The District 2 Council race is one of those occasional election contests where the earnestness and clear commitment of the candidates can stir hope among those still capable of harboring it. District 2 covers southeast Austin, basically everything in the the City limits south of Ben White and east of IH 35, plus west of the freeway to Menchaca (or the railroad tracks) between Stassney and Slaughter — with a small incursion north of Stassney between the tracks and South First Street.
Four candidates are vying for the seat being vacated by Delia Garza, who will become County Attorney in January. Two of the candidates — David Chincanchan and Casey Ramos — are life- long residents of District 2 with clear commitments to public service, and to improving the quality of life in the District. They are joined by newer to Austin and District 2, Vanessa Fuentes, who says she can apply her skills as a “health care advocate” — including six years at the American Heart Association — to improving overall health and quality of life in the District; and, Alex Strenger a thoughtful, innovative thinking pedicab driver who says, “I am an entrepreneur who drives a pedicab,” adding, “I am the working person who our ‘progressive’ City Council claims to care so much about.” ( Alex Strenger has dropped out of the race and endorsed Casey Ramos. We keep Mr. Strenger in the story because he remains a potential factor in the race. A statement from him on his withdrawal is included below.)
This is also an extraordinarily polite race. For instance in a forum put on by Paul Saldaña and Alicia Perez for Saldaña’s podcast Habla Plática, candidates were several times given the opportunity to ask one of their opponents a question. This feature in candidate forums can often be a bruising, and entertaining, segment in which one candidate tries to nail another on whatever they spot as a weakness; in this race, however, not so much.
For example. Fuentes asked Ramos what he would do to address flooding. Ramos described a “public works trust fund” dedicated to drainage and flood prevention. When given a chance to respond to Ramos’ answer, Fuentes replied, “I think that’s a great idea.”
Strenger began a question to Fuentes by saying, “From listening to you and doing a little research on you, I think you have solid progressive credentials” and “your heart is in the right place.”
Even what could have been a tough exchange between Ramos and Chincanchan was friendly as it could possibly be. Ramos asked Chincanchan why he had “voted” for policies that contributed to displacement and gentrification while serving as a Council aide. Chincanchan began his reply by saying he had not voted for anything because “I have not had the honor of serving on the Council.”
Immediately realizing his error, Ramos interjected to apologize, saying, “I should have rephrased the question.” Ramos then quickly apologized for taking Chincanchan’s time for the apology.
“Oh no, no, no,” replied Chincanchan, as in no worries. He added that Ramos was correct that a lot of people have been displaced. Chincanchan then went on to defend his own record on the issue and to talk about how he has worked on anti-displacement strategies.
In one dynamic of the race, both Chincanchan and Ramos gently press Fuentes on why voters should pick her, a relative newcomer to the District over life long residents like themselves. At the Habla Plática forum Chincanchan referenced this in a question to Ramos, asking what Ramos, as the other native of the District, thinks are the most important needs.
Ramos then asked Fuentes politely, but directly, why she thinks she as a relative newcomer is better suited to represent the District than him, a “a third generation born and raised southeast Austinite.”
Fuentes replied that she comes from the “working class” on the “jagged edge,” listed a number of community endeavors in which she has been involved, and added that this is the district where she has chosen to raise her children and she wants to be involved in ensuring a good quality of life for them.
Ramos politely replied that there are “certain nuances” needed to understand the community “fully” and those come from time and experience. He added that Fuentes has only been in the district “a couple of years.” According to her ballot application that is accurate, and she has lived in Austin for 15 years.
In a questionnaire sent to all Council candidates, the Independent asked candidates to list their top three priorities, inquired about their views on providing basic City services, and asked about several major issues in the Council races. We encourage readers to study the complete answers here. On the questionnaires, and in the section immediately below, we list the candidates by their order on the ballot.
Chincanchan, until recently as aide to Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria, began his list with a prologue: “The pandemic has laid bare some of the worst disparities in our community, including lack of access to quality healthcare in Southeast Austin. ‘Pre-existing conditions’ like housing instability, food insecurity, and lack of economic opportunity allowed the pandemic to wreak havoc in our community, especially in our District 2 neighborhoods where so many of our neighbors serve as frontline workers and risk exposure to the virus with little choice, protection, or compensation.” To address these challenges, Chincanchan’s top priorities are:
“Access to Safe, Healthy, and Affordable Housing; Access to Frequent, Reliable, and Affordable Public Transit; and Access to Quality Education and Economic Opportunity.”
Ramos, a former boxer and long time community advocate, writes, “My top three priorities for District 2 are fighting displacement and gentrification, fixing flooding in District 2 (including his aforementioned proposal for a public works trust fund), and ensuring that all residents of District 2 have access to healthcare and healthy foods. (Chincanchan and Fuentes also promote access to healthy foods.) On displacement and gentrification, Ramos adds, “I oppose CodeNext and any other rewrite of our land development codes that calls for density and transition zones in established single-family home communities. I commit to supporting neighborhood-based planning that is not developer-driven. I also commit to support income-based housing that is truly affordable for our residents.”
Transition zones are one of the most controversial aspects of the proposed LDC. Concentrated almost entirely in central city neighborhoods, including East Austin, transition zones would upzone entire streets of existing single family homes to allow four to six units per lot. This has faced widespread resistance in the central city, including in East Austin, but a coalition of Council Members representing suburban and predominately minority districts have combined in votes to impose transition zones on central city neighborhoods where, in most cases, Council Members representing those areas are opposed. A number of neighborhood representatives in District 2 are also opposed to the LDC and accompanying transition zones.
This is a particularly important issue in the District 2 race because it would flip a vote on the Council, where Garza has been an ardent LDC proponent.
Fuentes lists her top three priorities as: “Health Equity; Community Engagement; and Financial Stability.” On health equity, Fuentes says, “Lack of healthcare access and limited access to healthy food are just a few of the issues that my community faces.” While, her views on health care and health equity are similar to the other candidates, Fuentes repeatedly stresses her health advocacy background and how she believes that experience can be applied effectively as a Council Member.
On “Community Engagement,” Fuentes explains, “We’ve had several big issues confront our community in the last few years including school closures and a comprehensive update to the land development code. . . My neighbors in Southeast Austin feel left out of the process. They feel that they are being ignored and dismissed.” While this might sound like the perennial complaint of newcomer candidates, it can also be read as the closest any District 2 candidate comes to criticizing current District 2 representative Delia Garza, who has often voted against the wishes of Southeast Austin neighborhood advocates.
On “Financial Stability,” Fuentes makes rather sweeping proposals to “to ensure that our most vulnerable populations have the necessary resources needed to make ends meet. . . by providing direct financial assistance to those in need, offering grants to small businesses and nonprofits, and partnering with organizations to ensure a stable safety net.” 234, 177 without my commentary on DG
Strenger’s top three priorities are “Affordability, Homelessness and Meaningful Police Reform.” On affordability, Strenger proposes, “We need to double the homestead tax exemption to 20% and keep our tax rate at a sustainable level so that working families can afford to stay in Austin.” The homestead exemption echoes an original promise of Mayor Steve Adler in his successful 2014 campaign. Adler and the Council, however, decided that wasn’t such a great idea after all, and stopped far short of full implementation. That earned Adler Politifact’s “Promise Broken” designation.
Among other ideas on addressing homelessness, Strenger proposes, “Offer Tax Credits for businesses that conduct food drives, clothing drives and cleanups of homeless encampments. We also need to utilize cleanups as part of diversion programs for people who commit misdemeanors or low-level offenses.” He also proposes allocating part of parking meter revenues to “to homeless services organizations that are selected by our City’s Homelessness Advocate,” which he styles as a way to “encourage all Austinites to take an active role in providing the essential services that our homeless need in order to get off and stay off the streets.”
On police, Strenger stresses, “we need meaningful police reform for the safety of our communities as well as our police officers.” One specific proposal he advances is, “Training- proficiency in grappling (bjj, judo, wrestling, sambo) should be a requirement if you want to become a cop and you should have to train consistently (2-3X/wk) in order to keep your job. Proficiency in grappling will substantially decrease the likelihood of a police officer using excessive or deadly force in a stressful situation.”
Strenger has now pulled out of the race and endorsed Ramos. He gave the following statement to The Austin Independent on his withdrawal. “Yes this is 100% true. I got into this race because we need practical, actionable and non-divisive solutions in order to address our affordability, homelessness and policing concerns. Casey Ramos is a candidate who not only shares my concerns, but also has a similar vision for addressing many of the concerns listed on my website. The two of us are the most reasonable, relatable and community-oriented candidates in the entire City of Austin. The only problem is that we are running against each other in the same district, when we should instead be working together in order to get one of us elected. So when you have a candidate like Casey Ramos, who already has widespread Community Support within the district, well it’s a no-brainer.”
One of the elements that makes the District 2 race so encouraging – at least for now — is that the candidates are civil and polite with each other even as they differ considerably on some major issues.
For example though Ramos and Chincanchan both hail from District 2, they differ on several key issues. Those include: the Land Development Code rewrite and Council’s recent actions on the police budget. There are mixed views among the other two candidates as well.
Land Development Code
On the Land Development Code rewrite, Chincanchan is the sole enthusiastic supporter in the race. Ramos is opposed to the LDC as currently comprised. Fuentes is more nuanced, or vague, but does offer criticisms.
As is typical for LDC supporters, Chincanchan lays out a summary of all the ills that he believes the LDC can address: “I support a comprehensive land development code revision that addresses and mitigates the impacts of displacement, gentrification, and sprawl; creates more opportunities for the creation of transit-supportive, affordable housing; reduces allowable city-wide impervious cover, improves city-wide water quality, and reduces overall flood risk.” He did also offer, however, in an Independent follow-up to the questionnaire, “Addressing displacement, economic segregation, sprawl, flooding, and environmental degradation is going to require much more than just approving a new land development code.”
A key issue is the Council majority’s appeal of a court ruling that determined the City was violating state laws on protest and notice in the upzoning cases, like transition zones. Judge Jan Soifer voided the Council majority’s first two votes/readings on the LDC. Under protest rights, if a property has a “valid petition” — meaning the property owner, and/or a certain percentage of nearby property owners, object to the zoning change — then the Council must have nine votes to pass it.
Chincanchan would continue the City’s appeal of the court ruling. Ramos says he would vote to end the appeal. While still in the race, Strenger also opposed continuing the appeal. Fuentes appears to oppose the appeal, but does not say exactly, instead offering, “I served as a Democratic Precinct Chair under Judge Soifer when she served as the Travis County Democratic Party chair. I always found her to be a fair and just arbiter. Judge Soifer has ruled that Austin City Council has erred in how they proceeded in their effort to rewrite the Land Development Code. Austin City Council must work within the framework of state law.”
Fuentes does say she would have voted no on the second reading before Council last year. She explains, “The equity overlay was included in the draft at the 11th hour which suggested that these changes were an afterthought and not a focus in creating the plan.” Once again this can be read as a criticism of incumbent Garza, who offered the “equity overlay” late in the process. The proposal was also criticized on its merits by East Austin opponents of the LDC.
On transition zones, Fuentes is more vague, writing, “I have huge concerns with transition zones in low-income communities of color. I worry that their use in these areas will only speed up gentrification.” In neither answer though does Fuentes mention the thousands of homes in central city neighborhoods that are not predominately “low-income communities of color.” The Independent followed up with a question on how Fuentes feels about transition zones in those areas, but did not hear back by press time.
