Sunday, November 28, 2004

Sal Costello stirs up the animals

A Driving Ambition

Sal Costello is determined to defeat toll roads

November 28, 2004

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2004

Political activists in Austin tend to come in three flavors, roughly speaking.

The zanies, prone to incoherent orations at public meetings, mostly give public officials time for a bathroom break or quick check of their e-mail. The gadflies can be entertaining or even edifying, a source of new information and fresh perspectives, but they typically have little or no influence on policy. The players, meanwhile, usually have expertise, experience, organizational and political skills and some money behind them, and actually influence events.

Then there's Sal Costello.

Costello, who runs an advertising business and, since the spring, a mostly electronic guerrilla war against toll roads out of his Circle C Ranch home's front room, defies those neat categories. He has the unpredictability of a zany, the research zeal and sometimes casual regard for facts of the gadflies, and at least some of the strategic knowhow of those players.

What he also has, though his growing list of enemies would deny it, is a head-shaking list of policy skins on his belt. Costello's efforts against tolls, along with those of elected officials such as state Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, and other neighborhood opponents, have eliminated one key toll road from a multiroad plan approved by local transportation leaders last year, delayed tolls on another, put yet another one semi-permanently on the shelf, helped put in jeopardy the political careers of Austin's mayor and two City Council members, and perhaps guaranteed that toll roads will be a central issue in most local and state elections for the next two or three years.

Not bad for a nobody.

As recently as April, Costello was unknown around here except to his family and friends and those who live in Circle C Ranch, where last year he engineered a mini-coup d'etat of the neighborhood association. Austinites in general may still be unaware of Costello, a New York native who with his wife, Stephanie, moved from Greensboro, N.C. to Austin in 1999.

But elected officials and the entire Texas transportation world certainly know who he is, or at least who they think he is. For certain, they know what he has done since transportation officials unveiled a massive Central Texas toll road plan April 12, and how he has gone about doing it. And they don't like it.

Costello may have set a new speed record, in fact, for going from ignored to bete noire for the Central Texas establishment.

"I have absolutely no respect for the way Sal does business," says Tim Taylor, a real estate lawyer and former president of the Real Estate Council of Austin. "It's personal. It's nasty."

Taylor and others have formed a political action committee to help defend Austin Mayor Will Wynn against the recall petition campaign Costello launched last summer targeting the mayor and Austin City Council Members Brewster McCracken and Danny Thomas for their support of toll roads.

Costello, however, is fighting a multifront war, using a variety of tactics to -- he hopes -- end the political careers of all the local elected officials who joined a 16-7 vote in July that cleared a critical procedural hurdle for the seven-tollway plan.

Costello, for instance, posted on his anti-toll Web site the unflattering jail booking photo from the drunken driving arrest earlier this year of Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe, a Democrat who was among those 16 yes-voters on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board. He has accused a long list of toll-friendly Central Texans of lying and of having various conflicts of interest, implying or stating flat-out that their enthusiasm for toll roads is tied directly to their bank accounts.

And he has peppered Travis County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner's inbox with often insulting e-mails, including one that speculated the Democrat and former television reporter would be unable to return to broadcasting after he gets her defeated because she is "not presentable anymore."

Costello, Sonleitner says, "runs an electronic slambook. If he thinks he is swaying people, he is not."

Costello, 40, would beg to disagree, except it is impossible to imagine him begging. He pretty much says what's on his mind.

"There's a reason I do what I do: It works," says Costello, a registered Democrat when he lived in North Carolina. "So far, everything I've done works. I kind of go with what feels right. Sometimes I know something's harsh, but I feel it's appropriate and that it will work to what I'm trying to get at."

What Costello is trying to get at, who he is and how he could afford for months to devote so many of his waking hours to toll road muckraking has been a matter of considerable speculation among his targets. Costello, who says he and his team of petitioners (some of them paid for the task) had gathered the signatures, addresses and phone numbers of 21,000 recall proponents by mid-November, is just compiling a political list, some charge. He wants to run for local office, they say, or put up a slate of anti-business candidates in the May Austin City Council election.

