Today, we continue our coverage of campaign financing in the City Council races. We focus both on the total amount candidates raised and in particular on the amount candidates raised from development and real estate interests. Before moving into the numbers though, let’s discuss a little context and offer some caveats.
First, as I said in the previous article on this subject, until there is major campaign finance reform with some sort of public financing (a very complex and controversial endeavor), people that have business before the City Council will tend to donate to Council campaigns. And, in most cases, Council Members will take those donations. The City of Austin, in contrast to Travis County and the state of Texas, already limits how much an individual can give to a campaign. The current limit is $400, $800 from a couple. Additionally, City Hall lobbyists are limited to puny $25 contributions. And, corporate contributions are illegal in Texas.
Second, the Independent’s concentration on contributions from real estate and development interests is not meant to imply that such contributions are necessarily bad or improper. It is more a matter of scale and how a Council Member votes. It can also be enlightening, or at least important to know, if developers overall appear to have a favorite in a particular race.
Third, the ticking clock and a small staff prevented The Austin Independent from being able to review contributor and expense reports in detail for each race. We instead chose to focus on the races with the leading recepients of developer-real estate money, and prioritize the races that appear to be the most competitive. This led us to the District 6 race and the battle for the open seat in District 2.
Although we do not cover campaign financing of all the races in detail, through reviewing and processing City data that came out on Thursday (October 29), we were able to provide charts on fundraising in each race. They show the total amount of funds raised by each candidate and the amount of funds each candidate raised from development and real estate interests (see note above the first graph for how we determined what goes into this category). Specifically in District 6, the numbers on the charts in this article are different than the previous story, although the same patterns hold. The reason for the difference is that for this story we included funds raised during the last half of 2019, for all candidates who raised funds during that time. In the first story we only included 2020.
Development Issues in the Current Council Races
Development and growth of course are long running, controversial issues in Austin. That continues in this year’s Council elections. There are at least two huge, ongoing development oriented issues before Council right now — issues that will also await the new Council. Those are the Land Development Code (LDC) rewrite and a flood of upzoning requests on the edge of, or within, historic neighborhoods in East Austin.
In both instances a majority of the Mayor and Council Members like to frame their support for the developer side of these issues as part of fostering racial equity and housing affordability. That is particularly the case, for instance, with “transition zones” in the LDC. There the Council majority on the issue (Mayor Steve Adler; Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza; and Council Members Natasha Harper Madison, Sabino “Pio” Renteria, Greg Casar, Jimmy Flannigan, and Page Ellis) maintain that rezoning long blocks of single family homes in the central city to allow four to six units per lot — in almost all cases against the home owners’ will — will somehow make those neighborhoods more affordable and more racially diverse. Adler, Garza, Casar and Harper Madison tend to make such points the most.
They have yet to explain, however, exactly how the upzonings will cause that to happen. And, they have not been able to point to examples in other places, or in Austin, where similar policies have resulted in more affordability or increased racial equity. That is something where the Independent plans to seek more answers and examples after the election.
Until the Council Members are able to provide such data and research, however, another, more suspicous view of transition zones is likely to persist. That is that many developers see real estate in Austin’s central neighborhoods as a gold mine, but only if they can build four to six units per lot. So, they and their Council allies are doing everything possible to make that happen, while framing this brazen land grab as a noble quest for affordability and racial equity. These central city neighborhoods, by the way, have for decades now consistently provided huge electoral margins for both progressive candidates and progressive causes.
In many cases those voting to impose the transition zones represent different districts where few, if any, transition zones are proposed. That includes Delia Garza, Greg Casar, Page Ellis and Jimmy Flannigan.
Two other members of the pro-LDC majority, Pio Renteria and Natasha Harper Madison — who represent large swaths of central East Austin — support transition zones and numerous upzonings both in their Districts and outside their Districts. As has been noted in the Independent before, however, many, many long time East Austin residents oppose the LDC. Most of the same folks, and others, also tend to oppose the various upzoning requests, and tend to see them as doing the LDC piece by piece — after the LDC was struck down by a court and is now on appeal.
