AUSTIN (KXAN) — If you look closely at Austin City Council members during a meeting, you may notice something similar — perhaps dangling from their ears.
Every member of the eleven-person council has progressive political ideologies, something that’s made clear by the accessories many of them wear inspired by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Austin City Council Members are nonpartisan in that they don’t run as Democrats or Republicans.
A city spokesperson pointed KXAN toward the Texas Election Code which indicates that all local governments in Texas run nonpartisan elections by default, Austin just hasn’t chosen to authorize partisan candidacy.
But this current iteration of the council is entirely made up of members with progressive leanings. That progressive unity stands to have a significant impact on city policy.
Council Member Leslie Pool explained that she got the idea to purchase the accessories early in 2019, placing an order for Ruth Bader Ginsburg-inspired dissent collar jewelry. Ginsburg, one of the more liberal justices on the Supreme Court, has a particular collar she wears when she dissents from the majority opinion, a collar which has been commercialized in a host of accessories.
“Everything about RBG is awesome,” Pool said, noting she has watched the documentaries about the Supreme Court justice and remembers when Ginsburg was appointed to the court.
“Her feistiness, her fierceness, and her dedication to true principals really resonate with me and my women colleagues and frankly the entire city council,” Pool continued.
The RBG accessories, Pool says, are, “a way to come together and create that foundation of collegiality.”
“We do have differences in approaches or positions on different votes and everything,” Pool said. “But the overarching spirit on this council and Austin as a whole is progressiveness, we’re all in it together, we all care deeply about our city.”
“At a time when our country seems really divided at the national level and at the state level, these little earrings are just kind of a small way to show we are united here in Austin,” Pool said.
The seven women on the council purchased the RBJ-inspired jewelry and Council Member Jimmy Flannigan purchased a matching pin to wear.
“I see it’s a symbol of solidarity among the council against the very anti-city and anti-democratic actions being taken at the state and federal levels,” Flannigan said. “It’s good to know that when we disagree on municipal issues — because potholes are nonpartisan — we are united in our defense of democracy.”
Council Member Natasha-Harper Madison said she was glad to see that Flannigan had joined in on this political fashion statement.
“It’s so important, especially when we’re talking about as we approach 100 years of some women getting the right to vote,” Harper-Madison said, referencing the approaching centennial of the 19th Amendment. “It’s really important to recognize our strong male allies as well.”
A female majority
Pool noted that the council has had a female majority for five years now.
Council Member Allison Alter added that the RBG accessories were, “one small way to show solidarity amongst ourselves.”
Alter also pointed out that many other local governing bodies, such as Travis County Commissioners and AISD’s Board of Trustees, have female majorities. She explained that in the past year, these women have been holding meetings together.
“We’ve been getting some of us together as much as we can and we have over 50 some elected officials in Travis County,” Alter explained.
“As women, we’ve fought for the things, we’ve gained, and every once in awhile it’s good to celebrate the gains that we’ve had and there’s nothing better to getting together with a group of women and sharing experiences,” Pool chimed in.
Many of the council members also said they felt inspired by Ginsburg’s example as a woman in politics.
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg really personifies so much that I see and the strength of women in the face of, you know, inequality and abuses, in the face of a lack of appreciation and gratitude, women still show up and do the hard work,” Harper-Madison said, referencing the ways that Ginsburg handled the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated law school where she faced discrimination.
Pushing back against state government
Many of the council members remember wearing this jewelry in the spring of 2019 as a symbol of dissent against the revenue caps the state was approving at that time.
This all comes at a political moment when the divisions between state and local leaders in Texas are palpable.
City of Austin policies related to sick leave, ride-sharing, homelessness and other topics have been challenged by state leaders in recent years. Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R- Angleton) was recorded saying about the 2019 legislative session that, “my goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.”
Despite pushback from the state, the city council in Austin has continued to stick by its policy priorities. Many topics have the entire council unified, for example, the council has identified addressing homelessness as its top priority.
This council has been unanimous on many votes which, according to KXAN’s prior reporting, include: the vote to approve the Palm District Master Plan which also began the process of expanding the Austin Convention Center, the vote to maintain the city’s no-kill shelter status, the vote to repeal tax exemptions for properties on Lake Austin, a resolution to relax building regulations for affordable housing developments, the vote to approve an investigation into alleged racism in the Austin Police Department, and the vote to turn the Rodeway Inn motel into a homeless shelter.
