The Austin Chronicle

Notes On Kamp: Vote Locally

It's local elections that most affect people's daily lives

By Amy Kamp, January 22, 2016, News

It would be nice if Austinites could get as worked up about any other political issue as it appears we've gotten about Uber and Lyft. Regardless of how the signatures were gotten, 65,000 names on Ridesharing Works for Austin's petition for a referendum is nothing to sneeze at when only 77,798 people even bothered to vote for mayor the last time around.

Part of what makes it hard, I think, for people to care about local politics is that it feels boringly complex. I challenge anyone to read through the entire City Council agenda, with its lists of Austin Energy rebate issuances and standard utility agreements up for approval, without drifting off at least once. But so many of the headline problems we expect a president to deal with, both begin at a local level and should be addressed at that level.

In this week's issue, we take a look at the Democratic candidates for Travis County D.A., one of the many local officials who wields enormous power over policy. Not only is the D.A.'s Office responsible for prosecuting felonies that occur within Travis County, but it also heads the state Public Integrity Unit, best known for its prosecution of former Governor Rick Perry. And it was outgoing D.A. Rosemary Lehmberg who secured an indictment against former Austin Police Depart­ment Detective Charles Kleinert for the 2013 shooting of unarmed black man Larry Jackson. While the D.A.'s Office's handling of the case has been criticized by both sides, the fact of an indictment stands in stark contrast to how similar deaths have been treated in other counties in other states, where prosecutors have appeared to take the side of the defendants when presenting their cases to grand juries.

In the 2012 primary, Lehmberg garnered 29,462 votes to her challenger's 10,131, effectively winning the election (she was unopposed in the general). For reference, Travis County's current population is over a million. Perhaps if more people had voted, the result would have been the same. Now is the time to test that theory. No matter who wins the presidency, it will be the D.A. who sets the tone for how our county deals with criminal justice, and more than 4% of the county's population should decide who that person is.

Of course, criminal justice is just one of many examples. It's probably more indicative of the company I keep than anything else, but I find it hard to avoid the entreaties to support Hillary Clinton for president, lest a Republican win and appoint Supreme Court justices who might repeal Roe v. Wade. I'm not sure why this argument is supposed to have any resonance with Texans, when we live in a state where, for many people, abortion might as well be illegal. It was locally elected state legislators who passed the laws that we're now hoping and praying that the Supreme Court's swing votes will mitigate. But the Supreme Court can't completely reverse the restrictions. Texas voters could, though, by voting the people out who wrote the law.

It's not easy to vote in Texas. Voter ID has further disenfranchised us. But if you can vote, and you're not, why? Shouldn't the fact that the people in power are doing literally everything they can to make voting as difficult be a hint that voting is, in fact, powerful? If you're not voting because you don't like your options, well, the great thing about local politics is that the bar to entry is not high.

As the primaries near, we'll continue to provide as much coverage of the local races as we have time and resources. Later in the year, we'll restart our City Council election coverage. If there is a political issue that matters to you, I assure you that there is a local race you should care about.

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