Austin Democracy, the Machine, and the Future of our City

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Something extraordinary in Austin politics is unfolding before our eyes this week. What began as a slow simmer years ago and heated up in this spring's Place 3 election between Randi Shade and Kathie Tovo, has now reached a critical boiling point.

“Proponents of moving the election to November say putting the council on the general election ballot will be a guaranteed turnout booster. By implication, they say the council will better reflect the views of the community at large. Yeah, reply some of those who advocate the status quo, you'll get a bigger turnout – of uninformed voters.

“It's an elitist argument that betrays the entitlement mentality of the cadre of insiders who benefit politically from the city's notoriously low turnout. The argument neither needs subtitle nor translation, but here's one: “We know what's good for you.”

“If that reasoning puts you off, let the council know about it.”

~ Editorial Board, Austin American-Statesman, 10/3/11

Last week, in a 4-3 decision, Councilmembers Sheryl Cole, Bill Spelman, Laura Morrison, and Kathie Tovo voted (in the first of three readings) to hold the 2012 Austin municipal election in May, against the advice of the city's election administrator, the State of Texas, and a diverse array of community leaders. A number of rationales have been offered by these members defending their positions- from upholding their oath to the city charter, to not arbitrarily extending their terms by six months, to concern for uninformed November voters.

As someone who has been involved in the elections of a supermajority of this current city council, I am admittedly part of the Austin Political Machine as described by Phillip Martin over two years ago. I don't deny it; it is true that this city's politics has been guided for many years by small group of insiders with occasional, minimal, variation. But because of my position and my role in helping to elect members on each side last week's vote, I feel obligated to break my silence.

It's time to put the truth on the table. This debate is about the balance of power between different factions of Austin's political establishment and it is driven by political self interest.

The defeat of Randi Shade by Kathie Tovo this spring saw the rise of a new coalition on the Austin City Council who were ostensibly united by their opposition to Water Treatment Plant 4, F1 subsidies, downtown parking hours, and long term development in urban neighborhoods. Surprisingly, on all of these issues considered by the council since the election, this 4-vote coalition has yet to materialize as an effective block of votes on any of these issues. In particular, support for halting construction of Water Treatment Plant 4, widely seen as “the” defining issue this past election, evaporated in a 7-0 vote to continue the project not weeks after Tovo's election.  While Tovo, Morrison, and Spelman ideologically operate within the same spectrum, many saw the alliance with Cole as somewhat surprising. After all, she had historically been supported financially by the same business and development interests as Randi Shade.

So why is it on this issue of all issues- when to hold the 2012 election- that these four have finally come together to vote as a block? Political self-interest of the most disappointing kind.

It has been an open secret among city hall insiders that Sheryl Cole, Bill Spelman, and Laura Morrison have each expressed interest in becoming the next Mayor of Austin. It was expected that Mayor Leffingwell would retire after serving one term, having served his intended purpose in blocking former councilman Brewster McCracken's mayoral ambitions. But after seeing Austin successfully navigate the economic downturn, Leffingwell has decided to run for re-election. Additionally, Austin is set to vote in November of 2012 on a wide-ranging package of changes, including fundamental changes to how and when the council is elected. This package, pushed by Leffingwell, and ostensibly still supported by most councilmembers, is perceived as severely disrupting the influence of the traditional low-turnout electorate and the existing political machine.

Simply put, Cole, Spelman, Morrison, and Tovo advocate keeping next year's city election in May because they believe that it remains their last and best chance to defeat Mayor Leffingwell and his key ally Mike Martinez before the opportunity is lost forever. For all the rhetoric about the oaths to the charter (which both Cole and Spelman in particular have voted to break previously without issue) and concern for uninformed voters (who are regularly depended on to pass the council's preferred bond measures in high turnout November elections), this all boils down to defending a broken system for personal political gain.

How sad for Austin. How sad it is that liberal councilmembers are using their power to pick the smallest, most distorted electorate for themselves. How sad it is that we have to suffer through layers of rationalization and excuses to mask the naked political truth before us.

Today, the council will hold the 2nd reading on this issue in an nearly unprecedented rushing of the measure through the process to minimize public input or attention. This is because last Friday, at 5:37PM, well after city offices normally close, Councilmembers Spelman and Morrison placed this item on the agenda for this morning's Council Work Session, which is usually reserved for council discussion of items to be considered at their Thursday council meetings. There is no contemporary precedent for taking action on a contested, divisive issue at a work session; usually they are 7-0 votes involving last minute time sensitive permits for road races, like the October 8th NAMI Walk which is on today's agenda. (The last time a controversial item saw a 4-3 vote on reading in a work session was in the 1990's when a vote was held to issue RFPs seeking to privatize Austin Energy.) Work sessions are traditionally NOT for public input — they are for council to work out agenda items before Thursday's vote. In fact, the top of the agenda even states as much.

