The 5 Things I Hate About Austin City Council Races

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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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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About Author

Phillip Martin

Currently the Research and Policy Director for Progress Texas and the Texas Research Institute, Phillip Martin writes occasional long-form pieces for BOR that promote focused analysis and insight into Texas politics. Born and raised in Austin, Phillip started working in politics in 2003 and started writing on BOR in the summer of 2005. Phillip has worked for the Texas Democratic Trust, the Texas Legislative Study Group, and now the Progress Texas family. He is a lifelong Houston Astros fan, a loyal Longhorn, and loves swimming at Barton Springs Pool.

107 Comments

  1. Kedron Touvell on

    durn it
    I hate it when trolls get posted right as I'm walking out the door…

    Anyway, as a quick thought on #3, every time Austin does something “out of the box” we get whacked by the reactionary idiots at the Pink Dome.  State government has more possibilities cuz they have more power.  When has the Texas state government ever used that power for good?

    Will be back for more tonight…

    • Not policy, but campaigning style
      I think Phillip, in #3, was attacking the static campaign styles, which shouldn't have much to do at all with state government.  (If you want to see his point where state government might actually interfere, I think it's #5?)

      For instance, it would be interesting to see people try to spend a lot more time in East Austin or somewhere not Central Austin (point #2, also), or to ignore TV and just try blockwalkers and mailers.

    • Kedron Touvell on

      read through it again with more time…
      and I apologize for calling it a troll, you did start off saying “here's something to argue about.”  As I mentioned, I read it hurriedly when I was on my way out the door and posted my first reaction rather than my measured response.

      Hunter made some good comments below, so I'll try to be as non-redundant as possible here.

      1. I'm not sure the word machine means what you think it does.  The political machines of Chicago and Baltimore, used as examples below, are based on patronage and spoils.  The so-called machine in Austin is based on reputation and resulting influence.  No-one is giving anyone street money to turn out voters in the hood.  And given we have a city-manager government, there aren't a lot of jobs Council members can hand out (most council members have 2 or 3 aides, the Mayor 5 – Carole wants to lower even that number).  On the other hand, a good relationship with the City Manager and staff can go a long way towards getting contracts and jobs.

      Also one obvious counterexample – who was the machine candidate for place 1 this year?  

      I'm not sure we want to stir up the Hillary/Obama pot any more, but Obama would never have won if he wasn't able to reach out to established power brokers in addition to new voters.  If Kirk Watson isn't part of the machine, then who is?

      2. Wow, this is really wrong, as Hunter mentions below.  How many blog posts has Dahmus written bashing the Austin-paid for commuter rail to Leander?  And West and Northwest Austin vote in large numbers.  It's the East and Southeast that we've been trying to mobilize for years (and there is an effort on that front again this year).  Granted, SMD will improve this dynamic and I hope to see them in Austin before I die.

      3. Michael says above that state government restrictions have more to do with #5, but I think they have just as much to do with #3.  No credible candidate is going to promote an innovative policy that is against the state constitution or will obviously be overruled in the next session. We hear this excuse all the time on the trail as well as the dais.  As for innovative campaigning, I may not be fully understanding what you're asking for.  The candidates are online, on twitter, facebook, etc.  Brewster is launching video contests and guest bartending, Lee wrote a funny blog post for this site, and has shown solid support for increased government transparency and a more interactive city website.

      Or do you mean innovative policy ideas?  Lee is talking about a city service corps, Brewster is talking about bringing in new technology projects.  Mayor Wynn did the plug-in hybrid campaign and the ACPP which were both highly influential nationwide.  Chris has a ton of policy papers on his website with great ideas.  The broader population may not vote for candidates based on these ideas, but how many people voted for JFK because he was better looking than Nixon?

      4. This seems to be a criticism of politics in general.  I hate politics myself, but I realize you have to do the politics to get to do the policy.  And I don't think it's reasonable to criticize a group for organizing and working for their issues and values.  Like everything in life, the more you put into something the more you get out of it.  Every writer at BOR has more influence through what they write than the one vote they get to cast in the election (or 0 in your case, if you haven't maintained your registration).  Is that wrong?

      5. Will the job of politics ever be done?  Is anything ever finished?  That's the human condition.  Barton Springs eternal…until 50,000 homes with straws over the aquifer suck it dry.  We have conservation agreements with ranch owners that don't kick in for another 50 years – because there will always be development pressure and it'll take 100 years to get enough resources to buy up the undeveloped land – but only if we work hard for the next 100 years.  Politics is not a career to get into if you're easily bored.  At any level, it's the same damn issues over and over.  Ted Kennedy waits 40 years to pass universal healthcare, then gets brain cancer when it looks like he actually has a shot to do it.  I'm hoping he finally gets it done, but if we fail again, we'll try again in 20 years.

      Now, don't take the above to mean that I think everything is great in Austin politics.  I think we need SMD.  I think we need a strong push for increased transparency and a more engaging, interactive online presence.  I also think we need a Council that is more transparent in their actions rather than the current back-room consensus-driven process.  I'd like to see better press coverage.  And I'd really like to see the citizens get more involved with their governance.  How can we make all that happen?  

      • Some thoughts
        1) I'm talking about the electoral machine, not the policy-action machine. I don't think you can call action scaled on pre-industrial levels “machine”-like. (Ba-zing).

        2) Central Austin loved it totally? Really? What about this —

        By proposing to use existing rail lines passing through neighborhoods such as Crestview, Capital Metro turned what should have been inner city rail supporters into staunch rail opponents. Had the people in these north central Austin neighborhoods voted for rather than against rail, this alone could have provided the margin of victory in the last referendum for/against rail.