East Austin groups opposing the LDC also largely stand in solidarity with those opposing the LDC in central city neighborhoods outside of East Austin.
Well, enough about the LDC. As I said we’ll discuss that more after the election. The detailed focus here will be on the open seat in District 2, but we will first provide graphs of contribution totals in each race, along with a brief narrative.
Total Contributions and Development/Real Estate Interest Contributions by Candidate
A note on methodology and the chart below: Candidates in the same race have the same color. The black line for each candidate represents the amount of donations from real estate and development interests that candidate received. The Independent included a contribution in the development and real estate interest category if the contributor was identified as a developer, with a development firm, in the real estate field, or a civil engineer. Then we looked further at some company names to determine if they were development related; especially investment firms.
One of the first things to note here is that Alison Alter, who represents District 10 in West Austin, outdistanced everyone in overall fundraising. It is not particularly surprising that the representative from wealthy District 10 would raise the most money, but nonetheless the amount also provides evidence of a lot of hard work on the candidate’s part. Another important fact to note is that of the $190,000 plus that Alter raised, less than $20,000 of it came from development and real estate interests. In fact less than 10% of her contributions were from development and real estate related interests. Alter, by the way, was a consistent no vote on the LDC. Her challenger Robert Thomas actually pulled in more developer-real estate money than her.
Alter also told the Independent that she declined donations from the law firm Armbrust and Brown. As noted in an earlier story that firm lobbies on behalf of a stunning array of development interests. Their lobbyists, like all City Hall lobbyists, are limited to contributions of $25. Lawyers from the firm, however, who are not registered as City Hall lobbyists, contribute heavily to Council Members. They usually give the maximum, $400, and the spouse often contributes $400 as well.
Another Alter opponent, Jennifer Virden, pulled in a little over $10,000 in real estate and development contributions, although some of that likely came from fellow realtors she knows rather than those with business before the Council. Virden vocally opposes the LDC. Thomas says he does too, but Virden has questioned his sincerity on that and argues that his position on the issue would not stand up in a runoff against Alter. Thomas is firing back with attacks on Virden, including a mailer charecterizing her as Pinocchio. This creates an unusual situation of two challengers going after each other, in addition to criticizing the incumbent.
In District 7 incumbent Leslie Pool pulled in around $60,000 with almost a third of that coming from development interests. She did accept contributions from Armbrust and Brown attorneys. Pool is not, however, a solid developer vote and opposes the LDC as currently proposed.
Pool’s only opponent, Morgan Witt, is a self described progressive and indeed does have progressive, if vague, positions on a number of key issues. She is also widely believed to favor the LDC and other urbanist ideology, but is a little vague on that too. Witt, however, has drawn almost no developer contributions. The educated guess here is that developers do not believe that Witt can defeat Pool and thus do not want to risk antagonizing the incumbent by funding her opponent. (It’s a rough world out there.)
In District 4, Greg Casar has raised almost $140,000, more than four times as much as his opponent — that is the opponent who is raising money, Louis Herrin. Casar’s other opponent, Ramesses II Setepenre, is not raising funds. Included in Casar’s total, is almost $40,000 in contributions from development and real estate interests, around double what Alter took in from development interests. Casar raised the second most from development interests of all the candidates, about 27% of his total.
Development and Real Estate Interest Contributions by Candidate
This brings us to District 6, which, as already noted, we covered in more detail last week. Incumbent Jimmy Flannigan outdistanced all candidates when it comes to contributions from real estate and development interests; he won by a lot. In fact (Boomer reference alert and apologies in advance to horse racing Triple Crown champion Secretariat), Flannigan is sort of the Secretariat of fundraising from developers. Secretariat won the 1973 Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths in an unforgettable race for anyone who watched it.
Flannigan routinely votes with developers and is sometimes hostile toward neighborhood groups.
When writing the earlier overview of the District 2 race, I noted how civil, polite and kind the candidates are with each other. The same sort of feeling comes through when poring through their contributor and expense reports.