In addition, an item has been added to authorize the city to spend up to $1.3 million (not including another half a million if there is a run-off) to purchase more voting machines in order to hold a single low-turnout May election on top of an already scheduled November election for the city. The council's own documents admit that “The County acknowledges that machines purchased under this Addendum will likely be sold or otherwise exchanged or returned to the current or other future voting equipment vendor” after the election. The city will have to cover most all of that cost because last night the ACC Board of Trustees voted to move their elections to November, a move which AISD is expected to follow. This leaves the City of Austin alone in paying for a special election in May against the provisions of SB 100, against the expert recommendations of the election administrator, in contradiction of our values, and wedged in between and overlapping with the party primaries and runoffs- all for the perceived political benefit to four people.

I urge the council to reconsider the path they are leading us down- it is not too late. I recognize, as do many others that are a part of it, that the current political establishment's influence must, and is, coming to an end. We must trust the people of Austin, as many as possible, in determining our city's future.

We must recognize that fighting over where and when to have one final battle in a war over the past is a victory for no one.

“A city that loves to think of itself as forever in blue jeans has grown up. The Comprehensive Plan is far from the final answer, but it is worth a good, hard look by a circle larger than the City Hall hangers-on this type of conversation tends to attract. It begs a serious conversation about how to manage the city's future.”

~ Editorial Board, Austin American-Statesman, 10/2/11

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About Author

Former Publisher & Owner of the Burnt Orange Report. Political Thinker, Digital Explorer, and Time Traveler.


  1. Rahm McDaniel on

    I was astonished when I saw this item posted on the agenda for this morning's session.  One would think that given the interest and content of this issue, council members would operate with a heightened desire for public input and sensitivity to the optics involved.

    Thankfully cooler heads prevailed and they invited extended citizen commentary, despite the fact that the agenda says “There will be no citizen participation during the work session”, and thus provided us all with a little tableau vivant of the status quo: a small minority of in-the-know people invited in to take part in Austin government

    If this was an attempt to advance the ball in an environment of less scrutiny, that's a problem.

    If on the other hand, the council members themselves don't understand how the process works and what a work session is for vs what a regular council meeting is for, that's also a problem.

    I thank KT for understanding the import of this subject, and hope that BOR and others will track it closely.  

  2. This is sad.
    Disclosure: I too am part of the political machine, and was Lee Leffingwell's campaign manager. I don't think that is a big deal, given several of Lee's staff members in that election now work for folks on the other side of this issue. But I figure up front I will admit it. unemployed right now!

    I said this in the comment section of Kath25's first post. VOTING IS A HABIT. This is an opportunity to increase participation where real change is tangible for most voters, their city elections. We should welcome more voters into our process. Furthermore if we are putting the bond elections in their hands we should trust their ability to get educated about the mayors race just the same… or at least read the Chronicle's endorsement.

    The argument being made against this move smacks of elitism. And the name calling is pathetic. All sides of this debate has political insiders in it, and the self interest will destroy a great opportunity to expand our voter participation. For a city as liberal, progressive and educated as Austin, out turn out for critical races is pathetic and we should embrace the opportunity to expand those who participate.

    Finally, regarding the mechanics of this election. I understand why council members who count on neighborhood voters would think its in their best interest to hold the election in May. The reality is, a November election would likely be just as good if not better for them. Here is why. It would be a crowded field and would likely result in a runoff. That run off would come sometime soon after the fan fair of November is over and the majority of that high turnout general election would not turn back out for the runoff.  Clearly an advantage for the traditional city voters.

    Frankly I should get paid for that advice. But I offer it up for free in the interest of expanding our voter participation, which is pathetic. I rarely get fired up enough to comment on BOR, even when topics near and dear to my heart are discussed. But this one, the elitism shown, and short sightedness has forced me to speak my mind.

    I hope at least one of the 4 council members holding this line, will realize it is in Austin's best interest to engage as many voters as possible! Voting is a habit and people should place the mayors race at the same level of importance as the race for the President in their ability to effect true change.

  3. Protecting the white vote?
    Arguably, voting to preserve low-turnout elections in May is as bad as the racial gerrymandering that occurs at the state legislature each year. Don't have 2011 data, but the 14% of voters who elected Austin City Council members in 2009 were overwhelmingly whiter and older than both the city's overall population and registered voters. Additionally, all of the high tunrout precincts were in West Austin.

