For today’s installment in coverage of the strong mayor proposal I want to return to the approach described in an article on the subject back in July. There, I laid out some principles to guide the Independent’s coverage, writing that “changing the form of government is an extremely consequential and far-reaching endeavor” and that “those seeking the change have an obligation to make their case in a factual and thoughtful way.” I added that those advocating for a change in the form of government “have an obligation to citizens to be thorough, transparent, and to address all questions which arise.”
So, with those principles as a guide, today I examine the website of the pro-strong mayor group Austinites for Progressive Reform (APR). In upcoming installments I will discuss a forum on the subject where both sides made their case and I will report on interviews the Independent did with representatives of both the pro and anti campaigns.
Also, in addition to these principles, I will go through the APR website with one overriding question: how does any particular claim or piece of information result in, or lead to, the conclusion that Austin should switch to a strong mayor aka Mayor-Council form of government? I will try to apply these principles to APR’s website as if I were a voter trying to learn information and decide how to vote. OK, here goes. We will start with the home page.
The APR homepage begins by telling readers, “We are in a new era of voter suppression.” Let’s pause there. That obviously refers to Republican efforts to make voting more difficult in states around the country — including Texas where the legislature is considering what can fairly be called voter suppression bills right now. So APR’s first line seems a true statement although a couple of other thoughts come to mind. First, Travis County has the highest level of voter registration of any county in Texas. That is no accident. In addition to a generally high level of citizen participation in politics, Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar Bruce Elfant, along with hundreds of volunteer deputy registrars, has worked on a myriad of fronts to increase voter registration. Also, County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir and her staff have worked hard and effectively to make voting easier and more efficient — and also as safe as possible during COVID in Travis County. They achieved a fair amount of success with those objectives in last November’s election. So while there are doubtlessly still improvements that can be made, APR is invoking voter suppression in a place that has been pretty good at making it easy for people to vote.
Now, let’s see how APR ties the specter of voter suppression to their arguments for a strong mayor system. The APR website continues, “Barriers to fair elections, like gerrymandering, inequitable voter ID laws, voter purges, and long lines, are on the rise across the country.” Yes, that’s true as we can read in the news everyday, but the reader is still waiting to understand how this leads to the conclusion that Austin should switch to a strong mayor form of government.
That doesn’t get cleared up in the next sentence which reads, “In Texas, our state officials have led this rollback of democracy, imposing burdens on voters that are among the most repressive in the nation.” So now, advocacy for a proposal to change Austin’s form of government has leaped to discussion of state officials who are pushing anti-democratic measures aimed at making it more difficult to vote. So, how does that relate to whether Austin should switch its form of government to strong mayor?
The APR website explains , “We are not powerless. There are steps we can take in Austin to strengthen our democracy and make our voices heard. And, if we are successful, we can inspire other cities across Texas and across the country to follow our example.” So here APR is evidently discussing some of their other proposals, but their most consequential proposal is strong mayor and they have yet to mention it.
APR instead has led us to the possibility of Austinites having the opportunity to “inspire” other cities to make reforms like APR is proposing. That brings us back to those state officials. Even if Austin were able to “inspire” other cities to “follow our example,” that would not overturn any Texas voter suppression laws. That is because such laws would be imposed by the state, and local authorities would not, and do not, have the authority to overturn them. Plus, Austin is not the only locality in Texas fighting back against voter suppression. Harris County for example is being targeted by the state because of its election innovations in 2020.
At this point we have covered half the campaign’s homepage and their signature “reform,” strong mayor, has not even been mentioned. In fact the word mayor has not been mentioned. That still doesn’t happen in the next section, titled, “We can move democracy forward.” There, the strong mayor advocates summarize “Our goal is to amend Austin’s city charter to enact proven campaign finance reforms, election reforms, and governance reforms. By doing so, we will increase political participation, increase voter turnout, and make sure our city works for everybody.”
All right, I know they want to talk about their other propositions, but unquestionably the biggest issue here is the proposed switch to strong mayor and that still has not been mentioned. Maybe that’s what they mean by “governance reforms.”
In the next section, near the bottom of the APR home page, comes the first use of the word “mayor,” although that does not come in reference to a strong mayor system. Instead they tout their proposition to “Elect the mayor in presidential years.” Shortly thereafter they finally mention the strong mayor proposal, but without identifying it as such and without even mentioning the word mayor. Readers, see if you can spot which is the strong mayor item in this list of APR’s proposals.
a. “Elect the mayor in presidential years;”
b. “Move to ranked-choice voting;”
c. “Create a Democracy Dollars program;” or
d. “Let us elect our leaders.”
