Fireworks in the District 10 City Council runoff election for which early voting starts tomorrow, December 3.
Jeremi Suri, husband of incumbent District 10 Council Member Alison Alter, created a bit of a firestorm on social media when he tweeted that Alter’s runoff opponent, Jennifer Virden, is a racist.
He tweeted, “…Austin is not deteriorating, just the quality of unqualified, racists running for office for the first time.”
When The Austin Bulldog asked Suri in a telephone interview if in his tweet he is referring to Jennifer Virden, he said, “Yes I am.” (More about the circumstances leading to the tweet later in the story.)
Virden replied on Twitter: “I guess, when backed into a corner, Alison Alter will have her husband claim I’m a racist instead of talking about the issues she knows she’s losing voters on.
“It goes without saying this is false, and this is classless. District 10 will remember this when they vote.”
When invited to elaborate on her response for this story, Virden emailed earlier today to say, “I’m not going to comment beyond my reply on Twitter last evening.”
Alter reacts concerning her reelection campaign
The Austin Bulldog asked Alter if she and her husband discussed his tweet beforehand. She said they did not.
“No, we did not talk about it before he posted on Twitter,” she told the Bulldog. “This is something he writes about all the time. I don’t censor him and he doesn’t censor me.”
Asked if his comment will hurt her reelection campaign, as Virden’s response predicts, Alter said. “I don’t think it’s going to hurt the campaign. It’s what she said at the forum and what she didn’t say.
“What’s going to matter to the district is that they want someone who shows up. I show up at all forums. I show up prepared and I’m ready to govern. She does not show up. She’s not prepared. And she doesn’t know how to respond beyond her talking points.”
Events of this evening offer another example about Virden not showing up for forums. Central Texas Interfaith scheduled a forum this evening. Joy Penticuff told the Bulldog by email, “Jennifer Virden has declined our invitation to participate tonight.”
Why skipping forums?
When the Bulldog on November 21 asked Virden why she is skipping all the candidate forums except for the one moderated by the League of Women Voters, she replied, “I have decided to only participate in forums that are organized by neutral parties.” When the Bulldog in a follow-up email that day asked why she would not participate in a forum organized by a large group of neighborhood associations located in District 10, she did not reply.
Virden made a necessary exception for the League of Women Voters forum because she was obligated to participate as part of her responsibility for having signed the Fair Campaign Contract, which earned her $26,443 to help defray runoff campaign expenses.
Regarding Virden’s Forum absences, Alter said, “She bailed on the people who counted on hearing from her. If she doesn’t show up when she wants your vote, she won’t show up when elected. That should be a warning bell for any voter.”
Who is Suri and why speaking out?
Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Professor for Global Leadership, History, and Public Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. His personal website provides extensive information about him.
He told The Austin Bulldog that his tweet was responding to what Virden said when she answered a question during the November 30 forum for runoff candidates moderated by Carol Eckelkamp of the League of Women Voters.
Eckelkamp’s question for Virden and Alter was based on an article in the Austin American-Statesman November 25. She said, “The Statesman article reported on a volatile text string among a current police officer who has since been fired and former officers that displayed poor judgment and racial bias. This is one of the most recent issues to plague the police department,” according to the transcript of that forum.
“Do you believe there is a systemic problem in the Austin Police Department? If so, how will you address this in upcoming council and committee meetings? If not, how can you explain the recent findings of internal investigations and investigative reporting?”
Virden answered, “First of all, I do not believe there is a systemic problem in the Austin Police Department regarding racism and that sort of thing. Although I do find those reports extremely disturbing. I do think they’re rare and they’re not a common occurrence, but, I wanted to touch on the re-imagining the public safety, which is just a rebranding of the funding…That is not something that I would have been in favor of on the dais. I think it’s one of the most dangerous things we’ve ever done for the City of Austin. I think that also knowing that it takes 18 months…for the Austin Police Department to fill a cadet class, get them through the class and get them out on patrol. That 18 month pipeline has now been completely cut off. We have no new officers in training and we are approximately 500 officers short at the moment, which means we don’t have…extra officers available to have any sort of police presence to deter a crime while they’re rushing from one 911 call to the next 911 call. And they’re already short staffed. So that’s just something that I just, I believe the Austin Police Department is just a wonderful group of men and women, and they deserve to be treated with respect and fully funded, and they need to feel that they’re cared for and valued by the citizens that they serve.”
It was the very first sentence in Virden’s long response that offended Jeremi Suri. In a telephone interview today, he talked about the ways that people may use language that doesn’t include the ‘N’ word and other obviously racist language but nonetheless create a racist image.
