District 6 in Northwest Austin is one of the most hotly contested of the five City Council elections.
Local media have tended to portray the District 6 race as dark forces of the right wing seeking to unseat “progressive” Jimmy Flannigan. As the Austin American-Statesman put it, “All three challengers are campaigning to the right of Flannigan.” The Austin Chronicle went further, headlining their story on the race “Flannigan Faulted for Progressive Politics.”
It is true that Flannigan’s opponents are running to the right of him on the police budget issue — although there is a whole lot of ground to the right after Council’s vote to potentially cut up to $150 million from the Austin Police Department (APD) budget and Flannigan’s ongoing proposal to divide the APD into five separate departments. The Chronicle also listed Flannigan’s vote to repeal the homeless camping ban as the other major issue on which his opponents are running to his right.
Examination of contributor and expense statements in the race, however, reveal a very active and influential group in the election that is not traditionally considered a charter member of the progressive coalition. That is developers and real estate investors.
According to his campaign finance statements, in 2020 Flannigan has raised $154,045. Of that, some $52,000, more than a third, came from development and real estate interests. The amount is almost certainly even higher because candidates and office holders are only required to list the occupations of people donating $250 or more. (The figures discussed here cover the period from January 1, 2020 to the report candidates are required to file eight days out from the election.)
By contrast the leading fundraiser among Flannigan’s opponents, Mackenzie Kelly, raised $64,420 over the same period with just over $5,000 coming from development and real estate interests.
Jennifer Mushtaler raised $39,870, with around $2,500 of that coming from real estate or development interests.
Dee Harrison raised $2,450, none of it from real estate interests.
So far in the race, Flannigan has spent $113,380, some 16% more than all his opponents combined. His fundraising advantage also allows him to go into the final days of the campaign with considerably more money in the bank than all of his opponents combined.
Now, let’s divert briefly for a few caveats. Like it or not, It is not unusual for people who have business before the Council to donate to Council incumbents. Until there is major reform, that will remain the case, and reforming campaign finance is a complex and controversial issue. Austin does have campaign finance restrictions, perhaps the strongest in Texas; and definitely stronger than the virtually non-existent rules for the state and even Travis County. For example individual contributors are limited to donations of $400, or $800 for spouses or partners together.
Even with these caveats, however, Flannigan’s level of developer and real estate support is particularly strong. That should come as no surprise as he is a consistent developer vote, including on the proposed Land Development Code (LDC). Plus, he despises some of the traditional restrictions that Austin City Councils have put on development, particularly conditional overlays that Councils over the years have added to individual zoning cases. These seem to be deeply held convictions of Flannigan’s, but the fact remains that he has the overwhelming, almost exclusive, support of developers in the District 6 race. That is an important fact worth knowing — and one that neither the Statesman nor the Chronicle factored into their analysis of the race.
Semi-Tough Restrictions on Donations from Lobbyists
In addition to the $400 limit on individual donations, City Hall lobbyists are limited to donations of $25. There are, however, some creative ways to work around lobbyist donation limits that at least one firm has come up with. For example the law firm Armbrust and Brown is a decades long major player in Austin development issues, and much more. They feature at least three major City Hall lobbyists (The City requires those who lobby on City issues to register with the City Clerk’s Office.): David Armbrust; Richard Suttle and Michael Whellan. Armbrust has scaled back his City Hall lobbying in recent years and lists only five clients, only two of them directly in real estate or development.
Suttle, however, lists 90 clients with at least 66 of them specifically noted as involved in real estate and/or development.
Whellan lists 30 clients, six of them directly listed as in real estate and/or development. Whellan also lists 17 clients simply as “property owner(s),” which can become developers very fast. Suttle also lists several “property owner(s).”
Although neither Whellan, Suttle, nor Armbrust can give more than $25, attorneys from their firms, who are not registered as City Hall lobbyists, form a large block of Flannigan’s contributions. The Independent counted at least $11,000 in contributions from attorneys with Armbrust and Brown (sometimes along with spouses). The Independent included those donations in the totals of real and development oriented contributions reported here. (Another note on methodology: Some contributors, not those with Armbrust and Brown, simply listed simply a company name. The Independent looked up these companies and if they were clearly involved in real estate or development, included them in the category.)
Another major set of contributors was people associated with Endeavor Real Estate. Employees or principals in Endeavor donated more than $6,000 to Flannigan.
Another interesting aspect of Flannigan’s report is that the Mayor and Council Members now donate to each other. For instance Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and her husband Ramiro Martinez together donated $500 to Flannigan. Likewise Council Member Page Ellis donated $400 to Flannigan. Council Member Ann Kitchen, on the opposite side of the LDC struggle from Flannigan, gave his campaign $150 and Council Member Natasha Harper Madison, allied with Flannigan on the LDC and many other issues, gave him $250. Mayor Steve Adler chipped in the maximum $400.