If you chose d, “Let us elect our leaders,” then you are correct. Under that heading, APR offers this explanation, “Instead of our ‘strong manager’ system, which is a creature of the Jim Crow Era, we can vote for the leader of our government, strengthen district representation, and build on 10-1 to ensure more responsiveness, more accountability, and higher voter turnout.”
There is a lot to unpack there. First, the concept of the City Manager system being a creature of the Jim Crow Era is introduced. We will examine that in more detail in a future installment. APR then goes on to assert that the strong mayor system “would strengthen district representation” and “build on 10-1 (the six year old single member district system).” Once again they do not mention strong mayor or even the word mayor. They instead talk about being able to “vote for the leader of our government.” They do not mention that the “leader of our government” under their proposal would have the power to veto actions of the “district” Council, with a two-thirds majority needed to override.
We’ve now made it to the bottom of the APR homepage. There they offer a choice, an option to “Learn More” about their proposals or to “Read the History” of “A system born of Jim Crow.” We will ultimately discuss both, but for now let’s keep trying to pursue the substance of the actual proposals, and thus hit “Learn More.”
On that page, for the first time we see the term “mayor-council form of government” which is another term for strong mayor. To learn even more the visitor is invited to watch a two minute sketch cartoon. Therein it is emphasized that Austinites do not elect the City Manager and that 65% of cities with populations over 700,000 have the Mayor-Council form of government.
In the video APR again maintains that the change to “mayor-council” is a build on the 10-1 system, but with virtually no explanation. “For Austin it’s just the next logical step after 10-1,” says a female voice over. She continues, “This way the Council is the legislative body and the Mayor is the chief executive. The mayor, elected by the people, performs the duties the City Manager does now. The Council oversees the job of the Mayor through its meetings, committees, commissions, audit power and budget amendments. Both branches are strong, democratically elected and regularly accountable to voters.”
This is the most forthright explanation APR provides on their website of their central proposal. It still, however, leaves out a lot. For instance the video does not mention the veto power that a mayor would have in the proposed “mayor-council form of government.”
So Why the Reluctance to Discuss Strong Mayor?
So why is the APR campaign so reluctant to discuss their signature issue on their website. And, why do they refuse to use the term strong mayor or mention the power of the veto that the mayor would have? Readers may be ahead of me on this one, but I am going to continue anyway.
The basic answer is polling. The strong mayor campaign is run by seasoned political operatives and it shows in their approach. Here’s a summary of what I boiled down as their strategy after reviewing the website and interviewing campaign representatives.
- Use poll tested phrases that are particularly hot right at the moment, especially with Austin progressives;
- Emphasize electing the top executive and not the powers that the new strong mayor would have;
- Stay away from the term strong mayor;
- Reassure people who worry that a strong mayor system will dilute the power of Council in the 10-1 single member district system.
- Run a negative campaign against the City Manager(s) and/or City Managers in general.
Terms and concepts like “voter suppression,” “anti-democratic,” along with “gerrymandering, inequitable voter ID laws, voter purges, and long lines” are in the news right now and are rightly unpopular with many citizens. It is virtually certain that the APR campaign operatives have poll tested all the words and phrases they use repeatedly. Many people want to do whatever they can to fight such policies. Likewise, racial justice is a dominant issue right now and something desired by many Americans, including many Austinites. APR operatives are almost certainly sincere in their desire for racial justice, but are also making a political calculation when they frame their strong mayor initiative as a racial justice issue.
Clearly there are also terms and concepts that do not poll well. That obviously includes the term “strong mayor” and the concept of an Austin mayor having veto power over Council actions. So the campaign stays away from discussing those aspects of its proposal.
Also, among the key bloc of voters that the campaign is pursuing, progressives, the 10-1 system is generally popular. So APR repeatedly maintains that their proposal “builds” on 10-1 rather than weakening it and will “strengthen district representation.” It is difficult to explain, or understand, how a system that exponentially increases the power of the one official elected Citywide will “strengthen district representation.” That is especially the case when that official, the Mayor, would have veto power over Council actions. Also, the Council currently has the power to hire and fire the City Manager i.e. the top executive in City government. Council would lose this power under the APR strong mayor proposal.
Effective campaigns also usually have a negative component in which they attack the opposition or attack concepts that they seek to tie to the opposition. In the APR campaign, City Managers specifically and in general are on the receiving end of negative attacks, including attempts to tie the City Manager system to racial injustice.
We’ll explore this further in our next installments as we talk to people from both sides and further examine the arguments for and against. In the meantime I will leave readers with a couple of questions to ponder:
- Have the advocates for a change in our form of City government met their obligation to make their case in a factual, straightforward and transparent way?
- Does the APR campaign information we have examined so far result in, or lead to, the conclusion that Austin should switch to a strong mayor aka Mayor-Council form of government?
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