In liberal Austin, a two-year wave of conservative backlash appears to have crested.
On Tuesday evening, voters in the state’s capital resoundingly rejected a proposal to bloat the city’s police department. At a cost of up to $600 million over five years, the measure would have mandated a staffing ratio of two sworn cops for every 1,000 Austin residents, among other requirements. The proposal—a brainchild of Save Austin Now, a local reactionary coalition including the police union and the Travis County GOP Chair—failed Tuesday by a 69-31 margin.
“Austin loudly rejected [Save Austin Now]’s fearmongering and embraced all the different work that keeps our entire community safe,” said Kathy Mitchell, an organizer with the criminal justice reform group Just Liberty, in a text Tuesday. “Austin voters protected the soul of our city tonight.”
The right-wing movement to super-fund Austin’s cops was a reaction to the city council’s 2020 decision to cut about a third of APD’s $434 million budget, largely by eliminating vacant positions, moving services outside the department, and halting the department’s troubled training academy. That move came amid mass uprisings over the killings of George Floyd and Mike Ramos, making Austin the only major Texas city to heed activist calls to “defund” the police. Backlash from the police union was swift.
For Save Austin Now, juicing the police budget looked like a chance to extend a hot streak. Over the last two years, the group has built a volunteer and donor base by bashing liberal council members, inflating crime data, and spreading fear of the very poor. Last December, the group helped elect a lone conservative, Mackenzie Kelly, to city council. The group also gathered tens of thousands of signatures, sometimes using questionable methods, for a ballot initiative to re-criminalize homeless camping in Austin. That measure passed in May, ending a short-lived humanitarian experiment that allowed the unhoused to use tents in public space.
For a time, it looked like Save Austin Now had tapped a rich vein of conservative and moderate discontent in Texas’ bluest town, but the group appears to have overreached.
Tuesday’s ballot item to overfund the police—also a citizen-initiated ballot measure—drew the ire of other public-sector employee groups, who predicted the new money would come from their own budgets. Even the firefighter and EMS unions, often political allies of police unions, campaigned against the policy. Save Austin Now and the Austin Police Association tried to drum up support by scaremongering about a recent increase in homicides in Austin. But that’s a nationwide trend that simply hiring more police is unlikely to address, and Austin remains a safe city with declining crime. Plus, with its hand forced by a state law passed in May by the Republican legislature, Austin City Council had already restored its erstwhile cuts to the police budget back in August—making Save Austin Now’s ballot measure something between moot and overkill.
Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, says he’s a strong supporter of the police but was celebrating Tuesday night.
“We still have a lot of work to do to make sure the police do have adequate staffing,” he said in a phone call. “For Save Austin Now, they are a very deceitful and disingenuous group, and for them I’m glad it got defeated to the level it did; I hope it sends a message that they have no place in this town.”
At a cooperatively run brew pub in North Austin, a decidedly lefty crowd gathered to celebrate the election results. Before a rendition of the labor song “Solidarity Forever,” Seneca Savoie of the Austin Democratic Socialists of America, one of various groups that canvassed against Save Austin Now, addressed a crowd of about 75.
“We celebrate today and we work to build the structures that prevent them from ever winning again,” Savoie told the crowd. “Save Austin Now did not simply trip over their own feet; they were defeated.”
Meanwhile, at an event pre-emptively deemed an “election night victory party,” Matt Mackowiak—the Travis County Republican chair and co-founder of Save Austin Now—took the stage to discuss defeat.
For Mackowiak, the last two years of cultivating fear of the homeless and crime have raised his political profile and stature as a fundraiser. Save Austin Now raised nearly $2 million prior to the homeless camping vote and $1 million in just the last month. His own public relations firm has profited handsomely, and he reportedly enjoys a life split between Austin and Miami.
In an October profile in the Austin American-Statesman, Mackowiak had said that if his police funding measure were to fail, he might leave Austin altogether. Yet in his Tuesday night concession speech, he struck a more defiant tone. After a touch-and-go analogy to Michael Jordan (who “failed over and over and over again”), Mackowiak promised to keep fighting for city council seats and to perhaps try another ballot initiative next year.
“We’re not going to ‘save Austin now’ tonight,” he pledged. “But we will.”
Top image: Protestors in Austin call to defund the police after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 30, 2020.