Real Estate Industry Develops a Passion for Equity
Also, recently announcing that it will operate on Flannigan’s behalf is a Political Action Committee (PAC) called Austinites for Equity. Austinites for Equity recently reported that it will spend $12,000 on Flannigan’s behalf. The treasurer fot Austinites for Equity is Jack Kirfman, a long time employee and representative of the city and county employee’s union, AFSCME. The PAC also lists the same address as the local AFSCME office. Unions of course have long been involved in the quest for social justice and economic equity, and that certainly includes AFSCME.
Nonetheless, in this case developer money also creeps into the equation. For example, Castle Hill Investments, LLC gave $500 to Austinites for Equity. On their website, Castle Hill Investments describes itself as “an Austin-based real estate investment firm that offers investors opportunities to participate on value add improvements to single family, duplex, and fourplex assets.” They operate, continues the website, “in an asset class that traditionally is overlooked and under-appreciated by real estate investors, and dominated by Mom and Pop operators.”
- Chris Peterson, a “managing partner” in Rivendale Homes Texas LLC also chipped in $500 to Austinites for Equity;
- Ben Pisklak of Slate Development donated $2,000;
- Mark Stevenson, also of Slate Development gave another $2,000;
- Planning Commissioner and vocal urbanist Greg Anderson pitched in $1,000; and
- Jonathan Coons, the contact lens magnate and developer of a key property near Loop 360 and Lake Austin donated $2,000.
Also donating to Austinites for Equity was Council Member Greg Casar, widely seen as a Council champion of equity. He contributed $505 while his faithful ally Mayor Steve Adler put in $4,000. PACs do not operate under the same $400 limit as Council campaigns.
We’ll just have to wait and see if these developers will maintain “solidarity forever” with the City and County employees union — or the people working on their developments.
Contributions to Flannigan’s Opponents
As noted earlier, the leading fundraiser among Flannigan’s opponents is Mackenzie Kelly who raised $64,420 during 2020, with just over $5,000 coming from development and real estate interests. That is less than 10% of the amount Flannigan has raised from development and real estate interests, but even that does not capture the difference in magnitude. That’s because, as the annoying saying goes, it is not comparing apples to apples. Kelly goes beyond reporting requirements and lists the occupation of virtually all her contributors, as opposed to just listing those donating $250 or more, as Flannigan does.
So most of Kelly’s contributions that went into the developer and real estate interests column were for less than $250, often far less. She did receive some money from employees of Endeavor, approximately $450. Her biggest contributor from the development industry appears to be employees of the Senox Corporation who, according to the company website, have been “Serving the Seamless Gutter Industry Since 1972.” Senox employees donated just over $1,000 to Kelly’s campaign. Also longtime Austin developer John Lewis donated $400 to Kelly.
Kelly’s practice of listing the occupations of virtually all contributors also appears to reveal significant support from just regular folks. She lists state employees, artists, teachers, a substitute teacher, home health care workers, employees of Apple, a musician with the Austin Symphony, the owner of a pinball arcade, a soldier, two people who list themselves as “unemployed,” a host of retirees, at least three Austin firefighters, and no less than seven Austin police officers.
Jennifer Mushtaler, who entered the race well after Kelly, has raised $39,870, with around $2,500 of that coming from real estate or development interests. Like Kelly, she lists occupations of virtually all her contributors.
Some of Mushtaler’s contributors in the development and real estate category are definitely not developer types looking for approvals at City Hall. For instance Brian Rodgers, who lists his “principal occupation” as “commercial real estate” is an activist and frequent thorn in the side of a series of Councils. For instance he led a petition drive trying to reverse property tax waivers for the Domain development and more recently successfully sued over the Council’s granting of massive fee waivers, particularly for water hook-ups in quest of affordable housing for the Pilot Knob/Easton Park development outside the City limits. (Disclosure: Daryl Slusher worked at Austin Water when the Pilot Knob fee waivers were approved and when Rodgers sued.)
Mushtaler is also drawing support from neighborhood leaders both within and outside her district, leaders who are opposed to the Land Development Code rewrite as supported by Flannigan. Those include Joyce Basciano, Megan Meisenbach, and Michael Curry as well as former City Planning Director and LDC rewrite critic Jim Duncan — a District 6 resident. SOS leader Bill Bunch also contributed to Mushtaler.
Beyond that, Mushtaler drew from a number of people not known in City Hall circles including fellow doctors, academics, small business owners and a number of retirees.
Spent and In the Bank
As noted at the top, through the required eight days out campaign filing, Flannigan has spent $113,380.
Kelly has spent $56,880; Mushtaler, $33,675; and Harrison, $4,179.
Not surprisingly, Flannigan’s fundraising advantage leaves him with more money in the bank than his opponents combined, heading into the final days of the race. In his eight days out filing, Flannigan reported $58,240 “maintained” from his political contributions.
- Mackenzie Kelly reported $7,054 on hand;
- Jennifer Mushtaler, $4,255; and
- Dee Harrison, $1,435
Perhaps not so coincidentally, the amount Flannigan still has on hand is close to the amount he has received from development interests.
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