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The misleadingly named Austin Fair Elections Act proposes an unneeded "cure" for a healthy body politic.

Page Two
The Austin Fair Elections Act: It sounds so pure, it seems so righteous. At last, Austin will achieve genuine campaign finance reform. In a way this is like Nazis calling themselves National Socialists -- the name sounds much more benign, but is very misleading (and we're simply talking misleading names here -- I'm not making accusations of fascism). The Austin Fair Elections Act is actually nothing of the sort. The idea is not to make elections more fair, but rather more restricted.

The question I keep asking is, "What ills does this cure?" Rather, the disease is the campaign reforms themselves. The answer is not more campaign finance reform. Any campaign reform monkeys around with your basic democratic rights. The argument can be made, though I don't buy it, that there are serious problems on the national and state level that need to be addressed. The argument can't be made that there are the same types of problems on the local level. There aren't.

When the Chronicle endorsement board met with two of the drafters of the act, I asked this question. They talked about how much money was spent in the San Francisco mayor's race. They talked about the Supreme Court and the Texas Legislature. When asked specifically about Austin, they had as much positive to say about the influx of money as negative. Their only concrete complaint was the allegation that a recent mayor spent little time at his City Hall office and more time fundraising at another office. I'm not sure this is true, but I doubt it affected his voting record. On the other hand, they talked about how the influx of Don Henley dollars aided Daryl Slusher and Bill Spelman, two progressive candidates.

Austin has a history of well-organized community/environmental progressives beating better-funded pro-development candidates. If there isn't a disease, why offer a cure? This is much like saying, "Hey, there's this really successful surgical procedure, so let's perform it on a healthy patient just in case." This is lunacy.

Currently, the biggest problems in Austin electoral politics are the so-called reforms. Being drastic cures for no ills, as with any malignancy in a healthy body, they've mutated into cancerous diseases.

Do you realize that Jackie Goodman, having collected thousands of legitimate signatures, could win the election and then be disqualified? Why? Because she didn't collect enough signatures. This would disenfranchise the thousands of registered voters who signed and those who actually voted. Reform?

Given the current high level of dissatisfaction with local government, why are there only a handful of legitimate candidates running against the incumbents -- including and limited to Kirk Mitchell, Betty Dunkerley, and Bruce McCracken? The answer is our moronic and unnecessary campaign finance law that limits the amount a candidate can raise to $100 per person. This favors incumbents and the personally wealthy and disenfranchises you -- the average voter.

The argument is that if we lift the campaign finance limits, evil developers will pour so much money into the campaign that our poor community will be swamped. First, drive in any direction. We are losing that war. And it's not because of the council. Any halfway committed developer has long realized that skillful lawyers and clear legal battles are more effective than buying politicians. The real enemy, however, is not big money, nor evil developers, nor unscrupulous lawyers -- that's too easy. Arguing that there is some good-guy-versus-bad-guy scenario, with campaign finance the good guy's secret weapon, is silly. Pogo knew the answer three generations ago. Look in the mirror. The problem is us. The most evil developer is simply a facilitator of ordinary folks who want to move here. The climate is great; despite the over-development, the area is still stunning; and Austin's cultural, arts, restaurant, personal sports, and media scenes are amazing. This is a desirable place to live. People are going to want to keep moving here -- despite the fluctuating rate of growth, it is still constant. The tragedy is that so many newcomers show no inclination to preserve and continue the traits that make this city great. Campaign reform isn't going to change that situation. Given the Constitution and the courts, growth is going to happen. To blame big money and developers is simplistic and not very constructive.

This act should be rejected for its arbitrary limits on personal contributions and on overall campaigns. Even if you disagree with my analysis, before we start screwing with the electoral process -- with our most basic democratic rights -- the situation should be a lot more critical than it is in Austin.

What about public financing of campaigns? There are strong arguments here, but I'm still very suspicious. In Wednesday's Austin American-Statesman, Act activist Fred Lewis argues that Jennifer Gale will never be able to find the 500 people to give $5, and I suspect he's right. But what about Leslie? I can imagine a diversity of groups, from an anarchist collective to a campus fraternity, thinking how amusing it would be to have Leslie on the ballot and helping gather the 500 signatures and $2,500. Remember when Sam Hurt's Hank the Hallucination almost won a UT election? What about Linda Curtis? Given her formidable petition skills, she could probably mount a slate that would make the X-Men's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants look like relatively sane political choices.

If single-member districts pass, the Fair Election Act will be even more easily abused. Let's say there is a district where 2,000 to 5,000 vote, but a ward machine that can easily find the 500 contributors. That's a guaranteed 16 grand every election that can be spent on consultants and staff, on media and an electoral machine. Think of the consequences. Rather than drive a current campaign, the money can go to reward loyalists and reinforce long-term support.

Campaign reform has proven to be a cure worse than any disease affecting the Austin body politic. Public financing is worth discussing, but to pass the first, ill-thought-out proposal because of a cute name will have devastating consequences. Vote No on Prop. 1, Vote Yes on Prop 2.

end story

Currently there is a proposal to combine the Fire Department and EMS. I'm second to none in my admiration for Austin's public servants, especially the foot soldiers out on the streets, but this is a very bad idea. The fact that some politicians are embracing or thinking of embracing it in return for political support indicates the true area of their concerns -- re-election rather than successful civic services and infrastructure. Don't be fooled.

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I've long admired the superb song craftsmanship of cover subject Darden Smith. Honestly, however, I've always thought that, though talented, Eliza Gilkyson was too New Age. Starting about a year ago, I started doing double takes at certain stunning songs while listening to KGSR. Surprisingly, they all turned out to be by Gilkyson. Now, I'm a longtime radio addict (I remember three decades ago racing across Boston, despite the rush hour traffic, because I had just heard Guy Clark's "Old No. 1" on the radio and had to own the album, though I had no idea who he was). To listen to an artist for years and then have them surprise you, not with their first burst of innovation but with their mature work and reflection, is very rare. I may have to go back to listen to earlier Gilkyson, but I can tell you the last two albums are simply stunning. end story

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Austin politics, Austin campaign finance, Austin finance reform, Austin single member districts, Austin elections, Austin City Council, Linda Curtis, Jennifer Gale, Kirk Mitchell, Daryl Slusher, Bill Spelman, Guy Clark, Don Henley, Darden Smith, Eliza Gilkyson, Old No.

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