Weird, blue and ever so hip… Austin has yet to grapple with its own unique Progressive Paradox

It’s important not to forget that Austin’s reputation was built by contrasting its policies and atmosphere with other Texan cities: the petrochemical and oil economy of Houston, the finance centers of Dallas, the military and Latinx cultural centers of San Antonio and El Paso

Aerial photo of the UT campus and surrounding area
Photo: Austin History Center

Call it Austin’s  “Progressive Paradox.”

The blue dot in the red state. The vegan island in BBQ country. The city of scooters in a land of trucks. But as a pandemic-struck nation wrestles with defining a new age of progressivism, a deeper paradox for Austin is the city’s century-old struggle with the ideologies behind the term.

We often today think of the term “progressive” in its narrow, contemporary sense, of a “Green New Deal,” the Occupy Movement, or more recently, the Black Lives Matter protests ignited amid long-accumulating racist tinder by the police killing of George Floyd in May. But progressivism as a set of ideas and a movement is far older than “The Squad” or “Feel the Bern.” It’s a deep strain in America’s politics, particularly its urban politics, going back to the late 19th century. And while Austin embraced some parts of the first Progressive Era of “good governance” and machine-free politics of the early 20th century, it didn’t move on from the tenets of classical progressivism until 2015. In that year, after decades of trying, the city at last adopted district voting to give Black and Latinx voters a real stake in the system.

So, it’s now an open question whether Austin will fully embrace the new concept of progressivism defined by historical reckoning with racial injustice, an equitable economy, and environmentalism that includes human habitat – an imperative made only more urgent by a pandemic. Political attitudes, allegiances, and social consciousness are central to the new brand of progressivism. But often overlooked, particularly in local governance, is the math that’s involved, the structure of apportioning representation and counting votes fair but also equitably.

One route to a true and 21st century progressivism might well be with a so-called “strong mayor” system, one that for example would have allowed more immediate action to reexamine – or even reimagine – the police department last summer. Instead, a contentious city council vote to make modest cuts and review further reorganization next year, did little more than ignite an ugly campaign of scare tactics stoking fears of “defunding” the police. And a system adding to mayoral power is likely to before Austin voters in the near future. Whether it will lead a city more progressive in today’s sense, well that will sure be part of the debate.

Which begs the question: Are we not already a liberal and progressive city?

Austin’s reputation as a “weird” city is a point of pride. But it’s important to remember that it was built by contrasting its policies and atmosphere with other Texas cities: the petrochemical and oil economy of Houston, the finance centers of Dallas, the military and Latinx cultural centers of San Antonio and El Paso. The weirdness of Austin does not have progressive roots. “Austin’s liberalism is a liberalism yoked to whiteness,” wrote Andrew Busch in his seminal 2017 book on Austin’s modern political history, City in Garden – Environmental Transformations and Racial Justice in Twentieth Century Austin, Texas.

Austin’s weirdness is reflected in its musical history and affordability as a smaller university town, not the policy output of its local government.

The unfinished work of the original progressive movement

Like the reforms supported by progressive reformers in the 19th century, there’s much more to be done for Austin to become a truly progressive city. The Progressive Era of American politics may have ended by the 1920s, but its reforms still structure many cities in 2020. Reformers of the period sought what they called “good governance” and liberation from the political machines that ran local governments at the time. Political bosses like E.H. “Boss” Crump, Mayor of Memphis for 40 years, who paid poll taxes for Black voters, ran government as a fiefdom, and used patronage to court cotton traders to maintain his rule. The stereotypical local bosses of the Chicago and New York political systems wielded power over city services and budgets, using exploitation of immigrants’ votes, manipulation of the working classes using mafia connections, and the raucous politics of Tammany Hall and its “Boss Tweed.”

The politics of machines and political bosses are what reformers of the Progressive Era sought to change. But the cities most influenced were to the South and West, typically incorporated later than cities in the East. Austin is typical of the era’s reform cities. Its city government adopted a new charter in 1928 that enshrined the main reforms of the day, including nonpartisan elections, a weak mayor/city manager system, and the system of at-large city councilors which had been adopted four years earlier. With the exception of the at-large council that lasted decades, the Progressive Era reforms still shape the city’s political structure.

Reformers of the era sought to progress city governance across the country from corrupt systems run by political bosses through patronage for their allies. In this sense, reforming electoral structure to at-large councils and creating city manager positions to handle much of the city’s executive needs were quite progressive in their aims. In order to represent interests of the entire city, reformers argued for taking power out of the hands of one and spreading it out to resemble a nonpartisan bureaucracy. However, we know that these goals fell short from the get-go; the interests of a few were prioritized still. Business leaders and chambers of commerce had the ear of council instead of large swaths of their constituency, and that system continued for nearly a century. Another glaring omission, like the other social movement of the time, the women’s movement for suffrage, the flaws are too large to ignore in hindsight, particularly in the omission of “good governance” for people of color.

