Politics Gift Guide 2021: Ain't That Good News

Gift ideas for the politically and civically minded

Just as Die Hard is a Christmas movie, the hardcases of the Chronicle News Team also know the reason for the (winter holiday) season. Our most important contribution to this Gift Guide issue is the first installment of our 2021 nonprofit Wish List; if your group wants to participate, it's not too late. But why stop there? Looking for a gift for the politically or civically minded in your life – or maybe a hint about what you'd like under the Festivus pole? Here's some stuff!


State Government Santa

Keeping the power on? Protecting Texans from the plague? Living up to the guarantees of justice and equity in the Texas Con­sti­tution? Those would be nice gifts, but they'd be expensive, hard to wrap, and hard for most state officeholders to deliver. You can find more conventional statement gifts and stocking stuffers in, naturally enough, the Texas Capitol Gift Shop, which earns money that helps the State Preservation Board take care of the Pink Dome and its grounds. (You can find their retail locations in the Capitol Visitors Center – the old General Land Office building on 11th Street – and in the Capitol Extension, and online at texascapitolgiftshop.com.)

If you thought, as many do, that the Capitol shop just sells tourist tchotchkes for people who don't live here, it is not so. What more fitting way for Austinites to endure the antics of our ruling regime than with on-point boozeware etched with the Texas state seal? Glasses for your favorite tipples range from $10-16, or $30 for a beer stein; you can also score a whiskey decanter (with a pewter seal) for $75. Or perhaps a couple's gift? Pick up the stainless steel insulated bottle and tumbler set for $100 – it holds "an entire bottle of wine!" according to the shop's helpful website.

After you polish off that Sauv Blanc at the next tailgate, you might need help finding your way home, and the Capitol shop has lots of maps, although mostly they're from previous centuries. For instance, the 1939 Austin zoning map, produced at the time by the Chamber of Commerce to hawk the city's investment opportunities, and now custom-printable for you and yours in different sizes, materials (paper or canvas), and framing options for anywhere from $28-625. Guess how many zoning categories (use districts) there were back then? Seven! Guess how many there are now? At last count, 38 base districts, which can combine with one or more of at least 13 different overlays. Unless you have the broad side of a barn to fill, it is effectively impossible to have a single "zoning map" such as this, even just for the neighborhoods within the pre-World War II city limits.


Texas Up That Tree!

For 25 years now, the State Preservation Board has also produced an annual collectible Capitol Christmas ornament, a program begun by the late Nelda Laney while her husband Pete was Texas' last Democratic House speaker; she designed the first seven herself, and told the Texas Bar Journal in 2013, "That's what I want on my tombstone – the Capitol ornament lady." Her idea has translated into more than $10 million in funds for Capitol upkeep over the years, and you may already have a few of the more than 1 million in circulation, as they're go-to client gifts from banks, law firms, title companies, and such. The Capitol shop can help you complete the set as far back as 2011 ($22 a piece) before you have to resort to eBay for the older ones. The aesthetic quality of the series is kinda up-and-down, but they're all made extra­-adorable in miniature; 10-piece sets (each ornament is about 2 inches across) from the program's first two decades cost $75. You can go all out for your next holiday open-bar lobbyist-adjacent party tablescape with a matching bite-sized tree topper and a brass display tree that will withstand the rigors of Texas-induced climate disasters.

Other agencies have gotten into the holiday swag game to earn some money to perform their core functions while the Legis­lat­ure and state leadership focus on Fox News issues. A case in point: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department issues ornaments each year ($19.95 online) commemorating the well-known and lesser-known destinations in the Texas State Parks system. This year's spotlight is on the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, which you'll have to take on faith, as the ornament itself just shows a Longhorn steer in a field of wildflowers. Older ornaments in the series, highlighting state parks from Tyler in the east to Terlingua in the west, are priced to move at $9.95 or less. You can also, of course, give the gift of admission fees to the real places themselves by purchasing a Texas State Parks gift card. (Note: You can't buy an annual park pass as a gift for someone else, because security, but you can load up a gift card with the $70 sticker price.)


On the National Scene

The Milwaukee-based National Bobble­head Hall of Fame and Museum, which is a real place (near the Harley-Davidson Museum!) as well as the "premier bobblehead store" online (store.bobbleheadhall.com), has already produced 14 entries in its state governor bobblehead series, including Andrew Cuomo in multiple poses (one waving bye-bye!), but you can pre-order lucky No. 15, our own Greg Abbott, for February 2022 delivery (just in time for the primary; $25). Also available for pre-order: Florida's Ron DeSantis, in case you'd like to pit him against Gov. Loveless in a 2024 cage-match preview. There are many, many other politically themed bobblehead designs for sale – Bernie at the inauguration! Dr. Fauci! Justice Amy Coney Barrett! The Bidens' dogs! A series of 18 "neglected presidents" (e.g., Chester Arthur) crafted for the 2020 Democratic National Convention that sorta happened in Milwaukee! And so on. The governor bobbleheads, and some others, are also fundraisers for the American Hospital Association's 100 Million Masks project, which is nicely ironic in Abbott's case.

