All right, here I go again, writing about the District 35 Congressional race and, in particular, candidate and now former Council Member Greg Casar. I realize that some folks may think I’m obsessed or at least wonder why I’m so hard on him. I like to think that the answer to both of those things is that I pay really close attention to City government and local politics.
Like many long time Austin progressives I was really excited about Casar when he first came on the scene. He emerged from the group Workers Defense, which I considered a very important workers rights group, representing workers who often do not get much representation. Also, he was a dynamic, young Hispanic committed to many of the same causes that I have long fought for myself.
As time went by, however, I began to notice several things that bothered me. Those continued to mount and I offer a partial list below.
- He looks out for his own best interests instead of the best interests of the City of Austin;
- He regularly misleads the public, including his potential constituents in District 35;
- He is a rigid ideologue;
- Many of his policies were spectacular failures that ended up leaving the City worse off than it was before, the opposite of what a progressive is supposed to do.
- He’s ignorant of Austin history and doesn’t try to learn it, but instead just wedges it into his ideology.
- I also noticed that, with a few occasional exceptions, local media were not scrutinizing Casar’s record and were often glorifying him. In fact that’s one of the reasons I raise the issue that is the main topic of this article.
I also don’t believe in failing up. And, I believe that’s exactly what will be happening if Casar wins a Congressional seat. I think he’s sincere in his progressive beliefs and has made some progress while on Council. At the same time he has left a series of policy disasters in his wake that also led to significant loss of the City’s sovereignity and tied the hands of future Councils.
I think a better approach would be turn him down in his quest for a Congressional seat, give him time to recognize and think about his mistakes, and the damage he did. Then maybe he can come back with a different approach. He’s young and there’s plenty of time for that.
There are all kinds of examples of that happening. One example is Bill Clinton who lost his first reelection bid as Governor of Arkansas, but recalibrated, won back the governorship and went on to become President of the United States.
OK, I realize that I made some sweeping statements in my summary above, for instance that several of Casar’s policy initiatives were spectacular failures, that he misleads the public and that he is a rigid ideologue. I have written about such instances numerous times before, but since I brought it up again I will include some new examples.
Nobody Got Sick Leave
Let’s begin with Casar’s bio on his City website. There, as we have noted before, he boasts, “‘As a Council Member, Casar championed the paid-sick-days laws that passed in Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas, implementing what the Austin-American Statesman called the ‘most progressive labor policy for the entire state and possibly the American South.’” The only problem with this claim is that no one ever got sick leave as a result.
While the goal was noble in intent, many people on various sides of the issue pointed out at the time that, under Texas law, cities do not have the power to require businesses to provide sick leave. (While discussions between the City’s lawyers and the Council are not made public, it is very likely that those advising that the measure was not legal under Texas law included the City Attorney’s Office.) Casar successfully pushed it through the Council anyway in May 2018. A group of business owners sued and, just as expected and predicted, the Casar ordinance was quickly declared unconstitutional by the 3rd Court of Appeals. That decision was later affirmed by the Texas Supreme Court. Perhaps this was all worth a try, but the reality is that now, almost four years later, not a single person has gotten sick leave as a result of Casar’s initiative.
Nonetheless, Casar kept the above quoted claim about “implementing” sick leave for virtually every worker in Austin on his City website until the day he left the Council. I’m guessing that a few people out there are thinking, come on Daryl, Casar is a busy person and he just didn’t have time to update his City webpage.
That may be the case, but he did find time to cut and paste the exact same language (except for changing the word “championed” to “authored”) onto his Congressional campaign website home page. Once again Casar does not mention that the ordinance he got passed was ruled unconstitutional and that no one ever got sick leave as a result of it. Instead he takes credit for “implementing” the ordinance.
Although no one got sick leave as a result of Casar’s initiative, there was one person who benefitted from the sick leave ordinance. That person was Greg Casar. He got national headlines in progressive publications. For instance the progressive journal The Nation published a story gushingly headlined, “Austin Just Brought Paid Sick Leave to the South; Thanks to a savvy, progressive coalition, Austinites will no longer have to work through heart attacks, flus, and stomach bugs.”
