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Four Months Before City Election, the Knives Are Already Out

Andy Uhler for KUT News
Austinites for Geographic Representation brought an estimated 30,000 signatures for its 10-1 plan to city Hall yesterday.

“I’m a little bit surprised  that the two primary contagonists here are divulging their strategies before the race is even on .”

So said Mayor Lee Leffingwell at last night’s Austin City Council meeting, debating the merits of competing plans for geographic representation. Judging by the late hour at which the comment came (just half an hour shy of midnight) one can forgive the mayor for coining a new term: contagonists, a seeming mash-up of antagonists, competitors and/or comrades.

But serendipitously enough, that’s a fitting term for the pair Leffingwell was referring to: veteran political consultants Peck Young (there on behalf of Austinites for Geographic Representation’s 10-1 district plan) and David Butts (pushing for the council to propose a “hybrid” scenario – eight single-member districts, with two additional council members and the mayor running at-large).

Young and Butts were just two speakers among hours of testimony last night, before council voted to place AGR’s 10-1 scenario on the ballot this November, and gave preliminary approval to placing the hybrid scenario on the ballot as a competing measure.  But their remarks were a preamble to the debate voters will face this November if they're presented dueling plans.

Beginning by lauding the mayor and council for tackling the issue in the first place, Young – a longtime local politico and director of Austin Community College’s Center for Public Policy & Political Studies –argued citizens looking to change council elections had settled on an answer, “and that answer was 10-1.”

“I can assure you the  Tejano Democrats and the Republican County Executive Committee don’t have very much in common,” Young said. “But they all came to the same conclusion that we need to change our form of government.”

He argued against a hybrid proposal, saying it allowed Central Austin to maintain its current status in elections. “For the last 41 years, since 1971 … we’ve had 55% of the elected officials in this city … elected from an area , four zip codes, representing 10 percent of the population.

“We’ve had single-member districts. Except there’s only been one district – and that was [787]01, 03, 31, and 59. And that’s been the district where the majority of y’all have represented.”

After Young finished speaking and the applause died down, council member Bill Spelman posed a question. Positing that AGR’s 10-1 proposal and the hybrid scenario were both on the ballot, how would Young steer the campaign?

“You’re gonna put us in a position where you’re gonna have the people’s plan versus the politicians’ plan, and it ain’t gonna be pretty,” Young replied.

“You said exactly what I expected you to say,” Spelman countered. “But more importantly, you said what I expect would actually happen if the council did put an 8-2-1 plan on the ballot, and AGR did make the ballot as well.”

As the council is considering ballot language stating that if both measures earn over 50 percent the top vote-getter wins, Spelman argued a rising tide lifted all boats.

“A very large plurality of the Austin public would be happy with either of these two,” he said, “but the only way that any of these two will get more than 50 percent if they’re both on the ballot, is if most of those people decide to vote for both of them. And what you’re going to talk about doing, is going to make it much more difficult for those people who vote for both of them.”

“I don’t agree with you that both of them have to win to win. Only the one that has to win is the one I’m in favor of,” Young said.

 “You guys could continue this over a beer or something, I think,” deadpanned Mayor Leffingwell.

“What I’ve learned about the Austin voter is that they appreciate choice,” said David Butts minutes later. Having worked on nearly every council campaign within recent memory, including all seven current council members’ campaigns, he argued voters “like having choices. And they like getting the opportunity to vote on issues.”

“I’ve heard the other side say that only they should be allowed to be on the ballot,” he continued. (A popular sign at last night’s meeting read “10-1 or Nothing.”) “And all I can say about that is, what are they afraid of?”

A voice from the audience shouted “Not you!”  

“Well, you’ll find out, won’t you – how undemocratic, and very un-Austin that attitude is,” Butts said. “If you don’t think they hybrid system is supported by a very large number of voters in this city, you’re in for a very rude awakening. A very rude awakening, in November.”

Butts went on to counter arguments made by 10-1 supporters, including that an all single-member system would make elections more affordable than a hybrid system.

“Having a single-member district system does not inure you from the effects of having large amounts of cash poured into a district,” Butts said. “This city council, basically, makes decisions that affect, shall we say, the largess … the well-being of certain interests. And they are quite willing to invest in council districts, whether it’s an at-large system, or in a single-member district system. Don’t fool yourself for one minute about that.”

Council member Spelman queried Butts similarly to Young: Positing that Young had “done his scorched-earth thing” attacking the council’s hybrid proposal, how would hybrid supporters react?

“If we basically pull up next to each other and blast away at each other, there’s a chance neither one will win. That’s obvious,” he said.

“If the 10-1 campaign is so confident that they can get a majority of the support in this city then they should basically campaign and sell their product, shall we say. And I’ll be happy to sell our product, and well see who comes out on top.”

 Council has until August to formally set the ballot for the November election – plenty of time for the contagonists to keep crafting their messages. 

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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