Point Austin: A Grain of Salt
Everybody's endorsing. Should anybody listen?
Council veterans and rookie wannabes alike are now making the rounds of candidate forums and endorsement meetings. I've had enough experience with the political endorsement process – including that of the Chronicle – not to put too much stock in any particular endorsement, however enthusiastic. A cursory glance at the March primary results confirms, once again, that endorsements seldom determine a race – and if they help a candidate at all, it ain't much. Since municipal elections are closer to the ground, one might think endorsements in those might be both better informed and more effective.
It ain't necessarily so.
As we've reported before, voters should take with a large grain of salt the wildly uneven nods generated by the numerous neighborhood associations, political clubs, and special-interest groups that invite candidates to public discussions that often turn out to be little public and less discussion. If you can get to a session or two, they can be useful – you can acquire a quick sense of which candidates can think on their feet, which candidates have any idea how city government actually works, and whether he or she appears to have sufficient judgment to make sensible decisions under pressure, as well as enough endurance to take this kind of abuse on a regular basis. But relying on any consequent endorsement "vote" for an actual recommendation is a crapshoot – depending wildly on who got notified, who's in the (often packed) audience, and whatever private agendas are operating in the room.
The BATs Take Flight
These reflections are generated by the arrival of the endorsement season and the most prominent slate to date, announced Tuesday by the newly formed Better Austin Today political action committee, or BATPAC (the jokes write themselves). In Place 1, the BATPACkers endorsed Responsible Growth for Northcross spokesman Jason Meeker (unsurprisingly, since he helped found the organization); in Place 4, former Austin Neighborhoods Council President Laura Morrison. In Place 3, the BATters bunted – neither incumbent Jennifer Kim nor challenger Randi Shade garnered the 60% support of the PAC's two dozen or so "board members" required for an endorsement (the group lists about 60 additional "supporters"). In other words, since the tough voter choices will be in Places 3 and 4 – the actual chances of the upstart Meeker or rookie Allen Demling knocking off popular Place 1 incumbent Lee Leffingwell approach zero – the BATistas (who vowed Tuesday to generate campaign money and volunteers) have thus far strained mightily and produced ... a small heap of guano.
They have also, however, provided useful candidate questionnaires posted on their website (www.betteraustintoday.org), which are worth consulting for broader candidate discussions of a wide range of city issues, if you can first wade bravely through the tendentious BATPAC position statements flimsily disguised as questions. The BATPACkers describe themselves as a "progressive" umbrella group, and there are plenty of certifiable progs among them, although they also stretch that self-honorific to cover everyone from environmental absolutists through NIMBY neighborhood moat-builders (east and west) to paper-ballot activists to uncertainly libertarian shopkeepers (i.e., "entrepreneurs"). So the questions range from the superspecific ("Will you commit to regular meetings with BAT?") to the grandly multipart (roughly, "Recount in detail your coordinated responses to air pollution, water conservation, peak oil, and poverty").
The savvier candidates respond less to the questions than the subjects, addressing the large issues and trying to adapt them to actual City Council scale. Asked "how many [affordable housing] units" she expects the city to fund via the adopted $55 million bond," Morrison responds, "The number ... will vary depending on a number of factors." By contrast, Meeker takes a rather different tack: "Someday, someone will have to explain to me why we're so proud to be building more $800,000 condos than we need, yet have such an overwhelming need for affordable housing." On the whole, Meeker spends his space echoing the questions' random shotgun blasts at City Hall. Morrison justifies what must not have been an easy endorsement (against Place 4 foes Robin Cravey and Cid Galindo), by doing her best to engage the PAC's questions without just giving them what they wanted to hear.
At the same time, she indirectly makes a hash of the pseudo-insurgent rhetoric of the BATPACkers' explicit endorsements, in which Meeker will "counter the insider mentality and special interest domination of City Hall," while Morrison "has a long track record of working to make Austin a better place for everyone." And how did Morrison accumulate that admirable record? By slogging away on a myriad of public-service issues, working on the inside as ANC rep with numerous city projects, commissions, council members, and staffers to improve the neighborhood planning process, among many other things. If Morrison is indeed elected to succeed Betty Dunkerley, it won't be because she's an "outsider."
Actually, my favorite answer thus far was one of Galindo's, in response to the BATtiers' dour declaration, "Over and over, city decisions appear to be made behind closed doors, with no public input, with public involvement coming in only after-the-fact." Responds the candidate, "I sympathize with the frustration that leads to the assertion that all city decisions appear to be made behind closed doors, but it is simply not true. What is true is that every decision the City Council makes cannot please every interest group every time." As a recent Planning commissioner, Galindo knows whereof he speaks.
That response couldn't have won Galindo any friends at BATPAC, but it has the larger virtue of suggesting that here is one candidate, at least, who won't simply pander at the drop of a questionnaire. I recommend the rest of his answers and indeed those of the entire group now posted at the BATPAC site. Other than the candidates' own policy postings, these are likely to be the most detailed candidate reflections available on city issues.
And here at the Chronicle, we'll certainly have more to say on the candidates as the weeks proceed toward May 10. For what it's worth, we might even endorse a candidate or two.