Point Austin: Why Vote?
The real choices at the top and bottom of the ballot
It seemed an innocent-enough moment in an otherwise polarized political season, except that the governor – who can't be bothered to debate his opponents or speak to newspaper editors – couldn't resist leading his prediction with the utterly gratuitous, "Texas is CNBC's top state for business – again – in 2010." Setting aside the simple rudeness of sticking a campaign bumper sticker onto a supposedly nonpartisan gesture, the governor's reflexive sloganeering sums up his entire campaign, as well as his principles of governance, in a nutshell. "What's good for 'business'" – understood as a political term of art, meaning "business owners" – "is good for Texas," by definition. If the cable TV business network thinks Texas is "good for business" – i.e., low corporate taxes, minimal public education and social programs, weak unions, restrictive labor laws, miserable wages, lack of financial or environmental regulations – then that's good enough for Perry and his party. Indeed, it's something to celebrate.
That's a conviction sincerely held. If Texas government stays out of the way of owners and bosses, the logic goes, the owners and bosses will reward us with investment and jobs, and we can pull our forelocks accordingly and hope for little pieces of the pie. There's nothing much here for citizens or indeed even for working people – instead we all become "employees" (that's French for "the used") and wistfully hope not to be among those consigned, as necessary, to the unlucky ranks of the "unemployed." That explains not only Perry's campaign but his consistent approach to governance: Promote the business interests of big donors, CEOs and stockholders, corporations, all those folks in the "owner's box" at Lege time – and maybe prosperity will occasionally trickle down to the rest of us.
That there are plenty of voters who subscribe to that servile logic – what's good for my bosses is good for me – is also no big secret. They will vote accordingly. Does it mean White, by contrast, is the inveterate champion of working people? Not really, but politics is all about coalitions of interest groups, and the coalition sustaining White – teachers, wage workers, unions, minority voters – will have seats at the legislative and executive table under a White administration. Under Perry – as under business as usual for the last decade – we will have none.
That seems a sufficiently good reason to vote.
Drive, They Said
Closer to home, my favorite campaign moment was the curious collection of hardcore highway enthusiasts who gathered last week to oppose the city of Austin's proposed Mobility Bond, aka Proposition 1. I was on the road and missed the press event itself, but in this space last week City Hall Hustler Wells Dunbar provided an entertaining disambiguation of the instantaneous "citizen organizations" and their overlapping memberships. What a motley crew! Under the permanent campaign banner of Carole Keeton Strayhorn and her Austinites for Action, we were treated to Don "Tea Party" Zimmerman, Jim "No Transit, No Way" Skaggs, Dominic "Wannabe" Chavez, Ed "More Dollars for More Sprawl" Wendler, even Max "Remember Me?" Nofziger. And of course, pretending to represent the Eastside, Gavino "What's in It for Gavino?" Fernandez. Underwriting this public intoxication is none other than Mike "Millions for More Cops" Levy, who paid for last week's Statesman ad sternly excoriating "trolleys" and "pogo sticks," those evil avatars of a too-pedestrian future. In the immortal words of Steppenwolf, "Get your motor running, head out on the highway!"
Listening to this crew, you would think the city never spends any money on roads at all. Instead, this is the first bond in years – indeed, ever – that finally begins to reflect the hard-earned knowledge that more of the same only leads to more of the same, that city arterials cannot accept more car capacity unless we start knocking down buildings (the dreaded eminent domain!) or double-decking boulevards (now there's a vision of Austin's future), and that the cries of "MoPac!" and "I-35!" suggest we should instead hand city bond money over to TxDOT and hope for the best. That's no doubt because TxDOT has been such a careful tender of public monies, and that promoting even more sprawl and even more highway lanes is somehow exactly what we need.
The anguished howling of the road warriors rises now because for essentially the very first time, not nearly 100% of the transportation bond money would be going to subsidize motor vehicles and only motor vehicles. Even Ben Wear's credulous treatment of the opposition in Sunday's Statesman, providing extended defense of Wendler's dubious roads-first arithmetic, acknowledges graphically that in transportation bond elections stretching back to 1992, anywhere from 87% to 100% (the average is 94%) has been devoted entirely to roads – that is, to motor vehicle traffic. According to the city, the current bond devotes 57% to road work and 43% to other forms of transportation. Might using some money to give some people a few reasonable alternatives to always driving actually serve to reduce roadway congestion? Inconceivable!
Despite the late-game hysterics, based on the wide range of supporting organizations and people – hundreds of whom actually engaged in the process of shaping the bond package as it happened – I would guess the bonds will be approved. But maybe not. It's a strenuous political season, and if those folks who say they want to change Austin's transportation priorities stay home, well, they'll get what they pay for: more of the same.