Who is the woman who sings at Austin City Council meetings?
Most Thursdays, around noon, there’s a place in Austin where you can witness democracy at its most crude.
“With that said, it is 12 o’clock,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler is likely to say at City Hall. “We’ll go to citizen communications.”
Ah, citizen communications. It’s a block of time during every Austin City Council meeting where residents can speak for three minutes. While people testifying at council meetings typically can only talk about an item on the council’s agenda, people speaking during citizen communications can talk about anything.
“I would like to bring to your attention the loose dog problem and the lack of attention this problem has received,” one woman said at a meeting in February 2020.
When she left the podium, a man took her place.
“Behind me you'll see stacks of letters from concerned citizens all over Austin about the proposed expansion of the Travis County landfill,” he said. “I hate the fact that I keep having to talk about birds and planes and garbage.”
But sometimes Austin residents abandon spoken testimony, opting instead to serenade their elected officials.
“God bless my underwear, my only spare pair,” a woman has sung during citizen communications on several occasions. “Stand beside me, and guide me, through the rips, the holes and the tears."
This woman’s name is Carol Anne Rose Kennedy.
“But I like to be called just Kennedy, please,” she told KUT.
Kennedy has been singing to Austin’s council members since 2005. But who is she?
'I used to work at IRS.'
Kennedy was born in Austin in the 1950s, the third of nine children.
The family moved to Dallas when she was 1 year old, and she attended an all-girls Catholic school. She was especially close with her younger sister, Suzanne. The two played guitar and sang, often in the family bathroom where the acoustics were supreme.
“We went to the airport and we sang in the bathroom there, [too]” Kennedy said.
She attended college in New Jersey, earning a degree in biology from Rutgers University. She eventually returned to Austin in 1991 and got a job in the bankruptcy division of the Internal Revenue Service.
“I had to ensure what [people] owed to [the] IRS. So, I had to look into all that, including their previous tax returns and their marital status,” she said.
When Kennedy retired in 2005, she wasn’t quite sure what to do next. She debated getting a part-time job but decided she didn’t need the added income. She considered going back to school but decided it was too expensive.
So, she thought, she’d educate herself. She was interested in becoming a better public speaker when she learned that anyone could stand up in front of their local elected officials and the general public and speak at City Council meetings.
“You can say anything you want. Any subject. You can just sit there and stare at them for three whole minutes,” Kennedy said.
This, she decided, would be how she’d practice speaking in front of others.
“I’ve run across so many people — they just freeze when they have to talk at a board meeting or talk at just church,” she said.
In November 2005, she testified at her first City Council meeting.
“Thank y’all for having me,” she said. “It’s my first time. I might mess up. I’ll try not to.”
She went on to recite, not sing, an excerpt from an essay by President John F. Kennedy.
'Fairly pleasant, compared to some'
It’s unclear exactly when Kennedy transitioned to singing at council meetings, but by 2012 she was doing it regularly.
Kennedy said she imagines her three-minute songs as a chance for council members to take a break from the meetings, which can sometimes drag on for more than 12 hours. She said even though she doesn’t demand their attention, she also doesn’t consider her songs a waste of her or elected officials’ time.
“They can go take a potty break or a smoke break. That won’t offend me,” she said. “They get a little intermission.”
But council members typically stay and, at least, pretend to listen.
Lee Leffingwell, who served as Austin’s mayor from 2009 to 2015, described Kennedy this way: “Fairly pleasant, compared to some. And occasionally entertaining.”
But sometimes Kennedy’s idea of entertainment agitated Leffingwell. Several times during his tenure she attempted to throw yellow roses to the City Council members, but Leffingwell wouldn’t allow it.
“I think she [has] a unique way of telling power brokers, or people who perceived themselves to be in power, don’t take yourselves too seriously."
“No, you can’t throw roses in here. You can’t throw anything in here, matter of fact,” he told her at a meeting in 2012.
When she tried again, he persisted: “I’m telling you, don’t throw those things.”
When Kennedy got in front of the microphone, she told Leffingwell she was upset with him, but then quickly began her rendition of Take Me Out to the Ball Game.
"Take me out to the ocean," she sang. "Take me out to the sea."
Kennedy has tried to throw various other objects at council meetings, including confetti and cigarettes. One time she blew bubbles, upsetting a man who asked her to move so she would stop getting bubbles on his suit.
“So, I stood up and went to the back where there weren’t any people. Plenty of space [for bubbles],” Kennedy recalled, giggling.
While some may see Kennedy's antics as a distraction, others view her whimsy as a welcome reminder to the bureaucrats sitting in front of her.
“I think she [has] a unique way of telling power brokers, or people who perceived themselves to be in power, don’t take yourselves too seriously,” former City Council Member Ora Houston said.
'Always remember I'll love you.'
In 2014, Kennedy ran for City Council, but lost to now-Council Member Ann Kitchen.
Three years later, doctors diagnosed Kennedy with thyroid cancer, and she needed to have her thyroid removed. The surgery, she was told, posed the small risk that she could lose her voice or have trouble swallowing solid food.
“That wasn’t as scary as me losing my voice,” Kennedy said. “I’ll find tapioca pudding or … ice cream."
Fortunately, there were no lasting effects on her voice from the surgery. She returned to Austin City Council meetings in December 2017. Dressed in pink pants, a patterned black shirt and a cowboy hat, she celebrated her return with a rendition of White Christmas.
Since 2005, Kennedy has sung about immigration, domestic violence, her underwear. She even has a song about her time working for the federal government.
“I used to work at IRS, among the best who served,” she sings. “And then my boss said, ‘Kennedy, you’re getting on my nerve.’”
Her lyrics are provocative and at times challenging, comical or upsetting. But there is one song she wrote, a song she’s never sung at a council meeting, that may be none of these things.
When Kennedy graduated from high school she went to California for the summer to volunteer. As a parting gift for her sister, Suzanne, she wrote a goodbye song.
When asked to sing it, Kennedy bows her head toward her knees and puts her hands over her ears. It looks like she’s bracing for impact. Instead, she’s trying to find the song in her head.
“Isn’t it fun to be — oh God,” she sings, faltering. A false start.
She pauses, waiting for the song to find her.
“Tomorrow morning I’ll sit up in bed and look to the pillow where you lay your head,” she sings. “I’ll turn on the radio to our favorite song. Suzanne, I’m with you, but I won’t be for long.
“I must go my way and you must go yours. But always remember I’ll love you, for sure.”
She finishes, giggling.