City Hall Hustle: Diminishing Returns

We didn't quite break the record ... for unvoting

"Someone just pointed out two years ago, when I first ran, early voting came out to somewhere around 64 percent," Chris Riley noted in his election night address to supporters at Zocalo Cafe. His early voting totals that evening came in right at 64% also, prompting the coasting incumbent to crack, "Is it the exact same people?"

Were it the exact same people, Riley would need to be making a mayoral run since if he drew all of his 35,300 votes from 2009 in this election, well, that's 3,000 more people than bothered to show up at the polls this time around, and the normally mild-mannered candidate would be a municipal god among mere mortals. Needless to say, that's not the case: Riley, too, was recipient of the city's dispiriting, slightly more than 7% turnout, letting him win by roughly the same margin (66%) but with some 15,000 fewer votes.

That said, it seems difficult to dispute that overall it was "the exact same people" voting in this election – just fewer of them. Candidates hoping to coalesce nontraditional constituencies, such as Place 3's Kris Bailey and Place 4's Toby Ryan, fared poorly, pulling in roughly the same number of votes as candidates like Josiah Ingalls, who ran no real campaign to speak of. The similarly bare-bones campaign of Eric Rangel handily trumped Ryan's in Place 4 as the go-to protest vote against Laura Morrison, likely because of Rangel's chameleonic ability to function as a blank slate and absorb whatever image voters were projecting on him.

Of course, most eyes were glued on Place 3 and Kathie Tovo's nearly outright rout of incumbent Randi Shade. Not unexpectedly, on election night Shade vowed to stay in the race. That's pretty much standard election night bravado, and we've seen candidates back away afterward. But on Tuesday, after the election adrenaline wore off, Shade committed to staying in the run-off.

That said, she's facing some steep obstacles. As Lee Nichols notes in his precinct-by-precinct breakdown (see "Breaking Down the Boxes"), the most encouraging comparison for the Shade campaign to make is the storied 2005 election of her Place 3 predecessor Jennifer Kim, who was similarly creamed by 13% in the general by Margot Clarke. Despite, as the Chronicle wrote at the time, Clarke being "the candidate anointed by central-city progressives" – a description that could equally apply to Tovo – Kim launched a come-from-behind victory in the run-off, winning 53.5% of the vote. However, that 2005 race was for an open seat; for a candidate with all the benefits of incumbency, a 13% deficit is much more damaging and difficult to overcome.

There are also those nonpedestrian money concerns. Shade had nearly $75,000 left in her eight-day-out finance report heading into the election – money we imagine she'll burn through quickly to signal her seriousness to new contributors and bundlers.

There's also the X factor of the two other candidates who were in the Place 3 race – Bailey and former Council Member Max Nofziger, who, relying practically on name identification alone, pulled in a comparatively meager 4,560 votes, or 14.25%. It seems voters supporting Bailey's message of limited government and quasi-decriminalization of pot won't find much to truck with from Tovo or Shade, but Bailey has already posted an endorsement of Tovo on his campaign Facebook page. Ditto supporters of Nofziger, who in the closing days of the campaign (possibly with some prodding from those "central-city progressives") began attacking Tovo's equivocating stance on Water Treatment Plant No. 4 as not sufficiently green. But the anti-WTP4 crowd and Tovo's supporters overlap, including endorsements from the so-called "enviro city" crowd still looking to mothball the plant. While Tovo may not have the specifics either voter is looking for, she's still "anybody but Shade" – and that may be just enough.

Of course, all this depends on turnout. Our most recent instruction here comes from 2008, when the similarly neighborhood-affiliated candidate Morrison crushed Cid Galindo 65% to 35% in the run-off. While turnout was predictably depressed at 5%, Morrison amazingly garnered more votes in the second go-round (13,831 over 12,888). For Shade, going into a run-off after an even smaller general election is half-crazy.

On the other hand, it's totally nuts to contrast a potentially insurmountable 13% lead with the number of actual votes making that difference: 4,300, or a little more than half a percent of the city's population. Getting enough voters to the polls to upend these completely meager figures is clearly what Shade's banking on. It seems a community forum discussing single-member districts, scheduled this Saturday at the Carver Library, can't come soon enough.

I'll just close with a quote from Bruce Elfant, posted via the ACC Center for Public Policy & Political Studies Face­book page: "Voter turnout of 7.4% in the Austin City Council election narrowly avoided the distinction of being the lowest turnout in Austin's history which was 7% set in 2000. Way to go Austin!"

Sarcastic exclamations aside, no matter your candidate, our pathetic turnout totals do show how far we have to go.


For details on this weekend's single-member district forum, see "Res Publica." Sign up for the Hustle's newsletter at austinchronicle.com/newsletters.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council, election, Randi Shade, Kathie Tovo, Jennifer Kim, Margot Clarke, Water Treatment Plant No. 4, single

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