        I grew up in that area (just a little north) and my best friend lived there. That's Central Austin. You want to tell me those people were supportive of rail? Maybe there's a map that can give us some real data, but my impressions — and things like that — were always the other way around. Some (and maybe even most) in Central Austin were for rail, but I'm saying they are MORE for things like better bike lanes. So when you only have small coalitions electing folks, they're going to argue most passionately for the things they care MORE about. That's just common sense.

        3) There's nothing fundamentally new about Brewster or Lee's campaign. There's just not. They're running better campaigns than in past elections (we've finally realized we're in the 21st century — kind of), but the formulas are the same as they have been for many, many years, only with a new technology coat of paint. No one is bringing new constituencies together — we're only figuring out new ways of remolding the old ones.

        4) The influence of the gatekeepers is the discussion. There are gatekeepers in all races — for example, whoever gets the AFL-CIO or TSTA or law enforcement endorsement in a statewide Democratic primary. But the impact of those major endorsements can be overcome in a larger-scale campaign. They are much harder to overcome in City Council races.

        5) Regarding climate change — Obama is going to be able to do more now, after 8 years of Bush, than what Gore would have been able to do 9 years ago. Largely, that's because there's such a mandate to course-correct, and if you over-correct (re: become more liberal) in doing so, then most people are fine as long as we're — to use the pollster term — “back on track.” And more often than not, smaller pendulum swings are preferable, especially in a split constituency or (for selfish reasons) if I choose/have to live around people who entirely disagree with me. But I'm a progressive, Austin is a (largely — certainly one of the most in the country) progressive city, but are solutions seem to sputter more often than they shine.

        Two things to add:

        1) I expect more out of city politics than I do state or national politics.

        2) I can't offer solutions unless I've correctly identified the problem…and, I can't identify the problem unless I truly know the purpose. I'm not sure I truly know the problem or the purpose of what “needs to be done” to make it all better. And rather than offer technical fixes or quick work ideas, I'd like to take the time and discuss the nature of the problems and the purpose more.

        After all — I could be wrong about everything. Or my viewpoints could just be one idea of many, and it may turn out that there are more pressing things to concentrate on in the mean time. But I won't know unless we have the discussion.

        • Kedron Touvell on

          .
          1. In the cities with real machines, there is no substantial difference between politics and policy.  First paragraph of the wikipedia page:


          A political machine (or simply machine) is a disciplined political organization in which an authoritative boss or small group commands the support of a corps of supporters (usually campaign workers), who receive rewards for their efforts. Although these elements are common to most political parties and organizations, they are essential to political machines, which rely on hierarchy and rewards for political power. Machines sometimes have a political boss, often rely on patronage, the spoils system, “behind-the-scenes” control, and longstanding political ties within the structure of a representative democracy. Machines typically are organized on a permanent basis instead of for a single election or event. The term may have a pejorative sense referring to corrupt political machines.

          I think what Austin has is what is considered more a loose political party (shadowing but roughly corresponding to the Democratic party) than a machine.  Is there a “Boss Butts” in Austin?  Is there an award system?  50 people with their own sphere of influence but no spoilage system to enforce discipline doesn't make a machine.

          2. Dahmus will probably jump in here with the details and maps, but a solid majority of Austin proper voted for the 2000 light rail plan (the good one that actually served Austin).  There were some in the city who didn't, but mainly due to NIMBY or business (S. Congress retail) reasons, definitely not because they preferred bike funding (there were a few scraps thrown to bikes in the 2000 transportation bond package but the vast majority went to buying SH130 ROW that isn't even in the city limits).  I'm not sure why you think voters have been big backers of cycling, that really has only emerged in the last couple of years or so, if it's even on the voters' mind much at all now. Bikes only get a lot of coverage on this site cuz KT is the publisher.

          3. I think Brewster is trying to bring a new coalition together, because that's the only way he can win. I also think he will fail.  That's because I don't think there is another coalition that can beat the current dominant one, at least as long as he's outflanked by Strayhorn and Buttross (who's making some gains) on the right.  What do you think?  Who would you try to bring together?

          4. agreed, primarily due to low information and resulting low turnout.  Some think this can be solved through SMD or higher contribution limits.  I think both will help, but it took a war in Iraq to bump the national turnout from 50% to 55%.

          5. I'm an incrementalist myself.  I think our biggest problem is a lack of engaged citizenry caused by a variety of reasons including suboptimal press coverage, a disfunctional representation system, a lack of citizen outreach beyond tv or print media, a lack of transparent political discourse, and a lack of general interest or education on the part of the citizenry (less a problem in Austin than some cities, but still there).

          Note those are mostly governance problems rather than election problems.  I think if you solve the governance problems, you take care of the electoral problems, as people who are engaged vote.  We are a city of over 700k people.  We need more than one council member per 100k, either through SMD or increasing the total number of members.  We also need for the city website project to succeed, not just as brochureware but as an interactive, web 2.0+ experience.  We also need for new media to fill in the gaps in coverage that currently exist.  The Chronicle devotes 1 column per week to the weekly city grind (but to be fair does do features as well), the Statesman engages in foolishness as often as they do news gathering.  TV doesn't have the space to do much in-depth reporting.  We really need an open infactdaily, but greatly expanded.  That's a lot of effort, though, so it might be too much to ask.

          Anyway, I appreciate the discussion.

          • Awesome, thanks KT
            See, and I don't buy this “Austin proper” was the solid majority thing. I mean — obviously — Central Austin was a huge supporter, but why are they “Austin proper.” What makes that area of Austin more special than folks that live off of Far West, or north of 183, or even just north of Koenig? We need to expand the way we think about the city — it can't just be the “swing states” of Hyde Park, Pease, etc. neighborhoods over and over and over in each election.

