Citizens Against Rail Taxes

The City of Austin included a $1.38 billion bond on the November 2014 ballot (Austin Proposition 1) to build the first line of an area-wide light rail system. With strong support from the city’s political establishment, most observers assumed the bond would pass with little difficulty.

KC Strategies was retained by the only organized opposition, Citizens Against Rail Taxes (C.A.R.T.), to develop an original message that would cut through the noise at the top of the ballot and educate Austin voters about the proposition’s flaws.

The challenges in this race were immense. Austin traffic is the 4th worst in the U.S. despite the relatively small size of the city, and people’s desperation for any traffic relief gave the bond an early head of steam in nearly all benchmark surveys.

Several other factors also gave the pro-rail contingent an advantage, including the bundling of $400 million road dollars into the proposal to entice support from suburban voters, and the presence of another Proposition 1 on the ballot - this one for the state - that was devoted entirely to road construction and caused voter confusion. The pro-rail campaign also held a substantial fundraising advantage over C.A.R.T. and was also able to utilize tax dollars through the local transit authority to "educate" voters about the benefits of rail.

The biggest challenge, however, was the fact that most people do not know, or do not care, about bond initiatives. With several high-profile statewide races, a Mayor's race and 10 council seats up for grabs, cutting through the noise was vital.

The tipping point came when we decided to use humor, and local Austin talent, to draw people's attention to this ballot initiative. We trolled the Austin improv and standup comedy community searching for a candidate to "star" in our TV ads and web videos. The idea was simple. The cost of this light rail bond compared to the benefits of relieving traffic congestion was so ridiculous that it demanded to be mocked and ridiculed. What better way to do that than with a local comedian? So we created a comedy club set in an empty restaurant and produced a TV spot and series of web videos that began to turn the tide by engaging otherwise disinterested voters.

When the ads were released online and then on TV, the numbers began to shift dramatically. They were so popular, in fact, that they even became part of the news cycle. Then, in the closing days of the campaign once people were tuned in, we released a TV spot and accompanying radio ad which outlined the deceptive nature of the pro-rail campaign that put the final nail in the coffin of the bond initiative.

Austin Proposition 1 was soundly defeated 57.2% to 42.8% All of this occurred in spite of being outspent by the pro-rail contingent 3-to-1. In the end, KC Strategies took a bottom-of-the-ballot initiative which few, outside of those with a vested interest in its passage, were paying attention to, and turning it into the most talked about race in Austin in 2014.