Austin voters stepped up and pulled City government back from the brink on Tuesday (and in early voting) with a sound trouncing of Prop A, 68% against. Prop A was the petition driven proposition from Save Austin Now to require Austin to have two police officers per 100,000 residents, a costly approach that would have also hobbled the budgetary powers and flexibility of City government.
The No Way on Prop A campaign built the broad coalition that it needed to win. As campaign manager Laura Hernandez Holmes told the Austin Monitor on election night, “No Way on Prop A built one of the largest and most diverse groups in the history of Austin politics.” Anyone who doubts that should check out the list of supporting groups on the campaign website.
Hernandez Holmes added, “Prop A was an irresponsible ballot measure that would have forced Austin to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on the police department by cutting funding from other essential city services.” She also said, “our coalition exposed the truth about Prop A by cutting through the persistent lies from Republican-front group Save Austin Now.” Clearly that message resonated with voters.
The Prop A results were a reverse of the dynamic that put May Prop B, the reinstatement of the camping ban, over the top — although the anti-Prop A vote was 11 percentage points higher than the May vote against Prop B). In May Prop B central city precincts that usually produce large margins for progressive candidates and causes instead either went for Prop B or delivered much smaller margins against. Meanwhile suburban areas delivered large margins in favor of May Prop B, i.e. reinstating the camping ban. This time around the central city delivered huge margins against the Republican driven Prop A. For just one example, the core Hyde Park precinct voted 90% against Prop A with a more than 500 vote margin.
Meanwhile, many precincts west of MoPac (both north and south of the river) voted for Prop A, but not by the margins necessary to overcome the central city totals. Also, in a mirror image of May Prop B, a number of western suburban precincts actually went against Prop A. Meanwhile most Southeast and Northeast Austin precincts voted no in large percentages.
Those who worked on the campaign did the City of Austin a great service; and by City of Austin I mean both the City’s municipal government and Austin as a place to live. As we move beyond the campaign, however, it might be a good idea to keep in mind that this election victory was not some great progressive leap forward. No, this was a staving off of utter disaster. It was the citizens of Austin stepping in to rescue the City Council and more importantly the City government from the Council’s excesses and miscalculations. Specifically I refer to the Council’s Defund the Police vote in the summer of 2020. As covered here before, that vote included the elimination of a year’s worth of cadet classes i.e. training of new police officers. Meanwhile police morale plummeted and officers retired or left the force in higher numbers than normal. That all led to almost 200 vacant police officer positions while a simultaneous violent crime wave hit Austin and other cities. For example more people have been murdered in Austin this year than any year since the police began keeping records some 60 years ago. The City passed that record in September.
The Council’s very self acclaimed defunding vote also led to retaliation from the Governor and State Legislature. The Legislature ultimately passed, and the Governor signed, a bill preventing cities from ever reducing their police budgets without a vote of the people. The bill also contained a number of other draconian punishments for any city judged to have “defunded” their police department. This blow to City sovereignity and budget flexibility landed before the Prop A election and resulted in the Council quietly restoring the funding cuts they had made.
So, the view here is that the Prop A results do not reflect an electoral endorsement of the Council’s original Defund the Police vote, and do not amount to what a Texas Tribune report called, “a tacit endorsement of the city’s new scaled-down approach to policing.”
To be sure, many of those voting against Prop A did support the Council’s vote and support a similar ongoing approach. Those forces clearly did their part to defeat Prop A. There were many other reasons, however, that Austinities voted no. With such a broad coalition assembled to defeat Prop A, there had to be a broad set of rationales for joining. One was the one most stated repeatedly by the No Way on Prop A campaign, the likely budget cuts to non-police General Fund departments that would be necessary to meet the 2.0 requirement in Prop A. Going along with that was the devastating impact on local governance by weakening the budgetary powers of both the City Manager and City Council — and handicapping future budget flexibility. (There are indeed many people in Austin who go that deeply in thinking through their vote.) Then there was the potential of property tax increases to meet the requirement for so many more police officers.
Another likely motivating factor for many Austin voters was stopping the emergence of Republican influence over City policies and ordinances — which began with Save Austin Now’s success in reinstating the camping ban, Prop B in May of this year.
The view here is that the most productive path forward would be for all the elements of the amazingly broad No Way on Prop A coalition to consider goals that they share and how they might best advance toward those goals in a united front. It’s not realistic that the entire coalition could work together on every issue. Still, hopefully people from different groups and varying viewpoints have developed a deeper understanding of each others’ positions and backgrounds and could turn this into progress going forward.
For example there is likely a very high correlation between those who voted against Prop A and those who support police reform — although not necessarily Defund the Police. If those who allied on defeating Prop A could come together on a reform approach going forward, they might be able to be both more effective and craft it in a way less likely to invite state intervention. Among other things, this would require Council Members to refrain from trying to outdo each other in playing to the crowd. And, it would require mayoral leadership. But, hey, all that could happen.
(Photo at top by Adela Mancías)
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