Austin @ Large: The Job Description
Why sane people don't run for City Council
Of whom do I speak? Well, for one, me. And my friend and colleague, Chronicle den mother Susan Moffat. And my friend Jim Walker, the hardest working man in show business. There are, of course, others; I single the three of us out because our membership in the Future Council Club has often been discussed in my hearing and in public places, and because our main reasons for recoiling from the thought ultimately have little to do with the usual barriers to public service, like the cost and energy involved in running, or the close scrutiny and lack of privacy to which we subject officeholders.
Rather, we all, to various degrees, see an insurmountable gap between the council member's job description, or lack of one, and the traits and qualities that have made us civic boldfaced names. It does seem a little weird that pragmatic progressives, not given to rootless ideological posturing, with a command of the details and a fondness (or weakness) for getting our hands dirty, would find Austin City Hall to be not such a great venue. But so it is. And it's worth thinking about as we enter the Longest Council Campaign Ever and scrutinize the Daring Dozen who hope to break in the new City Hall.
I'm not suggesting here that Susan or Jim or I would be such great council candidates; we could all easily get our asses kicked if we decided to run, particularly in the current field. But I am suggesting that we represent a political demographic that, in fact, may also include many in the current field. What we, as an electorate in a time of transition, need to decide, and then convey, is what we want these people to do, and if we indeed want to let them do what they're good at.
Big Time vs. Small Town
As I sermonized two weeks ago, I think the de facto Biz vs. Green two-party system that has prevailed in Austin for decades is just about played out; we have a communitywide consensus in support of both economic prosperity and environmental protection that, though not perfect, is a damn sight stronger than existed when I started this gig. We still, however, need to work on equity, the wobbly leg of our three-legged stool, and I still would like to see this election be about, to use a dirty word, class. I don't think it's an accident that people whose fire is lit most brightly by equity issues like affordable housing, or libraries and education, or a living wage are willing to let their membership lapse in the Future Council Club. Speaking for myself, I'd like to see a little more action and a little less talk on regional equity issues from City Hall before I'd feel comfortable taking up space there.
But even beyond that, I'd like to see our current notion of "accountability" evolve a bit. What it has meant in practice is that every council member needs to care about everything all the time, which is a good way to turn the City Council into the political small-claims court that it too often is. Various commonsense strategies for improving city government single-member districts, streamlining the baroque city code, empowering neighborhoods, or boards and commissions have all foundered amid resistance to giving up the God-given pleasure and prerogative of Taking It to the Council. Again speaking for myself, there's a lot of small stuff that gets sweat way too hard at City Hall for my taste.
Even without those improvements, it's still often easier to get stuff done on the outside. Ask Susan Moffat, whose Liveable City and Full Circle cohorts basically rewrote the city's big-box study into something that makes sense. Or ask Jim Walker, who over his decade of work on the Mueller project has done more than almost anyone to create a new model for Austin decision-making. It took a long time and a lot of work, but he couldn't have done it from behind the dais. At least not now.
Witness the current travails of young Brewster McCracken, who is the very model of a modern council member. It's widely accepted CW now that McCracken has completely alienated his base, whoever that was, by tacking this way and that to the wrong side of the big issues. Maybe so, or maybe that's the old paradigm talking. For a rookie, McCracken will run for re-election assuming he does with a rather large portfolio of initiatives and accomplishments that he owns outright. Sure, this did not happen by accident, and it hasn't made him friends along the way. But I can think of worse ways to build a new base than by actually doing something.
That's not to say the other council members don't do anything; indeed, my esteem for Jackie Goodman and Raul Alvarez has much to do with the fact that they've done more than just sit there and Represent the Base. But they and the other council members even Betty Dunkerley were elected primarily to Represent, and it's that dynamic that I hope will not determine the results of the May elections. We need a council that is more than a board of directors, with ownership seats for different constituencies, if we indeed want it to be more than the sum of its parts.
I don't want, or expect, that the next council members will ride into office mumbling Kerry-esque homilies to their Plans. But I do think we need something more than the admirable qualities of their persons to be deployed on the city's behalf. Indeed, that's how we've effectively come to define the less-than-sane people who run for council they're people for whom running for and holding office are about Being, rather than Doing. And that won't do.