Yes, I know it’s Spring Break and SXSW and all that stuff, but I feel like I need to wrap up on the DA’s race. After that I’ll switch to a slightly lighter topic, Austin’s City Manager search. Then the Austin Independent is going to take a couple of weeks for spring break ourselves. Here goes.

As most readers likely know, José Garza won the Travis County Democratic Party primary. That means he will almost certainly win reelection in November. It wasn’t close either, unless you compare it to the rest of the local Democratic primary races where most everyone was unopposed and thus won 100% of the vote. Garza polled 67%  to Jeremy Sylestine’s 33%. There were 96,892 votes cast out of the 891,395 registered voters in Travis County; a turnout of 17.19%.

Garza’s campaign strategy clearly worked for him. That roughly five pronged strategy appeared to be:

  • Avoiding debates and forums
  • Only responding in generalities to credible charges that he let numerous violent criminals walk free without jail time, especially perpetrators of violence against women
  • From a messaging standpoint running virtually the same campaign that propelled him into office in 2020, that is maintaining that he was “fixing our broken criminal justice system”
  • Claiming his opponent was funded by MAGA money, but never giving a single example of who or what he meant and
  • Relying on a group of enthusiastic young backers to go door-to-door for him, especially in central Austin.

By contrast Sylestine, Garza’s challenger, ran on Garza being too weak on crime and maintained that many of the reforms Garza claims to have brought to Travis County, like diversion programs to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail while awaiting trial, were already happening before Garza arrived. 

As someone who documented how Garza let several people who committed serious violence against women walk free without jail time, I was left wondering whether Democratic voters just weren’t aware of those cases or factored that into their calculations and decided to vote for Garza anyway. For one thing I know that the Austin Independent articles were only read by a fraction of the 96,892 people who voted in the primary. But, there were other ways to find out. Local television news stations reported on numerous such cases during Garza’s term. Sylestine discussed them in his campaign literature. Also, KXAN demolished Garza’s misleading (to use a kind description) use of statistics to back claims that he was tougher on violent crime than his predecessor.

One conclusion I have drawn is that Austin American-Statesman reporter Serena Lin was right when she wrote before the election, “Sylestine’s concerns about crime policy might not translate well to Democratic primary voters.” Lin then buttressed her point by quoting consultant Jim Wick, who rose to prominence as a consultant for mayoral candidate Steve Adler in 2014. Wick said that, “Public safety has become a very partisan issue in Travis County” and that voters here want ‘“reform, oversight and accountability”’ on issues and candidates related to the justice system. 

Both Lin and Wick were right. It seems worth noting, however, that the Statesman never actually bothered to examine Garza’s record — on violent crime or the central issue that Garza was letting perpetrators of violence against women go free without jail time or really anything else. The daily instead just offered their analysis that Democratic voters would not vote on those issues and would instead see vocal opposition to violent crime as a Republican issue. And, as I said, they proved to be correct.

This still leaves me wondering to what extent local voters are willing to accept letting violent criminals walk free or get very light sentences because they see it as part of criminal justice reform. One element that needs to be factored into this equation is Garza’s and his campaign’s charges that Sylestine was being funded by “MAGA” (Trump backers) money.  Neither Garza nor his backers provided a single example of Sylestine getting MAGA money. That included The Ten, elected officials who sent out a letter demanding that Sylestine “renounce” MAGA money and tactics.

At this point I think I need to issue a Trigger Warning because I’m going to come to some conclusions that some folks are not going to like or want to hear.

There seems little doubt that a number of local Democrats voted based on the MAGA money charge and didn’t even get to the issue of Garza letting perpetrators of brutal violence against women walk free without jail time. Also, some voters likely considered the violence against women issue, but the MAGA charges kept them with the incumbent.

There seems little doubt that a number of local Democrats voted based on the MAGA money charge and didn’t even get to the issue of Garza letting perpetrators of brutal violence against women walk free without jail time.

My educated guess is that most Democratic voters didn’t get beyond the charges that Sylestine was MAGA funded, and didn’t even need specific examples to make their decision. Whether that is right or wrong, the fact remains that the women who were attacked and beaten by men — men who Garza then let walk free without jail time  — were still actually attacked and beaten. 

To me, a lifelong Democrat, this means that on some level a two-thirds majority of the Travis County Democrats who voted, decided that no jail time in cases like this is appropriate, or is outweighed by Garza’s ongoing work of “fixing our broken criminal justice system.”

