On the morning after our city’s monumental election, Leadership Austin gathered experts to survey the new landscape and hear their immediate reactions to the election results. Panelists included Deirdre Delisi, Partner, Delisi Communications; Mike Kanin, Publisher, Austin Monitor; and Randi Shade, civic leader and former City Council Member. KXAN anchor Robert Hadlock moderated the discussion and Phil Prazan, also of KXAN, fielded questions from the audience.
Debbie Johnson, chair-elect of Leadership Austin, opened the event by emphasizing that our job as Austin voters is not yet done. At last count, there were eight districts and one mayoral race in run-offs for the Austin City Council. She explained that to encourage voting and further engagement, Leadership Austin is partnering with KLRU, KUT, and the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life to host a series of conversations with the run-off candidates from November 11 – 13. These conversations will explore the leadership values and qualities that each will bring in leading our rapidly changing city that is transitioning to our single member district form of government. Details at LeadershipAustin.org
Some key takeaways from the panelists’ discussion:
1. A lot happened last night. And a lot didn’t.
Delisi quoted today’s Texas Tribune headline, saying the election was ‘a clean sweep with a red broom.’ “It was a tidal wave, unlike anything we’ve seen for Republicans in this state and country since 1994. We will have eight new senators in the Texas Senate. It will be a very different legislature coming in.”
Kanin said that locally, it was something quite different. “We wrote this morning that there was one very clear result (of course on rail) and about eight very unclear results. Taking a very early look at the numbers: about 14,000 people voted in the rail election who neglected to vote in the mayoral election. And I’m sure there will be a lot to be said about that, and what it means, in the next few days.”
Shade heard from many voters who suffered from what she called ‘paralysis.’ “It was so overwhelming to think about 80 candidates on the ballot. So I’m looking forward to how the discussion ensues for the run-offs, where people can be a little more focused.”
2. Urban Rail was decisively voted down. What’s the message there?
Delisi believes it was not as much about property taxes as it was the rail package. “Texans support and embrace transportation solutions…but it takes a long time to convince Texans of the need, not just for more roads, but also rail and multi-modal solutions.”
Kanin pointed out that urban rail supporters would argue that there was indeed a planning process for the rail package, and that it was data-driven. Their struggle, he said, was getting the message across that the proposition was only the first part of a much-larger system.
Shade believes it was certainly about money. “I think people do not have an appetite for adding to their tax bills and this was a very expensive proposal.” She is curious how the new council districts will impact traffic decisions. “For example there wasn’t a lot going on in Northwest Austin (in the rail package) to satisfy those voters, and they turned out and voted. That’s going to be a different dynamic as we see how transportation solutions go forward.”
When asked if rail was put to bed, the panelists were clear.
“I don’t see how they come back from this,” Desili said, “Politically, it wasn’t even close.” Kanin noted that there are still many vocal advocates for the rail plan, but that he didn’t think it would be reasonable to have a new rail proposition in two years.
3. Voter turnout was not what was expected
The panelists explained that turnout in any election starts at the top of the ballot. There was considerable hope that the gubernatorial election would draw voters in to the local races, but it didn’t bring as many voters as expected. In fact, voting decreased as people moved down the ballot.
4. Expectations for the December run-off elections
Delisi explained that generally you see a 50 percent turnout. “For candidates, it allows them to focus. You know who voted, and the best predictor of voting is previous voting.”
The challenge for the candidates will be how to reach the voters with limited campaign resources. Kanin said, “Locally we are seeing an awful lot of money spent. It’s fair to say that we’ve seen unprecedented amounts of dollars in this race. Another six weeks…it’s going to be expensive, especially when you’re trying to reach a targeted set of voters.”
Shade agreed that the mayor’s race has been a more actively funded campaign than we’ve seen in the past. “In the city council races, though, it’s been way less, and I think people have been holding off investing in races because they’ve been waiting to see where the dust settled and who to invest in.”
The panelists all agreed that the run-off elections can go either way. Even if a candidate was down 10 points in the general election, it’s possible for them to make up the difference.
5. The council is more diverse than ever before
Kanin projected that there’s a good possibility that there will be eight female council members coming in. There will certainly be a majority of women council members.
Shade provided some historical perspective. “In 2005 there was still a perception that there was one woman seat, one African American seat, one Hispanic seat. The two big things from this election: We already have certainty that we will have ethnic diversity without a gentleman’s agreement. We also have absolute certainty that there’s no longer the idea of a woman’s seat.”
Kanin pointed out that we should be looking to see if this carries forward. It will all go back to the big questions of, “How long will the interest stay? and “Does the diversity keep up?”
6. Changes to expect on the state level
According to Delisi, the incoming governor’s office will be philosophically and ideologically very similar to what we’ve seen in the past. “Greg Abbott essentially ran on a platform of continuing the policies of Governor Perry. The big difference that people will see with the new crop of both legislators and statewide elected officials coming in is a difference in style. Perry is a “gut player” and Abbott is a “very deliberative person.”
She also predicts a growing period at the capitol as “armies” of new people come in and learn to work with each other. “It’s unfortunate that they get sworn in and immediately go into a legislative session, so it’s trial by fire.”
7. Mayor’s role in new council
Considering that there will be council members who have never legislated, Kanin believes the mayor will need to create a sense of order to make sure things get done. “For the first time in a long time we’re going to have people with very different ideological views. We will need a mayor who can get folks past that and move ahead and do the business of the city.”
Shade shared a personal perspective and drew chuckles from the audience. “I have the great privilege of knowing both Mike Martinez and Steve Adler, and I know their wives. They have absolutely fabulous wives. These are both men who will work very well with a woman-dominated council.”
8. Calls to action:
Deirdre Delisi: “The Legislature is coming to town in January and transportation is on the top of the agenda for almost all the elected leadership, which has never happened before. I’m hopeful we can get something done. But that will only happen if folks who care about transportation…voice their concern.”
Mike Kanin: “If you’re not already deeply engaged in some kind of way with the city, get deeply engaged with the city. I think that the new council is going to be challenged… and they can use all the help they can get.”
Randi Shade: “If you’re somebody who votes, definitely vote in the run-off. And bring five friends who aren’t likely to vote.”
Full Audio of the Event