            That's the kind of thinking that prevents stuff like light rail from passing. Because no one is active above Koenig or outside of the Central & 78704 Austin area (and I'll add in the Riverside apartments where all the UT students live, it looks like), then things like this don't pass! Because there's no mechanism for politics outside of those areas other than neighborhood groups (imagine 1,000 Laura Morrisons everywhere you go — shudder).

            I lived, growing up, near Ohlen and Burnt Road. Some fliers for candidates, but not a lot. Then I lived off of Duval and 183. Rarely any doorhangers — normally got mail. Then I lived on campus (and was obviously bombarded), and near 38th and Guadalupe (also well flier-ed). And then I lived right around the corner from Billy's (also lots of door hangers).

            The political activism is great in this “Austin proper” region — but it needs to expand! The people that would use light rail the most don't support it (look at the map), and until candidates/causes campaign where those people live, then those people won't support stuff like rail! So even if you flip a few more votes in Central Austin, the project itself would fail b/c no one that would really need it — i.e., people not in “Austin proper” — would have any buy-in for light rail and wouldn't use it. So you'd end up with this big, expensive thing that took forever to recoup costs because no one convinced/persuaded the rest of the city that it was a good idea!

            Also — and I'll need to go look at historical stuff for this — but the light rail discussion in 2000 was already several years later than it should have been. Why weren't we talking about it more before then? My understanding (and correct me if I'm wrong) was that it was never a priority. Why wasn't it a priority until then?

          • Very short version
            because I'm very busy with family stuff:

            1. Cap Metro was always supposed to do rail (was part of the run-up to their creation, actually) but screwed the pooch in management for years. You can see some of the same incompetence now regarding the awful commuter rail plan (sadly, they'd probably have done an equally bad job with my preferred 2000 LRT plan).

            2. The 2000 election was forced early by Krusee to coincide with W's election (successful electioneering – he knew suburbanites would turn out more heavily than usual to vote for W, and against rail while they were out). The plan wasn't even fully baked – they were shooting for more of a May or November 2001 election before Krusee forced their hand.

            3. Despite all this, it passed in the city limits of Austin. So, yeah, “Austin proper” voted for it.

          • Kedron Touvell on

            austin proper
            as Mike noted, Austin proper just means the Austin city limits, not a normative statement of which parts of Austin are more important.  The election was over the entire CapMetro service area, which includes areas not in Austin.

          • K, my bad
            I thought you meant “Austin Proper” as the oldest area of Austin (the green area). When my Dad moved to just north of Ohlen Road off of Burnet in 1980 or '81, there was just a lot of bluebonnets north of him. So…

  2. Many cities do have similar machines
    Its just that in a super high turnout primaries like last year, machines are irrelevant. That's why in last year's primary we saw same candidates lose who would usually win and many candidates not do near as well as they usually do.

    Look to Chicago and Baltimore for other examples of political machines in America.

    Having said that, I agree with all of your points. Our current system does not give us the best candidates or the best process.

    • I thought it was all cities
      Austin is somewhat different because machine elements easily can control the whole council due to the lack of individual districts.  In other cities machines have to work harder.  

        • But
          Rebel forces with good issues and a good door to door campaigns have a much better chance against “machine” candidates in smaller districts. County Commissioner, Justice of the Peace, and Constable candidates do not necessary need television, radio, and Statesman ads to win. It's one on one democracy at it's best. Money helps, but it does not necessarily buy one these offices.  

  3. Political and Media Consultants
    Doing the same campaigns over and over by some boiler plate. Sometimes I can spot recycled TV ads and literature from prior campaigns. Same general themes, just change campaign colors and candidate's name along with the pictures. (Points 1, 2, 3, & 4)

    That's why the Obama campaign and it's use of the internet caught my attention. The great success of the early rally on Lady Bird Lake surprised me. I really wish the younger activists come into power sooner rather than later. I prefer their developing inclusionary style and the internet driven information to those interested in the city government. (Point 5)

  4. Single Member Districts
    I think Single Member Districts could help a lot with this.  First, it would at least create some focus outside of Central Austin, even if Central Austin is not the main focus.  That would bring a lot more citizens in play just because of that attention.  In turn, then, you might find a few new gatekeepers (though the old ones might stay) and the Austin Political Machine will at least broaden to some new horizons.  And finally, single member districts might bring those different partisan ideas (if say, North Austin elects a Republican) that could actually make a larger push for progress.

  5. Can you think of a city in the US
    that does a good job at this?  Or perhaps, ultimately produces better social outcomes?  I can't.  

    Maybe where I went to grad school in Brattleboro, VT, but that place was a homogenous hippyville of less than 10K.

  6. I agree the City Council is boring (elections included), but . . .
          [i] It seems to me that the “50 or so people” are more focus group than gatekeepers, so you may be confusing cause and effect.  Most voters do not want to spend a lot of time sorting out candidates, so we listen to the “buzz” among those whose political views are similar to ours.  We look into things more closely only when there is disagreement within our peer group (e.g., Cravey vs. Morrison, Riley vs. Cavazos).

        [ii] The suburbanites in the far north and west of the metro area are precisely for whom a rail line has been built, based on the votes from central Austin.  I don't know if this was altruistic, diplomatic, or just sentimental — it certainly wasn't central-Austin parochialism.

       [iii] Minor-office candidates have to go (or mail to) where the votes are.  An Obama can change a significant number of people from non-voters to voters; a city (or education-board) candidate cannot.  This is not so much because city candidates lack vision or communication skills as it is because most people do not think the City Council is particularly important.  Austin was as weird and wonderful (in places, like now) back when its city government was dominated by Republican businessmen.