An artist’s aerial conception of Austin, 1888
Photo: Austin History Center

Austin has always been a little different than other Texan cities. Many cities are organic, they begin and grow around natural harbors or from access to fertile soil or other essential resources. Galveston and Houston were founded on the natural bays and channels from the Gulf of Mexico, and San Antonio urbanized from its history as a strategic military and cultural center and way station on the route to Mexico.

Austin’s proximity to the Colorado River was the early draw of European settlement. Today, Lake Austin lies just above picturesque Lady Bird Lake and provides water for the area. It sits atop the Trinity-Edwards aquifer, and gives much of the outdoorsy appeal of today’s Austin – particularly with the chain of lakes backing up behind: Travis, LBJ, Marble Falls, Inks and Buchanan. But, the original draw of European settlers to what is now Austin wasn’t for navigation or commerce. The site was chosen to become the capital of Texas. A small group of W

White settlers set up a village called Waterloo on this Tonkawa, Comanche, and Lipan land for about a decade, renamed it Austin as the capital city of the new Republic of Texas in 1839. After a brief set of “interim” capital cities, Austin remained the capital following statehood in 1846.

The early city’s government system was common for the 19th century. Split into wards, areas smaller than today’s districts, were typically drawn by neighborhood and bounded by major streets. The ward-aldermanic system was replaced in most cities by at-large systems by the mid-20th century, especially West of the Mississippi. Aldermen continue to represent Chicago, which today has 50. Early Austin was much smaller in area and population than today’s dynamic urban center, its original eight wards fit inside of what is today’s downtown. Still, its residents required representation. Wards were represented by alderman; at the height of the ward-aldermanic system in the 1870s, Austin had 10.

The early city’s electoral system was reformed much more frequently than the slower pace we’ve become used to a century later. The creation of the 10-1 system consisting of 10 council districts and an at-large mayor, for example, came only after repeated reform attempts from the 1950s onward. By contrast, the early Austin reforms followed fads common throughout the country – and at a brisk pace of structural change. Commission government was chosen in 1909, which started in Galveston following the devastating hurricane that killed more than 6,000 people and destroyed what was once “the grandest city in Texas.” Out of necessity, the government there created the commission system to govern the town as it reconstructed itself from the rubble. In a commission council, each representative is also head of a local agency. This system was short-lived in Austin, and gave way to the Progressive Era’s at-large city council system in 1924.

The regressive legacy of Austin’s 1920s embrace of the Progressive Era

But the 1920s brought Austin something else. Today, the City Plan of 1928 is remembered only for its segregating the city, a legacy that still haunts Austin. Black Austinites were mandated to the East side of the city, past East Ave (now I-35).

Cover of the infamous 1928 City Plan
Photo: City of Austin

 “Prior to 1928 African Americans, those who were formerly enslaved, lived in communities all over Austin,” said University of Texas at Austin Professor Eric Tang in a recent presentation called Pursuing Racial Justice Amid Gentrification in Austin. “These were called the ‘freedman communities,’ neighborhoods like Clarksville and Wheatville. They are all former freedman communities and they were located in Central and West Austin.”

These original neighborhoods would be unrecognizable to their modern inhabitants, as the same neighborhoods today would surely be unrecognizable to the first residents who were forced to move in an ugly chapter of local history.

For the council of the day, the “problem” of segregation was one that couldn’t be solved by zoning laws on the books because of recent court rulings. So, the new plan incorporated de jure segregation in a novel way: legal separation of the city’s minorities to other neighborhoods entirely, where they were promised “separate but equal” facilities in housing, sidewalks, schools, and parks. The plan recommended, “that the negro [sic] schools in this area be provided with ample and adequate play ground [sic] space and facilities similar to the white schools of this city.” The promises of course, never came true. There were segregated facilities, including schools, recreation centers, many of which still stand on the East side. The problem then was the problem in every segregated city; the facilities, when built, were unequal. As far as the sidewalks and streetlights, well, try to take a walk in these old neighborhoods after dark today and you can see for yourself, that those promises were never kept.

And it was the structure of Austin’s governance, in fact, that allowed this system to endure for decades. For in a completely at-large city council, each candidate must garner a simple majority of the whole city’s votes to win. The first at-large council consisted of 4 councilors and the mayor, who was elected by the council itself. In the 1960s, Austin’s at-large council grew from four to six members plus mayor to accommodate the city’s size and shortly thereafter, popular election of the mayor was chosen. By the early 2000s the council was outpaced by dramatic population growth. In today’s districted terms, half of all city councilors and 80 percent of mayors during the at-large era were from four zip codes on the city’s west side, an area making up less than 20 percent of the city’s area and 10 percent of its population. Though created in pursuit of “good governance,” the system in reality perpetuated imbalanced representation leaving out a majority of the city, including its communities of color and the less well-off.

