Leave it to those West Austin residents to really stir things up. Readers may recall a recent Austin Independent article on the race for the open District 2 Council seat in mostly Southeast Austin. There, candidates shared many positions on issues and were extremely polite in their disagreements. Neither the near West Austin race in District 10 nor the race in far Northwest District 6 is like that. The candidates are civil in their discourse, but, especially in District 6, there are stark disagreements on issues and style between the incumbent Jimmy Flannigan and his three challengers. In particular Dr. Jennifer Mushtaler is taking it to Flannigan in forums and online. (The other West Austin seat, District 10, is also something of a political brawl.)
Flannigan’s three opponents – Mushtaler, Mackenzie Kelly, and Dee Harrison — all disagree with his vote on the police budget, his vote to repeal the camping ban, and his advocacy for Project Connect — among other things.
For his part, Flannigan touts his record and says there’s more work left for him to do. In his responses to the Austin Independent candidate questionnaire Flannigan said that his top three priorities are: mobility; public safety reform; and affordability. He points to his work on regional transportation as well as “on many road projects, pedestrian safety enhancements, and shared-use infrastructure that have addressed specific neighborhood concerns” in District 6. Flannigan goes on to list a number of specific projects, some of them resulting from the 60 community meetings he has held since taking office. This level of constituent service will almost certainly be an electoral strength for Flannigan. (More of Flannigan’s list can be found in his answers to the Austin Independent candidate questionnaire, along with the responses of his opponents.)
On Public Safety, Flannigan invokes his role as chair of the Public Safety Committee, explaining, I am helping to achieve pragmatic structural reform.”
Flannigan adds, “I am seeking re-election because the work is far from done,” adding, “I have the ability to synthesize and analyze hard data when making decisions and then communicate it into bite-size, easy-to-comprehend insight and analysis for public consideration. I am incredibly proud of the work my team and I have accomplished during my first term.”
The Challengers – Jennifer Mushtaler
Flannigan’s three opponents of course see his tenure much differently. As noted earlier, Jennifer Mushtaler hammers Flannigan the hardest. For instance in her opening statement at the KUT-Austin Monitor forum, Mushtaler, an OBGYN doctor, said she was urged to run by “neighbors and constituents” because “District 6 and the City of Austin deserve better than what they’ve received from the incumbent.” She added that Flannigan “has made decisions that do not represent his constituents.” She then listed five areas she sees as serious Flannigan shortcomings:
- The camping ban repeal, which Mushtaler says, “unleashed a public health endangerment and hurt local businesses;”
- Flannigan’s vote to ‘defund the police’ which “means that neighborhoods, including those in District 6, will not have adequate police protection;”
- His pro-Land Development Code (LDC) stance which Mushtaler says, “illegally attempts to rezone and take away notice and protest rights of property owners.”
- His support for the “fiscally questionable” Project Connect, which is “consistent with his own personal financial record as described in the Austin Bulldog;” and,
- going where others have not, ”the manner in which he disagrees with others, particularly women.” Mushtaler also brought up the issue in her responses to the Independent questionnaire, “The incumbent belittles those who disagree with him. While it is ok to have a difference of opinion, it is not acceptable to bully people.”
At the forum, Mushtaler referenced an October 15, 2019 work session in which Flannigan got into a dispute with Council Member Kathie Tovo.
“District 6 deserves a representative who has demonstrated good judgment, proven fiscal responsibility, and will represent their interests above a personal agenda,” continued Mushtaler. “I would like to be that person for District 6”
Given a chance to respond to Mushtaler’s criticisms, Flannigan said, “This District does not want to go back to the days where a Council Member goes on the attack, twisting the work of others and people’s personal lives into the juiciest slam.” This was an apparent reference to former Council Member Don Zimmerman.
Some might find that answer ironic, given the nature of the exchange between Tovo and Flannigan that Mushtaler invoked. It came during a work session on homelessness policies. Flannigan was being harshly critical of resolutions on homelessness that other Council Members had earlier brought forward. After a bit of back and forth, Tovo delivered a line Mushtaler quoted at the forum, “The way in which you continue to seem to need to diminish the work of your colleagues is just unacceptable.”
