Nathan Ryan on Austin’s Mounting Challenges and Why Local Elections Matter

Austinites can no longer say, “that’s not my problem,” writes the GoodPolitics founder

By Nathan Ryan
Nathan Ryan: Local Elections
Nathan Ryan photographed by Minta Maria Smail.

With less than forty days to go until the U.S. presidential election, I’ve been thinking about the future and current state of our own city. This in turn got me thinking back to early August, when Austin Mayor Steve Adler delivered his 2020 State of the City Address. Traditionally hosted in City Council chambers at Austin City Hall, this year’s address was delivered virtually from the mayor’s home office.

The mood among attendees at the State of the City is generally curious and celebratory – maybe a little contentious if Austin is experiencing major challenges and, let’s be real, when is it not? This year, instead of making my way through a crowd and listening to audience reactions, I was drinking a beer while prepping dinner in the kitchen. Watching the address on my computer felt … well, entirely different.

Before the mayor started his remarks, I recalled the last time I saw him in person. Before COVID-19 descended upon the city, Austin’s City Council was broadly focused on three very big policy areas: land use reform, public transit and homelessness. These issues are big on their own, but what makes them such a puzzle to tackle together is just how intertwined they are. Combined, they’re the three-headed monster that every major, growing metropolitan area in the country is facing to address inequality and affordability issues.

Since March, Austin has only added to that to-do list, grappling with the ongoing economic and public health crises associated with a global pandemic, police brutality, protests and a public call to rethink the city’s overall budget, especially as it relates to public safety.

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While all of these challenges feel very real for me, they also feel abstract somehow. Like many of you, the pandemic has mostly confined me to my house over the last six months. While I’ve talked to a lot of Austinites and remained very involved in city life, I rarely see the real-world effects of current events beyond the news. Just reading about what’s happening can feel overwhelming – and yet, I’m aware of my privilege.

Courtesy of GoodPolitics

The problems of our pre-COVID world haven’t gone away just because a global pandemic is here. In fact, they’ve become more pronounced. Issues like housing, transportation, homelessness and affordability have been exacerbated in Austin by this pandemic. Racial inequity and systemic racism – the original sin of this country, and a founding sin here in Austin – have been exposed in a way that’s impossible to deny.

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As I listened to Mayor Adler back in August, I thought back on recent conversations I’ve had with Austinites who are no longer content with the status quo – and I don’t mean that slippery status quo of “society.” I mean the status quo inside each of us, the status quo that says those problems are somebody else’s problems. In some strange way, this distance really has brought us closer together. The silence has allowed many of us – myself included – to reflect on the prejudices and privileges we didn’t know we held, processing what it means to be a good neighbor and care for the folks living closest to us, both personally and as a matter of public policy.

Liz Coufal and Nathan Ryan are the co-founders of GoodPolitics.

Today, as November 3 quickly approaches, I’m thinking again about the opportunity we have to make sure we stay on the right track by voting, not only in the presidential election, but down ballot for state and local races as well – especially Austin City Council, state and county-level positions.

Starting on September 16 with District 2, KXAN began hosting candidates for Austin City Council districts 2, 4, 6, 7 and 10. The series continues into November. Candidates are asked questions by moderators from the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, and community members will have an opportunity to submit questions, too.

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While decisions made by elected officials at the federal level are vitally important, decisions made at the local level have a much more immediate and tangible impact on our daily lives.

GoodPolitics has put together a quick guide to make sure you have all the information you need to watch, listen in and participate in KXAN’s forums with local candidates.

Voting for candidates who will take our city’s challenges seriously and inclusively is on all of us. Getting to know these candidates and their vision for the future is the first step.

So, I hope you’ll join me in watching the upcoming forums to educate yourself about who might be leading us locally come next January – the future of our city depends on it.

Nathan Ryan is the CEO of Blue Sky Partners, co-founder of GoodPolitics, and a City of Austin commissioner.


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