Austin’s camping ban was always a GOP Trojan horse

by | May 28, 2021 | Austin, Policy

It’s been an eventful month for Texas, to say the least. Bravo’s Housewives of Dallas was embroiled in race-fueled controversy. New arrival Elon Musk hosted one of the most awkward shows in Saturday Night Live history. And the Dallas Mavericks, who haven’t won a playoff series since taking the NBA title in 2011, have taken a commanding 2-0 lead in their opening round bout against the favored Los Angeles Clippers. 

More than anything else, though, the past four weeks have been a case study for what happens when Republicans get their way — as they often do — in statewide politics. Case in point: The state Legislature has pushed through a barrage of dangerous bills as of late, including one of the most egregious attacks on abortion access in the country and a permit-free handgun law that likely brought former governor/part-time NRA posterboy Rick Perry to tears. But one development that’s largely been overlooked amid this legislative firestorm was Austin’s May 1 elections, in which voters resoundingly chose to reinstate a municipal camping ban that had been repealed by city leaders two years prior. 57.7 percent of the roughly 157,000 people who cast ballots, to be exact.

At first glance, this result seems like the latest example of off-cycle elections favoring more conservative constituencies — an especially consequential circumstance when critical ballot initiatives are in question. And to a certain extent, that’s true. Only about 20 percent of Austin voters turned out, which is a far cry from the record-breaking 71 percent who hit the polls in November. But when you take a step back and examine how Prop B’s passage aligns with a larger coordinated effort by conservatives to stoke fears and weaponize misinformation, a more troubling (and uncertain) future begins to emerge for people experiencing homelessness and the city as a whole.   

As has been heavily documented by the Signal, Austin’s struggles with this issue have been the object of statewide attention (and ire) since 2019. Gov. Greg Abbott, ever the online troll, has been particularly aggressive in his targeting of unhoused people in tweets, sparring with Mayor Steve Adler while frequently sharing misleading or downright false information on the topic. The impact of Abbott’s most enduring effort to single out Austin can’t be overlooked. After promising to address the issue long before this year’s legislative session, the Republican appears primed to ratify a ban on camping across the state after the Texas Senate recently approved such a bill. 

But there’s also a far deeper-seated and dangerous play happening on the ground in Austin. Led by Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak, a loathsome political creature who, among other things, drew headlines after trying to scrape together cash to board a private jet to Miami during Winter Storm Uri, the conservative-backed Save Austin Now coalition spearheaded the campaign to pass Prop B. Beyond weaving a myriad of falsehoods together, the PAC successfully seized on growing public sentiment that Adler’s strategy on homelessness was ineffective and detrimental to public safety. Now, the city is scrambling to come up with plans for emergency camping sites — a disjointed process that has raised serious concerns among Black leaders about inequity, inclusion, and preferential treatment for wealthier, whiter communities around town. 

Republicans also have a conservative member on Austin’s City Council for the first time in years, in Mackenzie Kelly. More importantly, they’ve gained a foothold with some traditionally liberal voters, too. According to early reports, more than 55 percent of people who turned out at the polls in the May 1 election were registered Democrats. That means that a sizable number of blue voters sided with Save Austin Now on Prop B, a phenomenon that the PAC is well aware of. In recent weeks, the coalition began sending out surveys to Austinites to gauge their opinion of Mackowiak and their overall comfort level with a potential rise in Republican leadership in the city, among other things. This move makes it painstakingly clear that homelessness wasn’t just a wedge issue that conservatives feel no desire to address through substantive policy. It’s their trojan horse for regaining relevance in Austin for the first time in years. 

In that vein, Save Austin Now — alongside the aforementioned Kelly and Rep. Chip Roy — just debuted their latest fear-mongering ballot proposal, which will center around policing and public safety. Made in response to the city’s reallocation of more than $100 million in its law enforcement budget last August, the proposition could be considered as early as this November. More likely than not, their playbook will be the same as it was with homelessness: Scare people, muddy the waters with misleading information, and above all, avoid providing any sort of legitimate ideas or long-term solutions. 

All of this comes at a time when Republican narratives claiming Austin is defunding the police (it’s not) and that local crime is skyrocketing (again, it’s not) are proving particularly troublesome. With that in mind, Democrats must learn from their failures to clearly explain and carry out their long-term strategy on homelessness. Furthermore, they need to take this as a wake-up call that, led by the likes of Joe Rogan and Elon Musk, there’s a new wave of business-first libertarianism bubbling up here. If left unaddressed, these factors could leave the city in an even more dire place, especially if Save Austin Now capitalizes on its growing momentum. 

Photo: Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post via Getty Image

Contributing Writer/Podcaster | + posts
Based in his hometown of Austin, David is a political reporter and feature writer whose work has appeared in the likes of The Washington Post, the Texas Observer, and Public Health Watch. He’s also a graduate of the University of Texas, where he studied government and wrote for the school’s newspaper, The Daily Texan. In addition to providing a blend of reported pieces and opinion columns for the Texas Signal, David is a frequent guest on the outlet’s signature podcasts. You can find him playing basketball or hanging out poolside in his free time.

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