Austin At Large: Voices In Our (Old) Heads
OK boomers, do you now regret pushing for 10-1? Where do you think it went wrong?
Last week, we at the News desk learned of a new political group in town, known as Voices of Austin. It's different from Take Back Austin, or Save Austin Now, sorta, as those groups are Republican fronts (the latter is the campaign to reinstate Austin's camping ban and no-sit/no-lie ordinance). Voices of Austin is the work of sexy centrist-Dem seniors like former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (he held SD 14 before Kirk Watson but after Lloyd Doggett), former City Council Member Ora Houston, and semi-retired political consultant (and ACC professor) Peck Young, the new group's executive director.
Yet these voices of yesteryear are kindred spirits of the Red Team reactionaries who aim to re-criminalize homelessness, it appears. The press release announcing Voices' kickoff was headlined: "Eight Out of Ten Austin Residents Believe City Government Does Not Listen." That's according to their poll, which Barrientos describes as "extensive, professionally conducted public opinion research." The release does not disclose who conducted the poll, how many people were polled (though it does say the margin of error is +/- 4.9%, so I'm guessing at least 600), or what they were actually asked.
Having done plenty of polling myself, I'd quite like to know those things, but whatever, let's assume this is legit. It's amazing how this open-minded exploration of the real feelings of average Austinites led these boomers to the same political positions they have held throughout the years I've known and covered them. Strip away the public opinion armature Voices is using to make its silent-majority case, and we find a group that opposes investments in either transit or active transportation (i.e., road warriors), opposes revision of Austin's land development code, and opposes any efforts to defund Austin's police force.
Who’s Paying for This?
Even before it launched, the media alert Voices sent out described the nascent group as "well funded." People have asked me in recent weeks where the police union money was going to go politically, now that "no cash from cops" has become a meaningful litmus test for candidates and campaigns. Perhaps now we know! For those who want to turn back Austin's clock but can't abide the GOP's inability to separate itself from bigotry, Voices of Austin offers an alternative "representing all political points of view, all ethnic and racial groups and all genders because everyone is welcomed, and all these groups are dissatisfied." (It is officially nonpartisan, not a political action committee, and won't make donations, it says.)
Listening to Austin old heads – and really, I love Peck and Gonzo and Ms. Houston, this is not personal – grumble about how City Hall doesn't listen has been part of my job since I started covering local news in 1989, so I feel qualified to grumble back. What's most intriguing, and a little hilarious, to me about Voices is that these are the same people – especially Peck Young – who brought you the 10-1 council we have today, a change to Austin's charter that, on its sixth appearance on the ballot, was finally approved in 2012. They were doing the Lord's work at that time and deserve our praise. Ms. Houston, celebrating that victory, told me that night, at the Driskill Hotel, she was running for the seat she won two years later. Peck Young drew the first new 10-1 map that, with some relatively small changes, was adopted by the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission in 2013.
And Look Where We Are Now
It is precisely the voices of Austin who were empowered by 10-1, after years of struggling to be heard by an at-large consensus Council, who are leading the charge for change that the Voices of Austin now say is completely at odds with the will of the voters. On LDC revision, it is the one veteran of the at-large Council, Kathie Tovo, who effectively leads the opposition; she and her fellow nays are Central Austin liberals of the sort that led the city for decades. It's the people who were not at that table or on that dais – the suburbanites now represented by Jimmy Flannigan and Paige Ellis, and the Eastsiders now represented by Greg Casar, Natasha Harper-Madison, Pio Renteria, and Delia Garza – who bring different perspectives and values to Council's eternal debates on land use.
Of the three issues on which Voices came out swinging, land use is the only one that lacks a unanimous consensus on the 10-1 Council. I'm sure there are still plenty of Austinites who see traffic as the worst of the city's woes, think Capital Metro is inept and corrupt, and hate cyclists and scooters and Healthy Streets, all at the same time. And there are plenty of Austinites who freak out at the idea of "not funding public safety," as Voices frames it, as if the only way to spend that money is on a paramilitary force that doesn't even do that job that well.
Both of those viewpoints enjoy exactly zero support on Council right now, which is truly remarkable. Is it because City Hall is ignoring the will of the voters? If so, then at least four members are playing a very dangerous game, as they seek reelection in November. Or is it because City Hall now finally respects and represents all the people who live here, not just those active in the local political scene? That makes more sense to me, and I'd like to hear from Voices folks if they regret pushing for 10-1, or where they think it went wrong.