Area activist lowering her profile
Russell involved in a range of causes but now focusing on schools.
A window sticker on her well-worn 2002 Toyota Prius reads, “Biting Those Who Need to be Bitten.” Another asks, “Dear officer, what part of the Constitution are you defending today?”
The messages are spot on about Debbie Russell, though she concedes she’s now more focused on students as a trustee of the Del Valle school board.
The outspoken 44-year-old activist has made headlines on social issues ranging from open government to police misconduct to the Occupy Austin protests and even championed the late Leslie Cochran, Austin’s iconic crossdressing homeless man. She took part in the successful campaign to pass Proposition 3 to allow the election of Austin City Council members
from single-member districts and is now keeping a watchful eye on how the plan is implemented.
In Del Valle, she’s on a mission to close down the district’s disciplinary center — “trailers behind barbed wire,” as she calls it.
“Eighty percent of the kids sent there are for nonviolent offenses. I’d rather have an opportunity center where those kids are involved in activities like art to help them find a new focus. I want to save people, not punish them,” she said.
But Russell might still be best known for her criticism of the Austin Police Department and Chief Art Acevedo’s handling of officers who have killed citizens in the line of duty. After police officer Jaime Padron was shot and killed at a Wal-Mart store in April, she made this infamous posting on Facebook: “Curiosity killed the cat, but ego killed the cop.”
She deleted the comment and apologized on a local TV station, but it has dogged her ever since. Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Mike Martinez admonished her privately. On her blog, criticism rained down.
Russell responded with a chastened post. “Mea Culpa,” she began. “I regret increasing the conflict, when normally I pride myself on encouraging conflict resolution.” She apologized to Acevedo and Padron’s family, police officers and the community.
Still, the Wal-Mart episode threatened to compromise years of grassroots activism.
“What she posted on Facebook … speaks to the depths of the dark- ness in her heart,” Acevedo said when contacted for this story. “I lost a lot of respect for her, and I question how she can effectively serve children” as a member of the Del Valle school board.
In person, however, Russell is disarming. She appears reasonable, not confrontational. A fellow school board member describes her as “patient and collaborative.”
“I get that a lot,” Russell said. “People will say something like, ‘Oh, you’re not so bad.’ ”
Politically, she calls herself an independent but leans toward the Green Party. She’s been a waitress, a teacher and an office manager and now works for a computer repair firm. Her father taught her how to work on cars, and she once installed a transmission with the help of a friend.
“Once you take an engine apart and lay it all in front of you, you see how it works and what goes where,” she said.
Born in Houston, Russell is the daughter of an Exxon public relations executive and a stay-athome mother. She set out to become an architect but switched to English literature at the University of Houston, from which she graduated in 1992. Fresh out of college, she wrote grant applications for dance companies and taught at the Phoenix Academy, a small private high school in Houston.
Her time teaching English as a second language in Houston shaped her political awareness, she said. “Working with refugees opened my eyes to how little I’d learned in school,” she said.
She moved to Austin in 1997 and has been here ever since, throwing her high energy into causes important to her: American Civil Liberties Union-Texas, Austinites for Geographic Representation, Youth Unlimited, Better Austin Today, Austin Center for Peace and Justice, Austin Police Accountability Coalition, Black Austin Democrats, Change Austin, Del Valle Community PTA and the Austin Center for Peace and Justice.
All that involvement doesn’t necessarily produce measurable results, she admits. “In Austin, it’s rare that your efforts result in tangible wins, but we have been successful in pushing public education of issues and pushing debates on issues that are not otherwise on the table. That’s a win,” she said.
An example: pushing the Austin Police Department to come up with a definitive policy on people who film police officers performing their duties. “It defines that citizens have a right to record, and it also defines what constitutes interference,” she said.
She served on the city of Austin’s Urban Forestry Board from 2002 to 2005 and the Public Safety Task Force from 2007 to 2009. The Austin Chronicle named her Most Active Activist in 2005.
For several years, Russell was the unofficial spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which named her Outstanding Activist in 2009. Paid staffers now speak for the organization, and Russell is simply a volunteer. “She is one of our most loyal and effective volunteers. We value her participation in Austin,” said ACLU-Texas spokeswoman Dotty Griffith.
Her high-profile involvement in so many causes, some of them unpopular, is bound to bring criticism, said Nelson Linder, president of the Austin NAACP.
“Let’s face it: When you’re doing what Debbie does, you’re going against the grain and against people who are powerful. But she’s been upfront and effective in keeping critical issues like civil liberties and police misconduct before the public,” he said.
Lately, Austin officials appear to have distanced themselves even more
from Russell. She said Leffingwell and Martinez won’t talk to her.
Council Member Bill Spelman did not return repeated phone calls from the Statesman about Russell. His policy director, Heidi Gerbracht, confirmed that Spelman has had meetings with Russell but said, “Our office has no comment.”
Susanna Woody, vice president of the Del Valle school board, did return the Statesman’s call, saying she was speaking only for herself.
“My opinion is that Debbie is very knowledgeable about the law and legislation. She’s patient and collaborative,” Woody said. “Debbie stands up for what she thinks is right, no matter what people think of her. You have to have courage to do that.”
The board did receive a letter from a person complaining about Russell’s Facebook posting about the Wal-Mart shooting, Woody said. “Basically it said that her comment was unbecoming a school board member. It wasn’t anything we discussed as a board because it had nothing to do with children or the school board. She did apologize to us, but in my opinion she didn’t have to because it had nothing to do with schools or children.”
Russell was appointed to the school board in August 2011 to fill a vacant seat. She was not opposed in the May election, and her term will expire in 2015.
Mike Levy, a member of the city’s Public Safety Commission, said he has strongly disagreed with Russell on law enforcement issues, but they were on the same side on single-member council districts.
“Debbie is passionate, and she cares. Most people in Austin throughout the political spectrum are unwilling to expend that kind of emotional energy on anything,” Levy said.
For now, she remains focused on city government, Del Valle school issues and Austinites for Geographic Representation, the group that backed single-member council districts. She keeps a watchful eye on public officials — “Acevedo is foremost on that list, and he knows it,” she said.
And there’s also her day job — working for Happy Mac, a small Austin business that fixes Apple computers.
“I’m a fixer of computers and cars,” Russell said. “And I fix broken government.”
Debbie Russell might be best known for her criticism of the Austin Police Department.
Debbie Russell recently protested an alleged cavity search conducted in public by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper.
Contact Ricardo Gandara at 445-3632.