The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Lessons Learned

I was down at the precinct last Tuesday, but I didn't see you

By Michael King, March 17, 2006, News

What have we learned so far?

The most sobering instruction, of course, is that nobody much cares enough to vote in the primaries. Turnout dipped yet again, to an abysmal 9% – reportedly lower than any primaries in modern history. Remind yourself that it isn't even that good – we only come to that grand total by adding the Republican and Democratic percentages together, so that roughly one in 20 of each party's registered voters is deciding who will be on the November ballot – or more precisely, in most cases already deciding the general election, far in advance. (One ironic side effect is that a handful of state House incumbents who went down in flames may actually feel free to vote their consciences in the upcoming special legislative session on public school finance. But I wouldn't bet on it.)

A minor silver lining in the low turnout is that it contradicted fledgling Secretary of State Roger Williams' prediction of a 13% turnout, based on early big-county returns. Perhaps that says something about the wisdom of appointing a high-donor used car salesman to be secretary of state. But even Williams can't be blamed for most Texans just shrugging and staying home. At least part of the downturn, certainly, is a consequence of the unprecedented circumstance of two high-profile independent candidates for governor waiting for the closing bell to begin collecting petition signatures, and some voters therefore "saving themselves" for either Kinky Friedman or Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

If it does nothing else, perhaps this year's campaign will force the Lege to reform the state's antiquated ballot law, which literally requires that voters ignore all the downballot races, no matter how hotly contested, in order to uphold the simple principle that legitimate candidates for governor who don't happen to belong to one of the two dominant parties can still appear on the ballot. Why on earth should not voting in a primary, with dozens of contested elections, be a requirement to sign a petition for ballot access in a single race? Among the many dumb things accomplished by previous legislatures, especially on explicitly political questions, that has to rank as one of the dumbest: "Let's make it even more difficult to vote!" (I know – for too many years, that project has remained a well-rewarded political sideline at the Lege.)

It's the Schools, Stupid!

Among the more specifically political lessons:

• The Democratic Party may have actually found a new statewide standard-bearer in former Houston Congressman Chris Bell, not the most dynamic candidate ever hatched but visibly energized late in the game by the obstreperous entry of Bob Gammage. In a two-horse race against the opulently funded Rick Perry, Bell would be doomed to the fate of one-time Bush opponent Garry Mauro. In a four-horse race, as this one looks to be, Bell should at least be able to use his candidacy to help rebuild the party's dissipated fortunes, if not threaten a squeaker victory while Perry and Strayhorn are slinging insults.

• The voters, unlike the GOP leadership but frankly like most Democratic and Republican House members, really do care about public education. If we didn't know that locally from Donna Howard's District 48 trouncing of Ben Bentzin, we have the ignominious exit of longtime Arlington Rep. Kent Grusendorf to reinforce the lesson. Since the GOP takeover, Grus had been given the assignment (which he visibly relished) of slow-strangling the public schools in the name of "accountability" (standardized testing and budget-slashing) and "choice" (privatized vouchers and leeching students). His handy defeat by schools advocate Diane Patrick – despite desperately low-blow campaign tactics and outside money – reconfirms that the I-hate-public-schools crowd, though politically powerful, remains culturally marginal.

• That hardly means the battle is over. San Antonio tycoon James "Voucher" Leininger tried to buy outright five House seats, and though he managed only two (and one, New Braunfels Rep. Carter Casteel's, remains in doubt; see "Beyond City Limits," p.23), he never gets tired or broke. More importantly, the GOP leadership (with the wobbly exception of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst) still considers the public school question as simply one of high property taxes. With the Supreme Court effectively concurring, it remains more likely than not that come spring, the finance tax deck will be shuffled but overall funding will remain flat – while the student population continues to grow. (For the inevitable consequences, just follow Rachel Proctor May's mordant reporting on the ripples in AISD.)

Travis County Storm

Closer to home, Travis Co. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner apparently sailed into a coalescing perfect storm of rebelling county employees, anti-toll road frenzy, angry Austin liberals, and pissed-off wealthy lawyers (is there any other kind?), especially at the county contract-denied Linebarger firm. In importance, those factors likely ranked in ascending order. But while no one I talked to was surprised by challenger Sarah Eckhardt's victory, there were many raised eyebrows at the 57% margin over a 12-year incumbent.

The simplest analysis? The natives are restless. In a way oddly like the hapless novice Ben Bentzin (see above), Sonleitner had become a lightning-rod for all the slings and arrows that local voters currently feel prey to. Although they were hardly Sonleitner's personal baby, she was identified with the tolls – and the anti-tollsters, like zombies, feed only on living political flesh. And when the employees and the lawyers pincered her, there were no Sonleitner-loyal progs ready to watch her back in a Dem primary. Here at the Chronicle, although only tepid on Sonleitner, we declined to issue an endorsement largely because of Eckhardt's unseemly embrace of and by the most rabid toll warriors. But we also feel no great dismay that Eckhardt's election may in fact throw some additional sand in the gears of the more grandiose regional toll plans, which are more accurately described as just the usual road hogs looking for a new cash source. If they're unhappy at losing their adopted favorite (after Gerald Daugherty) at the county, who are we to complain?

It will be even more interesting to see how the apparently congenial Eckhardt manages to juggle at the county trough all these normally competing interests that abruptly allied to bring down her predecessor. Just how long will it take before Eckhardt finds herself striking the very same sort of political bargains at the county table that eventually left Sonleitner with insufficient friends to carry her through a fallow time? Eckhardt may soon find herself learning, as Sonleitner apparently forgot, the ancient wisdom of Casey Stengel: "The secret of managing is keeping the people who hate you away from the ones that are undecided." end story

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