Keeping Austin Woke

Austin, long the liberal redoubt in conservative Texas, is quickly becoming the model

A revised version of this article originally appeared in City Journal (here). Thanks to Real Clear Policy (here)!

During the 1970s, Austin—the state capital and home to the flagship campus of the University of Texas—was an affordable haven for the state’s assorted hippies, aspiring musicians, and itinerant bohemian souls. Their motto was “Keep Austin Weird”—a conscious departure from the Lone Star State’s conservative stereotype. A half-century later, Austin’s eccentric slogan is still popular, although—due to Texas’s rapid population growth and urbanization–the city’s progressive politics are becoming the norm statewide. “Weirdness” has evolved into “hipness,” which is synonymous with wokeness. Wokeness is becoming contagious.  

 Austin’s mayor, Steve Adler, is an example. Adler became mayor in 2015 when, as a political novice, he defeated an incumbent councilman, Mike Martinez, a progressive activist who formerly led the Austin Firefighters Association. In that race, Adler positioned himself as the “moderate,” but a centrist orientation—at least by traditional standards–is no longer evident. Adler presides over a 10-person city council—all Democrats—elected from single-member districts. He is the only municipal official elected by the voters city-wide, and was the first mayor to govern under a momentous 2012 city charter amendment that eliminated at-large voting for council members. Adler, handily re-elected last year in a well-funded campaign, has proven to be politically nimble.

The 2012 amendment, which also expanded the size of the council from seven to 11 (including the mayor), was intended to make city government less monolithic—and more representative of Austin’s diverse voters. For decades, the council had been dominated by “establishment” Democrats from Austin’s influential “west side.”  The amendment was even supported by the local Republican Party organization, in the hopes that the city’s minority of GOP voters might finally have a seat (or two) at the table. Those hopes were quickly dashed. Instead, single-member districts merely strengthened the city’s various minority factions and leftist special interests, making the council more progressive. The GOP’s hoped-for toehold on the council was both precarious and short-lived.

Instead of “establishment” Democrats, the majority-female council now includes a socialist firebrand, an LGBT activist, a Latina, and—despite a black population of only eight percent–an African-American. The entire council leans to the left. How far to the left? By unanimous votes, the council declared itself a “Freedom City” and recently embraced the so-called Green New Deal. Adler, an Easterner who hails from the Washington, D.C. area and attended Princeton, is a lawyer who became wealthy practicing eminent domain in Austin, representing land owners. As the political direction of the city council veered leftward, so have Adler’s public positions.

Adler’s latest stunt was appearing at an Iftar event in Austin featuring the controversial Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar as the keynote speaker. The annual dinner, celebrating the end of the Ramadan fast, was hosted by Emgage, a nonprofit group focusing on recruiting Muslims to run for office. Despite calls by conservative Texas Agricultural Commissioner Sid Miller for Adler to skip the event due to Omar’s record of anti-Semitic statements and remarks dismissive of the 9/11 attacks, Adler—only the second Jew to be elected mayor in Austin—insisted on attending.

“It’s not inclusive to have a keynote speaker at a dinner who has repeatedly attacked the Jewish faith and its adherents,” Miller said. “Mayor Adler should help Austin stay true to its roots and use this opportunity as a teaching moment for Muslims, Jews, Christians and those of other faiths to come and break bread together in the spirit of unity and love, not hate,” Miller added. Emgage denounced Miller’s criticism of Omar as “immoral and racist.” Adler responded that “Every year, this event is a special opportunity for people of many faiths to grow together. As mayor, it is my privilege and responsibility to lean into such learning moments with my community – not to back away from them.”

Adler’s official profile on the city’s website proclaims that “It is my goal to move our city forward in a way that is inclusive, innovative and intentionally improvisational,” but he nevertheless appeared at the event with the divisive Omar, ignoring the opposition and protests of numerous critics, including the Zionist Organization of America, various Jewish leaders, Jihad Watch, and ACT for America. In his remarks at the dinner, Adler praised Omar as an “inspiring and wonderful symbol of our country’s progress toward real and meaningful representation in government for people who have not previously seen themselves reflected in our democratic institutions”—an unusual tribute to someone repeatedly, and credibly, accused of vile anti-Semitic bigotry.

Alas, defending the interests of Jews and their homeland, Israel, is not considered fashionable in progressive circles, unlike, say, pushing costly mass transit and “affordable housing” projects, catering to the homeless, promoting renewable energy boondoggles, encouraging public order offenses, and protecting illegal immigrants. Accordingly, Adler faced no political repercussions for cravenly sharing the dais with Omar. Indeed, a liberal press corps rallied to Adler’s defense. Miller’s rebuke only emboldened Adler, because Austin voters reflexively and overwhelmingly reject Republican candidates. In the November 2018 election, Texas Governor Greg Abbott—more popular statewide than Miller—lost Travis County by more than a 2-to-1 margin. Adler’s GOP rival in 2018 drew only 6.33 percent of the vote—far less than the percentage of registered Republican voters.

When Republicans are considered unelectable in local races, even GOP voters will choose the most palatable Democratic candidate. Austin aspires to be, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, “the San Francisco of the South,” spending profligately on “dubious social programs and utopian schemes.” The sweet spot for a city-wide official is to be “woke” enough to appeal to progressive voters without being so radical as to scare the business community. Adler, whose law practice involved cozy dealings with real estate developers—which have led to recurring charges of cronyism as mayor– knows that he can (and must) hew to the leftward orientation of the city council to remain viable politically. Being a “centrist” in a city like Austin, where local candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America are regularly elected, gives Adler significant leeway to tack left. And he has. This realignment may, unfortunately, describe the political fortunes of the Lone Star State, as the suburbs—as well as the cities—increasingly trend blue. Adler, now in his second term as mayor, cannot run for re-election. Another ambitious mayor, South Bend’s Pete Buttigieg (whom Adler endorsed for President), has his sights set on higher office. Adler might well follow suit. If the fast-growing and highly-rated Austin is a harbinger for the rest of the state, Texas has weirdness in its future.

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