Austin @ Large: Austin at Large: Mixed Signals

Council's waffling on districts marks a political conflict of interest

Austin At Large
We're still 10 days from the filing deadline, and already this City Council campaign is the most interesting in five years. But "interesting" may be too value-neutral for some of you. According to one reader -- perhaps a rare and highly prized "core reader" -- we "really threw a softball" in last week's column, we imagine at Betty Dunkerley. That's a far cry from threats by rogue or pretend cops (see "Adventure in Stupidity," p.19), but sheesh, people. Pardon us for not keelhauling the woman before the race has even begun. Check back in a few weeks.

Personally speaking, we would be happy to send Beverly Griffith back to private life if Dunkerley or another, through the jab and feint of a council campaign, proved to be the better candidate for these times. This is why we put in overtime in April covering campaigns instead of hanging in Cancún. Last we checked, that was how politics is supposed to work. What we've been seeing, though, is how politics actually works, with Austin's green people -- be they backing Griffith, or Daryl Slusher, or Jackie Goodman, or (if this is possible any more) all three -- having seen that power is good and they like it.

The Big Mix-Up

Witness the rear-guard action to put on the May charter election ballot, not (or not only) a single-member district system, but a mixed system consisting of both district and at-large council members. Let us call this the Slusher/Griffith Full Employment Act. Especially Slusher, who has been the most stalwart proponent of a mixed system during these seemingly interminable weeks of council discussion of the charter-amendment ballot. (Though the deadline is supposed to be March 21, city legal is now telling the council they have until April 4 to set a ballot.)

Daryl Slusher did not come up through the land-based civic infrastructure (whether that be a NA, or a PTA, or a church, or whatever), which is where we presume most SMD candidates would get their start. Nor is Slusher's own part of town -- far South Austin -- known for its great activism on the issues, most notably environmental protection, that Daryl himself has ridden into power. So if we had the SMD system -- 10 districts and an at-large mayor -- adjudged by two different incarnations of the city's Charter Revision Committee as superior to all other options, Slusher would not be a terribly viable candidate, except perhaps for mayor.

Griffith would be more viable because she has money and lives in a higher-turnout part of town: the Westside. Plus, her desire to be mayor has appeared more keen than Slusher's. (This all presumes that the incumbents would not, if they chose to run in SMDs next time, be running against fellow incumbents who live close by, Jackie Goodman in Slusher's case, Will Wynn in Griffith's.) But the dynamics are much the same. Both Slusher and Griffith became well known as opinion leaders in citywide contexts -- he in these pages, she on the parks board -- and were brought to the council dais and kept there by the backing of a citywide community of interest, the green machine. So unless all the greenies move to one part of town and stay there (because you know the current central-city Birkenstock Belt will be divvied up among as many SMDs as possible), there need to be at-large districts, or future Daryl Slushers will still be driving cabs or serving papers for the constable.

A Ward to the Wise

Of course, all the above may be true of Betty Dunkerley as well. Be these folks heroes, villains, or martyrs, the fact is that an SMD system would change Austin politics in a fundamental way. You know that already -- which is why we are faintly amused that anybody would argue for a mixed system, and against straight SMDs, using timeworn abstractions about "parochialism" or "ward politics," and opining that at-large council members will make the council wiser and less petty. (And Slusher says the Charter Revision Committee was "politically naive." Please.)

What we have now is ward politics, except only some wards get to play. Ask the folks living out northeast near Harris Branch, in the shadow and miasma of ever-growing landfills shedding toxins into the Walnut Creek watershed, if they think that nine years' worth of green power has made a big difference to their quality of life. Hell, ask our neighbors in Central East Austin, squeezed by both the problems of the ghetto (crime, lousy infrastructure, lack of commerce) and of the Birkenstock Belt (traffic, housing costs, ugly infill condo projects), whether they can see the impact of enlightened urban progressives' decade-long reign.

If we are to adopt a mixed system, let us be honest and admit that its purpose is to allow people with power now to still have power then. (Were the Birkenstock Belt suitably Balkanized into multiple SMDs, the green machine could easily retain power in the 8 districts/2 at-large/1 mayor mixed system most recently raised at council.) This may not be such a bad thing, if people are satisfied enough with the current powers-that-be.

We think most Austinites are not -- which may be self-evident, given that nine out of 10 voters stayed home last time the Three Amigos ran. (We also think that the number of people who genuinely care about the differences between Griffith and the other two could fit in the Austin Music Hall, which sadly in Austin is enough people to decide an election.) The point of an SMD system is to give people who are in the cheap seats now a chance to move to the front row, if they want.

Outsiders Need Not Apply

Which brings us back to where we left off last week's column, when we said Dunkerley had a chance to bump off Bev if people who didn't vote last time decided to vote this time. It may be "politically naive" of us to think that the Republicans and public-safety advocates and people living under landfills will see SMDs as a chance for them to get better seats -- as well they should, since they live here too, y'know -- and show up at the polls on May 4.

But it's not naive to think those out-of-power citizens may see the council's reluctance to put SMDs on the ballot as an effort to reserve some of those good seats for themselves and their friends. Even if a mixed system is better than the status quo, a compromise with no real purpose other than to massage the current bases sends a powerful signal to the un-massaged: Stay home.

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Betty Dunkerley, Beverly Griffith, Daryl Slusher, Jackie Goodman, Charter Revision Committee, single-member districts, charter proposals, Walnut Creek, Harris Branch

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