        [iv] I agree that Austin Progressive Coalition (CAD+UDems) is as close to a political machine as Austin has, because its club members actually do neighborhood door-to-door distribution of campaign materials in the parts of town in which such distribution is feasible.  But this just gives low-budget candidates a chance to partially compensate for the flood of mail that local-election voters get all over town.

         [v] Back when Republicans won seats (and sometimes a majority) on the Council, it seemed to me that there was more caution and accommodation by liberals than clear enunciation of a “competitive, opposing ideology”.  Certainly that era did not promote quick progress on the issues you list, in part because the liberals were wary of the outer-city and old-school rebellions that the open-housing, domestic-partner, and SOS ordinances provoked.

        [vi] How can you mention the Statesman endorsements and not talk about the real media heavy hitter in local elections — the Austin Chronicle?  The respect they earn by intelligent local-news coverage carries over into their endorsements, especially since they report differences of opinion among their staff.  It will be all to the good if BOR can earn comparable credibility — then those of us who find city politics boring will have an efficient way to check up on the Chronicle.

  7. Robert Ryland on

    Thank You, Philip!
    I think the only difference between you and I on this matter is about 15 years and two kids. I long ago gave up on these damn races, and had Perla not ventured out to my turf one hot August day to help us unearth up some Democrats out here, I doubt I'd be paying much attention to this one.

    Single-member districts can't come soon enough for Austin.

  8. Hook the Vote
    There are many points in this post that deserve a response, but I'll just take issue with one.

    Are you really criticizing the University Democrats' role in Austin politics?

    You said:

    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?

    Huh?

    You didn't have time to attend UDems meetings, therefore the UDems are an example of the problem of the “Austin political machine”? Maybe I'm missing something, but that seems like an unfair attack. Your choir practice schedule conflicts are unfortunate, but does that somehow mean the UDems should stop raising hell?

    Yes, the UDems are organized. That's how you make your voice heard. I guess you could call them a “machine”, but it's really just democracy in action. The UDems and other clubs and activists should be commended for their efforts, not attacked.

    These students put in enough volunteer time to claim partial credit for winning the Mark Strama and Valinda Bolton races. They helped organized the 2007 Obama rally back when Obama had no advance staff. In the 2008 primary, they served as host to a nationally televised presidential debate. In the 2008 general election, they helped the coordinated “machine” register an all-time record number of new voters in Travis County. In recognition of all this hard work, the University Democrats were selected as “Chapter of the Year” at the Democratic National Convention.

    I'm sorry that you weren't able to attend UDems meetings when you were in Austin. But despite your absence, I'm glad the UDems carried on and kept organizing and kept kicking ass. They've got a fundraiser coming up on May 1st, and I encourage everyone to attend and keep supporting the good work done by this hard working group of students.  

    It's not easy to stay active and attend club meetings, whether you're on campus or in the community. We all have regular lives outside of politics. But making the time to get together and raise hell is as American as apple pie, so if that's what a “machine” is, then sign me up.

    We should all be thankful for our 1st Amendment right to free assembly. The right for free people to get organized and make a difference in the political process is a cornerstone of our democracy.

    • UDems is an open organization for college students
      They meet several times a month and are very active campaigners. But more important, candidates that are considered “outsiders” by most of the local political machine have a better chance of getting endorsed by them than with most endorsing groups in town.

      Most endorsement groups are small and meet once a month, at best. With others, an executive board, not the general membership hands down the endorsement for the group. Most of the these endorsement groups do very little except to allow the endorsed candidates to use their names on the candidates literature and television ads.

      There is also a group of people, I call the “mobile majority”. They are mainly non college students that belong to a number of endorsing groups. They go from group meeting to group meeting stacking endorsements. Because of their age and/or lack of student status, the UDems endorsement meetings are immune from these drive by voters. My biggest complaint about endorsing groups is  that most of their members just show up for the voting session and do not even bother to listen or ask questions of the candidates. The UDems have a long history of giving candidates a fair hearing at their meetings.

      The UDems endorsement is a major endorsement because who they will endorse is not necessary predetermined before their endorsement meeting. Their general membership makes the decisions and their endorsements are back up with lots of hard work. Their part of  Austin's Political Machine is not broken, corrupt, or ethically challenged.

      • Agreed…w/ a caveat
        “Their part of  Austin's Political Machine is not broken, corrupt, or ethically challenged.”

        Yes. Absolutely. But…it's one thing to have someone that can “swing” an election, and another that can “decide” an election. Read my longer comment below…

    • Entirely missed my point
      Ian, I appreciate your defense of UDems. Maybe I wasn't clear about my point — so I'll try and restate it here:

      I'm not hating on anything that UDems does. I've been a pretty large supporter of them for quite some time, even when I couldn't go to meetings.

      But they are a gatekeeper, the same way BOR can be considered a gatekeeper. We're post-points, “test” areas for candidates to prove themselves. Realistically, we need those types of points/places and all types of (American) political systems have something like that as “checkpoints.”

      But — as I said elsewhere in the comments:

      The influence of the gatekeepers is the discussion. There are gatekeepers in all races — for example, whoever gets the AFL-CIO or TSTA or law enforcement endorsement in a statewide Democratic primary. But the impact of those major endorsements can be overcome in a larger-scale campaign. They are much harder to overcome in City Council races

      I'm thrilled for the role that UDems plays when it's D vs. R., obviously. But what about when it's D vs. D? Who do they choose then, and why? We need UDems to work closely w/ the Travis County Democratic Party for all of our state elections. Their impact can help swing an election — as you clearly stated.

      But I see a big difference between “swinging” and “deciding” an election. Any group that straight up can decide an election — whether it is 5 guys in a smoke-filled room, a millionaire w/ lots of money, a blog like BOR, or an organization that (even if I agree with and love what they are doing) holds tremendous sway — then I think that's too large of a Gatekeeper role.