“I will continue to diminish your work, Kathie,” Flannigan literally shouted back.
Tovo calmly replied, “I’m sure that you will and I will call you out and say it’s inappropriate and it needs to stop.” Mushtaler also posted a video of the exchange on her Facebook page.
This is far from an isolated incident. For instance Nick Barbaro of the Austin Chronicle some time back described Flannigan as frequently angry. More recently, in endorsing Flannigan the Chronicle editorial board said that Flannigan’s behavior sometimes amounts to “bullying,” but offered an excuse for him: “Flannigan’s brash, sometimes antagonistic approach on the dais can cross the line into bullying without him always realizing it.”
Mushtaler also described Flannigan as a “bully” in her questionnaire responses, saying “While it is ok to have a difference of opinion, it is not acceptable to bully people.”
Beyond her case against Flannigan, Mushtaler promises to bring health care medical expertise to the job, writing, “I believe that Austin Public Health has been sequentially under-funded. We need a modernized system with full physician staffing appropriate for a city this size. We need more robust community outreach to build trust and to reach at-risk communities.” She adds that Austin Public Health “will need robust funding to roll out” a vaccine when one is ready.
On the camping ban, Mushtaler told the Independent, “I believe that the lifting of the public camping ban did not fully consider all contingencies, nor did Council lay the proper groundwork for these changes. In order to bring people to opportunities to receive help, there must be a mechanism to get them there in the first place that does not criminalize people for being homeless, but also balances the business and public health needs of the community.”
On the LDC, she opposes the version pushed by the Council majority last year. She supports notice and rights for property owners. She believes the Council should “cease litigation immediately” on the appeal of a court ruing upholding notice and protest rights, and throwing out the Council majority’s votes on the LDC.
Dee Harrison is retired from the State of Texas after a career in emergency management for three state agencies. She also worked in emergency management for Williamson County. Harrison’s website explains, ” She has over 15 years of experience working at the local and state levels in emergency management preparedness programs; strategic, operational, and incident planning; threat and hazard identification and risk analysis, disaster response and recovery; and disaster survivor and crime victim programs.”
Harrison has a criminal justice degree and prior to her work in emergency management, she worked for 18 years in “community-based corrections at the county and state levels.” Her website says she “has extensive experience working with victims and survivors of crime, offenders, and restorative justice initiatives.”
Explaining on her website why she is running, Harrison said, “It was time for me to step up instead of just ranting and raving to friends and neighbors.”
In her responses to the candidate questionnaire, Harrison told the Independent, “If elected, my first priority will be to advocate for restoring the Austin Police Department budget and redefining “the reimagining.” Providing for public safety services and our emergency responders must be the priority of the Council.”
She adds, “ Our police department and training academy and its curriculum is not ‘broken’ as some have claimed. Rather, it is the City that has broken its trust with the incoming cadet class and the rest of our officers. That is shameful.”
Harrison is also concerned about fire dangers from the large amout of wildland urban interface in District 6 and says, “I will advocate for more mitigation projects to further reduce the wildland fire threat in District 6.”
She opposes the camping ban repeal, saying, “The repeal of the camping ban resulted in an explosion of homeless camps all over the city. These camps are not safe, sanitary, or secure. At best, the repeal was a stopgap measure. At worst, it is just cruel.” She, however, describes a variety of approaches she would support: “Providing temporary or transitional housing is but a part of a solution. Creating partnerships with non-traditional and non-governmental organizations to provide services was another. The City must create a sustainable long-term strategy to address the things we can and establish measurable goals, objectives, and metrics to measure our progress.”
On the LDC, she says, “I would not vote for any code that denies property owners the protections afforded them under state law. That said, I agree the current code is long overdue for revision.” On the related court case, she says, “The City should own up to its mistakes with the LDC, drop the appeal.”