In his answers to the Independent’s questionnaire, Chincanchan did not directly answer how he would have voted on what was before Council on the second reading of the LDC. In a follow-up, the Independent asked whether Chincanchan would seek “consensus” and “compromise” if the City were to prevail in the appeal and only six votes were needed to pass the LDC (the question included the assumption that there would still be enough pro-LDC votes, including Chincanchan to form a majority. As noted earlier, If the plaintiffs prevail on appeal, nine votes are required when a property owner opposes rezoning of their property, but only six votes if the City prevails).
In his reply Chincanchan also addressed how he would have voted were he on the dais for second reading, “I would not have supported the 2nd draft of the LDC. In seeking compromise, some of the transition zones should absolutely be up for discussion, especially those in East and Southeast Austin.” Chincanchan’s statement that he would not have voted for second reading is a break, on one particular issue, with his former boss, Council Member Pio Renteria. Nonetheless, his answer omitted mention of numerous central city neighborhoods that are proposed to be transition zones, areas where the Council majority would upzone entire streets of existing single family homes to allow four to six units per lot.
On transition zones, Ramos vows to oppose any LDC rewrite, “that calls for density and transition zones in established single-family home communities,” He adds, “For decades the City of Austin has allowed developers to build unbridled without paying their fair share or adding to the affordable housing fund. I’ll put a stop to prioritizing special interests over citizens’ needs. I will fight to ensure that what happened to District 3 (meaning primarily East Austin barrios between IH 35 and U.S. 183) does not happen here in our community.”
Strenger makes similar points saying, “Rezoning single-family homes for multi-use facilities will either push working families out of Austin or it will lower the property value for long time residents, both of which are extremely unfair to the homeowner.”
On policing, all four candidates call for police reform, but would go about it differently. Chincanchan strongly defends the recent Council actions on the police budget. Fuentes says she would have voted yes as well, but says the hardest work lies ahead.
Strenger says the Council went about reform in “one of the most dangerous and divisive ways” possible. Ramos says, “I don’t believe that it makes sense to take away funding and at the same time demand that APD improves training procedures. I do feel we need police reform but it will take a full budget to achieve the change we need.” Ramos also says that as a kid, he benefitted greatly from Police Athletic League activities and worries that such programs could be cut.
Given the intense focus of the current Council, and numerous candidates, on social, economic, and racial equity, the Independent asked all candidates to discuss their “philosophy of a Council Members’ role and responsibility when it comes to ensuring the provision of basic City services to citizens.” This was asked in the spirit of the author’s belief that a City Council Member has the responsibility to ensure the adequate and competent provision of basic City services — although not the responsibility to manage the provision of those services.
Chincanchan emphasized the Council’s budget role and promised, “I will focus on maintaining the city’s ability to provide the essential services our community expects from its local government, including on public health and safety,” then returned to his central campaign themes, “as well as ensuring that we are continuing to support our most vulnerable families through services that are essential to their daily lives, such as childcare, food access, and more.”
Ramos answered that the “two key responsibilities of being a Council Member are to first listen to the members of the community and to then lift the voices and concerns of those you represent while on the dais in City Hall.”
Strenger said that a Council Member’s responsibility is “to be as transparent as possible when it comes to how you can provide effective services as well as the types of services that you can realistically provide.”
Fuentes was the only District 2 candidate to actually list a few basic City services, writing, “The number one job of a Council Member is to listen to their constituents. I value the process in which we engage our community. I also believe our city should not lose sight of the importance of basic city services like sewers, trash pick up, water, streets, libraries, schools, and first responders. These are the first priority goals for this city.”
On To The Polls
One of these candidates will be sitting on the Council dais come January. As noted at the top, they are all very committed to the citizens of District 2. Also, it seems clear from some of their soaring rhetoric that they don’t realize, or don’t acknowledge, the limits of City power. Reality will doubtlessly puncture the simplicity of these glorious ideas.
Whoever wins, the new Council Member smell will wear off quickly and he or she will be in the slough with everybody else. But still, hearing the candidates’ philosophies, their passions, hopes, dreams and plans is extremely useful in trying to assess what kind of Council Member they will make. And, let’s sincerely hope that whoever wins can maintain the comity and graciousness they display on the campaign trail.
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