      I don't want BOR to ever become a place where a campaign manager can say, “you convince these 10 writers to endorse you, you've more or less won the election.” Not on Austin city races, anyway. That's my point — not anything anti-UDems, just that the system by which we elect people to City Council exists that way.

      And again, I think about city races differently than state races, so I for me separating the role each plays — and how the groups play — is important.

  9. Rahm McDaniel on

    An excellent post
    Phillip, well done.

    And the shame of it all is that in order to maintain things this way, we have to endure the shameful and absurd spectacle of the gentlemen's agreement, so that central austin and the People Who Matter can vet the entire council.

    Hopefully single member districts will address the structural if not cultural element here, and it's to Central Austin's benefit if they do, ultimately.

    Rail failed in 2000 among other things because the People Who Matter didn't bother to enlist the support people who could have benefited from rail the most, because the plan didn't address their needs, among other things.

    There's more people outside the bubble than in it, if the right candidate or issue set comes along prior to the implementation of single member districts, the central city could wind up with little influence when the dust settles.  

    The People Who Matter, on the other hand, will still matter.

    • Wrong
      2000's LRT plan served the NW suburban areas much better than commuter rail does (more frequent service; no need to take shuttle to UT or capitol or most of downtown). Neither that nor 2004's plan precludes service in the rest of the area – but 2000's proposal at least included some concepts south of the river; while 2004's commuter rail plan really doesn't.

      Despite this, 2004 commuter rail passed easily; 2000 light rail failed by a whisker.

      Your theory doesn't fit the observed facts.

      • Rahm McDaniel on

        So what?
        M1ek, you're talking about rail plans, and I'm talking about political support. Just because 2000's plan was better than the 2004 version doesn't address the electoral dynamic. The dynamic is on the map and anybody looking at yard signs the week of the election knew what was going to happen.

  10. You overstate the case
    Local campaigns (almost) always follow the standard script, both because it's a good script, and because they don't have the resources to reinvent the wheel. Presidential candidates do have the resources, and when their innovations work, everybody else copies them. Howard Dean and Barack Obama redefined the electoral game, but Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken can't.

    Comparing swing states with key neighborhoods is nonsense. (Philip didn't do this, but some comments did.) On the presidential scale, we have swing states that really matter because (almost) every state's electors are winner-take-all. In city elections, everybody's vote counts exactly the same. That's the point of at-large voting.

    Austin is a functioning democracy, where elections accurately reflect the views of the electorate. Not the population, but the electorate. Neighborhoods with high turnout will always have more influence than those with low turnout, just as senior citizens have more influence than college students. If you want your neighborhood to have more influence, don't complain about the lack of single member districts. Get your neighbors to vote.

    Even though elected officials cater to central Austin values, they don't always cater to central Austin interests. Commuter rail is a good example, with KT's charts showing overwhelming support in central Austin despite most of the benefits going to the suburbs. City decisions are taken with the whole city in mind, even though the losing side usually claims otherwise.

    Do elections have consequences? Some of them don't, as they're essentially uncontested, or feature very similar candidates. The same thing goes for statewide and federal elections. But some of them, especially issue elections, have a huge effect. Why don't we have single member districts? Why don't we have an Austin baseball team? Why do we have an airport at Bergstrom, and not Mueller or Manor? Why didn't we have light rail in the 90s, and why are we building it now? All of these questions were decided (and in some cases revisited) by election.  

    • the chart
      was from the 2000 light rail election – the one that provided better service to the suburbs and at least some service to the center-city. 2004's commuter rail plan provides nothing but the back of the hand to the center-city.

      Also, we are NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT! building light rail now, despite the lies of guys like Lyndon Henry. We're plopping down diesel trains on largely unaltered existing track that used to run freight rail all day and is still going to run freight rail at night. These trains are not capable of running to UT or the Capitol if we decided to resurrect the 2000 route. The only thing 'light' about this rail is that the trains were considered a bit too light to survive a collision with freight rail; they're not 'light rail' in the sense anybody really means it – trains that can run in the middle of the street and make turns without having to condemn big chunks of land in the process. Nothing like DART or Houston's Metro or Portland's MAX, in other words.

      • Fair enough,
        but the fact that the change from 2000 to 2004 was not center-friendly only proves my point: City politics is not a “take care of central Austin and ignore the rest” game. The 2004 referendum bond succeeded by taking care of the suburbs while getting the center-city to go along for the common good.

        • No
          The 2004 election succeeded because the rail-haters in the suburbs weren't as energized to turn out for Bush and because the plan WAS fully baked (the 2000 plan, again, was forced to the polls early by Krusee in a successful electioneering strategy).

      • Robert Ryland on

        Rail Elections
        2000 was a sandbag job by Krusee for sure, but it was deserved in some ways – for reasons already mentioned by others. However, this notion of the benevolent central Austinites voting for it even they didn't stand to get much out of it is laughable….typical, but laughable. Central Austin stood to get what it's always wanted from the suburbs – fewer commuter's cars on central Austin's streets, thereby alleviating some of the congestion (that the new density is also exacerbating).

        The 2004 commuter rail plan is certainly small change, but if it gets cars from Leander and Manor off your streets, then I'm not sure what the big problem is.  

        • No
          You're arguing rail with the wrong guy. I've been living and breathing this stuff since then. http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.c

          Precisely zero commuter cars will be off the streets with this useless commuter rail plan – because every single passenger has to transfer to a shuttle bus to get to their final destination, meaning that nobody who is driving today will stick with the thing after trying it out.

          2000's light rail plan served both the center city and the suburbs.