On her view of a Council Member’s responsibility regarding basic City services, Harrison said, “Our responsibility is to accept our elected role to protect, support, and enhance the government services we provide our citizens. Our role is to set strategic goals and executive policies, it is not to micromanage city departments.”
Mackenzie Kelly says her top three priorities are “public safety, affordability and correcting the current homeless crisis.” Kelly emphasizes her roots in District 6: “I am a mother, a wife, and a person deeply invested in the community. Austin is in my blood. My parents live in our district. My brother and his fiance live in our district, my in-laws live in our district. I was born and raised here, I learned life’s hard lessons here, and now I will roll up my sleeves to help others navigate life’s challenges in this ever changing city.” She served eight years “as a volunteer firefighter for the Jollyville Fire Department (in District 6) and is a graduate of the Austin Police Department’s Citizen Police Academy.
She maintains, “Changes to several policies on council that have been made recently were not made with the city’s future in mind. We need fact based and data driven decisions.”
Continues Kelly, “The city of Austin is facing multiple crises right now: A crisis of homelessness, a crisis of public safety and a crisis of affordability. I’ll advocate for our police department to be fully staffed and well funded, I will fight to keep our taxes low, and I’ll ensure that our homeless population is taken care of through policies that work towards identifying and treating the systemic problems that cause homelessness.”
Kelly complains, “Our response to COVID has shut down local small businesses and many of them have closed their doors for good. The iconic business landscape that kept Austin Weird is slowly fading away.” She doesn’t offer an alternative to COVID-related shut downs.
Kelly, who was endorsed by the Fight for Austin PAC, supports reinstating the camping ban, but also discusses personally working with the homeless, “I’ve spent time volunteering and cleaning up an abandoned homeless camp here in Austin. I’ve seen the terrible living conditions the homeless are currently living in. From unsanitary conditions to rats, I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. I believe our council should have thought out their plan to rescind the camping ordinance before allowing our homeless to live under overpasses. Had they come up with a well thought out plan, I imagine it might have included different, localized and hygienic camping locations. From speaking with the homeless across the city I’ve learned a lot of them still want their independence. They do not like the idea of shelters. Their possessions are important to them. At the same time, many of them need access to fresh water or bathrooms. This could be solved by providing camping locations with access to those items and social services.”
Flannigan Touts Fiscal Watchdog Role
Flannigan, beyond the core issues in the race, promotes himself as a fiscal watchdog. He touts having saved the City money on both the police and fire contracts and reminds that he “voted against the 2017 and 2019 budgets.” Voting against the annual budget, however, is not necessarily considered a courageous, or even fiscally responsible act — especially if during the budget process, and the following budget year, one maneuvers to get a number of spending items included for their district. Throughout his answers to the candidate questionnaire, and on the campaign trail, Flannigan touts specific services, projects and facilities for which he won funding during his time on the Council, even though he voted against the budget in two of his four years.
Examining the Possiblities
This is probably the most volatile race, both in tone and possibly results. Flannigan is depending on his constituent service being rewarded and on the election being framed in many voters’ minds as progressives against the right wing.
Mackenzie Kelly has the support of the Republican-heavy Fight for Austin PAC and will also likely pull some Republican support from her role as President of Take Back Austin. These would form her base although she might pull votes from beyond that base.
Dee Harrison has strong credentials, especially on the public safety and emergency management, but appears to lack a political base. That, however, remains to be seen.
Mushtaler is counting on her home base in River Place, plus her strong LDC opposition and her willingness to take it to Flannigan is drawing neighborhood support both within and outside of District 6. She is also counting on Democrats who are not on board with Flannigan’s stance on the police, the camping ban repeal, or Project Connect. She may even hope to draw some support that seriously endangered species, the moderate Republican; there may still be a few left in Austin.
The hope of all three challengers is to push Flannigan into a runoff.
(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.)
For more information on the District 6 see the candidate questionnaire. A Council District Map is also available there.
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