If you're the type who likes to arrange your bobbleheads according to some arcane system only you know, you might derive some inspiration from designer Griffin Gon­zalez's clever Periodic Table of the Presidents (available at uncommongoods.com, unframed $38/framed $110), which packs an enormous amount of information about the first 45 heads of state, the eras in which they served, and the characteristics of their leadership into the familiar columnar format. As with all items at Uncommon Goods, your purchase includes a donation to one of the e-retailer's nonprofit partners – RAINN, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the International Rescue Committee, or American Forests – which have received more than $2.6 million from the store's Better to Give program since 2001.

Looking for something a little more anarcho-socialist? What a Hell of a Way to Die, which describes itself as "the #1 Leftist Military Podcast since 1917," and its sister show Lions Led by Donkeys have quite the side hustle in swag at their online store (hellofawaytodie.com/shop) – stickers, pins, patches, mock challenge coins, even bars of soap, all at affordable stocking­-stuffer prices. Not just logo merch like those corporate podcasts, but we won't spoil all of their jokes – go see for yourself. The selection includes several trans-themed designs from artists Poppy Haze and Riley Chadwick, proceeds from which help support the "radical community care" of the peer support network Trans Lifeline (translifeline.org)


For Your Nerdy Readers

This reporter was fortunate enough to moderate the recent (virtual) Texas Book Festival panel featuring Austin news legend Neal Spelce, whose new memoir With the Bark Off: A Journalist's Memories of LBJ and a Life in the News Media – remarkably, the 85-year-old's first book – has been published by UT Press. Spelce, who was first hired by KTBC (owned at the time by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson and family) in 1956 to replace a part-time writer named Bill Moyers – you may have heard of him – would a decade later make his own mark on history as the one live-on-scene reporter broadcasting the Texas Tower shooting and its aftermath, and in the process saving who knows how many lives by warning his listeners away from campus.

Like so many Austin journos (including this reporter), Spelce also had a substantial career in communications and political consulting when those disciplines were still a bit novel around here, including a stint as Lady Bird's spokesperson. His book does have the insider tidbits about the LBJ years that the title promises – even Luci Baines Johnson, in her approving cover blurb, says so – but it's also an important document of Austin history, and of the changing news business. (At the Book Festival, Spelce was paired with another Texas broadcasting icon, Bob Phillips, whose A Good Long Drive: Fifty Years of Texas Country Reporter is also a worthy read from UT Press.)

Need something even wonkier? Another really interesting Texan, Houston's Christof Spieler, released last year an updated second edition of his 2018 book Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US and Canadian Transit (Island Press). Spieler, an engineer and urban planner and lecturer at Rice, gained a following 20-odd years ago, as urbanism found its footing in Texas' mega-boomtowns, as a thoughtful champion of more equitable mobility and alternatives to auto-centered transportation and land use. This included some sharp critiques of the transit status quo ante in Houston and other cities; he was rewarded/punished for his efforts by then-Mayor Annise Parker with an appointment to the Houston METRO Board of Directors, serving until 2018.

The meat of his book is a detailed and indeed opinionated deep dive into 57 large urban transit systems in North America, including our own, though the Project Connect transit system overhaul (which Spieler has commended) was approved by Austin voters just weeks after this edition of Trains, Buses, People came out. Since approximately 61.3% of all transportation­-related arguments in Austin turn on "Why can't we have what City X has?," Spieler's book is an invaluable reference to ensure such debates take place on fact-based soil.


Trains, Eagles, Parks

Speaking of fixed-guideway transit, Austin's oldest rail-based circulator system, the soon-to-be-reincarnated Zilker Eagle, has rolled out its own first-edition swag, including adult and kids T-shirts with the new Eagle logo – like the Maltese Falcon, but tie-dye ($28) – and even colorwave socks ($20 at shop.austinparks.org). The Austin Parks Foundation, which has taken over the mini-train operation at the city's favorite destination park (along with the other millions of dollars' worth of donations and volunteer time it provides to the city parks system), also has its own merch featuring its hummingbird logo and other designs, including items you can actually use at the park, from blankets to (pet) bowls to bandannas. In addition to its online store, APF will be mounting its first-ever in-person pop-up shops this weekend (Dec. 3-4; Friday, noon-5:30pm, and Saturday, 10am-2pm) at the "newly renovated Zilker Eagle depot" near the playscape, on the south side of Barton Springs Road.

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