Let’s take a quick beginning of the year look at the Austin City Council where the Council seems to have started the term by hoisting themselves on their own identity politics petard.

The two new members, Vanessa Fuentes and Mackenzie Kelly, get sworn in Wednesday evening at 6. The new Council term also means that it is time to choose a Mayor Pro Tem, to replace Delia Garza who was elected County Attorney for Travis County. Council has decided to put that decision off until January 27

Mayor Pro Tem is a largely ceremonial position chosen by Council Members from among their ranks. The responsibilities are running the Council meetings when the Mayor is off the dais, or absent, and being the leader at ribbon cuttings when the Mayor is not there. The position can be a stepping stone though. Just ask Delia Garza.

At first it looked like this saga might be over only moments after it began, or at least after it became public. On December 16 Council Member Greg Casar posted on the Council message board that he would seek the position and announced the support of Council Members Pio Renteria, Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool and Fuentes. That makes five with six votes needed to win. Mayor Steve Adler quickly posted his support and it appeared the race for Mayor Pro Tem was over.

Casar then posted a victory note on Facebook: “I’m thankful to my colleagues for trusting me with this position. I first ran for office to make a difference for the people of District 4. I’m looking forward to building the consensus necessary to tackle our greatest challenges as Mayor Pro Tem.”

Casar’s mention of “consensus” likely referred to comments from Kitchen and Pool who both styled their support as reflecting an understanding that Casar would work to build “consensus” on the Council.  For instance, in a post confirming her support for Casar, Kitchen wrote that the Council “must listen to everyone in our community” and “move beyond the polarization that has occurred.”

Pool wrote, “Relying on your pledge to build consensus and help reestablish that equilibrium we’ve lost, you have my support as MPT.”

Even longtime Casar ally Adler made similar remarks saying the Council needs to “move forward. . . in a way that helps bring the community together.”

Things were sounding pretty lovey-dovey even if one suspected a bit of underlying tension.

Then Council Member Paige Ellis released a statement pointing out that there will be eight women on the Council, adding, “There are several qualified women who could be a strong, unifying voice as Mayor Pro Tem. Our city has gone through a lot over the past two years, and we should begin 2021 with leadership that brings us together. As far as I’m aware, discussions are ongoing.”

Word then begin to spread that Alison Alter of West Austin’s District 10 would seek the position. Casar moved to head that off. He took to the Council message board on December 21. Casar wrote that he knew that Council Members were getting phone calls encouraging them to change their minds about supporting him for Mayor Pro Tem. “As several of you have clearly communicated to me,” wrote Casar, “a majority of these callers expressed concerns that this sends a message that Council is becoming too progressive. These arguments are in bad faith by some, and should be recognized for what they are: an intentional opportunity from antagonists who seek to sow division and disunity on this dais.”

Nonetheless, continued Casar, it had “not gone unnoticed by” him that there were concerns that having a man in both the Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem’s position “sends the wrong message to women in our city.” 

At the same time, Casar continued, “I believe we are sending the wrong message in this critical time if we choose to select our Mayor Pro Tem from one of the whiter and wealthier districts, rather than from the Eastern Crescent.” He concluded, “With a majority female Council, I would be happy to step aside and support a female candidate for Mayor Pro Tem from the Eastern Crescent.” 

That would narrow it to Fuentes and District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper Madison. It would be particularly unusual for Fuentes to seek the Mayor Pro Tem position as a brand new Council Member. (In fact until recently the Mayor Pro Tem position routinely went to the most senior Council Member.) That leaves Harper Madison.

Undeterred, Alter the next day announced her candidacy on the Council message board: “I am humbled and grateful to have so many of my colleagues reach out to say they support my serving as Mayor Pro Tem of the Austin City Council. As we move forward, I am fully committed to working with all council members to solve the problems that our community faces and to do so in a collaborative and effective way.” Tovo announced her support and Pool switched to Alter. Pool explained that with the “near super-majority of women now elected to the Austin City Council, I have been contacted by numerous constituents and community leaders — primarily women — asking me to reconsider my position.”

Things then quieted down a bit for Christmas, but on December 28 Harper Madison announced that she would seek the Mayor Pro Tem position. She too announced on the Council Message Board: “I believe the best way to get to where we want to be is through pragmatic solutions reached through collaboration with Austinites from all parts of the city and all walks of life. But I also have heard from my constituents and others that lived experience is an essential aspect of the leadership needed in the work to be done.” Consequently, she continued, “I would like to make it public my interest in serving as Mayor Pro Tem, an interest that I have expressed privately to several of you for many months.”

