I remain reasonably optimistic that the overly elaborate, baroque process designed to bring Austin governance into the 21st century by establishing 10 single-member City Council districts will eventually produce a districting map we all can live with. I will hold on dearly to that optimism for at least another month, as the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission endures a predictable firestorm over its initially proposed map, which – as shocking as this might be – has not solved all our local political problems at a single stroke.
As reported by Elizabeth Pagano this week, the proposed ICRC map has met with much public feedback – as it should – as well as full-throated criticism, some of it undoubtedly justified and some of it reflexive, in the sense that there is not a conceivable map that is going to please every neighborhood or interest group, let alone every Austin resident. I do feel a pang of sympathy for the commissioners themselves, who were chosen (partly by lottery) via standards that preposterously valued most highly their inexperience at the very thing they are supposed to do: sort out the political "communities of interest" among the various Austin neighborhoods. They are learning right now, to their chagrin, that amateurism is no defense against the onslaught of an outraged Austin citizen who believes his or her political toes have been stubbed.
Predictably, as Pagano reports, the major collision thus far has been between the intention of expanding opportunities for minority voters with the goal of keeping traditional neighborhoods as politically intact as possible. Early on, Commissioners spent more attention on the former – a primary goal of the new districts, because of Austin's changing demographics – than the latter, and most of the consequent howling has come from neighborhood advocates who believe the proposed central city districts gerrymander big areas and clumsily cobble together distinct neighborhoods that have too little in common.
Then there are the conspiracy theories, always good for firing up the troops and evoking a few laughs from the rest of us. Wednesday's emails included a dire warning from Austinites for Geographic Representation, accusing longtime political consultant David Butts of underhandedly attempting to "push through district maps favorable to his self-interest. In typical Butts arrogance, we are being told that he is doing this while recruiting candidates to run in those districts."
You can fight off Butts (and these mysteriously unnamed sources) by testifying to the ICRC on Saturday – but first by attending AGR's Friday night Hula Hut happy hour, where you can hear AGR's Linda Curtis and Peck Young "share more details" about Butts' nefarious plotting. Having "bit their tongues" thus far, say Curtis and Young, they can no longer remain silent. I don't know which is more ridiculous – this mustache-twirling version of local politics, or the notion that either Curtis or Young have ever "bit their tongues" on any of their political compulsions.
I asked designated Villain-of-the-Week Butts if he had any reaction to the AGR charges. "They don't know what they're talking about," he said with a laugh. Butts said he's been asked by a few people for his opinion on some of the proposed districts, but he is neither recruiting candidates nor arguing for any particular map. "I was invited to attend an ANC [Austin Neighborhoods Council] meeting and to comment on the 'Atherton Map' [now the 'Compact Districts Coalition' map]. I hadn't seen it until that meeting, but I gave my opinion as best as I could, without reviewing the population details." He added that some of the people asking for his opinion are undoubtedly considering running for Council – "and the first thing I tell them is, you need to wait and see what the districts are going to look like."
In point of fact, considering Butts' knowledge and experience, any potential candidate would be a damn fool not to ask his (or even Peck Young's) opinion of the eventual districts. The persistent, tendentious nonsense associated with this entire process is that it's even advisable – let alone possible – to take the politics out of politics.
Politics is how we manage to live together and govern ourselves.
The Chronicle has supported single-member districting from the get-go, seven votes ago, and I'm glad we've finally gotten over the small-town hump and the voters have realized that whatever the additional reasons, it is no longer practical to expect seven people each to represent adequately the entire city at once. But as people fire up their high dudgeon about the maps, it's worth reminding ourselves what districting won't do.
It won't end neighborhood conflicts: As often as not, these are zoning issues (or cross-neighborhood battles) that vex every Council at the block and street-corner level, and the new council members will quickly get an education in how not to please everybody, all the time. It won't take the money out of city politics: Alas, district elections will inevitably become cheaper to "buy," and one can only hope that not too many of the candidates such a circumstance will encourage will be focused primarily on self-promotion (even should that mean for reporters more entertaining copy). And it will certainly not provide personal council members for every Austin citizen with a real or imagined grievance – members who will ascend to the dais and take voters' direct orders and henceforth never have an independent thought, nor hold an independent position, of their own.
If that's what y'all expect, we're gonna need a much bigger map.
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