State of the City part 5: Political Climate

In part 5 of State of the City, Shelley Seale takes a look at Austin’s political climate.

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With our city growing and changing around us, we take a closer look at the issues shaping Austin today.

From its bygone hippie era and even way before that, Austin has always been a politically charged town. Neighborhood groups, historic coalitions and environmental organizations mobilized by the dozens in the 1970s. today the city is widely regarded as more progressive than the rest of Texas, often leading the charge in the top political issues of the day. Being the State Capital, this is perhaps not surprising.

“It often feels easier to stage a political demonstration or event in Austin than in the rest of the state,” says Heather Busby, Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, the nonpartisan political arm of the pro-choice movement in the state. “It seems like there’s some sort of political demonstration going on almost every other week. That’s not to say that the larger Texas cities, like Houston and Dallas, don’t have significant populations of activists. But until fairly recently, Austin had been smaller and more compact, while those other cities are spread out, with traffic, transportation and distance being barriers to participation.”

Busby sees this changing, however. “I’ve noticed a political awakening around the state. As the demographics and political ideology of the state start to shift more and more, I’m seeing groups become more vocal and active in their communities outside of demonstrations in Austin.”

Activist Austin Adams agrees. “The main difference between Austin and other Texas cities is the size and demographics of our urban core versus that of our suburbs. Cities like Dallas, Houston and San Antonio have large suburbs, which skew pretty conservative politically, while Austin’s suburbs are significantly smaller and mixed demographically. How this will change as our suburbs grow over the years remains to be seen, but for now they are growing quickly and trending blue.”

Like Givens, Adams also cites the new 10-1 makeup of the City Council as a shifting paradigm in the city’s growth and changes. “In the past, the makeup of council had been primarily a product of your ability to appeal to a very narrow set of voters, who were predominantly from Central Austin and had fairly strong affiliations to progressive or neighborhood groups,” says Adams. “The new makeup of council draws from 10 separate districts, each with their own constituencies, alliances and agendas. The big question is whether the concern for ‘at large’ issues like public projects and environmental protection will get the support they have had traditionally, or if the new district representatives will only be concerned with issues that affect their areas.”

Still, Texas has a lot of work to do. As a whole, the state consistently ranks at the bottom of the nation in access to health care and spending on public education. We also have one of the highest numbers of children living in poverty and living with hunger, as well as the nation’s highest number of uninsured. All of this affects Austin. “Our state is not without resources and there’s no excuse for these inequities,” says Busby. “I believe people are starting to wake up to that.”

Originally published January 18th, 2015 in The Austinite Magazine.

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