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Which areas of Austin killed Props J and K?

Tuesday, November 13, 2018 by Jack Craver

Last week, Austin voters approved nine of 11 propositions on the ballot, including seven bond measures totaling $925 million, a proposition that made small spelling corrections to the city charter and a proposition authorizing City Council to set rules for removing members of the Planning Commission.

All nine measures passed with at least two-thirds of the vote. The victories were not particularly surprising; the bond propositions enjoyed support from a well-funded campaign and did not have to contend with any organized opposition. Nevertheless, the results show that they enjoyed much less support in wealthy West Austin areas than in poorer East Austin neighborhoods.

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The only two measures that did attract significant opposition failed. Proposition J, which grew out of the opposition to CodeNEXT (the since-canceled effort to overhaul the city’s land development code), would have required voter approval for any “comprehensive revision” of the land development code. The initiative was narrowly defeated, getting 48 percent of the vote.

Prop J was backed by neighborhood associations and activists who support protecting the traditional aesthetic character of single-family neighborhoods or who claim that allowing more density will lead to gentrification. The petition drive that led to the initiative, as well as the subsequent campaign for the ballot proposition, was led by Let Us Vote Austin, a group run by longtime activist Fred Lewis, and IndyAustin, a group run by Bastrop-based activist Linda Curtis. The proposition was also supported by four members of Council: Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council members Ora Houston, Leslie Pool and Alison Alter. It also received a late endorsement from the Travis County Republican Party.

Let Us Vote Austin spent at least $50,000 throughout 2018 to promote the petition drive for Prop J. It’s not clear how much IndyAustin, which raised over $120,000 in 2018, spent on Prop J, since it has also raised substantial funds for other issues, such as opposition to the Major League Soccer stadium at McKalla Place.

Prop J was opposed by those who believe that the city must become denser and more transit-oriented in order to lower housing costs and reduce urban sprawl. In the weeks leading up to the election, the group Vote No on Prop J was endorsed by Mayor Steve Adler and Council members Ann Kitchen, Jimmy Flannigan, Greg Casar, Delia Garza and Pio Renteria, and received significant financial support from developers and other real estate interests.

While Prop J was largely the project of Central Austin neighborhood associations, the proposition fared poorly throughout most of the urban core. The only precincts where it performed well were in affluent West Austin neighborhoods such as Tarrytown, Westfield and Old West Austin. The proposition drew its greatest support from suburban areas in every direction – north, south, east and west.

Residents of areas that are not within city limits but are part of the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) do not participate in most city elections, but they were given a vote on Prop J. Voters in those areas generally favored the measure.

In a Facebook comment about the results, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, whose far-northwest district borders many ETJ precincts, said that CodeNEXT and Prop J barely registered as issues in his part of town. “(T)here’s a random item on their ballot they were not expecting (because no one talked to them about it) and it said they get to vote on something in the future. So of course that sounds good,” Flannigan said.

Proposition K, which would have required the city to hire an independent auditor to conduct an “efficiency study” of city departments and programs, also failed, with 58 percent voting against. The initiative was supported by some of the same activists who backed Prop J – notably Lewis, NAACP President Nelson Linder and Save Our Springs President Bill Bunch – along with a number of donors and activists with ties to the GOP.

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Citizens for an Accountable Austin, a group run by Michael Searle, a former aide to Council Member Ellen Troxclair, and funded by $137,000 of anonymous “dark money” contributions, paid to gather the signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. Another group, Yes on Prop K, also run by Searle, campaigned to get the initiative passed. It raised roughly $70,000 from a small group of donors, including $9,800 from the Travis County Republican Party.

Opposing Prop K was a political action committee, Citizens for Truthful Petitions, that raised about $37,000 before the election from liberal activists and a political action committee that is largely funded by the city employees’ union. The group ran online ads framing the proposed audit as a scheme by right-wing interests at the state and national level, including the Koch brothers, to undermine the city’s public services.

Prop K’s performance appeared to align largely with partisan politics. The more Democratic an area, the worse Prop K fared. Thus, it did particularly badly in overwhelmingly Democratic east side neighborhoods but was competitive in the conservative affluent neighborhoods of West Austin. The notable exceptions were two heavily student precincts in the campus area, where majorities actually supported the proposition.

All maps courtesy of the city of Austin.

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