It has been a few weeks since the City Council and rail elections, but the Independent has been busy covering other issues. So here we will give a quick review of the Council election results followed by a look at the two upcoming runoffs. We’ll discuss the rail initiative, which passed by a wide margin, in a future post.
The short version of the Council election is that two incumbents — Leslie Pool and Greg Casar — swept to decisive, if widely expected, victories. Two incumbents — Jimmy Flannigan and Alison Alter — face runoffs on December 15. And, in District 2, Austin has a new Council Member — Vanessa Fuentes. Fuentes will replace Delia Garza who won an uncontested race for County Attorney — after defeating three opponents in the Democratic primary.
First, both Pool and Casar pulled around two-thirds of the vote in their respective districts. The two races though featured different dynamics. The main policy difference between Pool and her only opponent, Morgan Witt, appeared to be the Land Development Code (LDC). Pool opposes the LDC rewrite as currently constructed. Witt was fairly unspecific on that, but many, including this reporter, gleaned an urbanist stance from her rhetoric.
Witt’s main campaign theme was being a progressive leader. Voters stuck with Pool who has built up plenty of progressive credibility herself during her years in government and community organizing — in government both on the staff side and since 2015 as a Council Member. Voters also appear to strongly support Pool’s stance against the LDC.
Casar faced two challengers in District 4 although only one ran what could be termed a serious campaign. That was Louis Herrin III who pulled more than he had in two previous runs for the same seat. He campaigned against the police budget cuts, the camping ban repeal, Project Connect and the Land Development Code rewrite, but was unable to make any serious dents in Casar’s support within the District.
A Rout in District 2
Meanwhile in the open District 2 seat Vanessa Fuentes won a landslide. She rolled to victory with 56% of the vote. Fuentes won despite trailing David Chincanchan, former aide to Council Member Pio Renteria, in both fundraising and endorsements. Chincanchan was endorsed by multiple Democratic clubs, several labor unions, the Workers Defense Action Fund, and the Austin Chronicle.
In the fundraising derby, Chincanchan raised $97,000 as of the required report filed eight days before the election. Fuentes raised just short of $57,000 in the same period, while Casey Ramos raised just over $6,000. Chincanchan appeared to have a lot of advantages. As noted he was the top fundraiser. He grew up in the District, won most of the endorsements and appeared to run a solid, traditional campaign. Nonetheless he fell far short. That’s hard to explain. He might have been hurt by being something of an incumbent, having worked for Council Member Pio Renteria until right before he ran and being firm in supporting the incumbent Council’s policy pretty much straight down the line. It is far from certain, however, whether that is what felled Chincanchan’s campaign.
Ramos, who also grew up inn the District, did a mailer, which only arrived after the end of early voting. In it he made known his opposition to the police budget cuts, the LDC rewrite and Project Connect. That likely helped him with voters who don’t like the direction of the current Council.
Both Chincanchan and Ramos drew 19%, but Ramos actually slightly outpolled Chincanchan. Fuentes ran a well organized campaign and she drew donations from a broad base of citizens, as envisioned by backers of 10-1. But, still the margin is pretty surprising.
It is difficult to offer definitive reasons on why Fuentes won such a decisive victory. As noted in pre-election coverage she raised money from a diverse array of donors; few of them well known local names. She also clearly ran a solid grass roots campaign. An endorsement from the American-Statesman editorial board almost certainly helped propel her to victory. The Statesman said that she would offer an antidote to the “groupthink” which they maintain the Council often engages in.
Fuentes may also have benefitted from the fact that so many District 2 voters, like her, are relatively new to the District. In fact she did particularly well in the newer neighborhoods east of Dove Springs i.e. east of Nuckols Crossing. She may also have benefited from an evident preference among Travis County voters for women. Fuentes’ strong victory might also argue, from a purely campaign strategy viewpoint, for being vague on policy positions. For instance Fuentes managed to get through the whole campaign without taking a firm position on the LDC.
None of these explanations, however, is certain. What is certain is that Fuentes won the race and will take office in January.
The West Austin Runoffs
Now, let’s take a look at the two races with runoffs, which happen to be in the two West Austin districts. Incumbent Alison Alter faces a runoff against Jennifer Virden in near West Austin District 10 while incumbent Jimmy Flannigan is in a runoff against Mackenzie Kelly in suburban Northwest District 6.
Although Flannigan and Alter often find themselves on the opposite side of Council issues, they are making common cause on one issue in the runoff. Each of them is framing their race as a battle to keep the seat in Democratic hands. Indeed their opponents are either Republicans or Republican-leaning.
According to the Austin Bulldog, Virden has voted in Republican primaries ten times and a Democratic primary once, in 2008. Kelly has a spottier record of voting, at least in primaries. She told the Bulldog that she cast her first vote for George W. Bush in 2000 and she voted in the Republican primary this year.
So both Alter and Flannigan are correct that they are the Democrat in their race. On the other hand, City Council races are theoretically nonpartisan. Candidates are not identified by party on the ballot and candidates for a particular seat all run in the same race, with no party primary. Nonetheless, party affiliation has long played a role during Council campaigns.