Don Kettl, the Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin, explained that tensions between state governments and local governments in the U.S. go back to the 1800s.
“State governments get a chance to call the shots, but local governments have never really liked that at all,” said Kettl, who is about to publish a book on how federalism has played out in states across the country.
Austin, he said, is one of the areas in the country where tensions between city and state leaders are the most fierce.
“One of the things that’s so fascinating about what’s happening in Texas is that not only is it a place that has extraordinary growth — it’s one of the fastest-growing places in the entire country — the growth is being generated around some of the larger cities, the larger cities are growing and leaning more toward the left, that’s causing severe tensions with traditional forces in the state capitol who want to try to hold on to conservative values,” Kettl said.
This tension, he explained, may have political implications for Texas in the long term.
“It’s not only a matter of setting policy on everything from homelessness to economic development, and how much authority the state governments ought to have over local governments,” Kettl continued. “But it has to do with the overall balance of power in the states because conservatives see the risk that their power will be threatened by the rise of the left in larger communities that could really change Texas from red to purple and from purple ultimately to blue.”
What the accessories symbolize
The matching accessories do not mean the council is without division.
Just last week the council voted to approve the first reading of the city’s land development code overhaul, with the vote fracturing 7-4. Council Members Kathie Tovo, Leslie Pool, Alison Alter, and Ann Kitchen voted in opposition.
Tovo, Alter, and Harper-Madison could be seen wearing their RBG earrings on the day of the vote. Pool wore hers the day prior.
“I think it may seem like a larger symbol than it was,” Pool said.
“We manage on the dais a lot of really intense and difficult issues, and sometimes we do little things with one another, like bring a bar of chocolate or just something to recognize each other as people and that this too will pass,” Pool continued. “And we are working together on a particular issue and it’s difficult, but when it’s over, it’s over, and we have accomplished somethings, maybe we have lost something too on a vote, but at the end of the day and when everything is said and done we are all colleagues.”
Pool said she wore the earrings last week to acknowledge that it was “a big day” and also in “recognition of the accomplishments of RBG and hoping that some of that good karma will flow down to us as well.”
“I think I wear them on days where I want to be particularly strong, when we have big votes to be addressed on those particular days, we all have our own different rituals of different kinds,” Alter added.
Alter mentioned that during the land code vote last week, she also brought along a miniature Yoda figurine and pink rubber ducky which belonged to former Council Member Ora Houston in hopes that “the force” would be with the council.
Harper-Madison, who voted for the land code overhaul, said she wore her earrings that Wednesday to recognize a special occasion. She noted that December 11 marked the one year anniversary since she won a run-off election for her council seat in District 1.
One year ago, she explained, “I started making the promise I would be a strong voice for land-use reform, I got to do just that and my earrings were there for my inspiration, for strength and energy and passion.”
“And it worked,” she added.
Harper-Madison explained that she did not coordinate wearing earrings with her fellow council members for that vote.
“You often find on the dais you’ll see several of us wearing them for inspiration,” she said.
“We’ve had various times that we wore them by accident together on the dais and I think a lot of us choose to wear them on Thursdays when we’re at our council meetings,” added Council Member Kathie Tovo.
Tovo said there wasn’t a particular reason that prompted her to wear them on Wednesday for the land code vote.
“I just tend to wear them on Thursdays, it kind of reminds me of the role that we play and I just appreciate the way [Justice Ginsburg] carries herself,” Tovo said. “Wearing those earrings reminds me, sit up a little straighter, and be courteous to my colleagues, it’s just a good kind of reminder of why we’re there and what we’re there to do.”
The progressive alignment on the council made tangible by these RBG accessories has Harper-Madison optimistic about the policies they will be able to put in place.
“I think it’s important to recognize, Austin is in a really good position for transformation and change,” she said. “Our pastor says a thing, he says ‘the veil is thin right now’ and I think when the veil is thin, it’s us as a community recognizing that collectively we have work to do.”
She added, “I think Austin is in a really sweet spot right now to fix the problems we’ve had for a long time.”