AL AUSTIN: A CARPETBAGGER COMES HOME A WINNERBy Dave Wielenga
Al Austin was well aware of the red flag on his political resume when he announced his candidacy for the 8th district’s seat on the Long Beach City Council. Lots of people were. Anybody who was paying attention remembers 2007, when Austin popped up in the 6th district’s special city council election as Mayor Bob Foster’s hand-picked, highly endorsed and well-funded candidate—qualifying as a 6th district resident by renting a place in the central city and mumsing-the-word on the house he’s owned in the 8th district since 2001. Perhaps the part everybody remembers best is that Austin lost to Dee Andrews by 67 votes. Austin was aware of that, too.
Five years later, back in his 8th district home, setting out to represent his real neighbors, Austin understood how their memories of his carpet-bagging misadventure might make them uneasy or even outraged. He realized that opponents could frame it as an unflattering mirror of cracked integrity or a portrait of full-on corruption. He accepted that this gaffe from the past had the under-certain-circumstances potential to make things hot for him or burn his campaign to the ground.
None of that happened.
Today Al Austin is the 8th district representative on the nine-member Long Beach City Council, the only new face to emerge from 2012 elections conducted in the city’s four even-numbered (2nd, 4th, 6th, 8th) districts. In a short ceremony Tuesday evening at City Hall, Austin took his place behind the rail—sitting where Rae Gabelich served for the past eight years—and began a four-year term along with returnees Suja Lowenthal, Patrick O’Donnell and Andrews.
So did Austin dodge a bullet? Perhaps. But if so, it wasn’t because he ducked the question during the months he carried his face-to-face, hand-to-hand campaign to 8th district residents. As he walked precincts, delivered speeches to neighborhood associations and community groups, participated in debates and forums, anybody was free to buttonhole Austin about his opportunistic detour through the 6th district with Foster and friends. When someone did ask, Austin answered—not exactly loquaciously, but this wasn’t exactly his favorite subject. When someone brought it up, he could feel that red flag flutter.
Why? Here’s where Austin’s bullet-dodging may have saved him—although, if so, it was less a matter of good reflexes than strange luck. Because Kawasaki wasn’t merely Austin’s opponent, but also sort of a successor—Foster’s latest hand-picked, highly endorsed and well-funded candidate. Although Kawasaki did not migrate into another council district to launch her campaign, her recent ascendance into Foster’s powerful inner circle was well-enough known that it drastically limited her choices of weapons and tactics. Basically, any assault on Austin’s integrity or independence regarding his run for the 6th district’s council seat would ricochet toward the people who put him up to it—the people who were propping up her candidacy.
Austin’s first day in elected office undoubtedly isn’t the one he would choose to bring up such political unsavoriness. But it may be significant that he did choose a day to do so—one of the waning ones of the 107 days he waited between his April 10 victory over Kawasaki in the primary and Tuesday’s installation ceremony.
On July 5, during his hour-long, no-questions-barred appearance on Greater Long Beach Radio, Austin addressed his 2007 run for the 6th district city council seat before it was mentioned directly.The actual question was:
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE—FROM A PURE FEELINGS STANDPOINT—BETWEEN WINNING ON ELECTION NIGHT AND LOSING ON ELECTION NIGHT?
AL AUSTIN: “The contrast was great. (Pause) Let me just say that in 2007 I had every endorsement imaginable. I had more money than most candidates—I think more than all the candidates combined. I had raised more money. I ran a very strong campaign … and I came up 67 votes short. You know, I thought going into the election day, we won. You know? I thought we were going to win.
“There was a lesson learned there. Not to take anything for granted—not to take any votes, streets, precincts for granted, whatsoever. And to hear everybody, listen to everybody, to reach out to everyone.
“In this (2012) race, I took that experience and I went forward. I think it was the total opposite. I did not have every endorsement imaginable. I did not have the downtown support. I did not have the Mayor, Senator [Alan] Lowenthal, [Supervisor Don] Knabe, Beverly O’Neill—prominent people, people who I respect highly. I didn’t have them with me this time. I had to figure out another way to win.
“It speaks to running a grass-roots campaign, running a ground campaign—speaking to neighborhood interests, neighborhood-by-neighborhood. That’s what we did, and it worked out.”
After a long discussion of Austin’s background—from his upbringing in a politically active family in Detroit to his career as a union organizer, both of which enabled him to see the possibilities of a life of public participation—came this question:
YOU GREW UP WITH A SENSE OF THE POLITICAL POSSIBILITIES AVAILABLE TO PEOPLE. WHAT HAPPENED TO TRIGGER YOUR FIRST POLITICAL RUN?
AL AUSTIN: ”The first run was 2007. We had just come off the Mayor’s race in 2006 [when Bob Foster, then a former lobbyist and Southern California Edison chief, defeated 3rd district city council member Frank Colonna], which I was very active and involved in. The state assembly race of 2006 [when 6th district councilmember Laura Richardson was promoted by voters to the Sacramento legislature], which I was very involved in. I was involved in a number of campaigns, and a number of people were looking at me at the time—because I took a leadership role in those campaigns, a number of people were looking at me—and saying, ‘There’s going to be a void in the 6th district. We think you’d be great for it.’
“And I was encouraged to do this thinking of, using that old conventional wisdom that, you know, this is an African-American district and so you have to move into an African-American district to run.
“You know, I never was really comfortable with that mindset, I’ll be quite honest with you … but, uhh … but I did it. I said, ‘I have all this support, anyway. There’s so much support that I really can’t say no.’
“So I bit the bullet—at major personal sacrifice—I moved, we ran, and I don’t have any regrets because the experience was invaluable. The issues that were facing the 6th district, and the central area, are many of the same issues facing North Long Beach today. I learned a lot by that campaign, and through that campaign, and like I said, I don’t have any regrets.
“But running for the 8th district in this election … it was me … I was home. I was comfortable in my own skin, I was comfortable with my message and I was comfortable with my neighbors. I think that made the difference.”
YOU SAY YOU LEARNED A LOT FROM THE EXPERIENCE OF RUNNING FIVE YEARS AGO. IS THERE A LESSON TO BE LEARNED FROM THE SHIFT THAT HAPPENED IN TERMS OF CERTAIN PEOPLE’S SENSE OF YOU? THAT YOU DIDN’T STRIKE CERTAIN PEOPLE WHO ENDORSED YOU LAST TIME—MAYOR FOSTER, FOR SURE—AS ENDORSEABLE IN THIS RACE?
AL AUSTIN: “That’s politics. At end of the day, the people who decide if you are going to be a city councilmember or an elected official are the people who vote for you.
“Another thing I learned in 2007 is that endorsements matter a lot, but the endorsement of the voters is the highest endorsement that you can possibly get.
“I developed a one-on-one relationship with hundreds and hundreds of voters in 8th district, people who know me and know where my heart is and know where my passion is based on conversations that we had. I think that really made the difference.
“I don’t sell people short in any way. After the election in 2007, I did some work in the Iowa caucuses. I learned a lot about people during that process. You can’t judge a book by its cover, ever. More than anything, I learned that just because this voter looks this way you can’t determine how they are going to vote. I don’t subscribe to that politics of thought, anymore.”
YOUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCE—THE VALIDATION THAT ELECTIONS REALLY DO COME DOWN TO VOTING—IS REFRESHING. IT’S LIKE, OK, DEMOCRACY…THAT’S WHAT WE’RE DOING HERE!
AL AUSTIN: “That was the most beautiful and validating experience in this whole campaign. April 2012—a great time for Long Beach! My campaign spoke to that more than anything. And I am so humbled to be in this position.”