He must be a trust fund baby, they say. Retired oil business lobbyist Ken Rigsbee, whom Costello and lawyer Bill Gammon helped force off the neighborhood association board, even speculated in a letter to Circle C residents early this year that Costello might be a Mafia scion sent south for his own protection. Somehow, that accusation didn't end up sparking a lawsuit.

Costello, when he's not standing at a microphone in a public meeting staring down his betters with startling confidence and venom, can be surprisingly mild and charming. In an interview at his Spanish-style home on a cul-de-sac, he laughs all this off, including that charge related to his Italian name.

"I think he was trying to be funny," says Costello, whose homemaker mom Anna and mill-working father Ron still live in his boyhood home in a small upstate New York town. "It's ignorance and bad humor."

No, he's not trying to compile a political list with the recall, Costello says. Rather, he's trying to get about 40,000 legitimate signatures and put on the May ballot, along with three other council seats, the future of Wynn, Thomas and McCracken (who now opposes the toll plan but couldn't be pulled off the petitions mid-stream. In a weird twist, that means Costello would oppose his recall). Costello says he has no designs on holding political office, and no slate of council candidates in his hip pocket. All he wants to do, Costello says, is eradicate that toll plan by retiring the people who voted for it and replacing them with people who'll rescind that vote. And his family, which includes a toddler daughter with brilliant blue eyes, is not living off some stash of cash from rich relatives.

"I wish I had a trust fund, trust me," Costello says. "The last five months have put some squeeze on us financially."

He says he was never an activist before. A search of the Greensboro News/Record, in the town where the Costellos lived from 1993 until the Austin move, turned up just three references to him. In only one, a letter to the editor where he complained about noisy helicopters conducting a military training exercise over their house at night, was there evidence of the testy Costello that Austin has come to know.

So, why has he turned into the Patrick Henry of toll roads? Basically, Costello says, it just really made him mad when he found out that someone wanted to put tolls on a road built with gasoline tax dollars, not borrowed money. Then he found out that most Austin highways would have tolls, albeit with free frontage roads alongside. And then he found out that other roads built with tax dollars also would have toll charges.

And, aside from Keel and Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty holding a press conference in early May condemning the toll road plan, Costello said he didn't see anyone mounting an effective counteroffensive as the plan moved toward a July vote. Costello, with his marketing expertise, figured he might as well step up. Of course, had Costello never moved here, toll roads no doubt still would have rankled a good portion of the populace, especially those in Southwest Austin. Through his efforts, however, Costello helped coalesce and amplify that discontent.

He formed People for Efficient Transportation, raised at least $14,000 to run some ads -- which included some shaky facts and questionable extrapolations of facts-- and created a Web site. Costello, who legally can keep the identities of his donors a secret, declines to say who gave him what. After the July vote threw him into a brief tailspin, he decided that a recall was the only way to keep the issue alive.

"It's really a step-by-step thing," Costello says. "It's not something that happens overnight, or something I was looking for."

Still, most people, confronted by a civic decision they don't like just grumble at the newspaper or television, complain to their friends and move on. Costello instead created a commotion. He says his single-mindedness goes back to a "life-changing event" when he was 23. On the way home from a night shift in a New York cable mill, Costello fell asleep at the wheel. As he puts it, the road curved and the car didn't, and it ended up suspended 10 feet in the air, wrapped around a telephone pole like a horseshoe. Costello, with a crushed pelvis and head injuries, almost died.

"That gave me a different perspective on life," he says. "From then on, everything I did I did with gusto, with passion."

He went back to college, eventually getting a design and advertising degree at the Kansas City Art Institute. He formed Costello and Company in North Carolina, then moved operations here. Having jettisoned his employees, he now works out of his home office and uses contract workers.

Costello, schooled in communications but still relatively new to the political sphere, has made some noticeable strategic missteps along the way. In July, he inaccurately charged that Stacy Rhone, sister of state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, had been hired by a toll advocacy group as a ploy to influence Dukes' vote on the toll plan. After a letter from Dukes' lawyer threatening legal action, Costello pulled the item off his Web site.

