Point Austin: Learning From the Election
Lessons from the latest round
The dust hasn't quite settled on Tuesday night's electoral events, so it's a little early to draw broad conclusions. We have achieved what we've long wished for – single-member district elections – and we're about to embark on the real, immediate test: what this particular brace of district representatives will bring to City Council and city government. For myself (long disdainful of term limits), I would have wished we could have carried over a bit more sure-handedness from the current incumbents, finding it curiously absurd that we have come to value experience in every walk of life except our political representation. (And I wish District 9's Kathie Tovo an armament of procedural patience.)
Indeed, judging by the thumping delivered by Steve Adler to Mike Martinez, an actual record of political accomplishment is, at least for the moment, a disadvantage in Austin elections – this was a "change" election, and you can't get "change" without defenestrating the current holders of political authority.
There are a few other working notions to try on for size. The most obvious one – single-member districts or not – given the opportunity to vote, most Austinites will not bother to accept the challenge. We managed to get 41% of registered voters to come out in the November-historic first round – higher, of course, than we've managed for many decades in municipal elections – but dwindled down to a measly 15.6% in the December run-off. That's still quite a bit more than recent May/June run-offs, but we shouldn't break our arms patting ourselves on the back. It's arguably a sign that most of us are relatively content with the status quo political arrangements – but the outcome of this particular adventure, at least in a couple of districts, suggests that we would rather settle for quite dubious candidates than take the trouble to get off our keisters and down to the polls.
It seems likely, also, that Adler has set a new bar for spending on citywide (mayoral) elections. Under that new standard, it will be increasingly difficult for candidates who are not personally wealthy to establish a reasonably level playing field. "Getting the money out of politics," in Austin, because of absurdly low donation limits, has meant driving it sideways, and now, into the dark. Both out-of-town and in-town political action committees spent heavily in the mayoral and several district campaigns, and it was frankly impossible to know certainly whose money was going where. Adler's campaign pointed to the union-related South Forward PAC as distorting the campaign in favor of Martinez; Martinez responded that major in-town PACs (e.g., the Austin Board of Realtors, and other ad-hoc groups) were spending lavishly as well, and it was not his responsibility to be the kettle outspent by the pot. (One amusing side-note on the money front was that the minor mayoral candidate most adamantly outspoken on the corruptions of campaign money, Randall Stephens, was the quickest to wholeheartedly embrace the Adler run-off campaign. Victory has many fathers. ...)
It's also worth noting that money was not an across-the-board panacea; at least a few candidates had plenty of money, but knew neither how to spend it nor how or why to frame a campaign.
Take the Blue Line
On the district level, more than a few candidates discovered that this campaign business is not as easy as it looks. A district, although smaller than a city, is still 80,000 people, and (even discounting children and noncitizens) that's a great many doorhangers, and a whole lotta handshakes and phone calls. By direct testimony, the sheer relentlessness of campaigning astounded many novice candidates; let's hope that the amateur enthusiasm for running can steadily be turned to finding a congenial candidate to support.
Ah, congenial candidates. There were, in fact, plenty of those on the campaign trail, although a few others learned the poor lesson of a neglected child: that the way to get attention is to act out, as loudly and flamboyantly as possible. Not more than one of those survived to the bitter end, and it would appear the new Council will have enough grownups as members to actually build consensus among most of themselves and the public at-large. And beginning with their very first meeting, they will abruptly learn that they will be annoying nearly half the people, all of the time – this government business is not for the thin-skinned.
Finally, having just returned from a brief visit to Chicago, where for a few dollars I and my fellow citizens could quickly and efficiently travel the length and breadth of the city without the need for a car, I have been forcibly reminded that my neighbors will vote for affordable housing, for highways, even for hospitals – but they are not yet willing to vote for a public transportation system that is not wholly based on the internal combustion engine. I think that's too bad, but hardly surprising – in the new year, we're likely to retrieve a bundle from the common kitty and dole it out to homeowners for popcorn money.
That's no way to run a railroad.