And in conclusion, here’s how we might seal Austin’s progressivism with a ‘city parliament’

Looking to the country and world, Austin’s city council has room to grow. New York’s council has 51 members, Chicago’s 50, Paris 163. While these cities are much larger than Austin, each of their city MPs represents fewer people than each of Austin’s 10 councilors

“Voyage to Soulsville” reads the mural at East Austin’s George Washington Carver Memorial Library
Photo: John Fisher, 1986, via Wikimedia Commons

Austin’s progressivism might be compared to the agave americana, better known in its native Texas as the “century plant” for the decades between each bloom of its flowers. For if the seeds of the city’s civic culture were planted in the first Progressive Era of the 1920s, the full bloom of democratic representation came only in 2015 with the second movement by that name as the city held its first fully democratic local elections.

Not that the work is finished. But if the first movement’s reforms ushered in majoritarianism in accordance with the era’s good governance ideals, the district system known as 10-1, approved by voters in 2012, was in many ways the local beginning of a new progressive era that extends equitable representation to historically excluded groups.

But it is only a beginning. The 10-1 system does not have to be the last stop in reforming our institutions. Fixing our gaze to the horizon, major cities like New York and Paris can serve as inspiration and aspiration for a truly expanded council. Put succinctly, why stop at ten districts?

To say that 2020 has been tumultuous scarcely suffices. The pandemic and resulting struggles faced nationally and internationally have magnified problems that have long-plagued Austin. Accelerated by economic anxiety, indignation at the failure of leaders at all levels managing the viral spread, and outrage over yet another unarmed Black person’s life taken by the police, this time on camera for the world to see, the city marched and demanded change.

The year has highlighted much in Austin’s Progressive Paradox which runs through the city’s history. The quandary has evolved and modified into our present. But now, it’s a matter of urgency for Austinites to decide just how this urban enigma will shape our future. For Austin’s Progressive Paradox also presents the occasion to become a truly progressive city – the prospect is the contrasting Austin Opportunity.

Look up, not down! Ribbon celebrating the founding of the Progressive Party in 1912
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The reforms of old school progressivism characterizing the city’s government are now a century old. They were aimed at political machines that had remarkable staying power. And the reforms birthed a structure that, while efficient and at least superficially civic-minded, also used favors, nepotism, and sometimes even violence to maintain the power structure. Austin’s local government invested heavily in the first Progressive Era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And a critical byproduct was that the city council remained at-large, essentially vesting the richest precincts with ultimate control. For 90 years. The civic backdrop adopted in the process also included  nonpartisan elections and an appointed city manager to handle most of the administrative and day-to-day business in what is known as a “weak mayor” system.

One Progressive Era reformer in San Francisco said that the purpose of nonpartisan government was, “to unite decent voters,” to keep the government out of politics. The benefits of these reforms were in removing incentives for corruption. The downsides included its inherent racism and classism. The majoritarian at-large system, by removing parties, gave dramatic advantage to the incumbents. As a byproduct, it also allowed a Whites-run system that outstayed its welcome. The maintenance of a system reflecting White supremacy was the point, at least implicitly.

The introduction of districts to Austin politics, however bland the step may seem, aimed to improve the representation for parts of town that had been excluded from city politics. Namely, Black and Latinx communities on the East side. After 90 years, reforming the city council was a shock of sorts to the system. Or was intended to be. But if this shock to the electoral system was not the game-changer its advocates envisioned, what could further a more progressive shift in policy and outcomes on the ground and in citizens’ lives?

Institutions are famously “sticky” in their resistance to change. So perhaps more progressive reforms are needed for Austin’s government to enter a new Progressive Era in the 21st century. 

‘A crisis is a terrible thing to waste’

A crisis external to the government or something unexpected — like, say, a global pandemic — can increase the intensity and speed of policy change. These brief and extreme moments of policy punctuations, are formed by stick/slip friction akin to earthquakes. In order to meet the moment, city governments across the country have an opportunity to try something new through policy. The system that brought districts and greater democracy to Austin can continue the trajectory.

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” said Nobel laureate Paul Romer in a comment echoed by many others. And Romer is right.

Council expansion would be an indirect response to the pandemic. But it’s worthy of debate as a result of shifting perspectives on people’s needs throughout the city that were fast evolving even before our world became one of masks and Zoom. Gentrification, homelessness, affordability, the deep divides of segregation, and chasms in health and education between Austin’s East and West sides have been growing in public awareness. Expanding the council would not end the father-knows-best interventions by state or federal lawmakers into city policies. Nor would it resolve the fiscal woes that will certainly continue beyond the pandemic. However, a bigger city council in a parliamentary style would increase its sphere of influence, increase the number of voices and perspectives, and potentially increase the council’s responsiveness to its citizenry.

As I’ve argued throughout this series, the definition of “progressive” evolved over the 20th century. The Austin Paradox is part of this evolution. Early on, it meant “good governance.” Today, it means fundamentally democratic and representative governance. And “progressive” means much more than that more tired word, “liberal.”

