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Point Austin: Questions for Candidates

If you're not running, your neighbor is

By Michael King, Fri., Aug. 1, 2014

A couple of months ago, I was exchanging notes with another observer of Austin politics, and he asked what I thought was the "over/under" number on City Council candidates. He suggested we'd break 60, and I – naïf that I was – said that sounded a little high.

Well, Tuesday morning, with the campaign treasurer filing of yet another candidate in District 3, we hit 71. (District 3 currently has 10 candidates, even after one withdrawal.) The total accounting includes a couple of defections – announced withdrawals in the last two weeks – and now seven mayoral candidates. So much for my prognostications.

By the time you read this, a few more names might be on the list. Not all of these folks are "serious" – i.e., seriously doing the difficult work of campaigning – and I suspect at least a few entered on impulse. At this writing, only 16 candidates have filed ballot applications – the next step in the process – but there can be financial and tactical reasons to delay that filing, so we'll not have another full reckoning until Aug. 18, when folks have to put up or shut up. But even if we don't break 50 or 60 in that round (and I better not guess), there has been an extraordinary outpouring of citizen engagement in the process, and an early vindication of those who said single-member districts should expand public interest in local government. Now let's hope it has a similar effect on voting.

In several if not most of the districts, and possibly for mayor, it will almost certainly mean run-offs, in December, not the friendliest time for electioneering. Campaigns will be exhausted, and candidates will be competing for attention with the holidays, shopping, traveling, visiting relatives. That particular collision is unlikely to happen again – future Council tenures will be staggered, and this will be the last "historic first." But let's also work to encourage more than a few voters make the effort to return to the polls.

We All Have 'Issues'

Early on, as we were doing our initial reporting, it was difficult to make many distinctions among the candidates, and only recently are the campaigners beginning to draw them. The "issues" – that vague and slippery word – sounded extremely similar. Everyone was in favor of "affordability"; all declared that "traffic" is bad; everyone wanted to "conserve water and preserve natural resources"; and of course, no one forgot "public safety."

As the weeks have moved on, a few patterns have become discernible. For some candidates – mostly in eastern districts – "affordability" more specifically means more affordable housing, finding ways to keep rising housing costs from driving working people into the suburbs. (Last week, I even heard the words "rent control" – and then the candidate quickly acknowledged he had just learned rent control is illegal in Texas.) Further west, "affordability" increasingly means only one thing: cutting property taxes. (I wrote on that subject last week, so I'll just note here the growing economic tension between homeowners and renters.)

Addressing traffic problems, to some candidates, means investing in multimodal transportation systems, including (at least in theory) rail and bus. To others (and there's a less sharp east-west distinction on this question), it means building roads, roads, and only roads – as though the last two decades of local debate on this issue had never happened.

Similar divisions occur on environmental matters (save water and energy, but don't raise prices) and public safety (we need more cops, but not more spending).

A Few Open Questions

I haven't singled out – yet – any particular candidates, because I'm identifying larger themes here and it's still relatively early; most of the campaigns are only now beginning to get going or getting very public. But it's worth raising some questions now for voters listening to these campaigns as they develop.

For example:

• Demanding "affordability" without defining it, or explaining how Council and the city should work toward same, is hardly more useful than repeating, "The rent is too damn high."

• If rail is an expensive "boondoggle" and "All We Need Is Roads" – do you intend to build the roads for free, and where do you propose to put them, in a built-out city?

• If we require "hundreds" more police officers, no matter what the cost – a similar question: How do you propose to pay for them, while simultaneously cutting property taxes, which are too damn high?

• And so on: If you object to central city development, as disrupting historical neighborhoods and eliminating single-family residences, and also denounce sprawl development as environmentally destructive (and amplifying traffic congestion) – where do you propose that people moving to Austin in great numbers (as they have always done, for more than 100 years) should live, and at what cost?

I don't claim to have easy answers to these questions, or to many more that will be facing those 71 (or more) candidates – and more importantly, facing the 11 council members who will ascend the new (larger) dais in January. Indeed, I'm simply pointing out that the answers aren't easy – as I suspect many fledgling candidates, who entered declaring variations of "Throw the bums out," are now personally learning on the campaign trail. And if they aren't finding that out ... they probably shouldn't be candidates at all.


Follow Newsdesk at austinchronicle.com/elections. Twitter: @PointAustin

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