Here's something to argue about — five things I hate about Austin City Council races. The only caveat to this list I'll make is that I hate all of these things even if they are “important” and they are “what has to be done” or whatever. That doesn't mean it doesn't suck.
Anyways, here's my list. Feel free to add to the list in the comments:
- The Austin Political Machine
I'm thoroughly convinced that you can win an Austin City Council race by convincing the right 50 people that you are better than your opponent. The political machine equals key endorsements from certain groups, the support of whichever Travis County Democratic Party activist is most awesome at the time, a few key people w/ labor, and those two or three business-types that give you some credibility.
Sure — you'd have to go to rallies and talk to more than that, and you'd need the mail and you'd need the door hangers and you need (maybe) the TV time. But all of that pales in comparison to the simple fact that if you can convince the right 50 people that you are better than your opponent (and it may even be less than that — I'm just using a random number) then you're set.
If there was this kind of political machine in Democratic politics across the country, then Hillary Clinton would be President. There's no movement/ability for an outside candidate that isn't beloved by the bikeway (as opposed to the beltway) to make any real shot, unless he or she just buys up the airwaves.
Unless my best friend or I am a candidate, I will never work for an Austin City Council campaign.
- The Focus on Central & 78704 Austin
I lived in Central Austin while going to UT, and my first two years in employment were in the 78704 zip code. While each of those general locations do embody the spirit of Austin, they're not the only part of our city.
For one, there's East Austin. There's also the area west of the Balcones Escarpment, along Mesa Boulevard, the Far West neighborhoods, Great Hills, etc. We've got thousands of people that don't travel south of 183 unless there's a UT-football game or something special going on at Zilker Park. But are we helping build rail for any of these people?
No. Of course not. Because (1) everyone focuses on bikes and bike lanes b/c the City Council re-elect constituency lives in Central Austin, where rail isn't needed that much, and (2) the opportunity to convince people beyond Central Austin of the importance of light rail grows more and more difficult with each passing year as Austinites adapt (and nest) into living patterns where not driving a car is unimaginable.
- The Lack of Imagination in City Council Campaigns
States are considered laboratories of democracy for new public policy. And beyond that, cities are often the first to enact advanced and challenging policies that trickle up to the state and, sometimes, national levels.
But the opposite occurs with campaigns. The innovations all come from the top, because very few at the local level are willing to think outside the box. In Austin, that means everyone buys into #1 and #2 on this list, and that's the campaign. Get the group endorsements, knock on the Central Austin doors, win the election.
Bo-ring and bad for our city's democracy. And I don't buy the whole, “if the people will lead, the leaders will follow” argument on this particular complaint. I agree that its up to us to step up to President Obama or Governor Perry or other large-scale elected officials. But locally, you should be able to reach out to your constiuency — especially during a campaign — in new and creative ways that broaden the scope of democracy and citizen engagement.
That I've seen the exact same City Council campaign five times over is ridiculously. And I'm only 24. I don't know how any of you that are older than me live with it on a yearly basis. Pretty soon we're going to be able to write a computer program that makes all the decisions for a City Council race.
- The Gatekeepers
This is an off-shoot of #1, but here I'm talking about how if you win one or two endorsements, you get 45 million door hangers (slight exaggeration) and that's it. And yet what credibility should those people have to make decisions and have that sort of magnitude? Can I have access to that group's thinking if I don't have time to show up to the meetings — or do I have to have free time to come out on a regular basis? For example, I love UDems, but I never went to meetings while I was in school at UT because (1) I had a job that often ran pretty late, and (2) when I didn't have a job I had my Church choir practice (I played guitar). How do I have access to their decision-making?
On the flip side of that, someone that should have more credibility but doesn't is someone like the Austin American-Statesman. Their year-round general suckiness of local coverage (more in the print editions than online) disempowers one of the best voices we could have for editorial decision-making. But because they opt-out of any sort of sane coverage of local politics (see their nonsense on Leffingwell the past few months), then even legitimately valid endorsements can be easily dismissed by the Austin Political Machine.
- Do the Elections Really Have Consequences?
We're still talking about keeping Austin weird, protecting local business, keeping jobs local, helping grow our new idea economy, improving transportation, saving our springs, etc. Are we really making as much progress as we should?
Because Austin (at least electorally) is more or less a one-party town, I think progress actually moves slower than it should. When you have competitive, opposing ideologies, then the incoming candidate/party needs to make clear, sharp policy differences in order to win re-election. But since we're always asking for the same thing, then the measuring stick for what constitutes an improvement is tiny.
The pendulum has a much smaller arc, which creates a negative feedback loop for activism, new coalitions forming, and improved creation of public policies. And yet — everyone is kind of OK with this as long as they “win” their election.
I'll take state politics over city politics any day of the week — and if KT, myself, and others have to use BOR to poke people with a stick in order to try and make progress happen, then we will.
After all, sometimes it works.