Austin's Democratic clubs are the smallest building-blocks in the political firmament that determines the result of local elections, so it may surprise some that their internal disputes are among the most heated in the whole system. Look no further than the controversy that has engulfed local clubs in the last two weeks over endorsements in two hotly contested county races – the slugfest between Andy Brown and Sarah Eckhardt for Travis County Judge, and the three-way contest between Brigid Shea, Richard Jung, and Garry Brown for Commissioners Court Precinct 2.
Much of the controversy is over a political tactic called "packing" or "stacking," which involves filling an organization with your own loyalists to help win an endorsement. Austin's Democratic clubs are, at least hypothetically, supposed to be filled with involved, conscientious members who rally around issues or ideology, and stay with the club for the long term. With the small membership of many clubs, though, a small number of new members can help tip an endorsement vote. And given that clubs require voting members to pay dues, candidates will sometimes pay for the cost of a membership.
Stacking is a time-honored component of the political strategist's toolkit. In Robert Caro's The Path to Power, a chronicle of Lyndon B. Johnson's early years that has Talmudic power for the politically inclined, LBJ used it repeatedly in the Twenties to install his loyalists in student government while in college in San Marcos. But some are saying that stacking is more of a problem today than it's ever been. Depending on where one stands, it's either a healthy and inseparable part of the game, or a mortal threat to the democratic process that must be destroyed.
The conflict is most heated in the Precinct 2 race, where Shea and Brown are increasingly criticizing Jung's campaign for stacking, while Jung's supporters say the tactic is fair game and reflects support for their candidate. Jung has appeared to be pulling second behind Shea in the three-way race, but has won a large number of club endorsements recently, including some that have surprised observers. His campaign won the endorsement of the Austin Tejano Democrats after paying for 20 memberships in the club, despite ATD's core support of the 10-1 City Council redistricting plan, which Jung opposed.
After Jung won a number of club endorsements Jan. 30, attention turned to the Central Austin Democrats and University Democrats, two groups that meet together on UT's Forty Acres. For decades, the two groups have fused their endorsements into something called the Austin Progressive Coalition, a weightily named organization that confers certain resources and volunteer benefits to candidates that win both groups' support.
CAD president Glen Coleman, fielding complaints from people watching what was going on in other clubs, proposed a change in the rules Friday, Jan. 31, before CAD/UD's joint endorsement meeting and candidate forum on Saturday. As it happens, membership in the UDems is restricted to those affiliated with UT – but CAD's membership is open to anyone living in Central Austin, meaning UT students can join both clubs and vote twice. Coleman announced on Facebook he wouldn't be giving CAD ballots to UDem members, eliminating the possibility of double-voting.
That set off a firestorm, with a torrent of people accusing Coleman, and the anonymous complainers, of attempting to disenfranchise students – and decrying the sportsmanship of changing the rules the day before an endorsement meeting. Glen Maxey, a CAD member and former state rep, wrote that he found the newfound interest in membership rules naive. "Packing of clubs before endorsements," he wrote, "is the way campaigns work. It's like registering voters before an election."
By the time the clubs met at noon that Saturday – K.T. Musselman, who works for the Jung campaign, implored supporters to meet "tomorrow at high noon" to oppose "this last-minute, unannounced, anti-democratic, and anti-student rule" – passions were running high. Coleman was on the defensive as he tried to explain the reasons he had proposed the policy change. Maxey took to the floor to tell attendees the CAD constitution was unambiguous in allowing all residents of Central Austin to vote, and promised that he would "fight to my dying breath to keep students from being disenfranchised."
Chuck Herring, who chaired the Travis County Democratic Party in the Eighties, rose to describe the stacking process as a net positive. "It's good for the clubs," he said, emphasizing the boost to participation and club finances. "Usually the people who complain about bringing new people into clubs are the people who can't do it as effectively."
Others, though, railed against the intensity of the stacking. Campaign consultant David Butts told the audience he was "quite frankly ashamed" of what had become of the club, adding that "a group of enterprising political consultants who may or may not be paying these people want to game the endorsement," something which threatened to end the "unique system" behind the Austin Progressive Coalition.
That's something Huey Rey Fischer, a former UDem president, was having none of. "If you want to do this in the middle of a primary, when we're trying to move forward for 2014, that's your game, David Butts," he said. "All of these arguments are red herrings." But Fischer, who's pulling for Garry Brown, later admitted that he'd "seen a lot of University Democrats here I've never seen before, and they're all wearing Jung stickers."
CAD ultimately approved a review committee to look at stacking, and the dual-vote issue, but the attempt to change the rules at "high noon" was defeated easily. One of the few to stand in favor of the rule change: Eckhardt, who, despite paying for quite a few CAD memberships herself, lost the UDems/CAD/APC endorsement to Andy Brown. Also winning that endorsement: Jung and County Treasurer candidate Ramey Ko. Jung and Ko practice law together and share a campaign manager, Mykle Tomlinson.
Members of the Jung campaign point to Shea's inability to win the CAD endorsement as evidence of weakness on her home turf. Shea says that's nonsense. "I think it's an indication that campaign consultants will go to great lengths to get endorsements," she said when asked about the day's events, saying that the endorsements are "not at all" significant in the broader scope of the campaign. Is it unethical? "Yes. I think that when you have so many clubs either acting or discussing the need to examine their bylaws," Shea says, "it speaks volumes."
Whatever the significance, the issue seems set to rumble on. At a Women for Good Government forum on Monday, the candidates were asked about stacking.
Garry Brown, who opened by disclosing that he had gotten in on the game in a minor way by paying the membership dues of five unpaid interns who were members of UDems, said the scale of the Jung operation was troubling. When he decried the "other candidates in this race who have spent hundreds of dollars to block either Brigid or I from getting endorsements," Jung interjected: "You can say my name," prompting laughter from the crowd.
Brown continued: "I understand that the rules allow this sort of thing. But just because you can doesn't mean you should." But Jung seemed to be banking that his burgeoning list of club endorsements was worth the tactic. "We're all running hard campaigns," he said. "And I've abided by the rules."
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