As a deejay, Austin Head knows how to work a crowd. It takes finesse, and it takes being in touch. Those skills are coming in handy for the entertainer/LGBT advocate: He recently announced that he is running for a seat on Phoenix's District 4 city council.
It's a very different gig than providing music at a nightclub, but his entertainment credentials play heavily into his decision to run. He wants to see Phoenix get a cultural makeover, and help shed the idea that the city is the capital of a racist and homophobic backwater state. When Head and a friend were assaulted in November in a bias crime on Central Avenue it cemented his resolve to enter politics.
"I'm sure that if [the light rail] was running the Thursday I was assaulted, I would have been on the light rail and not walking on the street," says Head, who advocates light-rail expansion and densifying Phoenix's business and entertainment clusters. Arizona makes headlines, obviously, but for all the wrong reasons. (We're a recurring Daily Show gag.) He wants to change that, citing the Big Apple's "I Love New York" campaign as an example of cultural rebranding.
"Some of the reasons businesses don't come to Phoenix is because of the reputation that Arizona has," he says. "Some large entertainment names don't come here on tour because of SB 1070 and other reasons, like [Sheriff Joe] Arpaio's practices," says Head, who wants to see Phoenix branded less as a resort town.
Phoenix's sprawl contributes to a lack of identity he says, and he'd like to see the city's public transit expand its reach.
"We want the light rail to expand," he says. "I would propose putting another line up and down Thomas or McDowell from 59th Avenue, as opposed to just extending the one line. All that land on Central could have more businesses, and with the light rail expanding, it would motivate businesses to come to Phoenix as well. We just lost a major headquarters when US Airways chose Dallas over Tempe; we want to lure headquarters to base themselves in Phoenix."
District 4 spans approximately from 59th Avenue to State Route 51 between Interstate 10 and Camelback Road. This midtown area is home to a significant number of local businesses, including many of the venues that host Austin Head as a DJ or as a singer. He says the area can learn a lot from downtown Phoenix. "The reason downtown is going so well is because CityScape opened up and the light rail goes right through there. It's easy to get there," he says. "We have to deal with all the stringent liquor laws that are hindering nightlife because people would rather stay home than risk being pulled over. I don't condone drunk driving, obviously [but the more public transit could help]."
Of course, Head's prominent status as an LGBT advocate also factors into his plans.
"[I plan on] expanding the domestic-partnership statutes," he says. "Having the only thing to be on the statute is being able to visit each other in the hospital is ridiculous. You have to go through and sign domestic-partnership paperwork just so you can go see them, that's absurd. The reason that these things don't change is because people would rather live in fear than educate themselves on something they're unaware of. The opposite of love is fear. The only way to know true love is to stop fearing what you don't know."
Head is running against five opponents for the city council seat: Santos Chavez, Laura Pastor, former state senator David Lujan, Dan Carroll, and Justin Johnson, all of whom have previous political experience. Can the DJ/entertainer hold his own against political veterans?
"I'm certainly not going to outraise them," he says. "They are each probably going to raise between $100,000 and 200,000, if not more, depending on their focus. I will have to outwork them and get the people behind me in order to beat the old political system, so to speak."
Head is taking a grassroots approach by speaking at street fairs and the Phoenix Gay Pride festival. He's been riding the light rail -- one of his key talking points -- daily to meet with voters and spread the word.
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"The rest of the time is filled with direct voter contact, where I either call or knock on doors and introduce myself, so people who are not in the nightlife scene can know my name," he says. "It's people voting for you and putting you in office, so you should treat them like people, and people want to meet who they're voting for."