It is really hard to turn away even momentarily from the national political spectacle, with the coronavirus-denying president getting it himself, positive test results being announced (at least) daily among prominent Republicans, and the election now less than a month away. Here in Austin, however, among other local races, there are five City Council races down toward the bottom of the ballot whose results will play a major role in what life is like in Austin for the foreseeable future.
The other five Council seats, and the Mayor’s job, will be on the November 2022 ballot. Four of the the five Council races feature incumbents running for reelection: Greg Casar in District 4; Jimmy Flannigan, District 6; Leslie Pool, District 7 and Alison Alter, District 10. The fifth race is in District 2, the seat currently held by Delia Garza who won the County Attorney seat in the July Democratic Party runoff. (Technically Garza still has to win the November general election, but has no Republican opponent.)
The dynamics in each race differ and the Independent will discuss that as our Council coverage goes along. We will also be posting, before early voting begins, candidates’ answers to our Council Candidate questionnaire so that voters so inclined can peruse those before making a decision.
Today, however, we offer an overview of the races built around a few ironies. The first irony is that the diffusion of the Council into single member district seats appears to have led to opposition against the entire group. That may or may not be cause and effect, but it does seem like irony. There’s more of that as we go along.
The second ironic element is that, despite the Council majority’s oft-repeated claims that they are moving beyond the tired old growth and development battles — the issue with the highest possibility of changing the vote count on the Council is that most persistent of Austin political conflicts — land development (this will run in a future post).
Let’s start by looking at how the Council as a whole is drawing opposition. Two groups who attack the entire Council and their policies have emerged. They are Voices of Austin and the Fight for Austin PAC. Between them their major issues, with some overlap, are:
These issues all have to do with things the Council has already done, or has in progress. It of course remains to be seen how these issues will play out in the election, but it seems safe to say that the impact will differ by district. We’ll discuss that more later, but first let’s take a look at the two groups criticizing the Council as a whole.
- The Austin Police Department (APD) police department budget, that is the recent cuts Council made to the budget;
- Project Connect, the light rail measure also on the ballot which would increase the City portion of local property taxes by 25%;
- The Council’s 2019 repeal of the homeless camping ban; and
- The Land Development Code rewrite (LDC) (By the way, this article will refer to candidates who are “anti-LDC.” That does not mean that they are against any reform or changes to the Land Development Code. It instead means they are against the version and approach that the Council Majority and City staff brought forward in Code Next and then in last year’s LDC).
Voices of Austin
Voices of Austin (VofA) is a nonprofit, non-endorsing group dedicated to informing citizens about the adventures of the City Council. Hint, they are none too pleased. VofA says its mission is to “Awaken Austin’s Political Majority” so “that together Austinites can set a new direction for better city government; we can have a city government that listens to the people.” VofA, is led by longtime political consultant Peck Young, former State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, and former Council Member Ora Houston. VofA also features a number of Austinites with less political experience who often focus on particular issues, like business woman Jan Lehman who focuses on finance.
VofA casts a wide net in its criticism of the Council, but the issues on which they focus the most are Project Connect, the police budget, and the LDC rewrite. VofA criticizes virtually everything about the Project Connect arguing that it will barely help with traffic congestion, costs far too much, takes too long to build, and will “destroy” Congress Avenue downtown.
VofA also harshly criticizes the cuts to the police budget, charging, “this dramatic change to public safety” was not “planned thoughtfully” because “Council listens to the loud; not the many. In short, Council governs badly,” adding, “Council is in a blind frenzy against APD and fails to govern!” Former Council Member Houston adds that the majority of Austin citizens want APD to be “reformed, not defunded.”
VofA also opposes the LDC rewrite as currently constituted and offers some of their own polling results on the issue. They report that 59% of those polled believe the LDC should “permit developers to concentrate on high rise density in specific, limited locations such as downtown and the Domain,” versus 23% who believe the LDC should “give land developers the ability to create density in any and all neighborhoods.”
While it could certainly be argued that the poll questions ignore an expanse of middle ground (which the Council majority tends to do as well), the results also appear to reflect traditional views in Austin.
Fight for Austin PAC
The other prominent group aiming at all the incumbents emerged out of the dispute over the Council’s 2019 repeal of the camping ban. They have also plugged in on the police budget issue.
Unlike VofA, the Fight for Austin PAC plans to back candidates. While VofA says “we can’t tell you how to vote,” Fight for Austin says, “We are a nonpartisan group of Austin citizens who will support candidates who prioritize public safety and oppose those who do not.”
Their homepage succinctly states their view of current conditions at City Hall: “Stop the Insanity.” The only two specific issues mentioned on their website are: “Elect Candidates Who Will Restore the Police Budget” and “Restore the Ban on Homeless Camping.” The Fight for Austin PAC website does not mention the Land Development Code or Project Connect.
Fight for Austin has now endorsed three candidates: Louis Herrin in District 4; Mackenzie Kelly in District 6; and Jennifer Virden in District 10.
Also, note that above, the Fight For Austin PAC identifies themselves as a “nonpartisan group.” While it is heartening to hear any effort try to be bipartisan nowadays, it seems worth pointing out that a Fight for Austin board member, and the most frequent spokesperson for the group, is Matt Mackowiak, the chair of the Travis County Republican Party. Also on the Fight for Austin board is former Council Member Ellen Troxclair, now a “Senior Fellow” with the far right Texas Public Policy Foundation.