          2004's commuter rail plan gives the suburbs a bit of bad service and gives the center-city the drubbing that some folks thought the hippies always deserved.

          • Heads up
            It's awesome if you're “the right guy” mega-expert on this, and I absolutely want to hear more about what you have to say. (And I'll go do some reading to do that). But if Robert and/or others — including myself — aren't 100% accurate, take that less as a “we're wrong” and more as a point of information for what others' perceptions are. If this is what Robert or myself thinks — and if we're obviously this engaged in the process — then educate us, but know that we're not “wrong” on purpose.

          • The intent
            First of all, better link (category archive): http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.c

            Second, the point was that a lot of people know just enough to think they know a lot. You're now talking to the guy who was on the UTC from 2000-2005; stood at 6th/Congress with the guy behind the Lance Armstrong Bikeway waving signs to get people to vote for it in 2000; got a preview of the awful 2004 plan with a couple of colleagues before it was released into the wild; had to share a stage with Jim Skaggs, twice, on the “con” side of the 2004 election (I was the one and only person representing the “light rail good, commuter rail bad” silent majority that now is probably wondering what the heck happened to the wink-wink-nudge-nudge promises that we'd get light rail for the center city if we supported awful commuter rail for the burbs). Of course it was a lie all along – the Red Line precludes anything like 2000's LRT line from ever being built, but CM never intends to serve central Austin with rail now, anyways; their priority is now additional useless commuter rail lines.

        • Give us credit for good faith
          Robert,

          I didn't vote for rail in 2000, and again in 2004, in order to relieve my personal downtown traffic problems. Heck, much of my driving is taking kids to soccer practice in the suburbs! I voted for rail because I think that having a rail option improves the quality of life for everybody. A heckuva lot of other central Austinites did the same.

          It's patronizing and insulting when rural voting patterns are “explained” in terms of ignorant yokels. Your comments about life in “the Bubble” are just as patronizing, and just as insulting.

          • The 2004 vote
            The 2004 vote basically kills the one good light rail line we could have built in this city (the alternative one proposed by McCracken/Wynn via the CAMPO TWG and now on the back-burner is so lame in comparison that it shouldn't even be mentioned in the same breath – it's only good in comparison to the impending disaster of the Red Line, and only worth pursuing because it, unlike more commuter rail investment, someday could lead to rail on Guadalupe where everybody who understands jack squat about cities knows it needs to be; but we're talking about a 2050 solution that way, not anything soon).

            Commuter rail, in other words, not only doesn't present a realistic option for most people even along its path (since it requires that shuttle-bus transfer); it prevents the one slam-dunk light rail line from ever being built. The 2000 line is just like what Dallas did; what Houston did; what Portland did; what Minneapolis did; what Denver and Salt Lake did; what Seattle's about to do. Commuter rail is nothing like that; it's like what South Florida did; a disaster in the making that's utterly uncompetitive and noncompelling.

            This was how I spent my 2004, by the way. Even spoke at the ANC. You can tell how well it worked.

      • Rahm McDaniel on

        Oh waa
        Poor center city, already well served by bus and city services, and upwardly mobile to boot, and yet no one will buy you a train. poor things.

        • Jackass
          The center city pays most of Capital Metro's bills, and bus service sucks compared to good trains. Among the few people who might actually benefit from commuter rail are the jerks in Cedar Park who don't even pay any taxes to support the system.

          As for city services in general, the central city is a net donor of tax dollars to the suburban parts of town. Not even close to fair – we get taxed for 2 or 3 times every dollar that's spent here.

  11. At the end of the day…
    I think that rather than asserting Austin has a political “machine,” one could make a far stronger case saying “Austin has more political influentials than most cities.”  These influentials (and I'm using the term in the context of the book by the same name) are active in politics and very knowledgeable.  They make decisions not out of self interest but instead out of what they percieve to be the city's best interest.  Due to the low turnout in municipal elections, these influentials have the power to inform their social networks on the correct choices and ensure their social network turns out to vote in percentages astronomically higher than the population as a whole.

    Is this a net good?  Well, the influentials (unlike most cities) tend to be a rather homogenous bunch.  They're for the most part liberals with similiar worldviews and very similiar goals and ideologies.  Their social networks tend to be cut of similiar cloth, just not as politically active (yet they're 3 of 3 municipal voters, so they do show up).  The good news is, this group DOES tend to best represent those that BOR would support.  If you were a Republican in Austin, you'd have some SERIOUS gripes!  The bad news is, with the current campaign finance laws, it's extraordinarily difficult to wage a media war (the only effective way of launching a voter education effort outside of this “political elite” arena) to try to change people's minds.  With that being said, although it makes candidates like Carole Strayhorn completely unable to win, it does NOT effect races where the elites are split, like the Riley/Perla race.  In that race, ultimately, all things are “essentially” equal, so the one that does the best/most TV WILL win.  

    I'd be interested in what cities are “most similiar models.”  I believe strongly this is NOT Chicago but perhaps would be a city like San Fransisco (I don't know enough to make that kind of judgment).  

    • “Machine” is shorthand
      A purposefully over-stated term.

      But I still stand by that 50 or so people can largely shape a race. That's fine — but I never want to be one of those 50 people. I'd rather hear the discussion and then make a judgment call than be spun or swayed or cajoled into supporting someone.

      I'm not looking for my best career interests on City races. It makes sense for me to play real nice w/ everyone in City Council races, b/c inevitably those are the people I'd work with when doing all my state legislature stuff. And I've probably pissed off someone who, some day, I'm going to want their endorsement and they're going to tell me, “well, you said you hated us in that post that day…”

      Whatever. I don't care, because there's too much of that — too much, “at the end of the day, it's OK b/c we're gonna go have beers at Scholz.”