He points to the “classic states rights” issue, as described in The Southern Manifesto of 1956, as described in the archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. It was signed by 83 representatives and 19 senators, all from states that once composed the Confederacy. “It marked a moment of southern defiance against the Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka (KS) decision, which determined that separate school facilities for black and white school children were inherently unequal. The Manifesto attacked Brown as an abuse of judicial power that trespassed upon states’ rights.”
Suri said, “You’re not saying you’re pro slavery and you’re not saying I think African Americans are inferior, but everyone knows that’s the implication when you say ‘states rights’ in that context.
“What Jennifer Virden is doing, and I’m just applying scholarship, she’s doing the same thing, using ‘white coding.’
“When she was asked a question about racist language used by the police, instead of addressing that, she says ‘We should support our police at all cost and then condemns her opponent for trying to investigate these issues.
“She’s in effect saying that comments about racism among police don’t matter. She’s saying if you care about racism in the police force you are undermining public safety.
“She creates an image of rising crime by people who look a certain way and says we need for the police to protect us against all these people doing bad things.”
Why did Suri go public?
“I saw this behavior and it resonated with the scholarship and I identified it. I’m against racism.”
Suri said, “I rarely write about Austin politics. I’m just identifying what I see. I am applying my knowledge to these issues as I do with my work with CNN and the Washington Post.
CNN on November 19 published his review of former President Barack Obama’s most recent book, A Promised Land.
Suri labeled Governor Abbott a racist, too
This is not the first time Suri called out someone for racism.
He hammered Texas Governor Greg Abbott in September with his article, “Texas Gov. Abbott’s ‘Back the Blue’ pledge to seize Austin’s police department is a return to Jim Crow.”
Jim Crow refers to state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in southern states.
“Historians have documented how the pressure to pledge support for segregation eliminated the space for compromise: you had to be either for segregation or against it, nothing in-between. Many elected officials caved to the fear of alienating white voters,” Suri wrote.
“Governor Greg Abbott’s ‘Back the Blue’ manifesto re-plays this terrible history.”
In a short video Abbott called for Texans to sign a Back the Blue pledge “to oppose any efforts to defund the police and to show my support for the brave law enforcement officers who risk their lives to protect and serve. Defunding our police departments would invite crime into our communities and put people in danger. That is why I pledge to support any measure that discourages or stops efforts to defund police departments in Texas.
“Our law enforcement officers have our backs every single day, and we need to show them that Texans have their backs,” the pledge states.
Suri wrote, “Abbott’s measure, in fact, is straight out of the Jim Crow playbook. The governor wants to overturn reforms approved unanimously by the Austin City Council to cut about $20 million–or 5 percent—from the police department’s $400 million budget next year. The city also plans to explore ways to fully fund traditional police patrol service, but reorganize other public safety programs, including mental health, forensics labs and family crisis intervention, outside of direct police control.
“In retaliation, Abbott’s proposal would freeze the city’s property tax authority and, while details remain few, further envisions the state seizing full control of Austin’s police services.
“Why is Abbott demanding this pledge of support for such draconian action from elected officials? He offers no pledge on racial justice or police reform of any kind. Like the Jim Crow politicians of 1956, the governor is trying to polarize debate into a question of whether you are ‘for’ or ‘against’ the police, with no room for compromise and reform in-between. The echoes of ‘segregation now and forever’ are obvious.”
Suri’s article ends with a plea: “Governor Abbott: please rewrite your pledge to erase the Jim Crow language, and embrace reforms that make our police better, with protection and dignity for all of our diverse citizens.”
Police backing Virden for election
A press release Virden issued early this afternoon states, “I’ve received endorsements from TWO police associations. Both the Austin Police Association and the Austin Police Retired Officers Association have endorsed me and are officially on #TeamVirden.”
Links to related documents:
Governor Greg Abbott’s Back the Blue pledge form (1 page)
Jennifer Virden’s Twitter response to Jeremi Suri’s tweet, December 1, 2020 (1 page)
Trust indicators: Ken Martin has been covering elections and doing investigative reporting in the three-county Austin metro area since 1981. You can read more about Ken on the About page.
Links to related Bulldog election coverage:
Council challengers get big bucks boost, November 17, 2020
Underdog Fuentes wins open D2 seat, November 4, 2020
Down to the wire: Jimmy Flannigan and his challengers, October 30, 2020
Council candidates raised nearly $1.2 million, October 27, 2020
Land battle: D7 candidates Pool vs Witt, October 22, 2020
Alter’s odds against winning, five to one, October 21, 2020
Three candidates vie for District 2 council seat, October 15, 2020
Council candidates so far raised $930,000, October 7, 2020
Transit tax draws attack from the left, October 2, 2020
Council Member Flannigan’s bad debts, September 24, 2020
Council candidates have voting records too, September 18, 2020
Developer dollars flow to favored candidates, August 27, 2020