Gary Spellman looks to disrupt Austin politics

Thursday, September 29, 2022 by Sean Saldaña

With hair to his shoulders, an aggressive distaste for politics and officially $0 raised, Gary Spellman is hardly what one imagines when envisioning a typical candidate for elected office – something he embraces wholeheartedly.

Recounting an interaction, he says, “I told them I don’t want to be a politician. And they all laughed and go, damn straight, you’re not a politician. And that’s the best compliment I get.”

A makeup executive looking to give back, Spellman’s campaign – and his worldview more broadly – is rooted in a deep pessimism and frustration at the current state of Austin. The city’s struggle to deal with homelessness and affordability and its decision to slash the police budget are some of the primary things that have pulled Spellman into the race.

Only, rather than radicalize him, the city’s trajectory over the past few years has pushed him to a place of non-partisanship. Despite the fact that Austin City Council races are run without party affiliations, Spellman has adopted the following slogan: “Stop crying the blues. Stop seeing red. Vote purple instead.”

Over the past few years, Spellman feels as if there’s been a crackdown on open debate and that decision-making has been captured by ideologues. “It’s time we had a different voice and someone who can find the middle ground – that’s what I will bring to the role of mayor,” he writes as his campaign pledge.

Spellman is no policy wonk. His campaign website – just a single web page – contains no policy papers or identifiable platform. When he speaks about Austin, he focuses more on the political process and landscape rather than the specific nuts and bolts of policy issues.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but if they don’t agree with you, they call you Hitler and the devil,” he told podcaster Brad Swail in July.

Still, Spellman is more than comfortable riffing on the issues when prompted. He’s against the $350 million housing bond that will be on the ballot in November. He’s a strong supporter of first responders, including police. He thinks the city is overlooking things like personal responsibility in its efforts to combat homelessness – and also that the camping ban should be better enforced.

His approach to politics

If there’s one thing that sets Spellman apart from the competition, it’s his confidence: an aspect of his personality perhaps best exemplified by his fundraising strategy (or lack thereof).

Instead of asking supporters to donate to his campaign, he’s asked that people donate to two charities he’s involved with: the 100 Club of Central Texas and Motorcycle Missions, organizations that support first responders and their families.

“Close to $250,000 has been donated to the 100 Club on behalf of my campaign so far,” he says. In an email to the Monitor, 100 Club Executive Director Grahame Jones confirmed Spellman’s donation figures and sang his praises: “Gary has been a long-time supporter of the 100 Club of Central Texas and has been instrumental in fundraising over the years.”

Spellman insists that this gesture – asking for funding to go to charities instead of his own campaign – will resonate with voters.

Endless fundraising, elbow rubbing and carefully worded responses are of no interest to Spellman. “I don’t have a script. When I start talking, it’s from the heart,” he tells the Austin Monitor.

Unlike a typical candidate for City Council, Spellman has no issue dishing out specific criticisms of his opponents. Speaking on Kirk Watson’s record-breaking fundraising this campaign season, he says, “Kirk’s going to spend $1.1 million. That’s a lot of money for a $120,000/year job.”

At the same time, he acknowledges when his opponents make points he agrees with.

Explaining to the Monitor that he doesn’t mind borrowing good ideas, no matter where they come from, he presents the following hypothetical describing his thought process: “Jennifer has a five-point plan – I’ll take two of her points. Celia has a six-point plan, I love her sixth point. And Kirk has a seven-point plan. I love his fourth idea and his fifth idea. And then we’re going to get it in front of the Council and we’re going to work on the best plan.”

Of the many formalities associated with a run for office – the constant self-promotion, the fight for endorsements, the photo ops, the scramble to fundraise – Spellman has almost entirely opted out.

Meanwhile, his opponents have taken concrete, conventional steps in their quests for public office. Celia Israel has a temporary campaign headquarters set up on Guadalupe that’s festooned top to bottom with “Celia: A Mayor for All of Austin” signs. Kirk Watson has amassed a mountain of endorsements from key labor groups and influential political figures. Jennifer Virden announced her candidacy last November, a full calendar year before election day. Even Phil Brual, the University of Texas student running for mayor, has managed to cobble together a constituency in Austin’s Deaf community.

Even the low-hanging fruit of campaigning and building name recognition is of little interest to Spellman. Unlike other candidates eager to hand out yard signs, Spellman has yet to even produce his own – though he’s had avid supporters take initiative on his behalf.

“I’ve counted 10 homemade signs now, and it’s typically right next to a Beto sign, which just kills me. I love it,” he says, chuckling.

If Gary Spellman is to become mayor, it will be on his own terms.

The home stretch

At the heart of his unconventional campaign are a number of contradictions that are hard to square with his stated goal of winning the election and assuming the role of mayor. “I’m not running to lose,” Spellman tells the Monitor.

On one hand, he’s made a concerted effort of diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars – that would normally go to raise his own profile – to charitable causes, a gesture both symbolic and tangible.

In his communications to the Monitor about Spellman’s role in fundraising, Grahame Jones writes, “since January 2022, the 100 Club of Central Texas has supported the families of four fallen and two critically injured first responders.”

On the other hand, Spellman isn’t nearly as engaged as one might think for somebody who expects to preside over City Council soon. On July 15, a deadline for candidates to turn in campaign finance information, Spellman never turned his documents in – and still hasn’t.

Out of nowhere, he will drop jokes that send sparsely attended candidate forums into an uproar. He delights in retelling the story about responding to a question onstage about why he’d make a better mayor than Watson or Israel: “I look over my shoulders at both of them. And I said, ‘You guys all know I’m the obvious choice. What makes me a better candidate? I’m taller and I’m a better dancer.’”

Spellman spends more time criticizing the current state of affairs and airing grievances about the direction of Austin than he does laying out a new vision for the city. And if there’s a constant, looming question about how seriously he’s expecting to be mayor, it isn’t lost on him. “That question has been posed 101 times to me now,” he tells the Monitor.

But as election day approaches, he’s starting to think more strategically about how to pose a serious challenge to the favorites. He’s been in more discussions with his campaign manager about building name recognition and is even starting to think through the logistics of organizing block walks.

He also has one final gesture planned, one that even the career politicians he despises might appreciate for its flashiness.

Spellman teases the event with a grin: “My last big thing is going to be a 12-hour mountain bike race in Warren, Texas. Five hundred people. It’s going to be a sanctioned mountain bike race. That’s going to help get the name out.”

With early voting right around the corner, an empty campaign bank account and an outreach strategy still in development, Spellman is making a big bet – that the average Austinite will find his message and vote for something different.

He tells the Monitor, “If I do it my way and make it, I prove to everyone else that’s ever wanted to play in politics that you don’t have to do it the old way.”

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