Election 2020: How disease, inequality and Democratic indifference played out in Austin

The Democrats had high hopes of painting Texas blue in the November elections, but a lack of engagement with communities struggling with COVID-19 and racial and economic inequality scuttled their chances, a panel of community organizers says

Synthesized below are brief clips from each participant in our discussion, which was originally recorded on Dec. 11, 2020. Also included are some of the highlights from the three contributors, who spoke to Urbānitūs Associate Editor Robert Brehm.

Democrats harbored hopes of taking Texas for the first time since Jimmy Carter won in 1976, but they failed to make a breakthrough, with Democratic Senate candidate MJ Hagar actually finishing 10 points behind presidential candidate Joe Biden. In the state legislature, too, Democrat hopes of flipping a number of seats came to naught. As the dust settles on the election, the governorship, the Texas Senate and the Texas House of Representatives all remain solidly red. 

This roundtable, however, is no typical post-election analysis in which participants pore over maps of red and blue. Instead, our contributors discuss how people in some of Austin’s more precarious communities feel about the elections, the future of transit, health care priorities and the city’s progressive paradox against the backdrop of enduring challenges like inequality and a worldwide pandemic.  

The full roundtable video is available here

‘The way to get past the progressive paradox is to represent everyone in Austin, such as communities that were purposely excluded by the city government over time’

Brooke Shannon – PhD Candidate in Political Science and Government at UT Austin

…In terms of Austin, it was not a question of not enough people turning out to vote or that some voted for Biden but also [Republican Senator John] Cornyn and a Republican for the House of Representatives; rather, the issue was really just about gerrymandering. 

…Surprise isn’t the word I would use about the House of Representatives vote but rather disappointment, particularly around Austin. But there was some hope at the local level, so it was a bit of a dual-edged sword.

…Beforehand, all the talk was about the suburbs and the educated white women who were going to betray the Republican Party and come out in full force for Biden. But then after the election, all the talk was about the Mexican Americans in the Rio Grande Valley and why they underperformed for Biden.

…[In terms of attracting support], it’s so much about issues and talking to working people about education, health care and jobs. 

…Latinos are often compared to African Americans in terms of voter turnout. And while Latinos have, by and large, the Catholic Church, there is less of a tradition of organizing according to the social gospel as in Black churches, so it’s easier for Republicans to co-opt single-issue voters.

…When we’re talking about kids and education, the levels of inequity are extremely clear. We’ve seen pictures from Austin and New York with students sitting next to the dumpster behind a McDonald’s with their laptops and textbooks, doing their homework.

…There’s a growing conflict regarding the government in Austin, as the city council is way too small for the city. For most of the 20th century, there were just four or six counselors governing hundreds of thousands of people. It’s just unresponsive.

…When crises like COVID-19 appear, it initially seems smart to give all power to a small number of people or one person in a strong mayoral system. But in reality, things work better when there are representatives from large swaths of the community who actually have power in government. The way to get past the progressive paradox is to represent everyone in Austin, such as communities that were purposely excluded by the city government over time.

…It seems like it would be very easy to implement a universal Wi-Fi smart city model in Austin, so why hasn’t it happened?

‘If Texas is going to become Democrat, more resources have to be brought to communities of color, the grassroots and low-income communities’

Susana Almanza – East Austin Activist and Founder of PODER

…I thought there was a lot of voting voter suppression from the beginning and that the Republican administration had been leading up to this particular point with all the different laws and policies that it instituted that weren’t there before. 

…I think that the Democratic Party has done a very poor job [with grassroots]. It has a long-standing history of inequities and racism itself and not supporting Latinos, or even past African American candidates who have not enjoyed their fair share of resources.

…A lot of the time, real basic issues in the communities, like housing, access to health care, food security, economics and education, aren’t being discussed, especially at the state level or by the Democrats. 

..If we’re really going to change Texas into a Democratic state, more resources have to be brought to communities of color, the grassroots and low-income communities. It has to happen from the bottom up, and not from the top down. 

…Latinos represent 35 percent of the Austin population, but Latinos account for 35 percent of city hospitalization rates, 46 percent of the COVID cases and 48 percent of the deaths. 