Today’s system of 10 councilors from districts plus a mayor elected at-large, was approved by voters in 2012 and promoted as the means to expand democracy in the city for historically underrepresented groups, like people of color and the working class, enabling them to elect councilors sympathetic to the distinct needs of different communities. This felt like such a departure from the at-large system because there was very little minority representation for most of the city’s history. What little representation the East side got came from the now infamous “Gentlemen’s Agreement” dating to the 1970s that guaranteed a seat for Black and Latinx communities on the council, but ensured the representation would remain a safe minority, winning a necessary majority to affect policy change was improbable. 

An informal contract, the agreement was ironically the kind of back room deal that Progressive Era reformers were trying to remove from the politics. Its beginnings are found in 1951, when a Black man, Arthur DeWitty, president of the local NAACP chapter, nearly won. The next year, “seats” were created. The councilors were still elected at-large by voters across the city, but candidates ran for one of the open numbered seats and needed a simple majority of the city’s voters to win. This was a successful attempt to preclude people of color from running, much less winning, representation on council. The city council successfully stayed White, barring any people of color for two decades.

Austin, “The Friendly City,” was only “friendly” for White folks
Photo: Austin History Center

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s changed politics, and not just nationally. The 1965 Voting Rights Act ensured Black communities could be heard in elections, and shortly after, in 1971, Berl Handcox became the first African American city councilor elected in Austin since Reconstruction. A civil rights activist and school principal, Handcox worked to improve life on the city’s East side for communities of color, including what became known as the “Handcox Paving Policy,” which paved roads and built gutters and curbs for long-neglected neighborhoods. The seat system was modernized to allow for a single councilor from African American and Latinx communities – each had a single seat, but never a council majority. The agreement proved difficult to break, and until the 2012 vote to embrace district elections, the only seats held by African American and Latinx councilors were those reserved and ultimately beholden to the White majority.

When Austin caught the progressive ‘caboose’ a century late

Austin’s city council experienced a modern reform to its city council structure beginning in 2015, to a new progressive council. The last city of its size in America to incorporate district representation, Austin’s legislative reform came late. Influenced by national trends and internal demands from residents for over 40 years, the city “caught the caboose” of this new progressive reform movement. Many cities have chosen to adopt a hybrid system, including district representation with a small number of at-large councilors to maintain the holistic view of city politics, to provide a check on the potentially myopic interests if councilors were to legislate solely from the voices of their district constituents, instead of weighing these concerns with the larger city’s interest. The first district referendum was in 1973, following several others on local government structure, including expanding the council’s size from four to six and electing the mayor directly instead of an institutional election choosing the mayor from among the city councilors themselves. Selecting the mayor from the elected council was another Progressive Era reform, one of the first to be repealed in 1973 in favor of expanded democracy.

Reforms to the local electoral system in Austin have largely followed progressive trends. The definition of “progressive” has changed over time, however. The early city’s electoral system met the needs of the era, for a much smaller population and a much much smaller electorate. After all, in the 19th century, neither women nor people of color could vote. The electorate served was White men. White women won the vote in 1919, but people of color wouldn’t be truly enfranchised until 1965. The politics of the at-large council, established in 1924, reflect that reality. Today’s definition of progressivism seeks to expand representation for the groups who were omitted for so long. The seeds of this new progressivism may have been planted in the 1960s with the policy wins of the Civil Rights movement, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 inclusion of the Fair Housing Act. While civil rights protections were enshrined into federal law in the 1960s, general acceptance of redistribution and representation for previously unrepresented and subjugated groups have been slower. The new progressivism of the 21st century incorporates equity and representation to the Progressive Era’s reforms in pursuing good governance.

The 10-1 districting plan was step one in bringing Austin into the new progressive era, but there is more to be done. For Austin to live up to its “weird” reputation of standing apart from other Texas cities, its government should grapple with 21st century progressivism. Districting the council was immediately successful in expanding spatial representation throughout the city, but its lasting legacy remains to be seen. If the consequences from districting are not strong enough on representation, the council itself could be expanded. Instead of expanding individual power elsewhere, in a strong mayor system or in further delegating political power to the city manager, increasing the number of districts and councilors to make a more parliamentary system of the local legislature, could ensure the issues affecting minorities throughout town are heard.

Without a progressive architecture of local democracy, Austin’s  “Progressive Paradox” will linger.

Tomorrow: Part II of VI: The “Passive Progressivism”of Austin City Council explores Austin’s city government throughout the 21st century. While the creative class flocked to town on the heels of investment into research at the University of Texas at Austin,  residents on the city’s East side remained out of sight and out of mind for the city council.


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