Austin moves toward a new and modern style of progressivism, but not without civic aches and pains

The creation of council districts was a big first step in shedding old progressivism in pursuit of a more modern definition. As building blocks and binding agents, the invisible architects of urban life are districts, and they are key to avoiding anti-democratic governance

"Be The Change," urges an East Austin street mural
Photo: Nermin Judson

If the slow death of the term liberal, the “L word,” and it’s replacement by the more broad-shouldered “P word” of progressive, has a seminal moment, it probably was in 2016. This was during the debate among Democratic primary candidates in which former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton first sought the nation’s top job.

 “How would you define the word ‘liberal’ and would you use this word to describe yourself?” asked the moderator.

Clinton responded that the word has been “turned up on its head,” and “made to seem as though it is a word that describes big government.” She said she’d rather call herself a “modern progressive.”

And thus was sealed the confusion, deepening ever since. And the ambiguity is not a bad metaphor for Austin’s primary socio-political dilemma.

Austin’s identity as “weird,” a blue and liberal label, has long been all but tattooed on the city’s civic skin. It’s the hometown of Whole Foods for goodness sake. We not only claim Matthew McConaughey as Austin’s, but we also own the iconic “alright alright alright” moment in his breakout role in the 1993 movie Dazed and Confused — not to mention the film’s director Richard Linklater.

From its suite of globally branded festivals to one of America’s hippest downtowns — at least before the pandemic — Austin is unquestionably liberal. But is the city progressive?

Liberalism and progressivism are often conflated, perhaps right before “universal health care” and “communism” appear in the same sentence. Progressivism is associated with liberal politics because it refers to reform. But as these two terms have merged into synonyms, it is only by breaking them apart once again that we can truly understand the dynamics of the Texas capital.

Some quick civics:

It is easier to hear when fewer are shouting

Among the most basic functions of American government is representation. Leaders at every level are chosen by voters based on how they will represent the needs, preferences, and gripes of their constituency. Every few years, TV viewers are treated to myriad messages from candidates who promise to deliver what constituents really need by changing something or other about how politics are done at the Capitol in Washington, the state house, or City Hall.

Representation can be more coherent and direct with homogeneous or smaller constituencies. It is easier to hear with fewer voices shouting. At the local level, representation is even more accessible with districts. When districts are drawn poorly, without regard to communities of interest in terms of race, socioeconomic status, or neighborhood boundaries, they bring to mind 19th Century politician Elbridge Gerry’s salamander shaped district that gave us the term “gerrymander.” Even worse examples abound. The daft colonial carving of Africa’s national borders without consideration of the nations and people residing there is just one dramatic monument among many to bad boundaries.

Elbridge Gerry’s (pronounced “Gary”) salamander district
in 1812 Massachusetts
Source: Wikimedia Commons

For districts, or the lack of them, or those with haphazard boundaries, inelegant in thought and design, are the invisible architects of urban life. They organize politics, and the agenda of governance reflects that organization.

Back in Austin, districts of a sort were first created in the 19th century, only to disappear early in the 20th. Values from the so-called “Progressive Era” shaped the government of Austin in the 1920s, when the original system of a council run by aldermen and split into small districts called wards was reorganized. From 1839-1909, the city was divided into (at most) 10 wards, with (at most) 2 alderman each. In 1909, the city altered its system to commission government, with the mayor and five commissioners who were also heads of the city’s administrative departments. Finally, these systems gave way to an at-large council with an election in 1924. At its outset, there were four at-large councilors and the mayor. Over the next 90-something years, the council grew to six at-large members and the mayor, all chosen in nonpartisan elections. 1924 was also the beginning of executive decision-making vested in a professional city manager. But this was “progressive” in an earlier, narrower sense that really focused more on political hygiene than it did on the holistic health and of the political system and broad participation in it – the conceptual foundation of today’s notion of the term.

A Progressive Era policymaker tells The People,
“You are a great big ignoramus!” How “progressive”
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Progressive Era’s thinly veiled hypocrisy for the lower classes and racial minorities is well appraised in Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 novel and critique of changing city culture,  Babbitt: “You’re so earnest about morality that I hate to think how essentially you must be underneath.”

Reforms of the early 20th century targeted urban corruption endemic to cities of the era and took shots at the political boss mayors who encouraged bribes, patronage, and ran corrupt systems. Reformers sought good governance and pushed for these changes to make cities run more efficiently and business-like. (Another appropriate Babbitt passage, “What we need is a business administration!”) Unfortunately the downsides to the progressive reforms were overrepresentation (and active participation) of business interests and underrepresentation of communities of color and the working class. Which is a pretty good summary of Austin’s politics for most of the 20th century — classically progressive and outwardly liberal.