…We have to talk about the digital divide. At the beginning, everybody was having to get on the phone to do their homework; and because a lot of people were on the family plan, students didn’t have all the data that they needed to do their homework. Later, we found out that 70 percent of [Austin Independent School District] students were failing because we can’t expect parents who have had limited education to be assisting their children [academically]. 

…With the vaccine, there’s another big inequity issue. I understand completely that health workers should get it first. But the zip codes and neighborhoods that have the highest COVID rates should be the next in line to get the vaccine.

…During the onset of COVID, the libraries and the recreation centers, where you have free internet access, were all closed down, locking out all those people who didn’t otherwise have internet access.

…When you have professional people that are not talking with people at the grassroots, they aren’t creating solutions. If they don’t understand what’s really happening on the ground, then you get more COVID cases and more deaths.

…The city of Austin put together money and installed free Wi-Fi in three parks, all in West Austin. But what they need to do is look at the census data, see where there’s COVID-19 and provide free Wi-Fi for those communities. How do we make sure that low-income and people of color are connected and that they know how to navigate the internet amid the continuing digital divide?

…They not only removed low-income, working-class people who would use transit [from the East Riverside corridor], but also all people of color. The people who are now living there are people that have choice: They can either jump in their car or take the bus – but they rarely do the latter. 

…Project Connect was a devastation for many communities of color.

…We need to have people who will look at equity and justice on the Transit Partnership Committee. They need to make sure that affordable apartments remain for 99 years and that more low-income and affordable housing is constructed along the corridor, since people that live there are the real transit riders.

‘With Project Connect, the people who need transit the most are not central to the plans’ 

Carmen Llanes Pulido – Community Organizer and Executive Director of Go Austin/Vamos Austin

…The Supreme Court’s move to gut enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, combined with piecemeal voter suppression efforts over time, has had a culminating effect. 

…I was pleasantly surprised that the election passed peacefully. I was scared beforehand. 

…Grassroots efforts absolutely need to be funded and supported if there’s to be any hope for progressive reform in southern states.

…I don’t think [overly progressive] slogans are as harmful as a lack of engagement with voters on real economic issues. Racial justice has to be realized in this country through a movement that is not inhibited in any way. Progressive progress won’t be inhibited if regular working people are engaged about the issues that they truly care about. 

..In Austin, there is a real divide between the people who are conscious of the need for police reform and justice and the progressive transportation advocates who aren’t seeing or feeling the pain around the policing issue.

…In Texas, things don’t resonate until you start talking with people about real-life issues, like health care and basic needs in schools. In terms of political momentum, grassroots groups that are in a relationship with regular folks have to be where the rubber meets the road.

..There was a lot of proactive recruitment of Latino voters in South Texas and border areas for Trump and Republicans – often on the single issue of abortion and often through religious networks. Especially older members of the family, for whom English is not a first language, relied on people they trust to tell them who they should vote for. Furthermore, there is an entrepreneurial spirit among people who have assimilated what it means to be successful in corporate America. We can’t underestimate the influence of those things [in vote patterns]. 

…Folks in places like Dove Springs are rich in community. But because of so many factors, such as people having to double or triple up in housing and having no choice but to go to work … the Covid-19 exposure and the hospitalization rates have been some of the highest [in Austin]. 

…[Covid-19] is devastating people; it’s taking family members – sometimes multiple family members – and creating new chronic health issues. And then there’s the economic toll. Still, it’s been incredibly inspiring to watch people take care of each other where our systems fail and to see how a connected and stable community with long-time neighbors is the most resilient community. 

…In terms of Austin’s growth and development, the issue of how capital is invested is prominent in the inherent inequities highlighted by large plans and developments. The financing mechanism in the city of Austin has pitted core values against each other. 

…Things like Proposition A require existing residents to pay a lot for the people who are moving here, as well as an expanded tax base. One way to expand the tax base is to kick out people who don’t make enough money and bring in high-income earners. That’s what the tech boom has done. 

…With Project Connect, the people who need transit the most are not central to the plans.It’s not that working-class people of color are against transit, it’s that their neighborhoods aren’t slated to be improved for 10 to 20 years.  

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