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The Mayor’s Life at SXSW

Austin Mayor Steve Adler speaks at the LBJ Library’s Future Forum in May 2017.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler speaks at the LBJ Library’s Future Forum in May 2017. Jay Godwin / LBJ Library via Flickr


Connecting state and local government leaders

In the background of a busy week of innovation, ideas, movies and music in Austin, Steve Adler is dealing with tricky challenges, like state legislative preemption and traffic congestion.

Austin is a boom town. While the metro area is no longer the fastest growing in the nation, it’s still hanging around in the top 5. It is also known for the sort of innovation and tech-fueled job growth that dozens of mid-sized cities across the nation aspire to.

And on the first day of the city’s annual moment in the international spotlight, as prominent figures are coming to share their knowledge with the world during the SXSW festival, Austin Mayor Steve Adler is tweeting about traffic.

Such is the life of a mayor. Particularly one whose population is about to increase by nearly 50 percent over the next week.

“I used to be really excited when SXSW would come because I’d know which bands I wanted to go hear play, I knew which movies I wanted to go see, and now that I’m doing this mayor’s gig, I miss the movies I want to go see and I oftentimes have to be somewhere else when the band I want to hear is playing,” Adler told Route Fifty.

Adler has a few other things on his plate. Of course, there’s the obvious issues that come with being a fast-growing city. While a building boom and an infusion of investment in infrastructure are taking some of the edge off of affordability and mobility issues in the city, they remain significant challenges. Those intertwined concerns are key areas for him at SXSW’s mayors summit, Civic I/O, in the coming days. “When I get together with mayors I always start there,” Adler said.

That’s not to say the mayor won’t get to play host at a movie, a concert, and even Franklin Barbecue during the week. But playing host is a different sort of experience.

While questions of equity, ideology and economic growth colliding will certainly come up for participants in SXSW’s Interactive conference, which includes a Cities Summit for participants, Adler, a Democrat, is living the reality of these major policy issues day-to-day.

That reality includes an ongoing hard push back from the outside forces that are the Republican-controlled Texas legislature and conservative governor on Austin’s progressivism. Last year the Texas state lawmakers held a special session focused on eliminating local ordinances in major cities. In all, the city has been targeted for their efforts to protect undocumented immigrants as a “sanctuary city,” regulations on the sharing economy, technical issues like fees on telecommunications companies for using public land and efforts to maintain trees on private land.

The setbacks hasn’t deterred Austin’s efforts. Last month the city passed an ordinance that would mandate paid sick leave for many workers in the city. Members of the legislature have already threatened to override that law, as well.

“I think that having lived in Texas for several decades, I’ve become totally convinced of the basic liberty interest that’s involved with a community being able to decide what it’s values are and how it’s going to express its values in the ordinances, regulations and laws that it passes,” Adler said. “I see it as being really counterproductive when states try to impose upon local communities’ values that are not primary in those areas.”

While preemption of local authority is a familiar issue for other mayors and one which will be part of a focus at their SXSW summit this year, like on many other issues, Austin and Adler seems to have seen more than most. Adler spoke passionately about mayors “leading in the national environment and the international environment that we have right now.”

“That’s not political,” Adler was quick to note. “That, again, is just trying to figure out what is the most effective and efficient way to really help the quality of life of people that here at the local level see me regularly at the grocery store.”

It seems to all echo back to his State of the City speech last month, where he not only got technical on city finance, but also talked about local unity in the face of external divisiveness—be it the state legislature or national concerns about election interference.

So how’s a mayor supposed to follow his favorite bands with those aspects going on in the background?

“At this point for this period of time, I’m going to really enjoy the opportunity to welcome people to the city, say hi to the other mayors that are coming to town, we have a couple of crown princes that are going to be arriving, and I’m really looking forward to those conversations,” Adler told me. “You know, in a few years, I won’t be able to talk to all the mayors, or the crown princes that are coming—I’ll just have to settle for the movies I want to see and the music I want to hear, and that will be OK, too.”

ALSO from Route Fifty’s coverage from SXSW 2018:

Mitch Herckis is Senior Director of Programs at Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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