Advocacy Update: The New World of Texas Politics — What It Means for You

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About a week after the March 4th primary election, I addressed AIA Dallas’ Emerging Professionals leadership class where I asked them how many had voted. Of the 30 people in the room, only two hands went up — and one of those was mine! That’s about a 6.6% participation rate — abysmal, though unfortunately not that far off the statewide percentage.

To make matters worse, three Dallas-area legislators — all genuine supporters of the profession with numerous architect friends and truly qualified, intelligent solons — lost their races by a margin of less than 1%.

you gotta vote

As if it isn’t obvious already, the political landscape in Texas is shifting faster than a California hillside on the San Andreas Fault. What we have known and how we have acted before will not work in the future. We must vote and make sure that everyone we know — at home and at the office — votes, too. Here’s why:

In the '70s, '80s and early '90s, the election norm was for voters to chose between two candidates — one Democrat and one Republican. There wasn’t much action in primary races; it almost all occurred in the November elections. 

In 1994, these norms effectively died when Republicans won all of the statewide races and have since held onto these seats. Partisanship became even more prominent with redistricting in 2001, 2003 and 2011. Consequently, most districts became either decidedly Democratic or Republican. As that happened, the importance of primaries increased dramatically. The two parties started drifting to the extremes, as party activists demanded increasing polarization for ideological “purity.”

A new and different shift is now under way, complicating matters even more. There has been a growth in funds from undisclosed donors channels through not-for-profit, “public welfare” organizations leading to an abundance of “dark money.” These funds are readily available to candidates willing to sign pledge cards promising to support specific positions or cast certain votes. This access to single-issue voter blocs is supplanting the broad-based fundraising tactics as the critical initial step of a campaign.

Not only is this making already inflamed party races even more polarized between so-called “establishment” and “movement” wings of a party, but it’s also shifting candidates’ focus and initial commitments away from trade and professional organizations — like ours. Instead, candidates are brokering with huge email lists of single (or very limited) interest groups along with a few wealthy donors with very deep pockets.

Excuse my cynicism, but these new “brokers” appear far more interested in winning for the sake of power rather than on their ideological platform or on party purity. They have exploited emotion and negativity to highjack legitimate political discourse at the expense of constructive debate, consensus, and civility. 

It is fair to think this could be sour grapes on my part, because I’ve been increasingly discouraged over the last three election cycles. The number of races where qualified honest candidates have lost following extremely negative campaigns with personal attack ads has been extensive. The majority of those good legislators, who have lost over the last three election cycles, had opponents recruited by a very vocal, strident minority.

This is a very real phenomenon. It’s not only costing us dedicated public servants with the courage to vote with their conscience rather than taking orders from a few zealots demanding political fealty. It is creating a political cynicism that’s decreasing the number of voters year after year. 

For goodness sake, when did “moderate” and “consensus” become negative labels? When did working across the aisle become “collaborating with the enemy”? When did supporting a local school bond initiative or capital improvements program make someone a “tax and spend liberal?”

Vote Quote

The Society’s previous norm was to support candidates through political contributions through our PAC, the Texas Architects Committee (TAC). We never changed after the AIA amended its bylaws to allow political candidates endorsement. We have involved TAC members in check deliveries and generally promoted the “civic responsibility” of all citizens to vote. But, we have yet to really demand — aggressively, passionately urge — that all eligible architects, their employees, and family members should vote. If we are to avoid irrelevancy, this must change.

The architectural profession is respected because you can envision and create better places. Make sure your voice is heard just as much as those who now seek to manipulate the electoral process through artificial “us vs. them” campaigns funded by “mystery” donors.

Who knows?  If voter turnout stays as low as it’s been lately, just think how much our voice could be amplified if 20,000 of us voted rather than only 1,000. We can become a greater force in designing the safer, more sustainable, more beautiful Texas that you and everyone else in the profession knows it could and should be.  If you didn’t vote March 4 or if you voted in the Republican primary that day, please do so May 27 (or before if voting by mail or voting early in person at the polls), and make sure everyone else at your firm and in your household votes, too.

VOTE…as if your life depends on it—your livelihood certainly does!  Then VOTE…in every election that follows.  Good design is in the balance. VOTE…in every election. VOTE…as if your life depends on it — your livelihood certainly does!