The Democrats listed as members of the Fight for Austin PAC are not quite as prominent. Probably the best known is Cleo Petricek, listed as a Democrat and member of the Fight for Austin board. Petricek began working with Mackowiak in an effort to overturn Council’s repeal of the homeless camping ban. That included working together in a petition drive that fell just short of the amount of signatures needed to get a reversal of the camping ban repeal on the ballot. The Fight for Austin PAC emerged after that setback.
The Fight for Austin PAC also lists “moderate Democrat” Chris Ragland as a board member. Also on the board, as identified on the website, are: Michael Girard – Downtown property owner & Owner of Speakeasy; and Larry D. Maddalena, D.C. – Independent, VP, Joint Corp National Franchise Advisory Board, business owner in greater Austin area.
So the Fight for Austin PAC seems a little heavy on the Republican side. On the other hand, a fundamental part of organizing coalitions is forming alliances among people who do not agree on every single issue, but might agree on a particular issue or candidate. Also, City Council races are not intended to be partisan in the first place. Sure, for decades many candidates have volunteered their party identification, but all candidates — Democratic, Republican, Independent, Libertarian — run in the same race. Importantly, there are no primaries. That in itself is an advance over partisanship races because voters in party primaries do not pick the candidates — but I digress.
Will Opposing the Council As a Whole Work?
There are clearly a number of citizens upset about the cuts to the police budget. Plus, rail has always been controversial in Austin and faces the added hurdle of convincing people to vote for mass transit during a pandemic that has seen mass transit use drop.
Nonetheless, the Council clearly has some support for their votes on these issues. When VofA says the Council listens to “the loud,” they are referring to the hundreds of speakers who demanded that Council cut the police budget. Despite a number of citizens being upset about this vote, it is far from clear how this will affect the Council elections — and that impact will vary by district. Also, it appears that Delia Garza’s support for the cuts to the APD budget were a major factor in her winning the County Attorney seat. One indicator of that is that Laurie Eiserloh won the mail-in vote, which has a higher percentage of older voters, while Garza ran away with the election day and early vote.
Project Connect also has supporters and may fare particularly well among younger voters. The pro-rail argument includes that Austin’s overwhelming reliance on the automobile transportation is Austin’s environmental blind spot — particularly the lack of mass transit on its own right of way i.e. light rail — Also, getting people onto rail would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And, rail would and provide a new transportation option for the working class Austinites.
On the cost, rail backers also try to put the tax increase in a broader context. For example in the Austin Chronicle Mike Clark Madison pointed out that the tax increase for the rail system is less than the current tax rate of both Central Health and Austin Community College. That is true, although only slightly.
Another factor on Project Connect as Council campaign issue is that the measure will be decided by voters, on the same day as the Council election. So, Council Members, who as agroup unanimously put the proposal on the ballot, are a legitimate political target for opponents of that initiative. On the other hand, it would arguably be a legitimate stance for a candidate to say they will let the voters decide, and then carry out that voter mandate once in office. For certain, if Project Connect does pass, all Council Members would be widely expected to comply with the will of the voters.
On the camping ban, Fight for Austin has not advanced any proposals for dealing with the homeless other than repealing the camping ban — even as the Council has started multiple other initiatives. (Fight for Austin did not respond to an inquiry from the Independent.) VofA has steered clear of the camping ban issue.
The view here is that defeating incumbents in Austin will be most possible with a center-left coalition rather than a more right oriented group like Fight for Austin PAC. That may not hold in all districts, or not as much in some districts as others.
Voices of Austin more fits the center left description, but their nonprofit status prevents them from getting involved in individual races. Instead they are relying more on informing the center left masses in hopes of inspiring like minded candidates and voter turnout.
That type of strategy, would likely stand a better chance in an at large system where each Council Member has to run Citywide, or in a mixed system where some Council Members run Citywide and others represent districts. With single member districts even if widespread dissatisfaction exists, it can vary from district to district. Then there is the strength of incumbents in districts, a phenomena potentially similar to Congress where large majorities of Americans often express disgust with the institution as a whole, but still support their own representative.
This brings us to another irony.
An Irony Within An Irony
Voices of Austin leaders Peck Young and Gonzalo Barrientos were top leaders in the 2014 campaign to bring single member districts to Austin. They often teamed with then private citizen Delia Garza on panels and at other events promoting the switch to a 10-1 single member district system.
Garza clearly still supports 10-1, but are Young and Barrientos wavering? Absolutely not, replies Young. “We are not opposing the system. We are opposing the fact that people that were elected from the minority community, especially since Ora left, sold themselves by the pound to the Goddamn real estate interests.” He adds that this is an old developer “scheme where if you vote for my zoning issue we’ll let you do any other idiot thing you want to.” As an example he cites the citywide sick leave policy initiated by Greg Casar. Developers, explains Young, know the legislature won’t let that happen. “So as long as you (Council Members) screw people on their (developers’) behalf, they’ll let you pretend you’re anything” i.e. a Council Member can be as left wing as he or she wants as long as he or she votes for the developer’s zoning cases.
The ever colorful Young then works in a shot at Mayor Steve Adler. He does so by invoking former San Antonio Mayor Lila Cockrell who served during the early days of San Antonio’s single member district system. “She taught them (new district Council Members) to be leaders because she was a leader,” said Young. “She led a Council that knew how to fix the City. Her rookies learned how to govern. Our rookies learned how to sell out.”
Obviously, the Council Members invoked here would disagree with Young’s characterization, but on the other hand, many long time East Austin residents appear to agree, especially when it comes to the Land Development Code link. This will be one of the issues discussed in the campaign and here at the Independent as our Council coverage continues.
For now though, let’s note that by invoking the developer/land use issue, Young has identified what might be the only major shift possible on the Council in this election — albeit a long shot
That will be Irony #2 in our next post.
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