Austin @ Large: Facts and Fantasies

Why should you bother voting in 2004? Look down the ballot

Austin At Large
Oh, great. I finally come up with a column idea for this week, and then it appears in the Statesman. There are lots of elections coming up, the daily says. Please vote, they say. Our soldiers are fighting for freedom, they say, and the least we can do is vote. Yeah. Like they said.

Actually, I'll leave that last cliché to the daily -- except to remind you that your vote, if wisely cast, can do more to advance freedom (and liberty and peace and justice) than can the endeavors of our armed forces so far away. But that aside, I'd have to say the Statesman editorialists -- like other sentient carbon-based life forms -- grasped the essential point here. This year will be packed with elections, and for you and me, the only ones that matter, and that truly deserve your vote, are the local ones.

This runs counter to typical voting behavior in most places, but especially here in Central Texas. It's a paradox that's flummoxed me for years: Local elected officials, the leaders of towns and cities and counties and school districts and even special districts, have a large and direct and often dramatic share of influence over your lives as citizens. (This is especially piquant in January, when the property-tax bills come due.) Their power to make mischief, or to make it go away, far exceeds that of one American president. Yet four or five times as many of you will vote this year, in the March and November contests where "President" is on the ballot, as typically vote in a City Council race. (Or as will vote in May, when Austin ISD, ACC, and other local school elections will be held.)

This is always true -- even the biennial midterm elections, when Texans elect their statewide powers, draw fewer votes than the presidential race -- and will be true again this year even though your presidential vote in 2004 will be about as meaningless as can be conceived, dear Texas friends. Forgive my pessimism about this. By March 9, the Democratic contest will be between Howard Dean and someone who isn't Howard Dean, who will eventually lose the nomination to Howard Dean, who will lose in November to President Bush, who will cheat if he has to. (It's happened before.) If there were even a vague hint that President Bush could lose his home state, martial law would ensue. (Even if you were planning on voting for President Bush, your vote would still be meaningless, though your pleasure at the outcome would no doubt be greater than mine.)

Where the Action Is

And, despite the attention we've had to pay to our congressional districts, that set of races will be pretty meaningless, too, now that the U.S. House has been all but turned into a parliament. So, especially if your tastes lean toward the progressive, the local front is where the action is. I don't mean, exactly, our local leaders' dabbling in big-picture causes: the Iraq war, the PATRIOT Act, global warming, the death penalty. In their ordinary business, the cities and counties and school districts are where the political poses of our state and national "leaders" grow flesh and bones and blood. This would be so even if the fantasies and fallacies brought to power behind Bush and Perry were in fact sound approaches to government. As it is, it will be up to local leaders to mitigate the damage.

Austin City Hall will, blessedly, be election-free in 2004, but as noted, AISD and ACC will elect new trustees. Right now, the school board races are, or should be, more important to local voters than most anything else on the ballot. Even if you have little direct involvement with the schools, AISD is on the threshold of dramatic change and, more than likely, actual crisis. And no single factor -- except perhaps the cost and supply of housing -- is as critical to Austin's long-term economic health as the state of our schools. (And not just in AISD. The perception of "better schools" in Round Rock and West Lake Hills is now more mythical than it's ever been.)

Also on an upcoming ballot: the long-in-the-bornin' Travis Co. health care financing district, which right-wingers will find a way to oppose, bitching about their taxes. I would have more sympathy -- after all, I pay taxes, too -- if the health care district were not such a minuscule first step. The depth to which this community depends on the kindness of strangers to fund basic health care is staggering; the fragility of most people's ability to pay for their own health is painful to contemplate. Even if you agree with the GOP's philosophy of social welfare (they're agin' it), the notion that only other people are medically indigent is simply not true. (The two go hand in hand; the hawks and harpies of the Lege got away with their "personal responsibility" and "informed consent" crap because they thought -- mistakenly -- it could never affect them personally.)

Think Globally, Vote Locally

Speaking of the Lege, Austin voters will get a free shot at the Terrible Tibble Twins -- both Todd Baxter and Jack Stick face what, at first blush, appear to be committed and credible Democratic foes. (Stick, unlike Baxter or either of the Dems, first faces three opponents in the GOP primary.) Sure, losing two seats will not send Tom Craddick packing back to Midland, but every little bit helps. Some of the unlucky Dems stranded in Stickville will also get to play in the Pct. 1 Commissioners Court race, pitting incumbent Ron Davis against three challengers, most visibly (so far) Celia Israel. We're gonna have to save that one for a whole 'nother column.

Also lively will be the battle to succeed Travis Co. Sheriff Margo Frasier, who has picked a very good time to get the hell out of Dodge. Under Frasier, the county has repaired the damage done to its criminal justice system by grandstanding Terry Keel and an inattentive Commissioners Court. This has cost money, a lot of it, and county taxpayers are getting restless. The two putative front-runners -- for the Dems, Frasier's former deputy Greg Hamilton (who is, among other things, black), and for the GOP retiring Pct. 3 Constable Drew McAngus -- should be poised for a very hot race, rich with critical context. That is, if anyone cares.

With all due respect to our brave soldiers -- if not to the Statesman -- it's races like the sheriff's contest, or the school board, that should motivate us all to exercise our franchise. But so little attention gets paid to these elections that really matter -- and so much to the horses in the presidential derby and such like -- that it's little wonder voters are instead demotivated. The abstract principles of our abused freedoms, no matter how inspiring to the high-minded daily, mean little when compared to the grave decisions that shape our daily lives. Those are resting at the bottom of the ballot. end story

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local elections, Elections 2004, school board, Austin ISD, Austin Community College, ACC, health care financing district, Travis County, Jack Stick, Todd Baxter, Margo Frasier, sheriff, Greg Hamilton, Drew McAngus

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