Of course, this is not the first victory for those who align with Garza’s approach. For example, as we have noted before, poor ‘ol Jimmy Flannigan was the only Council Member who voted to defund the police that lost reelection. The two Council leaders of that effort — Greg Casar and Delia Garza — were elected to higher office. Casar is now a Congressman and a member of The Squad. Delia Garza is County Attorney and just got reelected without opposition, or scrutiny. 

Given all that, Austin may now be the most “progressive” City in the nation. That is particularly the case after the election results last week in some other Democratic/Blue cities around the country. We’ll take a quick look at that below, but I will close out this section with this.

Going forward one question is, will Garza interpret his victory as a mandate to keep doing things exactly like he’s doing. Or will he adjust on some of the major criticisms he has received. For example will he keep cutting plea deals with men who engage in violence against women? Garza never addressed this issue during the campaign and that clearly worked for him in the election. It is not unprecedented for a politician to deny or ignore criticisms during a campaign, but then adjust his or her approach after winning reelection. It can’t be known whether Garza will take that path or whether he will see his reelection as a mandate for his existing policies. We will try to keep an eye on that going forward.

Large Blue Cities Going in Opposite Direction From Austin

Now let’s look at some election results in other “blue” cities. We’ll rely on some national media reports for this section, beginning with this lead paragraph from a Politico election wrap-up: “San Francisco’s liberal voters just endorsed drug screenings for welfare recipients. Washington’s progressive City Council passed a crime package Tuesday that will keep more people in jail while awaiting trial. And New York’s governor on Wednesday ordered hundreds of National Guard troops to deploy inside the city’s troubled subway system.” New York City Mayor Eric Adams had earlier dramatically increased police presence in subways, in Politico’s description, “to crack down on crime in the country’s largest transit system, which saw a 45 percent spike in serious incidents in January, largely driven by theft.”

I know that Politico may not be considered “progressive” enough by some, but the things they list in this paragraph really happened. For instance let’s take a quick look at San Francisco, long considered a progressive beacon for the entire country. Readers may remember that San Francisco recalled their “progressive,” José Garza-like, District Attorney in 2022. (Some progressive District Attorneys around the country, who were originally elected in the same wave as José Garza, have won reelection.) In the same election San Francisco voters also recalled three school board members who had, among numerous other things, renamed a school that was named for Abraham Lincoln. 

Going back to last week’s elections, the drug screenings for welfare recepients approved by San Francisco voters was Proposition F. According to NBC News, “Proposition F requires people 65 and younger without dependents who receive cash welfare assistance from the city and it ‘reasonably suspects’ are dependent on illegal drugs to submit to screening and treatment to remain eligible for aid.” (So that would exclude marijuana, which is legal in California; and there is no sign that they are going back on that.) NBC adds that the measure, “drew more than 60% of the vote.” 

The Guardian, definitely not a Republican publication, provided some more detail: “welfare recipients who (are found to) use illegal drugs would be mandated to undergo treatment or be denied cash assistance. If they were found to be using drugs, an addiction specialist and the recipient would agree on treatment options that include residential care, a 12-step program, individual counseling and replacement medication.”

The Guardian also reported on a second measure involving back tracking by progressives in San Francisco. That measure, which also passed, “would increase police powers, granting officers greater leeway to pursue suspects in vehicles, authorize police use of drones and surveillance cameras, reduce paperwork requirements, including in use-of-force cases and reduce the powers of the citizen police oversight commission.”

If anyone wants to read more on these results in other cities there is more detail provided in the three articles linked to above. 

Perhaps the difference between these cities and Austin is that crime is worse in those cities and in particular more people have been directly affected. For instance San Francisco has long had a severe homeless problem and has, for several years now, been beset by open air drug use with people shooting up and sometimes overdosing on the street, car windows regularly smashed in thefts, and brazen shoplifting. As already noted, New York City has seen a major increase in crime on the subways which millions of New Yorkers ride. And, Washington D.C. continues to be a murder capital where there has been a sharp rise in car jackings.

The one instance where Austin voters went against “progressive” orthodoxy was in 2021 when voters reinstated the camping ban which the City Council majority (Alison Alter and Kathie Tovo voting no) repealed in 2019. That issue affected neighborhoods and parks all over town and had a major impact on downtown. By contrast violence against women is usually done in isolation or, in one case we covered, on a usually quiet street. And, while there has been violence in parks — like the January machete attack — parks in Austin are peaceful at many more times than they are not. 

