It’s ironic that prosperous red states (such as Texas), attracting new arrivals from failing blue states (such as California), face the risk of political transformation. Seeking jobs, the newcomers tend to congregate in urban areas, which already lean Democratic. Compounding the impact, many of the transplants are young, college-educated, and unmarried, a demographic that leans toward left-wing politics. Cities with high-tech economies and a reputation for entertainment—live music, craft beer, trendy restaurants—are meccas for young adults. No surprise, then, that Austin, with its vibrant economy and hip cultural scene, has seen explosive population growth in the past decade. Texas’s once-sleepy capital is now the Lone Star State’s fourth-largest city.
The influx of millennials and California refugees to Austin—also home to the flagship campus of the University of Texas—has coincided with a leftward shift in the city’s already-liberal politics. Since the creation of single-member districts for the city council in 2012, Austin has gone fully “woke,” electing activists as radical as any local pols in America today—on par with Gotham mayor Bill de Blasio. Despite a conservative statewide electorate in Texas, the ten-member city council in Austin includes just one vulnerable Republican, Ellen Troxclair. Likewise, nearly every officeholder in surrounding Travis County, including all the trial court judges, are Democrats. Both city and county declared themselves “sanctuaries” for illegal immigrants, a status overridden by state law (SB4) last year, amid fierce opposition.
In recent years, in addition to adopting a series of fashionable but impractical urbanist transportation initiatives—among them, bike lanes and draconian parking restrictions—Austin has enacted a series of business-unfriendly ordinances. The measures, condemned by Texas governor Greg Abbott as “a patchwork quilt” undermining state law, include forbidding retailers to provide customers with disposable plastic bags, prohibiting employers from asking applicants about prior criminal convictions, and requiring businesses to grant employees paid sick leave. Austin has also adopted a “living wage” for city employees (with the lowest rate nearly twice the federal minimum wage level) and authorized the expenditure of $200,000 in taxpayer funds for legal representation of illegal immigrants facing deportation.
Many of these initiatives were led by Austin’s resident firebrand, council member Greg Casar, whose priorities include “social equity,” “shared prosperity,” and the elimination of “laws and practices that contribute to the mass incarceration of youth, people of color, and the poor.” Casar, who previously served as an organizer for the Saul Alinsky-inspired Workers Defense Project, has emerged as the leader of a hard-left coalition that includes the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter. Austin’s metamorphosis into a hotbed of identity politics, intersectionality, and socialistic policies is somewhat incongruous, because the state capital is the least diverse of Texas’s major cities: whites are overrepresented compared with their share of the state population, and blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented—largely because Austin’s home prices are the state’s highest. Many minority residents simply can’t afford to live there.
Austin’s business community is unhappy with all this anti-free-market meddling, but it prefers to battle the measures selectively, in the state legislature and the courts, rather than by backing a political opponent to Casar or his leftist colleagues. That’s because the city’s voters enthusiastically support such progressive reforms—in 2016, Hillary Clinton carried Travis County by nearly 40 percentage points—and the single-member districts allow council members to pander to the racial, ethnic, and socio-economic profile of their respective constituencies.
Earlier this month, Casar persuaded his city council colleagues to adopt (unanimously) resolutions declaring Austin to be the state’s first “freedom city.” The resolutions instruct the police to evade the provisions of SB4—requiring law enforcement to question offenders about their immigration status—by informing suspects that they need not answer these questions. Immigrant-rights activists despise SB4, deeming it racist. Casar was a vocal opponent of the bill, getting himself arrested in 2017 for staging a sit-in at the governor’s office to protest its passage. His resolutions thumb the city’s nose at the rule of law.
The Casar resolutions also direct police officers to avoid arrests for certain nonviolent misdemeanors, including smoking marijuana in public, possession of drug paraphernalia, driving without a license, and petty theft. The rationale for effectively decriminalizing such offenses, Casar explained, is that “Poor people of color in our city are over-punished and over-incarcerated. If people are being arrested less, we can also prevent people from being put in the deportation pipeline.” Ignoring data showing that blacks and Hispanics are responsible for committing a disproportionate number of certain crimes, Casar blamed the high percentage of minorities arrested on police racism. The solution: let criminals break the law without fear of arrest (the police can still issue citations).
Austin’s declaration of a moratorium on arrests for “low-level” criminal offenses ignores the lessons of Broken Windows policing. As City Journal has documented at length, “small crimes of disorder, left unchecked, lead to more serious crime.” Starting under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton, the rampant crime and urban chaos prevalent in New York City in the 1980s were largely curbed by focusing on quality-of-life offenses such as graffiti, petty theft, public drug use, aggressive panhandling, vagrancy, and the like. Hamstringing police officers’ ability to make arrests for such crimes, the Austin city council virtually assures a deterioration of the quality of life in its much-vaunted downtown district.
Photo by Gregorio Casar