The Nation invoked Casar’s sick leave ordinance in at least two later articles. Both came after courts had thrown out the ordinance, but neither mentioned that. One of those articles was a November 5, 2021 story headlined, “Texas Progressive Greg Casar Is Organizing to Win in 2022.” That article glowingly discusses Casar’s then just announced Congressional campaign and again credits him with “championing an initiative for paid medical and family time off that the Texas Observer identified as the ‘first paid sick leave policy in the South.”’ Note that the Nation article repeats the exact same blurb from Casar’s websites, except it attributes the quote therein to the Texas Observer rather than the American-Statesman. Once again, the article does not point out that no one ever got sick leave as a result.
These puff piece articles probably partly explain how Casar came to the attention of, and won the endorsements of, leading national progressives like Elizabeth Warren, Pramila Jayapal, and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. While I respect each of these folks and often agree with them, I have to wonder if they really know Casar’s record, especially if they learned about it partly from reading The Nation. Also, one has to wonder why these national figures got involved in a Democratic primary race, and picked Casar, when there are two other very progressive Democrats running; State Representative Eddie Rodriguez of Austin and former San Antonio Council Member Rebecca Viagrán.
The fact that Casar features the sick leave blurb so prominently on his campaign website signifies that he isn’t much worried about members of the press calling him to account for this misleading claim, or any other. I guess it’s just another fading tradition, but in olden days the media might at least call out a candidate for misleading or fantastically exaggerated claims in their campaign materials. That’s not happening here.
The Statesman in a recent news story (as well an earlier one) and the San Antonio Express News in their endorsement of Casar both pointed out that Casar’s sick leave ordinance had been thrown out by courts. Neither, however, reported that Casar is still taking credit for “implementing” the ordinance. The Express News cited the sick leave ordinance in its endorsement of Casar and acknowledged that it never went into effect: “These ordinances ultimately failed in the courts, but they reflect his values about the well-being of workers and families,” they explained.
Casar did speak generally about his initiatives getting rolled back in a Statesman piece last week about his Council tenure. That story mentioned:
- the roll back of the sick leave ordinance (as noted above, without mentioning that Casar is still touting the implementation of that ordinance in his campaign);
- the Casar-led repeal of the camping ban which eventually sparked a repeal by voters; followed by a statewide camping ban passed by the Legislature;
- the state anti-defunding law in which the Governor and Legislature forced the City to roll back the budget cuts, and also forbid Austin and other Texas cities with populations over 250,000 from ever cutting their police budgets in the future, without approval from the criminal justice division of the Governor’s office. As further insurance against police budget cuts, a “defunding municipality” would also see its sales tax revenue cut in an amount equal to the cut in the police budget. Additionally, all areas annexed in the last 30 years could vote to disannex from the City.
Addressing those rollbacks Casar told the Statesman, “Part of my strategy is to do as many good things as we can, because they won’t undo all of them.” The sick leave ordinance could perhaps be placed harmlessly in that category. The state action on public camping, however, cost Austin and other Texas cities part of their sovereignity. That is even more the case on police budgeting. Before Casar, Texas cities had freedom and flexibility in setting their police budgets. Now they do not.
In other words the super progressive Casar led Austin and other Texas cities backwards. Backwards is an opposite of progress.
Defunding and Refunding the Police
Fully understanding how Casar prioritizes his personal and political ambitions over the interests of the public requires a retelling of Austin’s Defund the Police saga. We will shorten it here, but for anyone who wants to see the original version click here and scroll down. This episode began with the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis and the resulting nationwide protests, including in Austin. Austin Police — by most accounts (including mine) — overreacted and began shooting “non-lethal” rounds at demonstrators. They hit several people who were just peacefully exercising their right to protest, including a pregnant woman and a young man who sustained a very serious head injury that required surgery.
Shortly after the protests hundreds of protestors signed up to speak virtually to the City Council. Many demanded cuts of at least $100 million to the Austin Police Department’s (APD) $450 million budget, while others trumped that, and demanded as much as $200 million in cuts. Casar, then Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, Council Member Natasha Harper Madison, and then Council Member Jimmy Flannigan championed major cuts. At one point Flannigan enthused that he thought more than $100 million could be cut. The demands from speakers continued throughout the summer as Council deliberated on the entire City budget. City Manager Spencer Cronk said that it was too late in the budget process to make the level of cuts being demanded and instead offered to work with the Council during the year on potentially more changes. When the Manager released his proposed budget in July it fell far short of cutting $100 million, offering only $11.3 million in cuts.