      Well, no. I mean, yes to the beers at Scholz, but no if you're supporting someone or becoming an apologist for someone just to “win” the race. I don't want people to “win” — I want them to be better. I'm all for playing the game of politics when the outcomes are hugely consequential — when we're talking about someone like Rick Perry or someone like Leticia Van de Putte. But if we're picking between two candidates with largely similar platforms, then I think the game of politics — more often than not — actually hurts the discussion more than it helps it.

      • Response
        Taking your central point, that 50 people can influence a race, I'll stipulate that.  I think that's the nature of politics as a whole in a relatively homogenous group of people.  Influentials do carry more sway than average people.  Winning New Hampshire or Iowa in a presidential primary is largely the same way.  The question becomes two-fold: 1) What is the “price of entry” to become an influential and 2) What are the motives of the influentials?

        1) Price of entry:  In a true machine, the price of entry is patronage.  That means that corruption rules the day.  There are certainly parts of TX where that is the case, but I think we can all agree Austin is NOT one of them.  In Austin, to become an influential you merely have to show up to events and talk with your social network about politics.  Obviously, for most people, they chose not to do this.  Why?  Because they don't have the interest to devote that much time to local politics.  If they ever WANTED to, though, they'd be more than welcomed.  To me, that is an AMAZINGLY accessable and “democratic” system.

        2) Motives:  In a true machine, the motive is greed and self interest.  I reiterate, in Austin the motive is percieved best interest of the city.  There is SHOCKINGLY little corruption in Austin.  It's the least corrupt city I've seen!  The fact that people are content with it proves that most people percieve it's workng.

        Do most “viable” candidates share platforms?  Yup.  That's why Carole will/can never win, she's too far outside of the spectrum to win in Austin.  But there are differences, and the gatekeepers/influentials have the “care” and the experience to way these differences and make decisions based on them.  

        • Price of entry
          The real price of entry here is that you have to not have a real job that requires you to actually be there – meaning that the idle rich (Laura Morrison, some SOS guys) and the idle not-so-rich (Jeff Jack, among others) disproportionately run city politics.

        • Price of entry
          There's plenty of people that want to get involved that just don't have the time. My Mom, for example, wakes up at 5:30am to wake up and commute from NW Austin to the charter school she teaches at for at-risk youth (American Youthworks) off of I-35 and Ben White. She then drives home, getting home around 6pm or so, when she is home for dinner. Until my sister and I left home, she didn't even have an option to go out — and now, after teaching for nearly 15 years to students that are incredibly challenging (yet incredibly important) to teach, it's draining to go out to a meeting.

          Can she choose to engage at a higher level? Of course. But just because she doesn't engage doesn't mean she is lazy or that her voice shouldn't be heard. It has nothing to do with not having the interest, and everything to do with how much bandwidth one has to devote to this kind of stuff.

          • My sad tale of woe
            Get up at 7, drive to the lair of the beast (Westlake); work in office until 5, spend an hour driving home through that awful traffic; take care of family.

            In high-tech, you can engage via blogs, emails, whatever from your desk, and I obviously do. But there's no way in hell I can make a bunch of neighborhood meetings or charettes or commission meetings unless there's some actual responsibility involved (in other words, I can't ask my family to give up more so I can go be one voice subsumed in the mass of 100 Jeff Jack wannabes at my NA).

  12. larger point
    Phillip's analysis is right on.

    Very little that is exciting about Austin elections. Single member districts would help energize neighborhoods and breed activism at all levels.

    Too many people don't feel connected and don't participate in city elections. More local connection would foster more local participation.  More participation leads to a brighter spotlight which usually results in better government.

    You can seriously go read the Statesman from 1995 and read about problems at CapMetro, traffic, single-member districts and impervious cover.  The big issues facing the city have largely gone unfixed for years.

    Even in booming economic times, the City failed to find solutions to the big issues.

    Ultimately, it comes down to more people caring about the process (and the results of the process)and participating. As long as voters allow a small group to control the process…they will, and gladly.

    And I agree that the recycled tv ads are ridiculous. I'm not sure how many times you can use the same b-roll in one media market.

    • Single member districts
      I'm honestly undecided if I support or oppose single member districts.  I see pros/cons and don't know in the end how it would play out.  

      With that being said, most cities that DO have a political machine HAVE single member districts/wards.  Chicago is a prime example.  So, they wouldn't “solve” for that issue.  

      • face it
        If Austin doesn't have a “political machine” it definitely has political machinery that has a methodology for annointing a candidate and making sure they take certain positions, hire certain people, etc.

        I don't recall using the term “solve”, but there is a problem.

        Rather than “machines” in certain parts of town controlling certain seats, Austin has one “machine” in one part of town controlling all seats.

        The cornerstone of Democratic government is that a group of people in a specific area elect a member of their community to represent them in a governing body and carry out their wishes. That is not happening in Austin.

        As for all the altruistic remarks, I think it is entirely possible that some folks see both a way to do what is best for Austin AND a way to make money while doing it. But we shouldn't assume that everyone who is manipulating the process should be set aside because “they want what's best for Austin”.

        Their intent is not pertinent…their action is.

  13. Elites and Responsiveness
    I lived in two other Texas cities before I moved to Austin. Both of them were controlled by smaller and less accountable elites. Both of them had and have single member districts.

    There is no point in complaining about the “Austin gatekeepers.” Every group or organization has its gatekeepers, elected or self-appointed. In Austin, the “gate-keepers” have power because they represent organizations–unions, neighborhood associations, and the like. They are accountable and responsive, not always in ways I agree with, but the process is more open here than is common in cities. Endorsements follow meetings and discussions among members of the endorsing groups. They don't occur in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms among fifty leaders.