Austin experienced all facets of this representation style, and its electoral system outstayed its welcome. Well past the Civil Rights Movement, the at-large council stuck around, and it wasn’t reformed until the new system of district councilors was inaugurated in January 2015. This was the first council elected by new rules that voters approved in 2012 with the 10-1 plan that ended the at-large system by dividing the city into ten districts, each represented by a single council member. The “1” is the mayor, who is still elected at-large.

The binding agent of local democracy – districts

District voting as a term hardly inspires passion. It resonates onerous urban planning jargon of zoning, building codes or water and sewer services. All-important, but behind the scenes. Districts, however, can have strong effects on representation. They are in fact the binding agent of local democracy, ensuring that diverse voices and interests are not overrun. In particular, they are the firewall against majoritarian muzzling of minorities, and dominance of boosterish policies created by business interests who bend the ear of a small at-large council and inordinately benefit.

The arguments for Austin’s districts were on increasing representation for the city’s populations with varying interests, some long-ignored. Much of the attention on historically underrepresented groups is rightly on communities of color who were systematically shut out of the political process to perpetuate White supremacy. But in terms of representation on council, conservatives were underrepresented as well. Austin’s elections are nonpartisan, but until 2014 almost all of the city councilors elected in at least the last 30 years were registered Democrats. With the inauguration of the new council in 2015 came three Republicans: Don Zimmerman in District 6, Ellen Troxclair in District 8, and Sheri Gallo in District 10. While 2020 incumbent council members are all registered Democrats, districting allows for representation for the conservative minority as well.

In a sense, the differences in representation style between districts and at-large councils can be compared to the national House of Representatives and Senate. The House, with its 435 members, each elected to serve a single district within a state, differs from the 100-member Senate, two senators per state regardless of population. As the apocryphal story goes, as architects of a new nation, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were discussing the merits of a bicameral legislature. Washington told Jefferson the point of a Senate was to serve as a cooling saucer for legislation. By design, districted representatives are more representative of their immediate constituencies, and at-large representatives serve as a “senatorial saucer,” creating cooler policy that is less subject to the whims of the public.

All local legislatures in the United States are unicameral, although bicameral legislatures were relatively common in the 19th Century and included Philadelphia’s, which at its peak had 149 members in its “Common Council” and a 12-member “Select Council” designed to be akin to Washington’s cooling saucer. The last U.S. city to abandon a bicameral city council was Everett, Mass., which did so only in 2014.

But the spirit of bicameralism is captured in at-large elections, including those conducted until recently by Austin. At-large systems resemble not only the Senate’s structure, but its tendency to create “cooler” policy. The at-large council, like the Senate, previously elected the city’s mayor from its ranks. Before 1913 and the passage of the 17th Amendment, senators were appointed by state legislatures, not elected. Whereas Austin’s at-large system favored the less-representative Senate model, its current districted council looks more like the House. Like representatives, councilors in districted systems must represent the entire city — or at least that’s the hope. But their chief constituencies are in a single part of town. Districts are the means of making the city council more representative to voters, and their importance cannot be overstated.

Political scientists Jessica Trounstine and Melody E. Valdini found in 2008 that districts are most important for descriptive representation for minorities concentrated in geographic areas, and that they have most benefited Black communities in American cities.

With demographic shifts, areas that remain centers for communities of color are more successful in electing a representative from the group, because they can garner a majority of votes in lieu of depending on a sympathetic White majority. Peck Young, retired Austin Community College professor and director of the ACC’s Center for Public Policy and Political Studies, advocated for expanding representation in the city through districts, and was a major proponent of the change since the first attempt in 1973, which he spearheaded. In a 2014 New York Times article, he argued that even after the demise of de jure segregation, people concentrate together, predominantly by ethnicity and socioeconomic class, and these groups deserve, but often lack, representation.

 “At-large elections were created by people who didn’t want others to have a say,” he said. Implicit in supporters’ defense of districting was an expectation that the council’s policy agenda would expand to include the preferences and interests of long-neglected parts of Austin.

Systems like the 10-1 are arranged by communities of interest and reflect real places, like Tarrytown or South Austin, instead of nonsensical stretches and shapes often found in congressional districts, again bringing to mind Elbridge Gerry’s infamous salamander. In debates over redistricting, the terms “cracking” and “packing” are used for methods of gerrymandering.

Cracking disperses a minority group into several districts to ensure the minority stays that way and can’t elect a representative. An example of a cracked district is Texas 21st, one of six districts in the Austin area. It connects the suburbs of San Antonio to Austin through a large rural region, which helped Republican Rep. Chip Roy beat back a challenge from liberal icon and former state lawmaker, Democrat Wendy Davis, in 2020.