And Costello, after first including only Wynn and McCracken in his recall campaign, decided to add Thomas to the recall after an American-Statesman column questioned why he was picking some targets and overlooking Thomas, who had likewise voted for the toll plan. Adding Thomas had the probable effect of alienating Central Austin liberals and black voters -- Thomas is the only African American on the council -- who otherwise might have signed the petitions. Including Thomas seemed politically naive to political consultants asked about it then and later.

"I think it was naive not having Danny Thomas at the front end," Costello counters. "It was only fair to have him on there."

Costello, asked about tactics such as the personal attacks on people's ethics or a county commissioner's looks, first tries to defend them as a way to get in opponents' heads and distract them. Then he admits that sometimes lesser angels take over the keyboard.

"Sometimes it just feels good," Costello says. "Sometimes it's meant as, hey, I'm (hacked) off because of what they've been doing to me for five months. This should not be my job; this is their job. And if they're ignoring me, ignoring the mass of people, who are they listening to?

"I get a little frustrated," says Costello, who says one of his clients in the road-building industry has refused to pay him and that he has drawn down a large chunk of his savings. "Why the hell am I doing this? Why aren't I spending more time with my baby?"

Don Martin, a developer and public affairs consultant, represented Citizens for Mobility, the private entity formed to support the toll road plan.

"It's a whole lot easier to attract attention if you don't have to deal with the facts or solve the problem," Martin says. Costello, who actually supports building toll roads as new loops or cross-town routes such as Texas 130 and Texas 45 North, has a solution: raise the gasoline tax instead, something the Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry say they won't do.

"I know that Sal thinks he's made a major change in all this. He's a legend in his own mind," Martin says, referring to a recent behind-the-scenes deal to refrain from charging tolls on a short stretch of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) near William Cannon Drive that was in the toll plan approved in July. Tolls on two other roads, Ed Bluestein Boulevard and Texas 71, will be delayed by two years under the same agreement, likely to be ratified by the CAMPO board in January. And tolls on Loop 360, which would need a second CAMPO vote to occur, won't happen for many years, if ever.

Daugherty, though he agrees with Costello on the toll road plan and voted against it on CAMPO, refused to get involved with the recall. He has mixed feelings about the Costello approach to advocacy.

"I applaud Sal for his tenacity at keeping this situation elevated to the point where it needed to stay elevated," Daugherty says. "I do not agree with the personal manner that Sal has gone through."

Wynn, for his part, has only brief remarks about his nemesis.

"Any citizen has the right to do any of this," says Wynn. "Hearing some of the things he says is ridiculous. And it's certainly not having an effect on me and my positions."

Costello and Gammon, a plaintiff's attorney and Circle C Ranch resident, don't buy that. Absent the recall and the tens of thousands of e-mails to elected officials generated by Costello and his Web site, they doubt the plan would have changed.

"If it were not for Sal Costello making a stink, people would still have their eyes on their day-to-day commute and not know that toll roads were in TxDOT's future plans and the extent of it," says Gammon, who has been advising Costello on transportation law. "I think everyone on the government side, from Gov. Perry on down, is just astonished that this much of a firestorm has been raised by just one man."

Local political pros say Costello, whatever you think about his maneuvers, has certainly been effective. But they also say that with the hated MoPac section out of the plan, tolls delayed for two years on the two other roads, and Central Texas officials from dogcatcher to Gov. Rick Perry sensitized to the political peril of supporting toll roads, Costello is in danger of writing political checks he can't cash. He should declare victory and withdraw from the field, they say.

Don't count on it.

"I don't see that as a win yet," Costello says. "William Cannon/MoPac is a little baby-step of a win. But the two-year postponement is kind of like the difference between me taking your wallet right now, or me telling you, 'I'm not going to take your wallet now, but two years from now I'm going to come take your wallet.' "

If he keeps at this much longer, Costello's wallet might end up a lot lighter. But he'll still fight you for it.; 445-3698

© 2004 Austin American-Statesman: