Catching Up: Austin King now advising Federal Trade Commission
In 2003, at age 21, he won a Madison City Council seat. He helped pass a city minimum wage and a flurry of progressive initiatives, and after re-election, when just 24, was chosen as council president.
But that was only the start of an accomplished academic, legal and political life for Austin King, now 37, who was once called a “pot-smoking underachiever” by an opponent in his first, successful, bid for public office in the student-dominated 8th District.
Born in Minneapolis and raised in Milwaukee County, King graduated from Nicolet High School in 1999 and applied to only one college: UW-Madison. He intended to become a medical doctor but was drawn to progressive politics.
“I sometimes joke that I got my start in politics selling cutlery door-to-door in the summer of 2000,” he said. “If you can sell knives to strangers, surely you can persuade them to sign a petition or to vote.”
The 2000 election was electrifying and inescapable, but the spring 2001 city election hooked him for life, he said.
That year, King was volunteer coordinator for Todd Jarrell’s successful bid to unseat former Ald. Mike Staude, and became a good-natured, long-haired presence at city committee and council meetings, eventually changing his major to Spanish and dedicating himself to activism.
“We were a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens who changed our little corner of the world, and I wanted more,” he said.
When Jarrell chose medical school over re-election, King won the seat. And the council’s progressives brought change.
King and a close friend, activist Joe Lindstrom, led a campaign to council passage of a $7.75 minimum wage indexed to inflation. King helped pass legislation for sweatshop-free purchasing, nondiscrimination in housing for people without a Social Security number, tenants’ rights to repair broken housing and deduct costs from rent, inclusionary zoning for affordable housing, smoke-free workplaces, public accommodations for breastfeeding mothers and more.
A bid to pass the nation’s first law giving all workers the right to earn paid sick days lost by a 10-9 vote.
But, “much as I am a wonk, the real highlights of my time on the council were not the policies but the people,” he said.
After graduating from UW-Madison and declining to seek a third council term in 2007, King earned a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University and law degree from New York University, where he graduated summa cum laude.
King clerked for Jed Rakoff, senior U.S. district judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and Robert Katzmann, chief U.S. circuit judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He interviewed for but didn’t land clerkships with U.S. Supreme Court justices Justice Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
“Both clerkships were dream jobs for a young lawyer, seeing the nation’s best litigators practice and being trained by the finest legal minds — and finest people — imaginable,” he said.
He later wrote briefs for financial-reform enterprise Better Markets, and served as counsel in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Legal Division, Office of Law and Policy.
Recently, he was hired by the Federal Trade Commission, where he serves as an adviser to Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, one of two Democratic commissioners. He made his C-SPAN debut this month.
“The FTC finds itself squarely in the middle of some of the biggest policy debates of the day, from data security breaches and privacy violations to the new monopolies dominating the internet and hyper-concentration in so many industries,” he said.
King is also president of the board of directors of SurvJustice, the nonprofit legal arm of the #MeToo movement.
Between his latest government jobs, King and Lindstrom traveled through Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. Then they went to Florida to campaign for Amendment 4 to restore felon voting rights and the nearly successful gubernatorial bid of King’s old friend, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.
King, who visited Wisconsin over the holidays, long ago trimmed his once-long locks but retains an affection for the place where his political life took shape.
“I do miss Madison, and I don’t get back often enough,” he said. “I miss fresh cheese curds, home-game Saturdays, the Terrace, the Arboretum, and the farmer’s market. But mostly I miss the many friends I made there.”