    Howisthatfair? See the study linked below for more info

  4. Can somebody find that Veil of Ignorance we seem to have misplaced?
    Considerations about which candidate, interest group or subset of the electorate might benefit should never factor into decisions about when and how to hold elections. Those decisions should be based on what best facilitates voting. Allowing election processes to be dictated by politics undermines democracy.

    Also – it doesn't matter whether voters are better informed in May or November. Someone who you think knows nothing about the candidates and the issues still has the right to vote. Keeping elections in May doesn't take away their right to vote, certainly, but when you choose the low turnout timing when presented with a choice that will increase turnout, you are saying that those additional voters' voices are not important. That's antidemocratic.  

  5. Error and Speculation
    Do you know why the 2nd reading was posted for today?  Did you ask anyone in Morisson's or Spelman's offices for their rationale?

    Did you know that Travis County's voting machine vendor needs to know if the city is going to have a May 2012 election by October 15th in order to guarantee delivery of the machines by election time? Did you know that in order to guarantee that all 7 members of council could vote on the issue, the Council needed to conduct 2nd and 3rd readings this week?  Do these facts change your conclusions that this isn't some nefarious attempt to stifle dissent?  I sure hope so. The fact that these ridiculous statements continue to surface only serves to weaken BOR as a place for honest political debate.

    You erroneously speculate that Spelman is part of some magical 4-person voting block that came into power with Tovo's election.  Did you know that Spelman has variously sided with different members of Council throughout his term?  Look at his votes on F1, Grayco PUD, Park PUD, Historic Zoning, WTP #4, Nathaniel Sanders, White House Lodging….  Do you see a pattern of the same 4 people voting on some of the most contentious votes of the last 2 years?  Neither do I.

    You and Katherine write with such knowing confidence in your conclusions that it makes me wonder: how do you arrive at them when you don't know the facts?  It's also curious that these very arguments are the same ones espoused by Leffingwell.  This wouldn't be another one of those pesky “shilling for your team” situations, would it?  Did you ever write about the 3 person voting block of Shade/Leffingwell/Martinez?  Again, BOR fails to cast doubt fairly among all members of council.

    Finally, you and Katherine have repeatedly failed to acknowledge Spelman's support for moving elections to November.  He, Leffingwell, and Martinez cosponsored the April 28th resolution that puts the issue of November elections on the charter amendment ballot. (Another example of of your voting block.)  He was talking about this BEFORE SB 100 was finalized.  If he wanted to design a small voting pool for his benefit, why would he work with “the other side” to get this issue before the voters?  It just doesn't make sense.

    This post, along with Katherine's previous articles, is filled with speculation and conjecture.  BOR has got to stop ignoring the facts and stop spinning issues in order to benefit its favored politicians.

    ~barksdale english

    staffer to Bill Spelman

    • Is that really the rationale?

      Did you know that Travis County's voting machine vendor needs to know if the city is going to have a May 2012 election by October 15th in order to guarantee delivery of the machines by election time? Did you know that in order to guarantee that all 7 members of council could vote on the issue, the Council needed to conduct 2nd and 3rd readings this week?

      That's interesting, Barksdale, because that rationale was not clearly presented (at least it wasn't clear to me) during the discussion. I apologize in advance if I missed it. I was so surprised to see something like this in a work session that I may have blacked out or something.

      But either way, Austin's voting machine vendor's supply chain is not (or at least should not be) a major policy consideration for municipal deliberation on something as crucial as elections. Moving or not moving our elections from May to November is a hugely significant issue and placing the action item in a forum like this out of deference to a vendor seems, well, silly.

      Further, it's only a problem if the city doesn't move the election to November. So this new rationale presumes that the vendor's delivery schedule is actually an issue, and that keeping the May date is a fait accompli, which is exactly the kind of thing that turns so many citizens off to Austin politics; they think their input doesn't make any difference.

      Is it a fait accompli? Does the input matter as much as the delivery schedule? And more to the point, if I asked Council Member Spelman what the rationale was, would he tell me it was the delivery schedule, or are you speaking for yourself here?

      No matter the answer to these and other questions, I would hope that our business is worth enough that our vendor can accommodate a couple of weeks to get this right. Do you think you could ask them?


      • Rationale to hold a reading today
        Hi Rahm,

        My beef with BOR isn't that KT didn't know about individual council member's travel schedules.  My beef is that several BOR writers assume they know the facts when they write their posts.  But a cursory examination of the issue reveals that there is a fundamental flaw here – there is a one-sided debate on BOR that is making what otherwise would be an excellent blog irrelevant vis a vis city politics.

