What's in a name? If you're an AISD trustee candidate, it could be the difference between making the run-off and ending up a loser. What's worse is the creeping suspicion that voters effectively racially profiled their candidates of choice.
Before election day, all three races with more than two candidates were expected to go to run-offs: In District 1, the smart money was on UT Chair Edmund "Ted" Gordon facing KIPP Austin charter founder David "D" Thompson; in District 6, PR expert Paul Saldaña against former Austin Council of PTAs chair Monica Sanchez; and, in At-Large Position 9, District Advisory Council member Kendall Pace against Education Austin endorsee Kazique Prince. Pace said, "We just thought it would be a run-off between the people who were out there and had money and endorsements."
But the safe bets were wrong in 6 and 9, with Pace now facing UT program coordinator Hillary Procknow, and Saldaña up against former Ann Richards Academy for Young Women Leaders teacher Kate Mason-Murphy. What made this odder is that Mason-Murphy spent about $100 and used handmade signs, and Procknow had suspended her campaign and endorsed Prince. "I'm still surprised," said Procknow. "When I first saw my numbers, I thought, I'll wait for those to be fixed." While she sees support for her principles of opposing the corporate "reform" movement and testing, she was concerned about what may have guided some voters in a low-information environment. Did they vote for the candidate whose name sounded white? "I do believe that race was a strong influencing factor in these elections, and it would be hard to argue otherwise."
Pace had her own odd naming experience: A lot of voters were surprised that Kendall is a woman's name. "On election day, I had someone come up to me and say, 'Oh, I voted for you, and I thought you were a man.'" She shares Mason-Murphy and Procknow's concern that people simply didn't know whom they were voting for. "People are making decisions not based on candidates or issues. ... That's worrisome." However, she was cautious not to say voters were solely motivated by race, noting that, in 2010, an African-American candidate, Tamala Barksdale, beat a white West Austinite, Julie Cowan, for the same seat.
This time, the case study could compare how the two African-American candidates – Prince and Gordon – performed in District 1. Gordon, with the whiter sounding name, consistently beat Prince in just about every box, including a 27-point margin in Precinct 135. However, Prince – whose business specializes in inter-community and inter-racial communications – was quick to say he didn't think this was as much an anti-black vote, as about a desire for political representation. "We're a relatively diverse city, with diverse communities," he said. "They want to see someone who reflects them and their needs and their concerns." In a low-information environment like a November AISD election, all voters have to go on may be a name. That could explain why Prince came in not third, but fourth, behind Nael Chavez – the only candidate with a Hispanic name in a majority Hispanic district. However, Prince had concerns about attributing all those numbers to ethnicity, since Chavez is a well-known community figure in the boxes he won.
Racial divisions in Austin seem to have been summed up most eloquently by the mayoral map, which had West Austin going almost uniformly for Steven Adler, and East Austin for Mike Martinez. Yet counting precincts is never an apples-to-apples comparison. Precinct 310, which went to Mason-Murphy, cast a total of 1,174 votes, while 404, which Sanchez swept, only delivered 459 votes in total. Moreover, Pace noted that, while she did not take many individual precincts in East Austin, she still took a plurality of votes.
So how much of what happened was racial profiling by voters, and how much more traditional campaign woes? Prince admits he had a serious messaging problem among voters who had heard of him. "If I were to do anything differently, I would like to have not been coined the East Austin candidate." However, sources close to his campaign said that was all he was ever really geared up to do. It was an open secret that Prince was originally going to run for District 1, until Barksdale announced she was stepping down. His last-minute switch opened up that seat for Gordon, but then Prince failed to make a citywide splash. Even his final email blast, sent on Nov. 4, was localized, attacking Pace for raising more money from Houston donors than in East Austin. This was after Procknow's Oct. 27 withdrawal announcement had disappeared into the maelstrom of last-minute election PR, so it's arguable whether either had any impact.
Now the remaining candidates head into the uncertain territory of a December run-off. However, they will not be alone. There is also the mayoral race, and seven council seats to be decided. On the broader map, Pace worries there could be voter burnout, but there could be a different problem in District 6: As Saldaña noted, the two council seats that cover the bulk of his district, 2 and 5, are already decided. He argued that weighs in his favor, since most of the 13 boxes he held are between Barton Springs and Ben White. He said, "Those are the ones that turn out reliably for every election."
The second round puts extra pressure on Procknow, who always said her candidacy was more about changing the debate than winning the seat. As a member of the Occupy movement, she said, "I'm feeling a little bit of pressure, because I want to do right by the people who support my ideas." While she has been consulting daily with Prince, she has pledged she will not run a conventional, money-centered campaign. She said, "As the saying goes, the master's tools cannot bring down the master's house."
Edmund T. Gordon: 3,622 (34.6%)
David "D" Thompson: 2,982 (28.5%)
P. Kevin Bryant: 1,963 (18.7%)
Stanton Strickland: 1,913 (18.2%)
Julie Cowan: 18,905 (77.4%)
Karen Zern Flangan: 5,516 (22.6%)
Paul Saldaña: 5,541 (35.2%)
Kate Mason-Murphy: 5,391 (34.3%)
Monica Sanchez: 4,809 (30.5%)
Robert Schneider: 9,925 (52.0%)
Yasmin Wagner: 9,157 (48.0%)
AT-LARGE POSITION 9
Kendall Pace: 37,842 (39.7%)
Hillary Procknow: 23,109 (24.3%)
Nael Chavez: 15,235 (16.0%)
Kazique J. Prince: 11,310 (11.9%)
Andy M. Trimino: 7,894 (8.2%)
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