In the initial debate over whether Austin’s City Council should move to single-member districts, there was a lot of talk about representation.
The old, at-large council over-represented Central Austin interests, leaving the city’s suburban neighborhoods on the sidelines. The complaints included charges that the political leanings of Austin’s central neighborhoods meant that conservatives didn’t have a chance. All true.
The 10-1 system changed that with geographic representation and the election of three fiscally conservative members. However, it remains an open question whether District 6 in Northwest Austin is better off than it was two years ago when it elected Don Zimmerman in a runoff election against businessman Jimmy Flannigan by 191 votes. Now District 6 voters will have a do-over on Nov. 8, which will be as much about leadership style as it is about policy differences.
As the incumbent, Zimmerman has made headlines (and earned Editorial Board members’ ire) for his inflammatory rhetoric, penchant for suing the city (aka taxpayers), displays of contempt for city staff and his refusal to compromise with his colleagues on the council.
In fact, libertarian-leaning Zimmerman is unapologetic about his two years in office, saying that he has an “obligation” to sue the city as part of his oath of office and that he has taken his election as a vote of consensus in the district on his conservative values. He did eke out a half-victory in his lawsuit about the city’s campaign fundraising rules: The court agreed that incumbents should have a wider window of time to raise political contributions but upheld the city’s $350 cap on donations.
To our minds, a 2-point margin in a runoff election hardly constitutes a mandate, and representative democracy means “standing in” for all of one’s constituents, not just the ones you agree with. Voters in Northwest Austin care about budgets, but they also care about transportation, human services and public safety.
Style in politics can be as important as substance, and Zimmerman’s antagonistic style has gotten in the way of accomplishing what he claims to value — tighter fiscal control by the council and a fully funded home owner property tax exemption.
This is not to say that Zimmerman hasn’t scored some conservative victories through his use of the bully pulpit, including helping to kill a referendum on the new Travis County civil courthouse. And for some of his supporters, the fact that he raises unpopular issues is enough, even if measurable results are limited. The question for voters is whether Zimmerman’s passion for limited government is enough to counter his intolerant rhetoric.
Flannigan, who is a Democrat in this nonpartisan race in a district that leans Republican, will have his own challenges with bridging the gap between a liberal-leaning council and his more conservative constituents. He likes to say that his district is “moderate,” but in fiscal terms the area not only votes Republican but has soundly rejected most bond proposals that have been thrown its way. The more moderate voting segments of the district were less likely to turn out in the 2014 general election and runoff and less likely to make it all the way to the end of the ballot. (More than 25 percent of the voters who cast ballots in District 6 did not vote in the City Council race.)
Then again, Flannigan has proven his ability to make progress on other issues through the Northwest Austin Coalition, which he founded. He has remained engaged in transportation and other issues since losing the 2014 election. In fact, Flannigan and Zimmerman have sparred in forums about which man is responsible for the inclusion of Anderson Mill Road on the mobility referendum, which is also on the ballot in November.
Flannigan’s coalition has been working on the corridor since summer 2015, including getting an engineer to donate his time for the study and working with the city to accept the work. Zimmerman’s first mention of the corridor on the City Council bulletin board was June 20, 2016, a few weeks after city staff presented the project to the mobility committee and after the corridor appeared in the mayor’s draft bond proposal.
In addition to his work with NWAC, Flannigan is former president of the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Austin Chamber of Commerce’s Transportation Committee. One of his best public moments was his impassioned speech immediately after horrific shooting spree at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
Flannigan’s message is consistently one of inclusivity and consensus building, just as it was in the 2014 race.
Although the board is not endorsing candidates in this race, we have consistently been in favor of consensus building as a way to create public policy that works for all corners of the city. The representative for District 6 should be the person best equipped to not only voice the district’s concerns but make sure solutions that benefit the district and the city become reality.
This is part of the American-Statesman Editorial Board’s series about the issues facing our community and the candidates in the Nov. 8 election. The board will not be endorsing in elections as in years past, but the editorials will be accompanied by excerpts of a Q&A with the candidates. A longer version is available on mystatesman.com.