        I agree that a vendor relationship is not nearly as important as the voter-elected official relationship.  But we cannot risk not having all the machines we need in order to conduct a May 2012 election.  Furthermore, it's not a City-vendor relationship.  It's a County-vendor relationship and the deadline is imposed by the vendor to Travis County.  And, I can't answer whether it's a fait accompli.  I can only answer for what my boss is doing.  And so he supported the idea of having 2nd reading today with the understanding that there would likely be a 3rd reading on Thursday, a time when folks were expecting the issue to crop up again.

        But thanks to compromise between Spelman, Morrison and Leffingwell, Council will hear the 2nd reading on Thursday and hold a special called meeting on Friday afternoon at 1:30pm to conduct 3rd reading.

        • Still seems a bit shaky
          Hi Barksdale,

          I don't want to pounce here because you are not one of the responsible parties, but right now you are the only person explaining this in public, for good or ill.

          Suffice it to say that your post here raises more questions than it answers for me.

          I cannot imagine how trying to conduct a second reading of something this important during a work session with little public notice simply to accommodate a county vendor seemed like a good idea.  

    • OK Barksdale… add me to your list of conspirators.
      I have voted for Bill, Cheryl, and Laura in every election they've run in.

      I've also been working in Austin city elections since the early 1980's.   I know a duck when it quacks.

      There is no rationale for keeping this election in May other than to keep the voting pool small so as to protect the ease of people's reelection or to win the Mayor's race.  


      Spending hundreds of dollars that could fund HIV meds or mental health beds for an election date that's not necessary is asinine.

      Please join me by signing onto an Activist Letter to Council at this link:

      • hundreds of THOUSANDS of dollars
        don't let me understate by objection by typing in anger.

        And, yes, tell your boss I'm angry.  At him, at the four councilmembers driving this politically self centered train, and city staffers polically shilling for their bosses on City time.

    • If this is the rationale …
      Why haven't we heard this directly from one of the four council members? Their relative silence and, when they do speak, shifting rationale on this issue is very troubling.

      It is clear, whatever side of this issue you are on, that it is getting a lot of attention. Yet the Spelman website has nothing about it (no apparent update since May).

      As much as I appreciate you engaging in the debate here, if your office's communications strategy on this issue is a staffer posting comments to BOR, that's really disappointing and really just unacceptable.

  6. Not looking to pile on…
    But I am going to defend K.T. and Kath. This blog has written about a vote that is being rushed though. To many it seems it is being rushed in order to avoid a debate. I don't buy the vendors need to know asap position. The costumer is always right, and a vendors seeking a hundreds of thousand of dollar contact from the city can wait.

    The fact we are even having to discuss accommodating our vendors when buying new voting machines, so the city alone can hold a low turn out affair election is sad. If our partners who we share the financial burden of holding elections have moved their date, maybe the city should as well?

    I have read several well thought out blog posting on this blog, stating their opinion on the subject. This is not a newspaper, they don't have to report, they can opine. It does freak me out when BOR and the ED board of the Statesmen agree. That said, I understand more of the case for keeping the election in May due to the BOR's “reporting” than the anyone else.

    Given the rushed nature of this deal, whats at stake by not holding the election in November (increased voter participation) and the clear case staked out by BOR writers and their readers – I welcome, as I am sure the entire BOR community would, a well thought out response from any of the city council members as to why they are in favor of not moving the election. It is my guess it would get front paged.

    To say “…there is a one-sided debate on BOR that is making what otherwise would be an excellent blog irrelevant vis a vis city politics”, is not fair at all. At the very least this debate seems one sided because our elected officials are choosing to remain silent during this on going discussion.

    As someone who gets paid to work on turning out voters, I know the action of moving the election date to November will ensure a massive increase in voter turnout and that is a good thing. Increased voter participation is always a good thing. The fact campaigns, donors and organizations spend top dollar attempting what one action of the city council can guaranty, is reason enough to move the election.

    I don't buy the argument that it is to hard to campaign in a high turn out environment, there will be prepackaged campaign events all over town. And I definitely don't buy the argument people who are engaging in their civic duty to vote for the President of the United States are not capable of educating themselves about their local Mayors race.

    Voting is a habit and we should embrace the opportunity to educate more voters on the importance of voting in our city races. We should always take advantage of the opportunity to engage more voters.

    If my understanding for the reason for not moving the election to November is faulty, than please put out an official response as to the logic behind not moving the election. If this must be rushed though and voted on by Friday, to give a city contract to a vendor, its the least that can be done to ensure transparency.

    I have not heard of a single vote ever motivating so many discussions about challenging sitting council members. May or November.

    • Agreed.
      JD, I think one of the many reasons why this has gotten people so fired up is the sharp contrast between the actions of council members in this issue and public posturing about transparency and inclusion.

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