The fundraising of all three candidates brings to mind thoughts of the claims made by advocates of the 10-1 single member districts system that District candidates would be able to raise enough money to run a credible, even victorious, race through grass roots fundraising and campaigning. Both David Chincanchan and Vanessa Fuentes have done that. Casey Ramos has not raised near as much money as Ramos or Fuentes, but is still running a credible grass roots campaign. The big caveat here though is that Chincanchan has added a lot of developer money on top of his grass roots fundraising.
Chincanchan is sort of a quasi-incumbent, having served until recently as a top aide to Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria. He goes down the line in agreement with the current Council on major issues, including supporting the LDC — although he earlier told the Independent that he was open to compromise on “some of the transition zones. . . especially those in East and Southeast Austin.”
Chincanchan is clearly popular with his fellow aides, as an array of them donated to his campaign and, in many cases, more than once. He also pulled in donations from others that he likely worked with as part of his Council aide job: legislative aides; Travis County employees; aides to elected officials in other cities; representatives of social service agencies; and more. There were also a number of contributors who did not fit any of those categories.
Chincanchan also features the contributor with perhaps the coolest occupation among those listed on any candidates’ forms; a “space suit engineer” from Houston who made two $200 donations. In another interesting donation, Chincanchan received a contribution from the “Regional Engagement Director” for then presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
Chincanchan also convinced family members to contribute, including $400 each from an “administrative assistant” in San Antonio, and a “tree trimmer” and “homemaker” at the same address here in Austin.
He also early on pulled donations from people in Mayor Steve Adler’s orbit. Those include Jon Michael Cortez and Barbara Shack, both from the Mayor’s City Hall staff as well as the Mayor’s treasurer Eugene Sepulveda. Council Member Ann Kitchen also donated $105.
Overall, Chincanchan’s contribution figures seem to show a hard working candidate to whom many friends and acquaintances were willing to donate. As time went on, however, Chincanchan began to rely more on developer contributions. For instance in his first report, which covered his activities after he announced late in 2019, Chincanchan raised $20,968, with only $1,739, or 8%, of that coming from real estate and development interests. Also, within that amount were several contributions from an East Austin based minority-owned engineering firm.
In his report covering the first half of 2020, however, Chincanchan reporting raising $32,755 with a third of that coming from real estate and development interests. That included donations from attorneys with the Armbrust and Brown firm. They ponied up for Chincanchan, to the tune of more than $6,500.
Then, in his filing 30 days out from the election, Chincanchan reported $31,656 with 57% of that from real estate and development interests.
In his final report, eight days before the election, Chincanchan reported contributions of $12,102 with $4,403, or 36%, coming from development and real estate interests.
In all Chincanchan raised over $97,000 with $35,000 of that, or 36% coming from development and real estate interests.
Vanessa Fuentes and Casey Ramos
Fuentes also shows evidence of a strong group of friends and supporters willing to support her candidacy. She pulled in a lot of small contributions. Much of her support appears to be concentrated among people in high tech and state government. She got a number of contributions from Legislative and Congressional staffers. State Representative Cesar Blanco of El Paso donated $250 and State Representative Mary Gonzalez of Clint gave $100.
Fuentes also reported a number of contributions from other places in Texas, although usually small amounts. Fuentes raised $56,903 overall and less than $3,000 from development and real estate interests.
Casey Ramos trails far back in fundraising. He raised just over $6,000 and took only $400, six percent, from development or real estate related interests. Ramos clearly has strong connections and history in the District, where he has lived his whole life, but has evidently not embraced the unpleasant, to many, task of raising money.
The largest share of Ramos’ contributions result from his opposition to the LDC and his alliances with other LDC opponents. Among his biggest contributors are Fred Lewis, a leader of the anti-LDC group Community Not Commodity, who donated $400 to Ramos. Former City Planning Director and leading LDC critic Jim Duncan gave $400, as did LDC opponent Allan McMurtry. Longtime Austin Neighborhoods Council member and LDC opponent Joyce Basciano donated $200. Former Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy also donated $400, likely resulting from Ramos opposition to the cuts to the police budget.
To read other articles on the current Council races visit the Austin Independent’s Austin Elections category
To read the Austin Independent’s Council candidate questionnaire and answers, click here.
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