Introduced with plaudits from Mayor Steve Adler – he’d already seen an earlier version – the film documentary “10-Won: Austin’s New Voice” premiered to a packed and enthusiastic house at the Alamo South Lamar Sunday night – only in part because many in the audience were also on the screen.
The film, directed by Judy Maggio and Steve Conn, recounts the historic City Council election of 2014, the first held under the single-member district system, inaugurated by referendum in 2012. The effort was formidable – 78 candidates eventually filed for the 10 district offices (plus mayor), and the filmmakers perforce had to focus on a few of the races – and the working version of the film is brief, at a little more than 30 minutes. So it’s a vivid but somewhat truncated version of the tale, and the filmmakers (producers Maggio, Conn, R. David Ruiz and Deep Nasta) indicated that they hope to find time and funding to do more with the 50 hours or so of additional footage. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed for the film and appear in it briefly.)
The film begins with the January swearing-in and grand rhetoric of the new Council, but quickly plunges back into the retail politics of the campaigns. Brief cameos are awarded to numerous candidates, but the film mostly concentrates on three districts: 1, 3, and 4. One and 3 represent the historically underrepresented Eastside, and 4 North Central. The first is notable for the candidacy of (now Council Member) Ora Houston, with an emphasis on her retail-style campaign (won easily in a run-off); the other two featured closer races, with eventual run-off victories for CM’s Greg Casar (D4) and Sabino Renteria (D3).
There are a couple of dramatic story arcs: The first emphasizing the shift away from “at-large” elections (despite six previous attempts, Austin was the last large U.S. city [*in the South – see comments below this post] to move to districted elections), the second the campaign debate over candidate “kingmakers” – campaign consultants (specifically David Butts) and their role in determining who wins city elections. The districts were long in coming, in the wake of a notorious Seventies-era “gentleman’s agreement” (repeatedly endorsed by voters) that effectively confined minority candidates to two places on the seven-member at-large Council – the 2012 referendum finally broke that logjam (although the film’s version of that history is a trifle ahistorical and simplistic). Butts became a campaign target largely because of his long and very successful record of helping to elect Council candidates – and several frankly amateur 2014 candidates were surprised and disappointed to learn that winning an election actually requires political experience and skill.
There are also a couple of subplots – Casar denounced as a “carpetbagger” because he had recently moved into the newly designed District 4, and the District 3 sibling rivalry between Renteria and his sister, Susana Almanza. In short – and too short it is – the filmmakers manage to include quite a bit of the events and atmosphere of the campaigns (although I suspect that the candidates from the other seven districts will inevitably feel a bit neglected).
Mayor Adler began the evening by arguing that while other cities “lost two or four years” to disorganization after shifting to districted systems, Austin has been an exception. That’s a discussion for another day – the current Council, quite inexperienced, has had plenty of missteps – but at least thus far, the enthusiasm for districts has not diminished, and generated only minor instances of “ward” disputes. In a brief panel following the screening, Peck Young (who worked on the Austinites for Geographic Representation referendum campaign) congratulated the new Council and especially the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission for their “brilliant” success. Butts was more measured, suggesting any verdict on the new Council is premature, and that it will take a couple of election cycles for the new election arrangement to shake out any bugs. As for “kingmakers” – Butts wryly apologized for leaving his crown at home.
All in all, "10-Won” provides a lively recollection of the 2014 campaign, and whets the appetite for more expanse and detail. The filmmakers are still at work on the project – hoping to expand and supplement if they can raise more funding – and a KLRU screening is scheduled for January 22 at 8pm, followed by a Civic Summit to be hosted by Maggio. (We'll have more details when they’re available.)
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