I’ve taken some time to reflect on the journey of the past two years.
How did we get here? How I get here?
I was initially inspired by the extraordinary determination and passion of a local activist named Cleo Petricek, who I watched build a grassroots movement through the S.A.F.E. Project, which successfully prevented a homeless shelter from being built at a south Austin location within 0.5 miles of three schools, two of which were majority minority.
Cleo’s irrepressible spirit moved me. If she can do this, maybe I can do something.
As you may recall, the camping ordinance was voted on in mid-June 2019, with little fanfare, attention or public input. It took effect July 1, 2019.
On July 17, 2019, I started on online petition on Change dot org to “rescind the public camping ordinance” in Austin, having seen in just two and a half weeks the damage it was doing to my hometown. Within a week we had 10,000 signatures. Within a month we had 25,000.
All of a sudden, I felt a tremendous responsibility to advocate on behalf of our petition signers.
I’d update them 2–3 times a week on how the camping ordinance was negatively affecting standard of living, public safety, public health and our small businesses.
I began testifying before the city council.
The absolute absurdity of council meetings is impossible to fully convey. The first time I testified I arrived at 10am, and testified 13 hours later for three minutes after 1am. At this time, Council Member Greg Casar felt the need to debate how much human waste the average homeless person produces.
These meetings make it impossible for average citizens to participate in their local government. And that’s intentional.
But I was undeterred.
Quickly I sought out Cleo for a partnership. Could we create a nonpartisan nonprofit focused solely on these issues? We didn’t agree on national politics, but we had to turn our city around. Over time we bonded and established trust.
Before long Save Austin Now (SaveAustinNow.com) was launched.
In September 2019, after threats from the Governor, the Council reluctantly passed three modest but obvious reforms to the camping ordinance: banning camping on sidewalks, banning camping within 10 feet of the entrance to a home or business and banning camping in high risk fire and flood zones. Astoundingly, two members for the council opposed these changes!!!
At the time, they said they would consider NO FURTHER CHANGES to the camping ordinance. Such stunning arrogance.
So we decided a petition effort was our only recourse.
We engaged highly respected local lawyers Donna Garcia Davidson and Barry McBee. We developed our ordinance language. We sought and secured the support and coalition participation of Austin Police Association and SafeHorns. And in late February 2020, we announced our petition effort.
Then COVID and stay at home hit in March. We had to adapt. We moved to mail and texting. Our July 20 petition submission deadline could not wait. Mail requires massive volunteer efforts to open, read, decipher and enter data from signed petitions. Many people helped, but specifically I want to personally thank Suzanne Mackowiak and Logan Cheney for their generous and crucial efforts during this time.
After a massive push at the end, we crossed 24,500 signed petitions and submitted them July 20, 2020. I thought we were safe by turning in more than 20% more than was needed. On August 5th, the city came back and said we were 900 short of 20,000, even though we were only 65 short of the 5,000 quarter sample that was analyzed.
I was crushed. I felt I’d let everyone down.
But I got back up, in no small part due to the HUNDREDS of supportive and encouraging messages I received, which invariably communicated one central message: “Don’t give up. Keep fighting.”
We hired Russ Horton, filed a detailed public information request, got it back, analyzed it, and sued the city. That lawsuit remains pending.
Meanwhile, I joined with five other Austinites (Ellen Troxclair, Larry Maddalena, Michael Girard, Christopher Ragland and Cleo Petricek) to launch a nonpartisan PAC called Fight for Austin. Our board was two Republicans, two Democrats and two independents. Our goal was to support and elect council members who would promote and protect public safety.
We raised $480,000 in 10 weeks, helping force two runoffs. We elected Mackenzie Kelly 52–48% over singular asshole and cop hater Jimmy Flannigan and fell just 400 votes short of electing Jennifer Zent Virden over useless incumbent Alison Alter. It was a triumph. And it was the beginning of a movement.
On December 1, 2020, we launched our SECOND petition effort. Starting from zero.
Except this time we had just 50 days to collect, instead of 148 days we had the last time.
But this time we worked smarter and harder. We were more efficient. We self validated with a massive volunteer effort in the final two weeks. By February 20, we collected 30,000 signed petitions (our goal) and submitted 27,000 self validated petitions. Two weeks later, the city certified 26,103 signed petitions, the highest validity record in city history (96.6%).
Two days later, on the 569th day since the camping ordinance took effect, Austin Mayor Steve Adler admitted publicly for the first time that the camping ordinance had “failed”.
Since our issue made the ballot, we created Save Austin Now PAC to raise money and support Prop B.
Predictably, the city council used lobbyist Mark Littlefield’s poll tested language and passed prejudicial and illegal ballot language to intentionally bias voters against Prop B, with the language using the phrase “criminalize” three times in one sentence.
So we hired famed local Democratic attorney and former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire to sue the city over the ballot language. And we prevailed 6–3 in the Texas Supreme Court.
The ten week campaign is a blur. We raised $1.8M from 3,000+ donors, including extraordinary financial generosity from several courageous business leaders in our city. The support was extraordinary and unprecedented. We worked 16–18 hour days for ten weeks. We conducted more voter contact than anyone in Austin history. We were disciplined, strategic, data-driven, focused and relentless.
Despite Mayor Adler predicting it would be “very close”, in the end we won nearly 91,000 votes and secured a decisive 58–42% victory, which included 40%+ support from Democratic voters, 88% support from independents and 92% support from Republicans.
Our victory came against the stated and public opposition of Mayor Adler and 9 of 10 council members Mackenzie Kelly supported Prop B and was a huge help).
Our Save Austin Now PAC team was extraordinary: Cleo, Ken Casaday, Joell McNew and Emily Simonek as our board members. Team members and vendors including Brian Ruddle, Lauren Day, Logan Cheney, Aaron Pluto, Ellie Ruple, Shannon Burns, Cameron Jacox, Tom Hennig, Bobby Rodriguez, Will Franklin, Bob and Ben Thomas of Thomas Graphics, pollsters Brent Buchanan, Chris Perkins and Mike Baselice / Matt Gamble. There are many more who were tremendously helpful and committed. Their skill, focus, generosity and experience was the key to our success. I want to specifically commend my dear friend Ellie who gave her heart and soul to this. Her relief and satisfaction about this victory was a major source of my personal inspiration.
Now we are ensuring this camping ban is enforced and that the city actually provides real solutions to homelessness. We have been hard at work on this every day since May 1.
For every woman who has been harassed or attacked, this victory is for you. For every family that wants to enjoy their nearest city park, this victory is for you. For every business owner who has had to deal with petty theft and threats to employees and customers, this victory is for you. For every homeless individual suffering from unregulated camping in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, this victory is for you.
It should not be too much to ask that we have a clean and safe city for everyone.
We have built an extraordinary movement in our city.
And we are nowhere near done. We have so much work to do to ensure that Austin is a fantastic place to live, work and raise a family.
To support our work, please donate here: https://secure.anedot.com/matt-mackowiak-save-austin-now/donate.
To join our team by signing up to volunteer and subscribe to our email list, visit http://www.SaveAustinNow.com.