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Point Austin: Lessons on the Wind

Random speculations on the returns

By Michael King, Fri., Nov. 8, 2013

What, if anything, have we learned from Tuesday? While it's inevitably misleading to draw grand conclusions from a single election – especially an interim election in which virtually every jurisdiction had its own particular issues – it's also inevitably tempting to speculate on the meaning of what just happened. With that caveat very much in mind, what follows are a few thoughts for your consideration.

First, it seems Austin voters (or at least 60% of the 14% who managed to get to the polls) have not given up on the bedrock principle that everybody does better if everybody does better. Nearly 40,000 voters supported the affordable housing bonds, raising sighs of relief among the advocates who last fall saw a nearly identical initiative narrowly defeated. That may well mean, primarily, that last fall's crowded ballot, vague ballot language, and mediocre campaign simply failed to connect with voters, and this year's focus was immeasurably better.

That 14% turnout is encouraging in itself – still anemic, but better than the widely anticipated 8%. The spring City Coun­cil electorate has steadily diminished in recent years, so this offers hope that next fall's election – along with single-member districts – will engage more voters and help reinvigorate local government.

On the bond vote itself: With rare exceptions, Aus­tin voters understand that a prosperous community requires direct community investment. That was true on health care last fall, and it's true again on housing this fall. In theory, at least, it should be true on transportation next fall, if advocate infighting doesn't sabotage the message and the whole region can envisage the long-term benefit of investments that might not be instantly gratifying.

Water Wise

Similarly, the dramatic success of Prop­o­si­tion 6, the constitutional amendment that will create a $2 billion revolving water fund (from the state's Rainy Day savings account, no less) suggests that, like Travis County voters, Texans statewide believe in the state's future and are willing to invest in major infrastructure – and don't subscribe to the conservative nostrum that the only conceivable uses for the state savings account are property tax rebates.

Undeniably, this was a strange-bedfellows vote: in the statewide support alliance between major corporate interests and mainstream environmental groups, and in the local opposition alliance between purist environmental groups and the sophomoric libertarianism that has leaked into so much of our regional politics. The former expressed an actually functional "bipartisanship" that has increasingly had to work around the headline polarization of state and national party posturing; the latter reflected an increasingly parochial, anti-government abdication of larger community engagement.

Voting Rights and Turnout

Beyond these big-picture items, the literally provincial and entirely interim election in House District 50 is yet to be settled – and apparently won't be until Jan­u­ary, when it can be immediately reopened for the March primaries. But Celia Israel's strong showing in a district which, we were repeatedly warned, is "not like the rest of Austin," is encouraging. She ran a full-throated progressive campaign against two Demo­cratic rivals who portrayed her as a tax-and-spend liberal too far left for the district – and she handily defeated both Jade Chang Sheppard and Rico Reyes.

It remains to be seen whether Israel can hold her progressive base and gather sufficient Sheppard/Reyes voters to leapfrog Mike VanDeWalle, who approached what should be his 40%+ Republican ceiling (and Travis Co. Dems should shake the bushes to make that happen). But it was reassuring to find that the State-Income-Tax Bogeyman is not a surefire Halloween scarifier, and that folks in Jolly­ville, Pflug­er­ville, and Webberville are not too distant from Zilker Park to vote like Austin.

As for the rest: The Lege can still put roast turducken and succotash on a constitutional amendment ballot, and if the prop mentions "veterans" or "tax exemptions," Texas voters respond, oh what the hell. The Chronicle editorial board was dressed down by none other than state Sen. (and all-but-declared Lite Guv candidate) Leticia Van de Putte ("Postmarks," Oct. 21) for opposing Prop. 4 – a corporate lagniappe half-disguised as a boon for disabled veterans. But – as we privately assured her aide who also remonstrated with us – Prop. 4 won in a landslide, and Home Depot et al.'s charitable write-offs remain sacrosanct.

We don't begrudge the handful of veterans who will be helped as a result. Possibly the state of Texas should even consider whether the fact that too many are indeed charity cases is the real public disgrace.

Finally, beyond Texas borders, it was amusing to see Virginia's Ken "Bat-Shit Crazy" Cuccinelli fall on his face. In that vein, supporters of the mad Texas Bartons (David and Joe) have reportedly been coaxing one or both of those wing nuts into attempts to "Cruz" Sen. John Cornyn as a RINO. It certainly couldn't happen to a nicer guy, and Cornyn's recent staggers further right suggest that he's hoping to head off a primary challenge. Not so lucky will be re-elected New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who looks splendid today to the few remaining Republican "moderates" – but who will be primaried to an early presidential exit by his hard-right brethren, who made such quick mincemeat of Jon Hunts­man, Tim Pawlenty, and even Rick Perry.

Most finally, let me echo Joan Walsh in Salon this morning: "The Virginia results also show why Republicans are working overtime to suppress black voters. Anyone who cares about 2014 and 2016 ... should be making voting rights and turnout efforts their No. 1 issue, starting today."

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