Austin at Large: Yup, He Goofed! Now What?
For Austin’s own good, we may want to patch up that hole Steve Adler shot in his foot
"Yeah, ha ha, we living that Cabo life, bitches!" That's how Trevor Noah mocked our mayor, Steve Adler, and his now-immortal bad phone video (it drew a 0/10 from Room Rater, the Twitter arbiter of Zoom background aesthetics) telling us to stay home on Nov. 9, when he was ... not home.
There's no real joke that goes with Noah's bit, because none is needed; to quote our beloved first lady once removed, it is what it is. The mayor cannot turn back time, un-host his daughter's wedding at the Hotel Saint Cecelia, and un-fly to Cabo San Lucas on a private jet for some R&R, all while urging his constituents to hang tight, hold tough, and keep up our cautious sacrifices to deter a COVID-pocalypse. For us, Adler's more important choices are the ones he makes next, as he seeks to rebuild trust at a critical juncture in our relationship with him, and his with the state and nation.
To get the scolding out of the way, yes, this was a stupid and insensitive thing to do. He knows this. "It was a bad choice, and I apologize," he wrote to supporters. "That trip set a bad example. Many in our community are hurting so badly and not able to travel, and others who are able have chosen not to travel under similar circumstances." Yes, all of that. It's pretty obvious stuff.
But knowing the mayor to the degree that I do, I can easily see him tunneling in, focusing on all the ways and extents he took to make his plans and travels as safe as possible, to work this out. It's on-brand; you can see it on the dais. The verb "to adler," or "to engage in adlering," as used within City Hall circles, means to invest energy in crafting increasingly complex deals and scenarios and trade-offs that allow difficult choices to be made to everybody's benefit. Sometimes it's a Downtown Puzzle; sometimes it's your daughter's wedding. It's not his best trait as an elected leader but it is genuine. Many trees are seen but not enough forests. "I missed the larger context in a really big way," he wrote. "I need to hold myself to a higher standard and one that does not compromise the message that we need to be careful."
The Schlimazel of the Day
Looking back at last week's dunk-a-thon, I saw three main types of reaction to Adler's star turn as That Guy Who Gets Dragged for a News Cycle or Two All Across the Internet. One is simple distaste for Mayor One-Percent, which has been part of the Steve Adler story since he first ran for office in 2014 and cuts across other political lines. Being rich, and appearing clueless in the random ways that rich people stumble into, has not thwarted Adler from being a tremendously successful local politician, empirically speaking – look at his election results, or the $10 billion or so in public investment that he's enticed out of Austin voters. But the mayor's affluence is always going to sit awkwardly with Austin's self-image, and there will always be people here who wear their cynicism proudly to point out how it clashes.
The second response is in my view the most legitimate – the heartbreak caused by the undermining of what Texas Monthly's Dan Solomon called "a sense of solidarity – that we're all doing our part" during the pandemic. Adler's contributions to the last nine months of COVID-19 response, his urgent pleas for community cooperation, often took the form of pep talks, appeals to the gain that follows the pain: We can do this. It's in our control to flatten the curve. (We can adler this.) But if even Steve Adler could not, in the long run, manage the level of ascetic discipline that we have accepted we need to maintain to keep all of Austin alive, then so much of 2020 feels more hollow and less heroic. I'm not the mayor's advisor, but I think he'll need to do something more emphatic than simply apologizing and keeping his head down and not screwing up again to get back that sense of shared purpose and alignment, the feeling that yes, maybe Austin should empower a "strong mayor" government if that mayor can be Steve Adler.
The Dangers Dead Ahead
Old-timers will recall a similar energy surrounding Kirk Watson when he was in charge, before he climbed the electoral ladder, which provides a segue to the third main theme of Adler's December in the doghouse: This puts a big hitch in the mayor's political giddyup. The Statesman ran a chin-puller about Adler's future plans – statewide run in 2022? Biden administration post? – but there's no need to be speculative about how much damage will linger that long, and politicians recover from things like this all the time. (Look at Gavin Newsom, currently in the second act of his public life.) What's more piquant is the need for Adler to be at the peak of his powers right now, with the Texas Legislature reconvening in a month with Austin-bashing on its brain.
Of course, the state's GOP leaders, the cop lobby, those who'd like to strip cities of their own lobbyists, and the usual suspects would find their own reasons to jeer and mock Adler even if he hadn't provided this one to them for free. But we do need leaders, and he is who we have, and before we clown him out of power and into a punchline – no matter how righteously you may feel that he should resign over this – we need to think ahead to how Austin's interests and Austinites' rights will be protected in a leadership vacuum. Just because he didn't see the obvious danger ahead of him on the way to Cabo doesn't mean we should also be shortsighted.