Progressive radio journalist David Sirota noted that many progressives today are also liberals, but there is a fundamental difference between the two ideas. “[Progressives] are those who focus on using government power to make large institutions play by a set of rules.” 

Prior to 2015 the at-large council held de facto segregation in place through its “gentlemen’s agreement,” a tacit handshake dating to the 1970s that ensured minority representation for the city’s communities of color — but with the effective veto of the White majority. Even decades after the country had moved on from de jure segregation and overtly racist institutions in the 1960s, the de facto gentlemen’s agreement structure was never altered. From the 1970s onward there were four decades that effectively allocated two of six “seats”to Black and Latinx representatives, subject to at-large ratification.

This was what changed with the reforms approved in 2012 that went into practice in 2015. Not only did the reforms offer more opportunity for participation by people of color, it also created opportunity for more conservative participation — which is “progressive” if not exactly “liberal.”

Throughout the week, I’ve used our city as an example, applying academic arguments for a more progressive city government. I’ve been hard on the city’s government, and also on our shared history as Americans. The Progressive Era’s limitations loom large in hindsight, and it’s hardly the only chapter in American history that is underwritten by racism. Progressive reformers of the early 20th century did achieve their aim to curtail the excesses and corruption of political machines, especially for cities in the South and West. Bringing it closer to home, I believe Austin is positioned to embrace its weird liberal reputation as the blue dot amidst a sea of red. The city government can further its reforms started by the 10-1 and fully invest in progressivism rooted in representation and equity. 

21st century progressivism should hang onto the positives while working to reverse the path dependence of racism baked into the marble cake of government. In a city known for progressive politics, making the case for continuing in the spirit of the 10-1 would be embraced by the people. Expanding the city council by creating more districts and increasing the number of councilors would deepen the city’s commitment to representation for historically excluded groups.

Why stop at 10 council members?

There are currently 96,425 residents in Austin for each city councilor. In 2010, with the population of that year divided by six, each at-large councilor represented 126,281 individuals. Districting increased the council’s size from six to 10, certainly making city government more accessible by increasing the density of each council member’s constituency. So why stop there?

Looking to the country and world, Austin’s city council has room to grow. New York’s council has 51 members, Chicago’s 50. Both of these cities are much larger than Austin, but each member represents fewer people than Austin’s 10 councilors. 

New York City Council can serve as an example of an expanded congressional or parliamentary model for city councils across the country. Its 51 members represent districts throughout the five boroughs, and much of its policymaking outside of council votes, budget negotiations, and oversight of city bureaucratic agencies, is done by committee — much as in Congress.

In New York City Council, committees specialize on distinct and varied issues facing the city, such as aging, economic development, and transportation. To ensure representation for racial, religious, and queer communities, the council created specialized caucuses for its members with shared concerns, similar to the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, and the Hunger Caucus. Incorporating committees and caucuses into a larger council engaged with voters in new ways will make the city more accountable.

European city councils look more like municipal parliaments. Madrid has 57 councilors, Vienna 100, and Paris 163. The Municipal Council of Istanbul has 312 members, representing a population of 15.5 million. Expanding democracy redistributes power, encourages more debate and more deliberation. The Parisian municipal council’s electoral system is very different from Austin’s (obviously). It is parliamentary, voters choose between political parties in a proportional representation system, and there are seven different parties represented in council, ranging from the more conservative Republican party to the Communist Party of France. Recent local elections re-elected Mayor Anne Hidalgo, a socialist who helped to form coalitions between socialists and Greens in council, vowing to “make Paris more ecological, social, and humanist.” In ways echoing Austin’s fights with “senior” levels of government, Hidalgo has also often faced off with France’s President Emmanuel Macron over refugee protections, immigrant rights and environmental policy. Hidalgo herself is the first immigrant to become the mayor of Paris.

Through coalition building in Paris, a larger number of interests represented on council implies more meaningful representation of the different constituencies throughout the city. Austin’s ten council districts will be redrawn following the 2020 Census. The Independent Citizens Redistricting Council (ICRC) was formed after the 2012 election when voters chose the 10-1 reform. The 2012 proposition called for “the election of council members from ten geographical single-member districts,” so increasing the number of districts would certainly require another referendum. That referendum could incorporate the work of the next ICRC.

There are other suggestions to continue reforming local government to better serve the people. A strong mayor proposition could be on the ballot in the next few years. To capture the spirit of 21st Century progressivism, in representing a growing and increasingly diverse city, Austinites should continue refining the rules.

The 10-1 should not be “the end of local history” in reform, but the jumping off point. Expanding the council to represent more historically excluded groups would not only make policy more representative to constituents, but would ensure a 21st century progressivism that values equity, effective policy, and social justice. 

Austin’s progressivism can be less like the “century tree” and more like that other Texas native, the quercus virginiana. Better known as the “live oak,” it’s a plant that produces leaves throughout the seasons and is always green.

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