Over the holidays, on Christmas Day in fact, former Mayor Bruce Todd passed away. He suffered from Lewy body dementia. Those who have been around Austin for a few decades might remember that Bruce and I had quite a history and more than a few policy and political disagreements. I apologize if this tribute features me as much as him, but, given our history, I think that’s the best way I can pay tribute to him

I used to rake Bruce over the coals regularly when he was Mayor and I was Politics Editor at the Austin Chronicle. Then I ran against him when he sought reelection in 1994. While I ran a pretty harsh campaign against Bruce it was also during that campaign that I recognized something about him that would eventually help make us friends. That was his sense of humor and his humanity. 

It happened in an odd way, not on any joke he told or initiated. He, James Austin Cooley (a 1994 candidate and Libertarian style activist who passed away a few years ago), and I agreed to a debate at Scholz Garten. The room was totally packed with people and the atmosphere was very tense. In the middle of it all we took questions from the public. A woman who was backing Bruce got up and asked me a question with a long prologue listing some of the harsh things I’d written about elected officials and invoking a bad endorsement or two we had made at the Chronicle. She went on for quite a while and ended with a question, something like, “How can you expect to lead this City after doing all that?”

The room was dead silent and everyone was looking at me to see how I would respond. After listening to her list, I was almost starting to agree with her. So I said, “Well, everybody makes mistakes.” The whole room burst out in racous laughter, and I quickly realized that one of the people laughing the hardest was Bruce, who also reached over and slapped me on the back and said something like, “Good answer Daryl.”

I went on and gave a further answer to the question and we continued our tough campaign against each other, but I never forgot that moment. I forced Bruce into a runoff, but he ended up winning 51% to 49%. He then continued his time as Mayor including what I consider his signature accomplishment, the establishment of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Preserve. Bruce didn’t do it alone, but he shepherded it to approval through a swelter of fiercely opposed interests. Bruce was also instrumental in getting the Barton Creek Wilderness land purchase on a bond ballot. It passed and nearly doubled the length of the Barton Creek Greenbelt and helped protect both Barton Creek and Barton Springs by keeping land along the creek from being developed. 

In another major accomplishment, Bruce also shepherded the building of Bergstrom Airport to successful completion.

Two years after running against Bruce, I was elected to the Council. So I served on the Council with him his last year as Mayor. We made a point of trying to find things we could agree on, but we also had some major policy fights. Through it all we gradually developed a mutual respect. Humor continued to be part of that. For instance once I got worked up because some people in wealthy suburban Municipal Utility Districts (MUDs) were demanding lower utility rates from the City. With some wealthy MUD residents sitting in the front row, I gave a fiery, evidently loud, speech about my views on that. Bruce, chairing the meeting, sat impassively through the speech and then politely asked the Council, “Does anybody else want to yell a speech?”

Everybody laughed, including me. I also tried to be aware of my volume in the future. During that year on the Council together we continued to have policy disagreements, but some of the harshness faded.  And, we did occasionally find things to agree on or forged compromises.

The 1996-97 Austin City Council. From left: Jackie Goodman; Daryl Slusher; Eric Mitchell; Jesus Garza, City Manager (standing); Bruce Todd; Beverly Griffith; Ronney Reynolds and Gus Garcia. Photo from Austin History Center

As the end of his second term neared someone asked Bruce what he was going to do on Thursdays (Council meeting day) when he wasn’t Mayor anymore. Bruce was ready for the question. He described how he planned to watch the Council for a while on Thursday evenings, but that would only be so he could enjoy turning off the TV and going to bed while the Council kept meeting into the late night or early morning. When Bruce said that he had that twinkle in his eye that Ken Herman wrote about in his Statesman tribute.

Bruce even endorsed me when I ran for a third term and he collected signatures to get me on the ballot. That shocked some folks. After I left the Council in 2005 our friendship strengthened further. We would regularly go out to lunch together, talk about local politics, our families and sometimes joke about our old battles. If we didn’t connect for a while Bruce would call and see how I was doing. We kept doing that right up until he couldn’t do it anymore. When that happened I wrote him a letter telling him I was really happy that we were able to become friends and valued the friendship. I always will and I send my best to his wife Elizabeth Christian and everyone close to Bruce.


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