental activists, appealed to the political sensibilities of council members looking to avoid enemies and made an ally of the city management with which she often clashed. Through hours of arcana-laden debates, the shape of the board morphed incrementally until, in May, the council was left with a proposal to name itself as the board. The idea died.

“I just think,” Morrison said then, “a board would be the worst idea for the people of Austin.”

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