Austin's Political Players Look to Gain Seats on New City Council
This article was co-produced as part of an ongoing City Hall reporting partnership between the Austin Monitor and KUT. Listen to the audio story broadcast on KUT in the player below.
With single-member districts soon to become a reality, Austin City Council candidates are already lining up to crowd what promises to be a very full November ballot. Austin's political insiders and outsiders alike are trying to get a handle on an election that promises to shape the city for years to come.
Roger Borgelt is vice chairman of the Travis County Republican Party. He also served as co-chair of the Austinites for Geographic Representation – the group responsible for getting 10-1 on the ballot. He says that he is excited about the promise of more localized, neighborhood representation, as well as the possibility of conservatives (or at least fiscal conservatives) taking some of the 11 open City Council seats.
“My best guess right now is that three of the districts look very competitive for us. I would say Districts 6, 8 and 10 look like they would be competitive districts for a conservative candidate. It remains to be seen whether these candidates will actually call themselves 'Republican',” says Borgelt. “They may or may not see it as favorable to identify themselves as Republican in their campaign literature. We'll just see how that works out.”
That would mark a big change in Austin's city politics. Borgelt estimates that it's been three or four decades since anyone calling themselves a conservative – or even a moderate -- was elected.
“It's been a long, long time,” said Borgelt. “We've, frankly, tended to stay out of it, because we just understand what the voting demographics are in the city of Austin.”
But this year, the party isn't “staying out of it.” Borgelt says he is hearing from candidates from all over the city, and there is a huge interest in running. “I would not be surprised if we have 10 candidates or more running in most or all of these districts.”
Because all of the members of City Council, including the mayor, will be elected this upcoming November, this would put the list of candidates at well over 100, if Borgelt's prediction is accurate.
Travis County Democratic Party Communications Director Joe Deshotel agrees with Borgelt's opinion that there could be as many as three conservative City Council members elected in November, but says that the Travis County Democrats are determined to make sure that Austin continues to be a progressive city.
Deshotel explained that with an at-large system, with a voting population in Travis County that is about 65 percent Democratic, the party was able to get six or seven progressive candidates on the City Council. But with 10-1, less-progressive parts of the city are getting their representation with everyone else.
“What we will probably not see any more (on Council) are unanimous votes for things that we feel are progressive, like marriage equality,” said Deshotel. “That will probably change.”
In another departure, the group is considering doing party endorsements of candidates for the first time, in an effort to help guide a larger pool of voters in a larger group of candidates that may include less-familiar names than in years past. Because, at the same time they approved the switch that will increase Council members, Austin voters also approved a change that will move the race from the sparsely-attended May election to the much more popular November election.
One would think that this shake-up would be a prime opportunity for those sidelined in the past. But the change is hardly enough for Travis County Libertarian Party Treasurer Arthur DiBianca.
“Ideally, maybe we wouldn't have a city government,” said DiBianca. “To be kind of cynical, my attitude is that instead of paying the salaries of seven City Council members and their staff, now we're paying 11,” said DiBianca. “So that's a 50 percent increase in that.”
Thus far, the Travis County Libertarians have steered clear of the issue. They have, instead, focused their efforts on partisan races. DiBianca notes that it's hard to get the party name “out there,” and even harder to do in non-partisan races. He predicts that City Council meetings could get a lot more entertaining in the future – with members more likely to fight in public – but expects that deals will be struck behind closed doors. In the end, DiBianca says he doesn't expect the change to make things a lot better or a lot worse.
This sentiment is shared by Peter Cooper, treasurer and writer for the Challenger Street Newspaper,which is a paper written and distributed by the homeless in Austin. Cooper notes that the potential power base for his community is located in Austin's downtown district, which may have been overlooked in the districting process.
“Amidst all of those condos are people living in the streets,” says Cooper, who calls the downtown district the most “polarized in the city.” He hopes that a progressive candidate could emerge victorious, but has his doubts.
“Even the most progressive City Council people voted to kick everyone off the steps at the end of Occupy Austin,” said Cooper. “Hopefully we'll end up with some allies in there, but I don't think we have any illusions about where the interests of the City Council as a whole lie.”
Like other groups, the Austin branch of the Sierra Club stayed out of the debate over single-member districts. Now that it's in place, the Sierra Club’s Roy Waley says it's a “great opportunity,” and notes that there is no section of the city that the environment doesn't touch. He sees the change as an opportunity to learn what neighborhoods who have formerly been left out want them to work on.
“I think most people expect for the old central boxes to continue to have an environmental flavor and be environmentally friendly. I don't think many people are aware of how many people are just as concerned about the environment in, say, Circle C,” said Waley. He points to the Halloween Flood, where those impacted pointed to global warming, and city development policy as causes in the aftermath.
“The people that were wiped out and flooded out of their homes understood this was because of too much pavement, too much concrete, too much impervious cover, and in the wrong places,” said Waley. “Environmental justice is always social justice.”
Waley points to industrial pollution in East Austin, floods in South Austin, dumps in North Austin, traffic in Southwest Austin, and land use throughout the city – all of which are environmentally issues even though “people may not identify them as environmental issues.”
Though he worries that the shallow pool of volunteers that tends to work on federal, state and local elections will be stretched thin by a convergence of all of these elections in November, he offers a measured take.
“You don't have to win all of them. You just have to win enough to build a coalition,” said Waley.
Stewart Snider, co-president of the Austin League of Women Voters, shares Waley's excitement. He hopes the change will bring a new type of candidate to Austin, one that is closer to the people they represent. And though he expressed concerns about the possibility of ward politics emerging in Austin, he hopes that by encouraging district representation that takes the whole city into account and continuing to educate voters and candidates, single-member districts will be a dream realized, if not an instant fix to everything that people have criticized about city government in the past.
“We want to see this new City Council get off on the right foot. We think that we are going to be creating a culture here that will resonate through future City Councils,” said Snider. “Not only managing change, but managing expectations is, I think, important.”