The Austin Chronicle

A Race To Stop the 'Race to the Bottom'

By Richard Whittaker, November 5, 2010, News

The idea of a rally for sanity in a town that proudly and loudly proclaims its weirdness seems like a recipe for disaster. However, Austin's satellite Rally To Restore Sanity co-organizer Shanna Weisfeld said, "We are so thrilled with the turnout, with how peaceful it was, and most importantly how clean everything was left after everybody departed."

The Oct. 30 gathering on the south steps of the Texas Capitol was intended to add some local flavor to the Rally To Restore Sanity, the massive gathering hosted by Comedy Central on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. One of a series of satellite rallies around the country, including large events in Chicago, Seattle, and St. Louis, this was very much a DIY affair. With a little less than a month to put the watch party together and facing the distraction of the UT vs. Baylor football game, Restore Sanity Austin hoped for 3,000 attendees: Head counters at the gates calculated they got double that number. Weisfeld called it a victory for social media and said, "It was a purely viral connection that we made to everybody."

Hosted by Alamo Drafthouse chief creative officer and self-proclaimed Long Island Iced Tea Party founder Henri Mazza, the Austin rally was a mix of music, speeches by local dignitaries, and a live feed from the U.S. Capitol to the state Capitol. But there was a purpose – beyond watching a giant Stephen Colbert puppet on an inflatable screen – which Mayor Lee Leffingwell summed up for the crowd. "Our political discourse in this country has become a race to the bottom," he said, "and too often the winners of that race are the ones with the most obnoxious attitudes and the least informed opinions." Like the D.C. event, the Austin rally was purposefully nonpartisan. Yet with groups like the Texas Freedom Network and clean energy advocates Coal Block present, and some attendees sticking around to join the 11th annual March To Abolish the Death Penalty, the politics were undoubtedly progressive. Weisfeld admitted there had been some negative feedback from those who thought the organizers could have worked more directly on the election. However, by using contact lists provided through Rock the Vote and ReEnergize the Vote Texas, the organizers got members of the crowd to phone about 5,000 newly registered voters. Weisfeld called this a double victory. "Most of the people who came to this rally aren't the volunteers," she said, but the event had them reaching out to "people who had no political participation before, who aren't on the call lists."

One rally isn't enough to give Texas politics a clean bill of mental health, so Restore Sanity Austin is meeting this week to figure out its next step. While the exact direction is unclear, Weisfeld said, "Our purpose is to get more people interested and involved."

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