AUSTIN (KXAN) — In 2012, Austinites voted to change City Council’s structure to disperse power throughout the city. The idea became the 10-1 council, with 10 council members coming from separate districts and one citywide mayor.
Six years later, however, those 10 council members still rely on campaign donations from the wealthy northwest area of town. Some council members’ campaigns are nearly fully-funded by donations from people living outside their district.
Critics now worry those out-of-district donors have an outsized influence on district politics.
The council’s ATM
Anthony Gutierrez analyzed district campaign funds and helped write a report called Fault Lines on the subject. It was sponsored by the watchdog groups Common Cause and Texans for Public Justice. It compiles data from the 2016 city election and reveals 44 percent of all donations came from District 10, the wealthy northwest part of town.
“Policy really bends in the direction of the donors,” said Gutierrez. “If there’s a pothole in one of the less affluent districts versus one of the wealthy districts that’s funding all the campaigns, you have to wonder what’s going to get fixed first.”
Outside-district donors play outsize role
According to Fault Lines, west Austin donors supply nearly all of the money for select eastside council members. For instance, Council Member Delia Garza represents District 2, a low-income area in southeast Austin. She raised $63,398 for her 2016 campaign, and 95 percent of her campaign cash came from outside of her district.
When asked if outside money dictates the policy she pushes, Garza emphatically told KXAN, “No, no, no.”
Garza said only one of her in-person fundraisers were held outside her district. She raised money from people coming into her district for fundraisers and by cold-calling wealthy Austinites on a list supplied by her campaign consultant.
Most of her time on the campaign was going door to door and “block walking,” to listen to her constituents, she says.
But Garza said she wasn’t surprised that 95 percent of her donations come from outside her district. Her constituents don’t have extra money to donate.
“They have very tight budgets. They have less of an ability to give to charitable donations or to political campaigns,” said Garza.
Council Member Greg Casar, who represents north Austin’s District 4, offers another example of outside-district money paying for nearly an entire campaign. He raised $145,850 for his 2016 race, and 92 percent of the money came from outside his district.
“There is a real issue in that wealthy people have a disproportionate amount of power in politics,” Casar said. People in his district don’t have the disposable income to donate either, he says, so they helped in other ways — by volunteering.
“A lot of people from the district, who may not have a lot of money to give, but gave a lot of their time and their effort,” said Casar.
Wasn’t the 10-1 system supposed to stop this?
Longtime political consultant and Austin Community College Professor Peck Young was a prominent voice for ending the former citywide at-large system. He campaigned for 10-1 to become a reality early in the decade.
Now, he says that change didn’t solve the entire problem of one area of the city holding power over the others. To him, it appears, getting council members to live in different parts of town was just a first step.
“The problem is in a poor area, you’ve got to chase the money just like somebody in a rich area,” said Young. “Somebody in a poor part of town is not going to raise most of their money from poor people, even though they may represent those folks and represent them very well. But the people that are poor aren’t going to give large sums of money to their candidates. So, financing is separate from representation.”
Young says the largest donors are the people who often benefit from current city policies: the real estate, development, hotel and entertainment industries.
Gutierrez says it doesn’t have to be this way. He says public financing for city elections is a way to make sure council members raise money from their own district. He helped write the Fault Lines report, in part, to draw attention to an idea in front of City Council called “democracy dollars.”
Democracy dollars would use city taxes to give eligible voters vouchers up to $100. Voucher recipients could then donate to candidates in their district.
A city report estimates the idea would cost Austin taxpayers $1.5 million per year. The council plans on taking up the issue next year.
Council members Garza and Casar say they support the voucher plan. They’d rather spend more time talking to their own constituents instead of wealthy out-of-district donors, they say.
District 5 City Council Member Ann Kitchen supports the goal of public financing. She does not have a challenger this election.
“I support the goal of this program, which is to engage more citizens in the electoral process so that Austinites feel that their voices are heard, that their vote matters, and that they can fully participate including with contributions,” said Kitchen.
Kitchen believes city staff and voters should look into the idea more thoroughly before council makes a decision.
“We would want to talk to people in Austin to understand if and how such a program would accomplish the goal,” she adds.
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan chose not to comment to KXAN for this report.
A staff member for Council Member Leslie Pool, who represents District 7, says, “She can’t give a yes or no because she needs more information.”
A policy aid for Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria told KXAN, “He’s really supportive of the concept” but wants to know more.
Mayor Steve Adler and council members Ora Houston and Kathie Tovo have not responded to a request for comment.
Outgoing council member from District 8, Ellen Troxclair, opposes the idea because of the property tax increase and the overall city cost.
Seattle as a case study
Public finance for city elections would not be a new idea. The largest city with the program is Seattle.
In November 2015, voters passed several campaign reforms including a democracy voucher program.
Eligible Seattle residents can get $100 in vouchers to support candidates in city elections. Next year will be the first year they’ll be used. The program is funded by a $3 million per year property tax increase for 10 years. It costs the average homeowner $11.50 per year.
There are restrictions on how a candidate can use the voucher. They cannot make cash payments, pay a candidate’s personal expenses or make payments to family members.
Where your council member’s money comes from
We’ve created a series of maps for each district showing individual contributions and exactly where they came from. Below you will find maps for districts 1, 2, 8, 9 and the mayor’s race. We omitted district 5 because Council Member Ann Kitchen has not opponent.
- Green dots – contributions below $100
- Yellow dots – contributions between $100 and $300
- Red dots – contributions above $300
(App users click here for the maps)