The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: On Voting, Endorsements, and Sincerity

It's put up or shut up time at the municipal polls

By Michael King, May 1, 2009, News

It's that most wonderful time of the year – city election season. Although judging from our dismal voter turnout, most Austinites, alas, have long since given up on local politics, your vote this month on City Council elections will have a more direct effect on your life and that of your city than all those national caucuses you lined up for last spring. And there can be other surprisingly momentous reverberations – as I write, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Attorney General Eric H. Hold­er Jr., the next stage of the anti-Voting Rights Act lawsuit undertaken by the Canyon Creek MUD board (with the grandiloquent assistance of various right-wing foundations). I'll have more to report about the court hearing next week – today's homily is about voting. If the Canyon Creek folks had been a bit more diligent about the people they elect to run their utility district, the board couldn't have been "hijacked" (as one Canyon Creek resident put it) to pursue this frivolous lawsuit, which now threatens to undermine one of the essential Department of Justice tools for protecting the rights of minority voters.

As you can tell by the letters to "Postmarks" and our online postings, this is also a time of arguments over endorsements. We've taken plenty of heat (and some praise) for the candidate endorsements we've made, all of which we welcome. The only responses that irritate are those that presume there is some secret motive or mercenary methodology to the Chronicle choices. Hey, if it's good copy we wanted – under the well-attested theory that what's bad for the city is good for journalism – we'd endorse the most ludicrous candidates and then report the consequences. The truth is, the Chronicle endorsements, right or wrong, are the outcome of spirited and informed discussions among our News staff, News editors, the managing editor, and the publisher, about 10 people who share a general vision about progressive city policy but who often disagree sharply about the best way to get there. (For several reasons, Editor Louis Black has not been involved with the endorsements for the last couple of years – my own theory is that he enjoys too much his new status as innocent bystander.)

So we follow the campaigns, we cover the forums, we personally interview the candidates we might conceivably endorse, we bring together our notes and arguments, and we hash out our decisions over breakfast tacos and pressroom tumult. Then somebody drafts the actual endorsement copy – generally some poor sucker who hasn't entirely forgotten the meaning of the word "deadline" – and we circulate those drafts for comments and revisions. The result is more committeelike than anything else in the paper (to my hypersensitive ear, the final copy sounds too often like careful mush), but we do it because we presume our readers would like to hear our considered opinions on these vexed questions (and vexing candidates) before they themselves enter the voting booth.

But hey, that's what they are: opinions. As Groucho said about principles, if you don't like those, we have others. But most importantly, if you don't agree with us, the proper course of action is painfully simple: Vote for someone else!

Your city needs you.

You've Been Hustled

Along the same lines, there are a few more words to say about last week's entertaining and enlightening Chronicle mayoral forum, the Hustle for Mayor, hosted by City Hall Hustler Wells Dunbar and featuring the two leading candidates, Lee Leffingwell and Brew­ster McCracken. I want to publicly applaud Wells, since the event was his idea, his momentum, and – though gamely and ably assisted by plenty of folks in marketing and production (Erin Collier, Dan Hardick, and Dunbar's Hustle-sidekick Michael Bart­nett and probably dozens of anonymous others, not to mention the Mohawk folks) – mostly his show. Newsweeklies elsewhere (notably Portland, Ore.'s Willamette Week) have turned this kind of event into an annual citywide celebration that draws crowds to the occasion and voters to the booths – and for some time, Wells has wanted to give it a try. This was our first experiment, and a smashing success it was.

Like virtually everything that happens around here, no one ordered Wells to do it (my only direction was "DIY!"), and the result was a great evening, attended by many folks who wouldn't otherwise turn up at a campaign event if you paid them (admittedly, the beer was cheap enough even for me, and that's saying something). Most of the response has been positive (I've been fielding compliments for Wells every day since), but we did take some miscellaneous flak for not reflexively including all five of the nominal mayoral candidates. (Carole Keeton Strayhorn was invited, but as she has done this cycle to plenty of folks more respectable than we are, she didn't respond.)

We don't apologize. If "alternative" means anything at all, it means we don't have to do it the way everybody else does. We wanted a lively, engaging event that would draw people in, explore some issues at length, and also force the major candidates outside their predictable comfort zones. All this we did – or, I should say, Wells did. More broadly, while we abundantly recognize the right of any Tom, Dick, Harry, or Jennifer to wake up one morning and decide to run for mayor, that does not mean the rest of us must therefore abandon any rational judgment of who is actually qualified to be hired by the voters to serve in that office and thereby help run and lead a large modern city. And it shouldn't need to be said – although it apparently does – that that judgment is initially distinct from whether we agree with any particular candidate's policies or politics. Weird is one thing – foolish, pointless, and time-wasting is quite another.

Ezra Pound said of poetry, "I believe in technique as the test of a man's sincerity." In a political context, the only true test of a candidate's sincerity is his or her demonstrated willingness to grapple with the actual conditions of public office, to engage the messy and complex business of making public policy and finding consensus, and to provide the voters with a clear sense of the range of decisions and choices that will need to be made. Anything less is a real City Hall hustle. In that light, the Chronicle indeed invited all the qualified and sincere candidates for mayor.

Now please vote – for whomever you damn well please.

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