TX-21 “cracks” Austin and all-but guarantees Republican victory for the district in Congress
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Packing crams a minority into a single district to guarantee one representative in the area, surrounded by districts with an even smaller number of minority votes. Georgia 5th, previously represented by the recently departed Rep. John Lewis, is an example of packing. District 1, Austin’s lone heavily African American city council district represented by the only Black councilor, is not technically packed, as its borders cover a community of interest. Representing the district’s constituency is more straightforward, making the agenda more diverse.

How Austin’s governance became more diverse at 2014

But all that said, reform to equitable representation does not always equate to a more progressive policy agenda, or even a more progressive council. In the November 2014 district election, Latinx representation increased to 30 percent from the 17 percent representation by the single Latinx at-large councilor. Black representation decreased from one of six to one of ten, though District 1 remains representative for Austin’s Black community. There remains a single Black councilor, Natasha Harper Madison, who represents 10 percent of the council. Other reflections of this shift to a more equitable representation model across the board since 2014 include conservative activist (Don Zimmerman from District 6 in the Northeast), the youngest (Greg Casar, representing District 4 in the city’s East side, he was elected at 25), the first Latina (Delia Garza of South Austin’s District 2), and the first openly gay councilor (Jimmy  Flannigan, who won District 6 from Zimmerman in 2018) were all elected. At face value, the council became more representative in a variety of ways following 2014; geographically, ideologically, racially, in age and sexual orientation. Not to mention, Steve Adler is the second Jewish mayor in the city’s history. The descriptive representation in nearly all facets has increased since 2014, but it remains to be seen if this will lead to lasting policy representation, too.

Districts may have changed the face of representation in Austin, but did they change the face of policy? One way to measure diversity in representation is in debate. In the session immediately following the adoption of 10-1, there was much less unanimity in votes taken by council. The presence of nay votes signals disagreement in council, which means more variation in the issues each council prioritizes. Before the 10-1, the probability of a nay vote on civil rights, education, immigration, social welfare, defense, and technology policy was zero. Afterwards, the only policy areas with zero probability of a nay vote were agriculture and defense. At the local level, agricultural and defense policy typically look like local urban farms and food policy, or intergovernmental relations for local military bases and veterans’ hospitals. These policy areas are small proportions of the total agenda and seldom generate dissent. More nay votes on education and social welfare policy signal more debate and disagreement, which is good for expanding representation in general.

How council votes might indicate diversity, but nays are not as explicit as policy. City governments make policy on the administration of local government institutions; it must zone land for residential, commercial, or industrial use, and of course, structure the city’s amenities and services. The issues local government contends with are relatively set. But, in the years following the 10-1, the council’s agenda became more diverse in substance, particularly in 2015 and 2016, the district council’s first two years.

In 2016, the most diverse year for the council’s policy agenda, policy in a wide variety of areas, which includes the rest of the entire agenda, including economics and local business, energy, education and transportation, took up more space than usual. While a lot of the council’s agenda is consumed by housing policy, the council has pivoted in a new direction. Since 2015, the council has contended with rapid increases in housing costs, the specter of homelessness, and an effort to modernize another aging Progressive Era institution, the city’s land development through a plan known as Code Next. Far from focusing on the minutiae of housing in piecemeal policy output, the council has tried to modernize the rest of the city along with it. There has been a clear shift in the substance of policy so far, but whether the shift has long-term effects remains to be seen.

What it means to be progressive has evolved in the last century. Motivations were once for good governance through installation of at-large city councils and city managers, are now for an expanded democracy through representation for the minorities who were historically excluded by “progressivism” for nearly a century. Austin’s adherence to its Progressive Era reforms long outlasted their direct influence. The vote creating council districts was a big first step in shedding old progressivism in pursuit of a more modern definition. As building blocks, the invisible architects of urban life, districts are the key to avoiding nonsensical and anti-democratic governance.

Yes, the reforms of 10-1 have been nice. Politics have become more “small d” democratic, and there are indications that the city’s policy output became more diverse after the 10-1 council took office. But, there is plenty of room for the government to grow into a 21st century version of a progressive city. The overlapping crises that have characterized the year 2020 may force a growth spurt with police reform, COVID-19 recovery or the myriad response to the disparities laid bare by the disease’s ravages.

Out of the chaos, the city government has the opportunity to leave behind its progressive paradox and embrace a new progressive era.

Tomorrow: Progressive Era 2.0 – Part V of VI. Austin now has the opportunity to harness the momentum for reforms toward good governance, social justice, and equity. A viral pandemic, its subsequent economic fallout, and the Black Lives Matter uprising following the police killing of unarmed George Floyd, have all forced the power of local government into the spotlight. Can the Austin City Council rise to the occasion?

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