As previously reported incumbent Alison Alter won reelection in a contest against challenger Jennifer Virden while challenger Mackenzie Kelly ousted incumbent Jimmy Flannigan. Both races were close with Alter winning 51% of the vote in West Austin District 10 and Kelly polling 52% in Northwest Austin District 6.
The cuts to the Austin Police Department budget (APD), which both Flannigan and Alter voted for, were factors in both races and almost doubtlessly made the District 10 race closer than it would have been otherwise. Also, Kelly campaigned heavily on the police issue and might not have won without it.
Nonetheless, the ultimate deciding factor in both races may have been a more traditional Austin campaign issue; development or land use. Flannigan was an unyielding, often antagonistic supporter of the Land Development Code (LDC) rewrite. Alter was a leading opponent of the LDC as currently constituted.
In Flannigan’s case it was more likely a single zoning case that did him in. In the fall of 2019 he supported a controversial rezoning on Milky Way Drive in the high dollar River Place neighborhood.
As former Austin Planning Director and current Zoning and Platting Commissioner Jim Duncan put it in an account he shared with the Independent, “1) the site was only about one-third developable because of steep slopes; 2) the site had limited access at the end of a very long and narrow cul-de-sac (Milky Way Drive); and 3) the site was located in one of Austin’s most highly vulnerable wildfire-prone areas.”
City staff recommended a low density use. Against strong neighborhood opposition, Flannigan led the way in winning a Council majority for a much higher density zoning.
River Place resident Jennifer Mushtaler ran against Flannigan at least partly as a result of his approach to that zoning case. Mushtaler ran a much broader campaign than just the single zoning case, including opposing the police budget cuts and the Land Development Code rewrite. She also circulated a video of Flannigan loudly telling Council Member Kathie Tovo during a Council work session:
“I will continue to diminish your work, Kathie.”
Mushtaler finished third. In the final days of the runoff campaign she all but endorsed Kelly. Mushtaler released a statement saying, “I am choosing a different direction for Austin on December 15: a direction that reflects our desires for public safety, respecting our neighborhoods and local businesses across the city and ensuring economic development for our shared future. It is clear the incumbent, Jimmy Flannigan, has fallen short of these expectations, which is why we need a change at City Hall. I am voting for that change.” Mushtaler did not mention Kelly by name.
It is unclear how much Mushtaler’s statement was a factor, but in Tuesday’s runoff election, the River Place precinct voted 794 to 230 for Kelly over Flannigan, or 77.5% for Kelly and 22.5% for Flannigan.
That is a margin of 564 votes for Kelly in that one precinct. Flannigan lost to Kelly overall/Districtwide by 677 votes.
Especially during the runoff, Flannigan ran as a Democrat in contrast to Republican Kelly. So could it be that he lost River Place simply because a lot of Republicans live there as opposed to being done in by the zoning case?
That does not seem to be the case. According to Travis County records, Joe Biden won the precinct with 52%. Democratic US Senate candidate M.J. Hegar pulled 47% in River Place as did Democratic Julie Oliver in her unsuccessful challenge to incumbent Republican Congressman Roger Williams. Democratic State Representative Vikki Goodwin won 46% against Republican challenger Justin Berry.
So the River Place vote against Flannigan does not seem to be purely partisan. Instead it seems more like Jim Duncan joked, “the Milky Way is a galaxy far away full of all kinds of black holes, including political!”
Flannigan also fell short in Williamson County. (District 6 includes the parts of Williamson County that are in the Austin City Limits.) The Flannigan campaign considered Williamson County his stronghold, but there he was only able to pull 50.6%, with a margin of only 75 votes.
Rosedale Delivers for Alter
Meanwhile in District 10, Alter piled up her biggest margin in the Rosedale precinct, a neighborhood that would be hit hard by the LDC. Alter won Rosedale with 925 votes to Virden’s 276. Ironically that is 77%, almost exactly the same percentage Kelly pulled in River Place. That is a margin of 649 votes. Alter’s overall winning margin was 587 votes. So she got her winning margin from Rosedale. Virden won more votes than Alter in the rest of the District. Virden, by the way, also opposes the LDC, but voters evidently saw Alter as a known, effective battler against the Code rewrite.
Virden won most of the precincts west of 360, but not by huge margins. Alter’s ability to stay close in those precincts was another factor that saved her. Virden’s strongest showing was in Precinct 212 west and south of Lake Austin over to Loop 360, and north of The High Road. There she won 79% of the vote, 681 to 176.
Virden also did well in the old money stronghold Precinct 256; roughly MoPac on the east, Westover on the North, Scenic Drive on the west and Windsor on the south. So north of Windsor and west of MoPac. Virden pulled 64% there with a 283 vote margin.
To the south of there, in Precinct 210, Alter squeaked by with 51% and a 15 vote margin out of 797 cast. That precinct is bounded by MoPac on the east, Windsor on the north and Lake Austin and Lady Bird Lake i.e. the Colorado River on the west and south.
Looking Ahead to the New Voting Breakdowns on Council
The win by Kelly means there are now only five certain votes for the Land Development Code rewrite, as it is currently constituted and as seven member voted for it last year. The other new Council Member, Vanessa Fuentes, managed to make it through her campaign without taking a firm position one way or the other. Perhaps Flannigan’s defeat will persuade others in the majority (Steve Adler, Natasha Harper Madison, Pio Renteria, Greg Casar, Paige Ellis) to entertain compromise. Harper Madison and Ellis for instance face reelection in 2022.
Six votes are needed for a majority. If the court ruling that is currently on appeal stands, nine votes will be needed.
On the homeless and police issues Kelly will be outnumbered. Kelly has actually done some volunteer work with the homeless. So we will see if she is able to add value and ideas or help forge compromise on that issue.
Compromise might also be possible on police issues although that one is even thornier and we will discuss it further later.
The biggest concern many have about Kelly is her apparent connections to the far right. Flannigan tried to use that as a campaign issue, but it obviously didn’t work well enough to put him over the top. Kelly had a campaign video produced by someone who works with the wild conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. She was photographed — albeit in a large group — with apparent members of the far right, violence prone Proud Boys. And, a supporter of hers menacingly accosted Flannigan after a campaign event — although Kelly said she had no idea the person was going to do that. Kelly’s Twitter account also features a picture of her posing with Texas Republican Party Chair Allen West.
District 6 in fact seems to have a penchant for sending people with extreme tendencies to City Hall — although that does not seem to be the overall general atmosphere if one spends time in the District. Their first choice was far right wing Don Zimmerman, who sometimes even goes too far for his fellow Republicans — and was recently rejected by Republican voters in a state representative contest.
Flannigan ousted Zimmerman then veered off too far in the opposite direction, including proposing to split APD into five departments. If Kelly gets too extreme the same fate that met Zimmerman and Flannigan may await her four years from now.
For now though let’s paraphrase that famous Republican Abraham Lincoln and hope Mackenzie Kelly listens to the better angels of her nature.
This post was updated to correct that Jimmy Flannigan said he would continue to “diminish” Kathie Tovo’s work. I wrote that he said “denigrate” and apologize for the error.
Also, the original version said Jennifer Mushtaler “endorsed” Mackenzie Kelly. The above version is more precise.
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