Austin @ Large: (Jennifer) Gale Force

Eleven thousand people can't be wrong? AISD dodges a bullet.

For a larger map click <a href=bigatlargemap.jpg target=blank>here</a>
For a larger map click here

As much as Austin is digging on keeping it weird, some jokes just don't seem that funny any more. Witness Jennifer Gale, who, after – at least in the popular mind – forcing Austin ISD to hold an expensive election just for her, pulled down nearly 40% of the vote against incumbent school board President Doyle Valdez. As the map above shows, Jennifer Gale did not simply get lucky with fluke results in a handful of precincts: She actually won or tied in nearly 40 boxes, came within two points of winning in 10 more, and did better than her 38.7% cumulative district-wide total in a majority of AISD precincts. Not that Valdez didn't win by a landslide, but he, not Gale, benefited from strong showings in a relatively small handful of – high-turnout, traditionally politically active – boxes.

You know, boxes where people know who Jennifer Gale actually is, even if they don't know what she is. That she is an eccentric perennial candidate with a not terribly coherent agenda – regardless of what office she's running for – is in little dispute, although in fairness Jennifer Gale is a marginally more compelling candidate for school board, in terms of her grasp of the issues involved, than she is for City Council or the U.S. Congress. (She sure does love kids.) Of course, what also engages attention is her personal eccentricity, starting with the name and its associated gender. I think the Statesman was unnecessarily snide in its attempt to out Jennifer Gale as a man, even though many who are acquainted with her obviously share the daily's opinion.

Our position, typically, is to refer to people as they refer to themselves. Leslie Cochran calls himself "he" and "a guy in a dress" and is thus male in the pages of the Chronicle. In her decade-long career on the political fringes, Jennifer Gale has always presented herself as female; whether or not that's convincing, that's her story and we're sticking to it. If she were an indisputably natural-born woman, with everything else being the same, she would still be some distance from fitness for office, and her winning nearly 40% of the vote should be enough to give us pause.

Demographic Darts

You'd think that after she's run for office more than a dozen times and spoken before the City Council every week, and after having The Awful Truth About Jennifer Gale detailed in recent weeks both in the daily and on the TV news, somewhat fewer than 11,000 of your friends and neighbors would either have no clue about Jennifer Gale or think she was the right woman for the job. But apparently not.

Last week, we told you about one addled Northeast Austin senior citizen who announced at the polls she "always votes for the woman." Indeed, that may be enough to explain Gale's results in many boxes – particularly, and sadly, since a Hispanic man was her only opponent. (Conversely, Gale's absolute worst boxes were the primarily Mexican-American Eastside boxes, from Seventh Street down to the river.) Gender-based voting, accurate or not, probably does help explain Gale's winning outright in various ultra-low-turnout boxes throughout town, like those around UT, or those on the fringe that are split between AISD and neighboring school districts. In some of those, the black boxes on the map simply mean that Jennifer Gale got seven votes and Doyle Valdez five.

But that doesn't explain why she won in and around Sunset Valley, or at Onion Creek, or in several African-American Eastside boxes, all of which lie well within AISD and none of which saw ultralow turnout, relatively speaking. And the notion that Jennifer Gale's base is purely explained by demographics is somewhat undercut when you compare her numbers to those in the demographically diverse ACC Place 6 trustee race. Gale won, or came close enough to frighten the horses, in boxes that were carried by each of the four candidates in that contest – in which the results suggest that voters in a lot of boxes made their choice by throwing a dart at the eSlate.

In aggregate terms, Gale did best in boxes carried by Rodney Ahart, again mostly on the black Eastside, and worst in boxes won by Guadalupe Sosa, which were primarily the buckles of the Birkenstock Belt – Clarksville, Cherrywood, Travis Heights – whose voters are familiar with, and likely a bit weary of, the Jennifer Experience. (The exception was Crestview, which went for Sosa but gave Gale 45.1%.) Paired with Marc Levin, Gale's results were, well, all over the map – getting her posterior kicked in boxes like Circle C Ranch, but winning outright in other boxes carried by the controversial young conservative activist. Gale's showing in Veronica Rivera's boxes was more consistent, but on average still at or slightly above her citywide totals.

Think of the Children!

This is already more analysis than Jennifer Gale deserves, although it may be time to wonder where the firewall is going to be – she's still young, and if she keeps running, and people who aren't paying attention keep showing up to vote, she's eventually going to win something, and we won't be able to blame it on the eSlate. But the real issue here, of course, is not Gale. It's voter apathy and ignorance, and especially AISD's failure to be able to connect with the citizenry on this front. Not that City Council elections call forth inspiring turnout, but they do feature livelier campaigns with more candidates that bring out more engaged voters, and in six sallies onto that battlefield, Jennifer Gale has never gotten more than 5.4% of the vote.

I tried to do my part, writing a column earlier this year saying that the school board and ACC elections were the most important ones citizens would have to decide this year. (This assumed that the hospital district vote was a slam dunk, and was written before a November Cap Metro rail referendum became all-but-definite.) That call to arms wasn't powerful enough to get people to run and thus get other people to vote. I'm not saying this is the school district's fault, although I think the trustees and AISD administrators ought to give some thought to what they can do to wake up the populace.

Partisan elections – for county offices or the Lege – come with their own built-in turnout drivers. City Council races are generally decided by issues that are relatively niche compared to the interests of the ordinary citizen in most Austin precincts, and thus those races are dominated by a handful of boxes. And ACC's profile in daily Austin life simply isn't, and likely will never be, high enough to inspire voter excitement. (Though he is unquestionably bad news, Marc Levin may actually help change that.) But what's the school board's story? Some 150,000 voters have kids in AISD schools. Hundreds of thousands more citizens pay school taxes. And the school board has single-member districts, which supposedly should help turnout.

Of course, many cynics argue that it's in the interest of the powers that be, at AISD and elsewhere in government, to keep elections boring and turnout low. Even if that's true, Jennifer Gale's 38.7% showing should suggest to those folks in power to be careful what they wish for. end story

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