Kelly Invokes Casar’s “Privilege”

A few days after Christmas, before Harper Madison entered the Mayor Pro Tem race, the Austin Bulldog reported on an interview with Council Member-elect Mackenzie Kelly, a Republican, regarding her views on the Mayor Pro Tem race. Kelly said that she was disinclined to support Casar because she would prefer “someone who is less divisive and who will support more independent thought.” 

Kelly then offered a twist of identity politics herself. Sounding more like a woke progressive than a Republican, Kelly told the Bulldog that Casar had “come from privilege.”

Here is the complete paragraph from the Bulldog article by Daniel Van Oudenaren: 

“Casar has built his political career on representing historically underprivileged constituencies, and he plays up his parents’ immigrant origins. But Kelly sought to undercut that portrayal, saying that Casar had ‘come from privilege.’ (Casar, the son of a physician, grew up in Houston where he attended private high school, before attending the University of Virginia.) Kelly contrasted his background with her own, saying her family had worked low-wage jobs and been evicted from home three times during her early life.”

Casar, an ally and strong supporter of Kelly’s defeated opponent Jimmy Flannigan, had kept firing at Kelly after the election. For instance on Facebook December 16, the day after Kelly defeated Flannigan, Casar congratulated Alison Alter for her reelection victory and praised Flannigan for his service. He did not, however, congratulate Kelly, but instead wrote, “In the words of Council Member Flannigan, we should all hope to see Council Member-elect Kelly represent District 6 with honor in her new role. Austinites have raised valid concerns about Council Member-elect Kelly. I hope that she works to address those concerns, as our city continues to move forward on policies that are rooted in truth, compassion, and justice.” 

Kelly is accurate when she says Casar comes from privilege. Zillow estimates the value of the 6,185 square foot, 5 bedroom, five and a half bath Casar family home in Houston as worth $2.7 million. The Harris County Appraisal District assesses it at $1,562,000 and lists the home as having 5,869 square feet. According to appraisal district records the house has been owned by the Casars since 1991 when Greg Casar would have been two years old. The appraisal district also lists a “Gunite Pool” and a “Custom Outdoor Kitchen.”

Casar being from a wealthy family and Kelly’s invocation of those roots raises some interesting issues. The Independent has known for a while that Casar comes from wealth, but did not feel like that alone constituted a story. After all numerous progressive and revolutionary leaders of the past came from wealthy roots. Franklin Roosevelt for example came from wealth and privilege. So did Fidel Castro. And, Che Guevara was actually a doctor. We figured Casar’s wealth background would be relevant information to include as part of a campaign biography, for instance if he runs for Mayor or if he had run for State Senator, as he entertained. 

The Bulldog is correct that Casar plays up his immigrant roots. For instance his City biography states that he is, “The proud son of Mexican immigrants, he is the youngest person ever elected to the Austin City Council.” While this might intentionally give an up from the bootstraps impression, being from an immigrant family does not necessarily mean one comes from poverty. So it is a bit of a tricky issue, but Mackenzie Kelly chose to dispense with any such nuance and put the information out there.  It is ironic that it took a Republican to put that into the mix. 

The Independent contacted Casar’s office for comment and to confirm the Harris County Appraisal District and Zillow information. Tara Pohlmeyer, Casar’s Communications Manager, called and said that perhaps Kelly wants to discuss Casar’s “upbringing,” but their office wants to concentrate on helping Austinites. Pohlmeyer added that Casar “has been very open” about “his circumstances growing up.” She said he believes that “everyone should have the same opportunities he was afforded,” and that is what drives him. Asked for an example of where Casar had discussed his privileged background, Pohlmeyer pointed to Casar’s City website bio. The only personal background information on the bio, however, is that he is “the proud son of Mexican immigrants.” 

Pohlmeyer declined to confirm or discuss the numbers from Zillow and the Harris County Appraisal District.

This adds still another layer to City Hall drama, plus an unexpected twist to the identity politics driven Mayor Pro Tem race. As noted earlier, the Council has postponed consideration of the Mayor Pro Tem position until January 27. So the quest for unity and consensus can continue for at least several more weeks.


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