Austin Interfaith Gets Out the Vote

Ambitious campaign aims to change the headline issues

Austin Interfaith is known for its accountability sessions, in which political candidates answer yes/no-style questions to win the group's seal of approval. Now the progressive campaigning group has held what it is dubbing a "self-accountability" session, wherein representatives from congregations around Austin pledged to educate 20,000 potential voters on important issues before the November elections. "We at Austin Interfaith have been pitching ideas for years, but that's no longer enough," said Kurt Mitchell of Wildflower Church. "We need to play ball."

At an Aug. 7 meeting at San Jose Catholic Church, the coalition of 30 congregations, unions, and community organizations presented a list of roughly 400 volunteers, each of whom has pledged to reach out to potential voters. The plan is to get voters engaged and educated on the group's core issues – education, workplace safety, health care, and immigration reform – rather than behind a single candidate. "Our work from now to the November election is to build a stronger, bigger, organized political constituency that will deliver at the polls," said Interfaith spokeswoman Minerva Camarena Skeith.

The hope for candidates is that the extra turnout may help boost their candidacies, and a select list of officeholders – including Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton – have already made commitments to work with AI on its agenda. At the Aug. 7 meeting, Travis County Central Health board treasurer Frank Rodriguez backed calls to fund a new multipurpose health care facility in Dove Springs, while the sole Republican candidate present – state Senate hopeful Mary Lou Serafine – simply pledged to meet again with the group before election day. U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett recommitted to reintroducing the federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act next session. "We've been trying to do this for countless sessions," he said, "and the equities there are so strong that I hope finally we'll see action on it this time."

With voter registration for the November election closing Oct. 4, AI's volunteers have a busy month ahead, with local block-walking training before more extensive get-out-the-vote training in San Antonio on Aug. 28. The original target was 10,000 new voters, but the group already has enough volunteer pledges to contact 17,000 Austinites. In raw electoral terms, that's 6% of the 2008 general election turnout in Doggett's district, 29% of the turnout for the 2009 mayoral race, and almost double the turnout for the last Austin Independent School District board of trustees election. With an extra 3,000 added on to the target at the Aug. 7 meeting, AI is calculating that its get-out-the-vote effort could be a deciding factor in future elections – not just by motivating voters but by shifting the political debate toward issues like workers' rights. Camarena Skeith said, "It's about reclaiming what makes the headlines."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

elections, Austin Interfaith, Minerva Camarena Skeith, Lee Leffingwell, Lloyd Doggett

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