Election Results: Austin Can Save Itself, Thanks
Pro-policing GOP-aligned campaigners crash into city’s fiscal reality on Election Day
Austin voters humiliated Save Austin Now at the polls Nov. 2, rejecting Proposition A, the GOP-aligned political action committee's police staffing initiative, by a greater-than-2-to-1 margin. (Even voters in Williamson County gave Prop A the cold shoulder, by five points.) Roughly 50,000 Austinites voted for the measure, backed by the Austin Police Association; for reference, more than 90,000 voted for SAN's measure earlier this year to restore the city's public camping ban.
Had Prop A passed, Austinites would likely be going back to the polls, annually, to ratify higher city property tax rates to cover the annual $50-100 million cost of a police hiring binge (an increase in the Austin Police Department budget, already at historically high levels, of 10-25%, which thanks to new state laws against "defunding the police" would be locked into the city budget in perpetuity). The alternative, which formed the messaging centerpiece of the No Way on Prop A campaign, would be drastic cuts to other city services, as APD already consumes about 40% of the city's tax-supported General Fund, which pays for parks, libraries, and public health as well as fire and emergency medical services. Despite their best efforts at deflection and misinformation, SAN and the APA were unable to obscure this fiscal reality.
What else was different this time? For its 18-month campaign to first qualify for the ballot and then pass its camping ban, SAN raised and spent nearly $2 million, compared to less than $200,000 for the progressive groups that belatedly activated the Homes Not Handcuffs coalition to defeat it. This time, the Equity PAC, the main funder of No Way on Prop A, matched SAN's fundraising step by step, with both PACs raising more than $1 million as of their last campaign finance filings. This torrent of cash appeared to spur modestly higher turnout than the normally weak participation in off-year elections; total Travis County turnout clocked in at 21.6%.
The No Way on Prop A coalition united more than 100 civic and community groups, a much broader base than the anti-SAN forces were able to muster in May. The local Democratic machine – and the unions representing the nonpolice members of the city workforce, including firefighters and EMS medics – proved better able to publicly defend the city budget than was the case when only the rights of unhoused people were at stake.
"No Way on Prop A built one of the largest and most diverse groups in the history of Austin politics," said campaign manager Laura Hernandez Holmes, a veteran local Democratic operative, in a statement shortly after early voting numbers were released Tuesday night. (Election Day results were even worse for the initiative.) "Together, our coalition exposed the truth about Prop A by cutting through the persistent lies from Republican-front group Save Austin Now."
The entire City Council (excluding its most conservative and pro-police member, Mackenzie Kelly) pushed back vocally against Prop A from the very start, mostly citing the huge financial strain it would put on other city services. City Hall succeeded in getting city CFO Ed Van Eenoo's eye-popping cost estimates included in the ballot language over SAN's objections, which the group took all the way to the Texas Supreme Court.
What happens now? All eyes are on SAN co-founder Matt Mackowiak, also chair of the Travis County Republican Party, as he is called to explain how he could reel in more than $1 million, including big checks from some of Austin's wealthiest donors, and gain endorsements from GOP luminaries including Gov. Greg Abbott himself, and still lose by about 37 points. "We're not going to 'Save Austin Now' tonight, but I promise you we will," Mackowiak told SAN supporters at Micheladas Café y Cantina on election night.
Mackowiak hinted at SAN's getting involved in upcoming council races – both the November 2022 contests for a new mayor and up to three new CMs, and before that, an anticipated special election in District 4 when Greg Casar makes his all-but-official entry into the TX-35 congressional race. On the other hand, Mackowiak told several media outlets during the campaign that he would leave town in the event of a Prop A defeat; that countdown clock could start ticking on Nov. 13*, the first day of filing for the March 2022 primaries, in which he may or may not seek reelection as party chair. – Austin Sanders
Parks Backers Buoy Prop B to Victory
Austin's parks community ended up facing little resistance as Proposition B sailed through Election Day with nearly 74% of voters in favor. The measure enables a potential parkland swap of 9 acres on South Lakeshore Boulevard, currently home to the Parks and Recreation Department's aging and inadequate central maintenance facility (and not open to the public), for 48 acres and a new maintenance yard elsewhere. Though the proposition was placed on the ballot by Council with support from the Austin Parks Foundation, Trail Foundation, and many local Democratic orgs, some longtime Eastside anti-gentrification activists expressed concern that leasing the Lakeshore property to its next-door neighbor – Oracle Corporation, which conceived of the proposed swap and helped fund the pro-Prop B campaign – would facilitate the global tech giant's takeover of the South Shore and restrict public access to Lady Bird Lake. Advocates for Prop B countered that the area is already well supplied with parkland used daily by thousands of Austinites – the Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail, the Krieg Field athletic complex, and the Roy Guerrero Colorado River Park. "Swapping parkland, even parkland that the public cannot access, is a big deal in Austin," acknowledges Mark Littlefield, campaign manager for the Grow Austin Parks PAC that backed Prop B. "These kinds of votes don't happen very often because everyone knows Austin won't support a swap unless there is something of tremendous value returned. We thought this deal was not just a good one, but a great one."
Technically, anybody can submit a bid for the Lakeshore site, but the specifications are tailored to what Oracle has to offer, including its 48 acres near John Treviño Park and a plan to also convert PARD's other maintenance facility on the north shore, next to Fiesta Gardens, into public open space. – Lina Fisher
* Editor's note Nov. 4 3:45pm: This story has been updated since publication to correct the first day of filing for the March 2022 primaries. We regret the error.