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Lack of Connections & Savvy Block Some Would-Be Candidates in Council Races

Early voting starts Monday for the runoff election for Austin City Council Place Three.
Photo by KUT News
Early voting starts Monday for the runoff election for Austin City Council Place Three.

Now that the ballot is set for Austin City Council elections, we've got a clear picture of what the races will look like heading into November. Seventy-eight candidates will be featured on the ballot. Though that may seem like a crowded field overall, some districts have as many as 12 candidates, while other districts could only have a few candidates.

That kind of disparity has some asking whether the new, for-the-people-by-the-people ethos of the 10-1 system can help political neophytes overcome the hurdles and trappings of political campaigns.

Sherri Greenberg can tell you why some people choose to run and why some choose not to. Greenberg is fascinated by the research done in this area.
So fascinated, in fact, that she gets giddy when she talks about this book she's reading right now. The title of which is “Born to Run: Origins of the Political Career” by Ronald Key Gaddy.

Greenberg is a UT professor and the Director of the Center for Politics and Governance at UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs who teaches a campaign class every other year. She says people who run for office have diverse personalities. So, personality is not a barrier – there have always been shy candidates and outgoing candidates. But Greenberg notes there are certain things a candidate has to be willing to do. For instance 

"To run, you have to be willing to open up your life and the lives of those around you to public scrutiny,” Greenberg says.

Those who are not willing could very well serve as political advisors or community activists but never as candidates.

At a café in District 9, Ben Burroughs says he’s really excited about the election. His friends are too and, for a while, they day dreamed about running, but none of them committed to it. They were discouraged from throwing their hats in the ring because two of the three candidates for their district are well-known current council members – Council Members Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley.

"I don't think you can be un-known, enter a race and then win just by, you know?” asks Burroughs. “No matter how much character or personality or background you have, I think if you are already somewhat established, [that] is really the first step to getting elected."

District 9 is also one of Austin's wealthier districts and that was another turn off for Burroughs.

"I think it's a matter of access, familiarity, money and who knows who,” he says.

Burroughs and his friends still want to make an impact in their district but felt like theirs would be the underdog campaign.

Sometimes, the barriers are personal.

Jackie Goodman is a former council member. She served for 12 years and has remained politically active. Now, she's a substitute teacher. Goodman lives in District 2 in South East Austin.

"My precinct is supposed to be a Hispanic opportunity ‘district,’” she says.

During her years in council and throughout her activism, Goodman arrived at the notion that geographic representation was the way to go. So, now that geographic representation is here, many of Goodman's friends urged her to run. Their argument was that she was had experience – and many other candidates do not.

"But, I was uncomfortable with the ‘Hispanic opportunity,’” she says. “Although I feel like I know the folks in my district, I'm definitely not Hispanic and I thought it was an opportunity I would give someone else without my being a pressure there."

Other would-be candidates have expressed similar reasons for not running. They decided to support a friends' race – for instance – instead of running their own. For others, the whole aspect of organizing a political campaign – as grass-roots as the races for council will be – while still holding a full-time job – was too overwhelming. The LBJ School’s Sherri Greenberg says, she is hopeful because in this election cycle, at least one of the most common obstacles was overcome by many: the gender bias. Historically women tend to be absent candidates. But this time around, 22 women are running for council while two more are running for mayor.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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