Election Ticker: Democracy, Dollars

Money printer go brrr in city proposition contests

A rally opposing "strong mayor" proposal Proposition F outside City Hall on Feb. 9 (photo by John Anderson)

Reform Doesn’t Come Cheap

Austinites for Progressive Reform, the political action committee supporting Prop­o­sitions D through H, announced it had raised $271,000 and spent $293,000 on "the campaign's successful community engagement process and petition drive" to get its proposals, including "strong mayor" (Prop F) and "Democracy Dollars" (Prop H) on the ballot, and on the electioneering since then. Its 30-day-out campaign finance report, filed April 1 to cover transactions between January 1 and March 22, shows $100,000 raised and $51,000 spent, with $92,000 in outstanding loans from 2020 and $69,600 cash on hand.

APR says its median contribution was around $100; many donors have been vocal supporters of APR or members of its leadership committee, such as Nelson Linder, president of the Austin NAACP, and Mimi Marziani, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project. Some were less expected, including George Cofer, longtime CEO of the Hill Country Conservancy, who's diverged from the many local environmental groups (including Clean Water Action, the Sierra Club, and Save Our Springs Alliance) that came out against the strong mayor Prop F last week. There's also a hefty $25,000 from George Soros' son Jonathan's private investment firm, which is an active donor to liberal and pro-democracy causes nationally.

Lined up against APR on Prop F are two different but somewhat coordinated efforts. Community elders, small-business owners, and center to right political advocates can be found in Austin for All People, funded by the Restore Leadership ATX PAC, which reported $157,700 raised since February 22. Further to the left is the labor-backed By the People ATX, which is being funded by the Austinites for Equity PAC, which raised $96,000. The two efforts combined reported $158,000 cash on hand, substantially more than APR.

Austinites for Democracy Dollars, a separate PAC supporting Prop H's public financing program, reported $9,500 raised and $5,300 spent since January; members include APR supporters such as Linder, but also local leaders who've come out against Prop F, including Susana Almanza of PODER and Bobby Levinski of Save Our Springs.

Save Austin Now Spends

While there's bound to be a lot more money raised and spent across the ballot before May 1, for now the undisputed fundraising champion among the involved PACs is Save Austin Now, which brought you Prop B to reinstate local ordinances criminalizing some public camping and panhandling that were rolled back by Council in 2019. The group reported $438,000 raised on its 30-day-out report from more than 2,000 donors, with a median donation of $50. "No one has ever run as sophisticated a campaign as the one we are running," crowed SAN co-founder Matt Mackowiak, also chair of the Travis County Republican Party, in a press release. "Our incredibly strong finance report sends a very clear message: This city is ready to finally and fully end the public camping disaster." Save Austin Now reported $320,000 in spending and $185,000 cash on hand; the lion's share of the outlay, $240,000, has gone to Victory Solutions, a GOP telemarketing firm whose principal, Shannon Burns, while bringing the 15-year-old Ohio-based firm out of a contentious bankruptcy, worked a spell as an aide in the Trump White House. The large payments, all made within five weeks beginning in mid-February, are described as "advertising expense" and "voter identification efforts" on SAN's report, which lists the recipient as WAB Holdings LLC, an Ohio shell company controlled by Burns.

The late-starting opposition to Prop B, organized as Homes Not Handcuffs – the same community campaign that led the effort to decriminalize homelessness – reported just $23,000 raised, less than $500 spent, and just under $10,000 on hand in its 30-day report.

Prop C Finds Its Friends

Criminal justice reform advocates seeking more independence for the city's groundbreaking Office of Police Oversight lobbied Council to place Prop C on the May 1 ballot, the only measure not placed there by a citizen petition drive. Now, a new organization – Austin for Police Oversight – is backing Prop C, which would give Council the option to take direct control of OPO, whose director Farah Muscadin reports now to City Manager Spencer Cronk.

Cronk's choices over the past year of community advocacy for de-policing have not been popular with many justice reformers. Advocates have criticized Cronk for his coziness with Austin Police Department leadership and say that having him as the overseer of OPO creates a potential conflict of interest. Kathy Mit­chell of Just Liberty explains the dynamic: "The city manager has a stake in his own departments and may be inclined to defend those departments. [He] may have a stake in having the voters, the people, not see some of what is happening at the police department. So this is an opportunity, in the future, to move to a position of more independence for OPO."

Even under Cronk, the OPO represents a major improvement in accountability over its predecessor, the Office of the Police Monitor, which was created as part of the city's police contracts and thus only could do what the police union agreed to. One simple but crucial innovation was creating a web-based system that allows Austinites to criticize or praise police officers anonymously rather than in person, the latter of which many – particularly poor people of color who feared police retaliation – were reluctant to do. In its 2½ years of existence, OPO has also gathered on its website all official documents related to police discipline and complaints, where they are easy to access and search.

Advocates expect that Prop C, which gives Council the option of developing whatever governance structure it deems appropriate for OPO, could eventually lead to an office guided directly by citizens; they offer New Orleans and Seattle as examples of how to organize that oversight.

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May 2021 Special Election, Austinites for Progressive Reform, Austin for All People, Restore Leadership ATX, By the People ATX, Austinites for Equity, Prop F, Prop H, Democracy Dollars, Austinites for Democracy Dollars

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