If you like irony then following Austin politics might be just the thing for you. Consider the current special election to replace District 4 City Council Member Greg Casar. Early voting started January 10 and Election Day is January 25. Casar is running for Congress which means that he has to vacate his seat. The winner of the January 25 election will serve the rest of Casar’s unexpired term, which runs through the end of 2024.
Casar’s Congressional quest comes with its own load of irony, which will be discussed in a separate article soon; but here let’s discuss the core irony in the race to replace him.
That has to do with one of the major selling points for the 10-1 District system — promoted by advocates like Casar and former Council Member/now County Attorney Delia Garza, among many others. Such a single member district system, the argument went, would empower everyday people to run for office and lessen the impact and influence of special interest money in Council races. Overall, went the arguments, it would be much more likely that candidates could win through grass roots effort and without money from those with a financial stake in City Council decisions.
As Casar, Delia Garza, Pio Renteria and Jimmy Flannigan put it in a 2018 Medium post about the Land Development Code (LDC), “This (voter approval of the 10-1 District system) provided an opportunity for new voices to be heard and for underrepresented communities to finally have a seat at the table.”
One could actually see this dynamic at work recently during a January 6 forum put on by The League of Women Voters Austin Area (LWVAA). There, four grass roots candidates, whose names would not be familiar even to most ardent followers of Austin politics, laid out their experience with, and stances on, issues facing the District and the City as a whole. The four — Isa Boonto, Melinda Schiera, Jade Lovera and Monica Guzmán (listed here in the order they appear on the ballot) all touted significant experiences with neighborhood and other civic and advocacy groups — much of it specific to District 4. They often displayed a keen familiarity with issues facing the District and a passion for how to address those issues.
Also participating in the discussion was Jose “Chito” Vela, Casar’s pick to replace him and the clear insider and developer favorite in the race. Vela certainly held his own at the forum, answering questions in a smooth and confident manner. But, it seemed ironic and more than a little discordant when, in his closing statement, Vela ticked off a list of endorsements from elected officials aka Establishment figures. The first was Casar, then “Mayor (Steve) Adler, Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, Council Member Natasha Harper Madison, District Attorney Jose Garza and numerous other labor unions and progressive organizations.” (Delia Garza’s name was notably missing from the list and also does not appear on Vela’s website list of endorsers.) Now, let’s unpack that a little bit. Casar is not the first officeholder to try to pick his successor. So, however voters might feel about politicians doing that or Casar doing it in this particular instance, it’s not out of the ordinary.
And, you can’t blame candidates for bragging about their endorsements. Still, this contrast with the rest of the forum which displayed real grass roots politics in action was stark. Should Council Members from other Districts and multimillionaire Mayor Steve Adler be putting their thumbs on the scale in District 4, one of the City’s poorest Districts? Adler even contributed the maximum allowed donation of $400 to Vela.
And Jose Garza? Doesn’t the new District Attorney have enough to do without inserting himself into a Council race?
Also, it probably won’t come as a surprise that the incumbent insiders picked the best financed candidate, in particular the one with the developer money. In the first campaign financial reports, filed in late December, Vela raised more than twice as much money as all other candidates combined. To be fair Vela’s fundraising lead can be attributed in part to his early start, to hard work on his part, and to connections and support in various sectors of the community. Still, Vela’s contributor list reads like a Who’s Who of the development forces who backed the LDC rewrite — which came within days of passing and upzoning huge swaths of single family neighborhoods in Central Austin, including in many parts of East Austin.
Those donating to Vela included: Fayez Kazi of Civilitude and a major LDC backer when he was a Planning Commission member; Conor Kenny, a former LDC rewrite backing Planning Commissioner and now developer; Scott Turner a leading developer and backer of the LDC rewrite; Greg Anderson, a former Planning Commissioner and a particularly aggressive backer of the LDC rewrite; and several other developers. Vela also raked in a significant haul from fellow attorneys.
