Prop B passes. Strong mayor crushed. What does this mean?

Everyone I was talking to expected Prop B to pass. The 57-43 result ended up being closer than I expected.

Austin’s political establishment, including most members of City Council, had essentially conceded this race before voters cast their ballots. Sure, Casar and Harper-Madison vocally opposed it and the mayor made a few statements against, but everyone else mostly kept their heads down. The only anti-B group barely raised any money; none of the usual suspects who give to liberal causes opened up their wallets. They all expected it to pass and many supported its passage.

The comments from former Democratic Party Chair Harold Cook reflect what I’ve heard from a lot of others in the Democratic tent, including activists, politicos and regular voters.

And yet…the only strong mandate comes from West Austin…

And yet, one should be wary of reading too much into the results of a low-turnout spring election. For a May referendum, 25% turnout is not bad, but those voting are not at all reflective of the city as a whole. I do not yet have a thorough breakdown of the precinct-level numbers yet, but what the data will invariably show is that those who voted were much whiter, much older, much wealthier and much more concentrated in West Austin than the general population.

Just look at this map:

Map by Eli H. Spencer Heyman. Twitter: @elium2

In fact, east of Mopac, Prop B narrowly failed! It likely also failed in five of the 10 Council districts, but the much heavier turnout in the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city sealed the deal for Prop B.

So while the backlash to the camping situation is definitely a meaningful political force that has activated Austin’s conservative minority and even pissed off a lot of Dems, it’s very likely that Prop B would have failed in a November election.

So…what actually happens now?

I really have no idea. Again, a lot of the camping that has angered people the most is illegal under current rules. They are more a result of the city’s decision, in accordance with CDC guidelines, to not try to move homelessness camps during the pandemic.

It really depends how the city in general, and APD specifically, decide to enforce the rules. Remember, there were homeless people sleeping on the streets before Council lifted the camping ban. What you didn’t see were large encampments with tents.

But in all seriousness, now it’s time to focus on what is actually important: getting people connected with housing. And it’s time for Council to turn up the pressure on City Manager Spencer Cronk and city staff to get the job done. More on that in the coming days…

Strong mayor gets crushed. And some other interesting stuff…

Wow. I knew strong mayor was going down, but not that bad. 86-14. That is brutal. It was going down no matter what, but the biased language Council used to word the initiative helped make it particularly lopsided. Well, that idea is dead for a generation or two.

Mayoral elections go presidential

Woah! I wouldn’t have guessed that Prop D –– moving mayoral elections to presidential election years –– would pass so easily (67-33). In fact, if you had told me that only two of the APR props would pass, I wouldn’t have guessed this one. But nobody spent any time or money opposing it.

The previously scheduled mayoral election in 2022 will go ahead. But whoever wins that will have to stand for election again in 2024 to win a full four-year term.

Aligning mayoral elections with presidential years will likely further marginalize conservatives –– both Republican-style conservatives and land use conservatives who identify as liberals. For the same reason that conservatives enjoy an advantage in low turnout spring elections, progressives benefit from high turnout elections where the electorate is younger, poorer and more racially diverse.

Let me be very clear: I am NOT saying that a preservationist/anti-growth mayoral candidate can’t win in a presidential election year. Most people who vote in a presidential election year do not have a strong position on land use or growth management policies. A well-funded candidate who says all of the right things that most liberals agree with can prevail no matter what their views on land use are.

What I’m saying is that the larger the electorate, the less salient the “defend our neighborhoods” message becomes. This was illustrated in 2018: amidst record-breaking midterm turnout, Laura Morrison got 18% of the vote after running exactly the same type of campaign that had twice won her citywide Council races in May elections.

But again, the mayor still isn’t that important of a figure. He or she is just a Council member with a slightly bigger bully pulpit. So this isn’t necessarily a major change to city politics.

Ranked Choice Voting passes … but it may be a while before it’s a reality

RCV passes 58-42! This is good news and it might eventually become great news. We don’t quite know what the legality of RCV is in Texas. Skeptics point to an opinion issued years ago by then-Secretary of State Henry Cuellar that RCV was not legal under state law. His view was that state law requires runoffs when no candidate wins a majority in the general election and that an “instant runoff” via ranked choice voting does not count.

Some disagree with Cuellar’s interpretation but let’s assume that the courts agree that RCV is not legal unless the legislature amends state law to allow it. Many assume the only way the law changes is if Democrats take over the Lege in the future. That assumption is probably correct, but it’s worth at least seeing whether there is some appetite among Republicans to support ranked choice voting. Runoff elections are just about the worst way to select local leaders and they also cost local governments a lot of money to administer. Beyond a knee-jerk opposition to anything that liberals in Austin propose, it’s not clear that Republicans should be against RCV.

Whether Republicans are willing to allow RCV likely has a lot to do with how they believe it might affect GOP primary elections. Do they believe eliminating runoffs will help the establishment or the MAGA types?

No new Council district

There won’t be a new Council district after Prop G failed 43-57. You’ll recall that Prop G was originally supposed to be part of the strong mayor initiative. The idea was that the strong mayor would not be on Council, and the new Council district would keep an odd number (11) of Council members to avoid the risk of tie votes. However, when the two proposals were split, it seemed likely that strong mayor would fail but the new council district would pass, so that Council would become a 12-member body.

It’s interesting that this one failed. I don’t know if that’s because many voters were sophisticated enough to understand the negative implications of deadlock or because they just didn’t like the idea of adding a new Council member.

The only good thing about 12 members would have been that it would have become easier to get to a ¾ majority to override valid petitions aimed at blocking development (or the land development code). Currently a ¾ majority is 9/11, whereas with 12 it would still be 9/12.

Democracy dollars fails??

I didn’t see this coming. It’s pretty embarrassing how few local leaders stepped up to support a program that aligns with everything they say they support. I think this reflects a pettiness on the part of Council members who didn’t want to support anything associated with APR due to the strong mayor initiative.

Andrew Alison, the wealthy entrepreneur who was the principal donor to APR, said that democracy dollars could be adopted via ordinance by Council. OK, but that would be a bad look coming right off a thumping at the polls. But what a future Council should do is put the measure on the ballot in 2024 when there is a larger electorate that comes much closer to reflecting the city. If there is a decent campaign behind it, it will pass easily. Just like Project Connect passed easily after two failed rail referenda.

Will May elections be a conservative weapon?

The biggest lasting impact of this election may be that it will inspire conservatives to make a habit of using May referenda to annul Council policy, including policy that is much more popular than camping decriminalization. This is definitely something Council should keep in mind when drafting policy. Just consider Prop J –– the attempt by Fred Lewis and other anti-growth activists to require a citywide vote on any new land development code. It got whupped in November of 2018, but it would almost certainly pass in a low turnout May election.

One thought on “Prop B passes. Strong mayor crushed. What does this mean?

  1. Looks like the “mandate” from downtown and SE Austin was pretty strong on Prop B, too.

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