The “I’m the Democrat” strategy shows how strong a Democratic city Austin is. The two West Austin districts have more Republicans than any of the other eight and both have sent Republicans to City Hall before. Joe Biden, however, carried both districts, by a wider margin in District 10 than in District 6.
While both Alter and Flannigan are Democrats they have very different records and approaches on some of the issues dominating both contests. For instance on the repeal of the camping ban Alter voted no and offered an alternative plan while Flannigan voted yes. She has experienced an uphill fight in explaining this to voters.
Perhaps the hottest issue in both races is the police budget i.e. the cuts Council made to the police budget in August. With the mention of the police budget I feel the need to warn readers that I am about to divert into a topic that some of you may believe I have covered enough. I’m talking about the tweet and email that Council Member Casar sent out in August that intentionally exaggerated how much the Council cut from the Austin Police Department (APD) budget, in an obvious attempt to play to activists demanding large cuts. I myself planned to move on from this in the post election period. With runoffs though we are not yet in the post election period and the issue is important to the dynamics of the two runoff contests.
So here’s how that worked. In the wake of the George Floyd killing by Minneapolis police and the ongoing controversy over the shooting of unarmed Michael Ramos by Austin Police, hundreds of activists spoke virtually at City Council meetings demanding that Council cut the APD budget by $100 million or more and redirect the money to social services and social justice initiatives. Much of their testimony was very compelling, especially from a young man whose brother was critically injured by a “non-lethal round’ fired by Austin Police as he stood at a protest.
APD management, however, along with the Greater Austin Crime Commission and others, argued that such dramatic cuts would weaken the department and endanger public safety. Speakers calling for major cuts far outnumbered those opposed.
The Council appeared on the verge of making the six figure cuts, but shortly before the vote came up with something of a compromise. They voted unanimously to cut $21 from the $400 million plus APD budget and redirect those funds to social services. They then took another $129 million for functions such as 911, victims services, the Police Monitor’s Office, community outreach, and other services currently handled by APD and put the money for those functions into “transition funds.” The Council will then engage in further deliberation and decide during the first six months of the fiscal year (October-March) whether those services should be transferred out of APD.
This would have been, and is, a controversial vote all on its own. Then, after the Council voted on the police section of the City budget, but while they were still grinding through the rest of it, Casar tweeted, “We did it!! Austin City Council just reduced APD’s budget by over $100 million and reinvested resources into our community’s safety and well-being.”
Much of the media ran with Casar’s version. Governor Greg Abbott and other Republicans were more than happy to do the same. Casar was playing to his base, but Abbott immediately turned it into a play to his. That included the Governor’s Back the Blue campaign and threats about what will happen when the Legislature arrives in January, one threat being that the state Department of Public Safety (DPS) will take over running APD (oops, that’s another time Casar’s tweet will come up). Also, of course, multiple Republican candidates gleefully used the issue in their advertising while Democratic candidates tried to avoid the issue entirely out of fear of alienating portions of their base.
That left faithful Casar ally Mayor Steve Adler and the rest of the Council to try to explain what they had actually done; including that, at least for now, they had only cut and redirected $21 million, not more than $100 million; and if they do cut more, the services that money funds will likely continue, just within a different department.
Well, that’s complicated and the $100 million plus number was already frozen in the minds of many people in Austin as well as in the region, around the state, and even around the country. Anybody that has been involved in politics knows that it’s way more challenging to try to explain details rather than just shooting out a soundbite like Casar did.
So, whether or not the Council vote played a role in the losses of Democratic Congressional and legislative candidates, there is still one more opportunity for it to have an impact; the City Council runoffs.
In a guest Opinion piece last week in the Austin Chronicle Casar argued, “Every local elected official who voted to transform our policing budget won their race or was the top vote getter.” That is an accurate statement, but being “the top vote getter” is not all that comforting if you are an incumbent who received less than 50% of the vote and is heading into a runoff. That’s because it means that more than half the electorate has already voted against returning you to office for another term.
That doesn’t automatically mean that an incumbent will lose, but many have. Runoffs are pretty wide open and anything could happen.
For one thing the electorate will be much smaller and will have voters more focused on these particular races. That could work either way.
Alter and Flannigan will both get to keep explaining their votes on the police budget throughout the runoff. Alter’s position is somewhat different than Flannigan’s in that he was an early enthusiast for reducing the APD budget by over $100 million while Alter was more measured in her approach. Whether voters make that distinction, and to how many the issue is a deciding factor in their vote, remains to be seen.
In the meantime Flannigan and Alter will keep reminding everyone that they are the Democrat in their race. Kelly and Virden will prefer to talk about the police budget.
(There’s also another major issue in the race, and one on which Alter and Flannigan strongly disagree. That is the Land Development Code. In fact Flannigan is the only candidate in the runoffs that supports the LDC as currently constituted. The Independent covers that issue in a separate article posted today.)
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