The logic that follows here is that conditions in Austin will have to get worse before voters demand stronger public safety measures and sterner sentences for violent crime. Or, Austin will just go on accepting light sentences and a certain tolerance for crime as part of being a “progressive” city. Austin seems a long, long way from adopting a centrist approach as described by Washington Council Member, and Democrat, Brooke Pinto. Pinto led the way on the anti-crime package passed by local Washington voters last week. He explained, “We didn’t do a complete 180 from where we were, but instead we looked at the practical realities on the ground and sought to right-size many of those reforms.”

We didn’t do a complete 180 from where we were, but instead we looked at the practical realities on the ground and sought to right-size many of those reforms.”

Washington D.c. Council Member brooke pinto on criminal justice proposals approved by d.c. voters

Hiring A City Manager – Can They Do It?

OK, that is all pretty heavy stuff so let’s switch to a lighter topic, Austin’s search for a new City Manager. On March 5, Mayor Kirk Watson announced three finalists. That quickly became two. The remaining finalists are Sara Hensley, the current City Manager of Denton and T.C. Broadnax, the soon to depart City Manager of Dallas. 

They both have their good points. Hensley was a competent and popular Parks and Recreation Department Director when she worked in Austin before. Plus, she served two years as an Interim Assistant City Manager during the reign of the dysfunctional, but very proud of themselves, Greg Casar-Steve Adler Councils. 

Broadnax is widely seen in City Manager circles as a very competent and professional City Manager, who honorably resigned his seat in Dallas when the popular mayor there, Eric Johnson, began regularly rejecting Broadnax’s professional recommendations. 

The third finalist was Brian Platt, the City Manager of Kansas City, Missouri. It now looks like Platt may have just been using the Austin search as a way to get a new contract in Kansas City. Shortly after Mayor Watson announced the three finalists Kansas City media reported that Platt was dropping out after a majority of the Kansas City Council voted to begin negotiations for a new contract. Platt’s contract expires this year.

Watson, however, leaped in to say that Platt was still in the running. On Friday March 8 he posted on the Council Message Board, “You may have seen a news report indicating that the Kansas City Council voted last night to give the Kansas City Mayor authority to negotiate a new contract with Brian Platt, one of the three finalists for the permanent Austin City Manager position. We have been in contact with Mr. Platt through our search firm. He has not withdrawn from consideration for the Austin job.” 

Watson also offered some advice for readers, apparently meant to be calming and an inside tip, “It should come as no surprise that there’s competition for a quality candidate once applicant names have been publicly released. That is the challenge as we work to balance the reality of recruiting and hiring top talent with our commitment to transparency as well as following state law. Some candidates may not apply at all or, as in this case, the City from which the person comes works to keep them.”

One possibility, however, was that Platt was waiting until his new contract was actually approved, or making sure he had the votes, before pulling out — so as to maintain his leverage. 

Whatever the case, Watson returned to the Council Message Board two days later (Sunday March 10) with a short, if not terse, update: “As you know, on Friday, Brian Platt, the City Manager in Kansas City, MO, told our search firm that he had not withdrawn from consideration for the City Manager job here. Today, he has told the firm that he is withdrawing from consideration.”

Platt is out, but the other two are still in; even though they have access to the internet and can get at least some idea of the atmosphere at Austin City Hall; and who their bosses would be.

Platt is out, but the other two are still in; even though they have access to the internet and can get at least some idea of the atmosphere at Austin City Hall; and who their bosses would be.

Meanwhile the Kansas City Star reported that the vote to renegotiate Platt’s contract was not unanimous; but, 9-4 and broke down along racial lines. The Council Members voting no said there should have been a performance evaluation before the Mayor was authorized to begin negotiations of a new contract.

Back in Austin, the Council will almost certainly move forward on picking one of these two candidates. They will really be in a fix if they don’t. It has now been more than 13 months since they fired Spencer Cronk. With the Mayor and five Council seats on the ballot in November we are nearing the point where City Manager candidates might be reluctant to apply because they might end up with a different set of bosses than who hired her or him. And, Interim City Manager Jesus Garza is unlikely to stay another 13 months as Interim.

So one of the two remaining candidates will likely be the next City Manager. What Watson calls a “town hall” featuring both candidates is scheduled for March 25. Just before press time the Mayor posted details of that event. 

“The event will be held at the Permitting and Development Center located at 6310 Wilhelmina Delco Dr, Austin, TX 78752. It will begin at 6:00 PM and run until 7:30 PM. 

Judy Maggio has agreed to serve as our facilitator for the evening event and will begin with each prospect giving an opening statement to introduce themselves to the public. The candidates will also have an opportunity to give a brief closing statements.” 

Stay tuned.

Photo at top by Adela Mancías

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