Inside Out ... Outside In
The growing influence of fringe movements on City Hall reflects either a healthy populism – or the implosion of civic engagement
A few months ago, the City Council's Public Health and Human Services Committee held a hearing to discuss whether the city should put a warning label on utility bills alerting residents that fluoride had been added to their water. This was the third meeting the committee had held in a year about water fluoridation, and though during the previous two meetings city staff had presented what appeared to be a preponderance of scientific evidence and institutional support in favor of fluoridation, still the committee felt it reasonable to continue offering microphones to representatives of the anti-fluoridation crowd.
That was understandable when that witness was, say, a dentist who had grown skeptical of fluoride's advertised benefits. Or a scientist who had seen one too many correlations between fluoridation and thyroid problems for his liking. Or a civil liberties activist wondering if the government should really be in the business of medicating its constituency willy-nilly.
These were all reasonable souls.
But it's a different situation when a woman approaches the microphone and cites the Rothschild family and its secret plot to poison Central Texans. That's when reason tends to go out the window.
"Is there a giant plan to decrease the world's population?" Jackie Simon asked the committee. "It sounds insane. And surely only crazy conspiracy theorists think that way. But anyone willing to look will find dozens of clear videos showing the ultrawealthy speaking about their obsessive desire to depopulate. ... They include David Rockefeller, Bill Gates, Ted Turner, and other billionaire eugenicists."
Simon paused for the big reveal.
"But these people pale in comparison with the house of Rothschild."
At this point, this reporter looked around council chambers, sure that the packed house, no matter how dedicated they were to ending fluoridation, would shout this woman down and hound her from City Hall, back onto the street where she so clearly belonged. But they did nothing of the sort. They sat and listened. Many nodded in agreement.
"This banking cabal," Simon continued confidently, "has been behind genocidal leaders worldwide including Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Brezhnev, and others. And the only thing that's protected us in America is our right to bear arms. So the methods used to kill us must be a little more hidden, slow, and deceptive. ... But make no mistake: They are slowly and intentionally trying to kill us."
And amazingly, the crowd erupted into a standing ovation any performer would have killed for.
I had to wonder: What is my government doing with my tax dollars? Have the crackpots really grown so loud and has everyone else really grown so quiet that the City Council of a major American metropolis must hold multiple hearings on water fluoridation in order to keep people like this satisfied? Am I witnessing the inevitable result of having such a politically unengaged populace?
The last time the city held an election for City Council, in May 2011, 7.4% of the eligible (registered) voting population cast ballots. (Turnout in the Place 3 run-off a month later was slightly higher.) And one of the corollaries of such low voter turnout is that those very few who do show up to vote and make their presence known at City Council meetings and in City Council members' offices and at fluoridation hearings or similar occasions – no matter how small their actual numbers – drown out absent or much quieter voices who may better and more completely represent the true interests of the city. Austin's great (or at least large) silent majority, if you will.
As the man with the gavel at City Council meetings, Mayor Lee Leffingwell knows all about drowned-out voices and passionate citizen discontent; he deals with it all the time. And he'll be spending at least part of his re-election campaign this spring fighting off mayoral challenger and council gadfly Clay Dafoe, who has turned aggravating Leffingwell from the audience lectern into an art. For readers unfamiliar with council meetings, Dafoe is the 7.4% writ large. At nearly every meeting, he picks several proposals under council consideration, seemingly at random, and denounces them as proof of a tyrannical and overreaching council indifferent to the will of the people. His squabbles with Leffingwell have become City Hall staples, and they're at least partially responsible for changes council has made recently to policies concerning citizen participation.
"As a result of low voter turnout, oftentimes I don't think we're getting a broad cross-section of the city of Austin," says Leffingwell. "As for striking a balance between the interests of the loudest of the loud and the interests of those who rarely raise their voices, you have to tell yourself that every week you realize there are folks that feel very passionately one way or another – but you also need to realize that there are other people in the city who have a different opinion, even if they're far quieter about it."
By this point, most everyone knows Leffingwell's proposed solution to the problem of low voter turnout and its various consequences: Move city elections to November (when turnout is considerably greater) and change council representation from an at-large system to some form of single-member districts. Both propositions are likely to be under voter consideration for City Charter revision next fall.
Longtime political consultant and current Austin Community College Center for Public Policy and Political Studies Director Peck Young puts the blame for Austin's dismal voting numbers elsewhere. After the city passed the "Little Less Corruption" ordinance in 1997, he says, imposing a $350 limit on individual campaign contributions, voter turnout plummeted. "That stupid ordinance – what we've termed the 'Lot Less Participation' ordinance – solved a problem that didn't exist," declares Young, "and took away the best tool we had for exposing real corruption: communication through campaigns." Without the sizable budgets they could collect previously, Young says, candidates and their campaigns could no longer afford sufficient mailers or effective phone banks. They could muster maybe one TV spot if they were lucky. Their message stopped getting out. People stopped listening. And voter participation sank.
Take a look at the numbers: In 1971, 56.7% of eligible voters cast ballots. In 1975, it was 45%, and in 1981, 36%. In May 1997, the last election before the Little Less Corruption Ordinance, the number had dropped to 17.1%, and the next election, in 2000, saw it topple to 7.4% – precisely where it stood last May. "Without money, you can't communicate; you can't run a sophisticated campaign," Young says. "People lost the ability to communicate without that. Nobody cares about voting because they don't know what's going on." And that drives down the voting pool to only those people who watch council meetings, who are already engaged and passionate, thereby putting insurgent candidates at a huge disadvantage because they don't have the name recognition council members do.
A 2009 study by Young's ACC group concludes that the city could probably best increase voter turnout by moving elections to November and establishing a single-member district voting system. Making the nomination process partisan rather than nonpartisan would help as well, it continues, as would changing Austin's municipal government from the council-city manager form to a strong-mayor form. In other words, the best way to increase voter turnout in Austin would be to change entirely how Austin votes and how Austin's government works.
Young may be right, but it's also possible such low turnout could instead open the door to an outsider candidate in a way that a race involving an engaged electorate never would. After all, when only 7% of voters are going to the polls, it doesn't take many votes to tilt a race in your favor, the same way it doesn't take too many loud voices to get the attention of council members.
Even Young admits 2012 is shaping up to be a strange year, one that could belie all expectations and predictions. "This year is different," he says. "All the polls I've seen say voters are mad at all incumbents at all levels for everything."
In other words, the time may just be ripe for an insurgent candidate.