The Austin Chronicle

Austin @ Large: Austin at Large: W.W.P.D.?

What Would "Progressives' Do?

By Mike Clark-Madison, March 22, 2002, News

We don't usually kick off with corrections, but this one deserves to be made: Last week, we variously reported that Beverly Griffith did (in this column), and did not (in the accompanying sidebar), vote for a proposed charter amendment to repeal the $100 campaign contribution limits instituted in 1997. She, in fact, did not. We regret our error.

In an ideal world, Griffith, Daryl Slusher, and Jackie Goodman would have been able to abstain from votes on term limits and campaign finance restrictions that they're currently wrestling with as candidates, without leaving the council effectively quorum-less. But we ultimately wouldn't have minded if Griffith in fact had voted to repeal the $100 limit, since we, along with many campaign-reform advocates, think the 1997 cure was worse than the disease. (We tend to think all campaign finance cures are worse than the disease -- except, potentially, public financing.) But for her to do so would not, apparently, have been "progressive" -- which is our real focus this week.

On Election Night, we heard more than one variation of the following: "We were really surprised (or worse) that the Chronicle didn't endorse Candidate X (Heckler, Acevedo, either Morales), because he's the progressive." (At least people still think we are "progressive," as implied by their surprise at our choices.) We'll catch the same hell, in triplicate, if (when the time comes) we fail to endorse Griffith. We may quibble whether, say, Dan Morales has any right to the title, but that's beside the point. What does it mean? What is "a progressive"?

Prog Is as Prog Does?

As far as our endorsements go, we apparently had a harder time making those choices than did Travis County voters, because the "progressives" were for the most part soundly whipped. But regardless of the electoral facts, being "a progressive" clearly means something -- something good, something worth voting for -- to local political people, and supposedly means something especially good to you, the now-celebrated "core readers" of the Chronicle. We're just not sure what it is.

We're not contesting the semantic use of "progressive" as a euphemism for "leftist" or alternative to the dreaded "liberal" (and we know full well that many progressives consider themselves left-of-liberal). We're curious, though, as to how "being a progressive" really defines itself on the ground, in actions in office or promises on the campaign trail, in the real-world politics of Austin and Travis County. What would progressives do in a given situation?

For example, last month the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) board voted to stay its previous objections and move forward with the western leg of SH 45 South. This particular highway is anathema to the Save Our Springs Alliance, and thus to "progressives," for what are quite plausible reasons, but trying to stop it (or, more exactly, delay it) at the largely suburbanized CAMPO board appeared a lost cause. In the end, only three of the 21 members of the CAMPO board voted to delay SH 45 -- Karen Sonleitner, Daryl Slusher, and Will Wynn.

This was even as Sonleitner was being hounded all over the campaign trail by "more progressive" Jeff Heckler. (It was, in fact, the same day we met with them prior to our endorsement of Sonleitner.) Two years ago, Wynn was in the same situation against the "more progressive" Clare Barry. And while Slusher apparently won't face a challenge to his left this time, much of the positioning of Beverly Griffith as a "progressive" has come at his and Jackie Goodman's expense. So what would Heckler, or Barry, or Griffith have done differently if they'd been on the CAMPO board?

Yes, we realize that detractors will argue that Sonleitner et al. voted as they did because it was a lost cause and thus a safe "progressive" vote, whereas, for example, Sonleitner's unseemly support of the county road bond package last November shows her true stripes. But by that reasoning, since said bonds are targeted toward roads that all exist in the unanimously approved CAMPO transportation plan, does that mean that nobody on the CAMPO board -- which includes people like Ron Davis, Glen Maxey, Ann Kitchen, and Gus Garcia -- is really a "progressive"? (Or that the Austin City Council, which took SH 45 out of its transportation plan, is "progressive" by default?)

Looking the Part

We're not comfortable in general with using a politician's position on one issue -- whether it be transportation or campaign finance or whatever -- as an index for his or her general suitability for office, which is largely what happened to Sonleitner in this past campaign. But too often it seems that being a "progressive" really is unrelated to any issue, but instead is a function of attitude. In Austin, the opposite of "progressive" seems to be "consensus-builder" -- anyone who manages to agree with, or negotiate with, suburban GOP white men in suits (cf. Karen Sonleitner) is less-progressive-than-thou.

Both in her current campaign and in her earlier flirtation with the mayoralty, Griffith has made much of the fact that more than 90% of the initiatives she's sponsored have passed. See, she is a consensus-builder. So why does it seem that her ever-more-devoted following loves her for precisely the opposite reason -- her large and growing reputation as the voice of dissent on this City Council? And more importantly, is her not-going-with-the-flow what makes her more "progressive" than Goodman or Slusher or you or us?

That certainly seems the case with Victor Morales, whose progressive status is made possible not by his record, since he has none, but by his activities as a cultural folk hero. He acts the part. Ron Kirk does not, even though he walloped Morales in our left-of-the-state county, and especially in our left-of-the-county Eastside neighborhood. We don't really disagree that Morales would be a more left-leaning senator than Kirk, whose support in East Austin is, of course, a function of his status as a local boy made very, very good. But if being a "progressive" isn't based on what you do in office, or in who supports you among the electorate, then what is it based on?

Well, presumably on what you think, but we've all seen candidates who make progressive noises about what they think and then fail to deliver. So both as citizens and as soapbox-holders we need something a little more predictive. What might that be? We're sure you'll let us know -- hopefully, before the City Council elections in May.

Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.