    And, you're right: the contests are boring this year.  

  14. katiebellmoore on

    Failing to Play the Game
    Phillip – I really loved this post. I found it insightful and I have also found most of the comments great as well. Let's talk about the machine (in the good sense of the word).

    I don't live inside the city limits and therefore can't vote for mayor. If I had to vote, I don't even know who I would support. Frankly I change my mind daily. What I do know is that Lee has run a great campaign and Brewster has completely underachieved. It frustrates me that a man as smart as Brewster, who has been planning this mayoral run for years, could screw up his chances so badly. Is he really that incompetent? Whether or not the machine is a good thing, Lee was smart enough to use it well and should be commended. It was only less than a year ago that I heard Lee was not sure he was going to run for mayor after his challenging re-election. So what happened to Brewster? How did he mess this up so badly? And do I really want a mayor that can't play the game?

    Maybe I've just answered my question about who I support . . .

  15. BeatrixKiddo on

    More forums with beer helps
    Wells Dunbar and the City Hall Hustle definitely enlivened things last night, which shows that cheap beer can enliven anything, even this boring campaign.

    But what's up with Brewster getting showed by Grandpa?! Where was Linklater when he needed him…?  

  16. EPIC THREAD REACHED
    Congratulations everyone. Took a lot of work, but we had a great discussion.

    I'll try to look through the archives, but this is our first EPIC THREAD (100+ comments) in some time.

    Well done, team.

  17. I would suggest…
    …reading these articles as it does validate a number of things that Dahmus is talking about. I understand some of your frustration with what you see as his “preaching” but for those that have followed the sad story of the rail debate over the years, yes, he is a resource that, yes, probably knows more. That doesn't excuse his stridence and it doesn't excuse y'alls dismissal of his points because of it.

    ANYWAYS.

    But to go back to 2000, here was the “suggested” map and some commentary of where it did indeed pass.

    http://www.lightrailnow.org/fe

    While a majority – 50.6% – of voters within the City of Austin actually voted in favor of Capital Metro's light rail plan on 7 November 2000, the proposal was defeated by an extremely slim margin of about 2000 votes within the service area as a whole. That apparently reflected opposition from some residents in outlying suburban areas, who may in general exhibit less support for mass transit than inner-city residents.

    But throughout the service area, support for light rail was particularly strong along the actual proposed routes. in precincts within a half-mile of the starter system routes, 57.3% voted for light rail, and within a half-mile of the entire 52-mile system, 55.9% voted in favor. That seems to indicate a clear mandate for proceeding with light rail, even if initially within the City of Austin or in a somewhat scaled-down form.

    (Aug 2000) Q&A w/ Karen Rae, general manager of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority

    http://www.lightrailnow.org/fe

    And let's remember that the anti-rail group in the 2000 campaign was called ROAD and let by Jim Skaggs.

    http://www.lightrailnow.org/fe

    And that 4 years later, he fought it again, and sadly, in the last sentence might be right.

    http://www.lightrailnow.org/ne

    Rail opponents, while sour, hinted that they would be continuing their efforts to roadblock rail and transit development. Jim Skaggs, a familiar local leader who fought rail in the ill-fated 2000 referendum as well as in the latest one, groused that “The battle is lost in terms of this particular election. But I don't think the war is lost.” Referring to the 32-mile rail service planned, Skaggs added, “This rail will demonstrate that it is an ineffective use of transportation dollars.”

    • Rahm McDaniel on

      Good post KT
      Look, I realize that people have a lot of frustration and anger over losing that rail election in 2000 and I'm with them. I voted for it and we'd all be better off if it had passed- especially those people who voted against it between Slaughter and Ben White and points South and east, where they were down in the 30's and 40's, respectively.

      However, nobody is arguing with Dahmus except Dahmus, and to present a distinction between the people inside the city limits who voted against  rail in 2000 and the ones outside is the biggest counterfactual of all: Cap Metro is not just Austin, and the fact that Austin as a whole narrowly supported it on the strength of support in the center-city is completely irrelevant.

      Had they involved and engaged enough of the beneficiaries between ben white and slaughter, they would have won. Had they carried more of the precincts that Gore won, they would have won. Had they done better on the east side, the 2000 plan would have passed.

      I don't blame Mike for being bitter, I know he work very hard to pass the thing. But he's arguing with the wrong people, in the wrong way, 9 years too late.

      • If frogs had wings…
        If, if, if. Had frogs wings, they wouldn't bump their ass when they hopped. Had I a jetpack, it wouldn't take me 45 minutes to get back home from Westlake some days.

        None of that is particularly reasonable or relevant, however. You're operating with circular logic: because they lost, they didn't do the right things.

        I can point out that more Floridians attempted to vote for Gore than Bush in 2000, and it's TRUE. There are many discussions where it's relevant (showing voter preference). Doesn't change history, of course. And you can come up with a lot of things to blame there, but it doesn't change the fact that had the ballot in PBC been less confusing, W would have stayed right here.

        If somebody else shows up in your office and claimed that “most Floridians wanted Bush in office”, wouldn't you argue with that? Or “most Americans chose Bush over Gore” when the national popular vote clearly showed otherwise?

        Well, that's what you did here – with your ridiculous implication that “Austin” didn't vote for light rail. “Austin” did. Even though every single card in the deck was stacked against it. And, yes, that matters a hell of a lot when you're making an argument based on how effective the campaign was. How effective would Michael Jordan have been in a basketball game if you'd hotgied him?

        And instead of agreeing with this and saying “what a shame”, you keep on blaming the wrong folks. The campaign here was as effective as it possibly could have been given the conditions under which it was forced to labor.

        Your motivations are unclear, but I've dealt with your type enough times to call disingenuousness when I see it.

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