Shortly before the Council was to vote on the budget in August, Harper Madison floated a compromise of sorts. She suggested that the Council only approve the APD budget for six months and continue to work on transforming/reimagining the department during the first six months of the fiscal year. Mayor Steve Adler quickly embraced that strategy and began working with Council Members behind the scenes. Ultimately the Council took the six month approval route and removed $150 million from the APD budget. Only $21 million of that, however, constituted removing money from APD functions and reallocating it to to social and mental health services — which is what the speakers/protestors were demanding. The rest, $130 million, was funding for APD services such as forensics, 911, and the Internal Affairs Division. This money was divided into two “transition” funds. The idea was that during the next six months the Council would look at transferring some current functions of the Police Department to other departments. These functions would have to continue, however — whether in APD or not.
Much of the money for the actual cuts came from eliminating funding for cadet classes/training of new officers for the next year.
Not one to be bothered by niggling details like those above, Casar took to Twitter even as the Council continued deliberating on the rest of the budget. “We won: We did it!!” he tweeted under a picture of himself at a podium with the Austin skyline superimposed behind him, “Austin City Council just reduced APD’s budget by over $100 million and reinvested resources into our community’s safety and well-being. Tens of thousands of you have called, emailed, and testified. You made the impossible into a reality. #blacklivesmatter”
Casar provided slightly more context in a post-vote email, also headlined “We Won” and topped by the same picture of himself. There, he wrote, “The Austin City Council just unanimously passed our bold, transformational budget proposal! We reduced APD’s budget by over $100 million and reinvested the money into much needed public health and community safety funding, and in creating more independent public safety departments separate from APD.”
Although he provided slightly more context in the email, both the text and email claimed that the Council “reduced APD’s budget by over $100 million.” A spate of headlines, including national ones, quickly followed with Casar being credited as the architect of the cuts.
Also moving swiftly was Governor Greg Abbott who tweeted about the cuts almost before Casar’s itchy Twitter finger left the mouse. The Governor vowed that he and the Legislature would reverse the Council’s action and elaborated shortly thereafter with a statement: “Some cities are more focused on political agendas than public safety, Austin’s decision [on the Police budget] puts the brave men and women of the Austin Police Department and their families at greater risk, and paves the way for lawlessness. Public safety is job one, and Austin has abandoned that duty. The legislature will take this issue up next session, but in the meantime, the Texas Department of Public Safety will stand in the gap to protect our capital city.”
The Mayor, other Council Members and the City’s Public Information staff spent the next several days trying to explain to the media, legislators and the public that the Council had really only cut $21 million. In a vivid example of how politicians in America’s political divide play to the extremes on their side, Governor Abbott was more than willing to accept Casar’s original claim of more than $100 million in cuts — while Casar basked in the glory of the headlines sparked by his tweet.
A few months later the Legislature arrived and did just what Abbott had vowed. They passed legislation which forced Austin to restore the budget to at least its previous level and prevented all Texas cities with populations over 250,000 from ever cutting their police budgets without approval of the Governor’s office, as described earlier.
Meanwhile, the “lawlessness” that Abbott warned about was already underway when the Council voted, and got worse afterward. This was not likely a direct result of the Council vote, but it certainly called into question the wisdom of cutting the police budget at that particular moment. And, Austin police were left shorthanded in responding to crime, including a rapid increase in homicides. Homicides increased dramatically in 2020 and in 2021 the City saw more murders than at anytime since APD began keeping records in the 1960s (although not the highest murder rate ever). Casar’s Council District had more murders than any other. According to the Independent’s study of APD data, of the 88 homicides last year, 19 took took place in Casar’s Council District. Casar’s District is one of ten, but 21% of the City’s total homicides took place in his District.
These homicides cannot be attributed to the Casar led cuts to the APD budget, and murders increased in cities across the nation. Due to the budget cuts, however, APD was short handed in responding to them. And, this illustrates the wreckage Casar leaves behind as he tries to use his Council record to vault into Congress.
A big part of the tragedy is that a more deft touch — one less focused on personal publicity — might have succeeded in transferring significant funds from APD to social services without legislative intervention; while still bringing reforms to the Department, and without getting all large Texas cities stripped of the power to ever cut their police budgets. Casar, however, again prioritized personal publicity over lasting policy victories that might actually help people.
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