Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

The Real Region: In Central Texas, the "progressive" agenda can sway the GOP "majority"

Austin At Large
I wrote most of this before Election Day, and you'll be reading it after. Where local issues are concerned, this is only a slight handicap; the important outcomes of this election were decided months ago -- with redistricting.

The news is good and bad, unless you're a Democratic partisan, in which case it's mostly bad. Although, both Ann Kitchen and Margaret Moore had a shot of holding their seats, for either to win would certainly have bucked the intent of their respective redistrictors who wanted House Dist. 48 and Travis Co. Pct. 3 to be Republican redoubts. It's hard to imagine that both seats won't fall into GOP hands sooner rather than later.

The courthouse will stay in Democratic hands. But as I write, and as Todd Baxter floods every media hole with ignorant, pandering crap, we wind up with a 3-to-3 partisan split, and a great yawning chasm in the middle, in the county House delegation. In the Senate, Travis will remain split as it has been -- though with different, ridiculous district boundaries -- between Gonzalo Barrientos and Jeff Wentworth, both now endangered moderates in today's bitterly polarized Texas. (Prediction: Next time, both get bumped off in the primary.)

The region, though, is not split anywhere close to evenly, though such would more accurately mirror Central Texas politics. Messrs. Baxter, Keel, and Stick had friends and allies in Mike Krusee and Dan Gattis to the north and Rick Green (no longer!) to the south, whereas Wentworth can find common ground with Steve Ogden in Williamson and Ken Armbrister to the southeast. (I know, Armbrister is a Democrat. Sorta. Once he goes back to private life as a private eye, you can put a big R on that district, too.) In Congress, Lloyd Doggett is verily surrounded by the Other Side -- Lamar Smith to the west, Ron Paul to the south and east, and John Carter, the former Williamson Co. district judge, in the new seat to the north. They are not endangered moderates.

This is Central Texas. Bipartisan at best. Get used to it.

Don't Dig the Moat

Plenty of y'all, and often me as well, would like to commence digging a moat right now to keep out the Stupid White Men who can unaccountably call themselves "Austin's elected officials." But this is, um, unsustainable. What should we do instead? Roll over and say, "Sure, pave the aquifer, gut the Clean Air Act, screw the working class, put 20 guns on every street, and lock up all the gay men and pregnant women. We know when we've been licked!"

No. The Bush GOP, and its Texas acolytes, think such cowardice is, in fact, patriotism and that winning 50.01% (or less) of the vote is sufficient grounds to ignore or screw the other 49.99%. (Homework assignment: Federalist No. 10 and de Tocqueville, Book One, Part II, Chapter 7.) Through the artifice of redistricting, the left -- progressive, liberal, Democrat, Green, choose your euphemism -- in Central Texas is now, or soon will be, disenfranchised at the elected level, so it needs to make its views heard and heard loud. But there are better and worse ways of doing this.

"Worse" would be to do what Austinites, including me, have done too often -- get haughty, treat the suburbs like they smell bad, reject occasions for common cause (case at hand: Envision Central Texas), and polish Austin's Otherness to a fine sheen. Lots of progressive islands do this, but it tends to work better when your island is, say, Berkeley or Boulder, one of several players in regional destiny, not the big, wealthy, powerful city at the center. The latter scenario motivates people like Terry Keel (in redistricting) to try to take away your power, and Gerald Daugherty (in his battles against Cap Metro) to try to take away your money.

Austin is strong enough to defeat such depredations without resorting to narrow, shallow, self-hating urban politics (Kirk Watson here, Ron Kirk in Dallas) that are worse than the disease. But even when Austin wins, there are still thousands of people in the suburbs without access to politics that actually reflect their views and address their needs. Many GOP conservatrons are really too far-right for their constituencies. Rick Green is an obvious case, losing his House seat to an earnest and inexperienced 24-year-old law student. We can all tell that Green's radio is missing its antenna. But even a fairly dull GOP operative should see Hays Co. is a diverse place that's worried about growth, doesn't want to be overrun by mall-sprawl, and was ill-served in the Lege by Green's self-dealing, boot-licking service to Baptist mullahs, gun junkies, and highway hos.

Austin Greens know this because the occasion for common cause -- the SOS movement -- has presented itself. Others on the left need to join in, and throughout the region, because Austin's issues are just as ripe outside the urban core. The whole region is split by I-35 on ethnic and economic lines. What ills East Austin is just as ill in Webberville and Taylor and Bastrop, and what ills Central Austin is no less ill in Georgetown and San Marcos and even Round Rock.

Creating a Polis

And to the west, supposedly upscale, empowered places like Cedar Park, the center of the new GOP gravity, know that being a bedroom burg is pretty dismal -- their tax base sucks, even as their taxes skyrocket, and they're mired in traffic that no number of new toll roads will solve. The best curb to sprawl and road war -- a boon to city and suburb alike -- is to put major employers and high density in the middle of places like Cedar Park. This is where I saw people (from both the center and the fringe) headed at Envision Central Texas workshops; I'd be inclined to reject out of hand any long-range plan that doesn't call for dense urban nodes throughout the region.

This will require swaying local decisions, and the votes of new reps in new seats like John Carter and Dan Gattis, in the non-cities with non-polities that GOP redistricting pretends are real places. (Where, exactly, is the "core" of the new Dist. 48?) But it's harder to sway decisions in an actual city, like Austin, with an existing civic infrastructure, than in the loosely collected suburban bedrooms on which the GOP colossus stands. So progressives can make real inroads in the real region -- perhaps not unseating GOP electeds, but moderating the party by mobilizing the citizenry against the craven, paranoid, and tyrannical cant of the "majority."

In any event, I suspect this is the high-water mark of GOP power. When I left California for Austin in the mid-1980s, Left Coast progressives were just as depressed as many Austinites are now. Today, Republicans can't get elected dogcatcher in California, for just the reasons I hope to see in Central Texas. As cities become regions and suburbs become real places, real people realize how far right-wing triumphalism has become divorced from the real world. n

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Central Texas, Envision Central Texas, Terry Keel, Jack Stick, Todd Baxter, Margaret Moore, Ann Kitchen, Gerald Daugherty, Dan Gattis, Mike Krusee, Rick Green, John Carter, progressive agenda, GOP, redistricting, Gonzalo Barrientos, Jeff Wentworth

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