Speaking of the LDC, Casar, Adler and Natasha Harper Madison are all unapologetically on the developer side of the LDC battle and clearly want to maintain a vote in District 4.
The Austin Bulldog also detailed a number of other contributions to Vela from City Council staffers and concluded, “By contrast, none of the other candidates received donations from incumbents or their staff, signaling Vela’s status as the relative favorite at City Hall” — at least with the Council and their staff.
Vela’s money and insider endorsements definitely make him the betting odds favorite to win the quickly approaching election. Surprises have happened before, however, and perhaps this race will become an example bolstering the original arguments for the 10-1 District system. For now though the race appears to be about whether any of the other six candidates can gather enough votes collectively to hold Vela below 50% and catapult one of them into a runoff with him. If so, that runoff would be March 22, although the City describes that as a tentative date.
The League of Women Voters Forum
Now, let’s take a look at the January 6 forum. We will discuss the candidates who attended in the order they appear on the ballot, which was the way they were called on to begin the evening. As already noted, five candidates attended the forum. There are, however, seven candidates in the race. We will discuss the two who did not attend further down.
Isa Boonto kicked things off with a crisp bio of herself, “I am not a politician, but I can be very political. I am a teacher, an artist and a single parent. I teach full time at a public high school in District 4. I work at a north Austin restaurant every weekend and pick up extra gigs so I can pay bills and take care of my children. In my free time I serve our community:” She then listed having served as Vice President and Co-President of the North Austin Civic Association (NACA), a major neighborhood and civic association in District 4. Among other activities Boonto said she also serves as a “moderator” for a nonprofit dealing with issues of the “unhoused.” She added that some of her friends are among the unhoused and talked of struggling to earn a living wage herself.
During the rest of the forum Boonto repeatedly stressed the need to follow watershed protection policies, mentioning that specifically in relation to zoning, land use, and the new rail system — which she supports. Boonto also stressed that she will be making decisions for the entire City, not just District 4.
On public safety, Boonto supports both police reform and increased policing for the area, saying, “Safety, policing, I hear that so much from my neighbors.” Boonto said she has also participated in City sponsored institutional racism workshops involving Austin Police officers and community members. Among her takeaways: “In hearing the humanity from the police officers, they need support. Defunding them abruptly without any plan does a disservice to them in their efforts to serve our community and dis-serves our community needs.”
Boonto also said that police alone cannot meet all public safety needs. She instead supports a “combination,” including social workers and other “wrap around” services.
In closing remarks Boonto said, “If elected, we will be the first non-binary and Asian American to serve City Council for District 4. I am of the people and for the people.”
Melinda Schiera has also been active in the North Austin Civic Association, for 10 years now. She has served as both President and Vice President. She also served as a member of the neighborhood’s Police Contact team and worked on a repeat offender program. Schiera played an important role in advocating for extending the Project Connect rail line “at least to Rundberg.” It was originally to stop at the transit center near N. Lamar and US 183. Capital Metro agreed to a future phase that would stretch all the way to Parmer Lane.
On the Land Development Code Schiera stresses working with community members and says her views have evolved somewhat on density and she now thinks “District 4 could be and should be a leader on increasing density in targeted locations.” Her website mentions that she helped negotiate higher density on North Lamar, but less density on Rundberg — neither being in the middle of existing single family neighborhoods.
On public safety Schiera promises to “collaborate” with APD and supports a stronger police presence in the District. She backs up her stance with real world stories of how dangerous life can be in parts of District 4: “Our nearby convenience stores are robbed often at gunpoint. People at the convenience store are sometimes robbed and often on the streets as well. And many of those people (the victims) are from the immigrant community.” These examples are consistent with many police reports. Schiera added that while canvassing she met an elderly woman who was about to celebrate her 60th wedding anniversary. The woman told Schiera that her purse was “snatched at HEB.”
Also reflecting her neighborhood knowledge Schiera promises to enhance the City’s abandoned vehicle program, saying she will initiate a program to “inventory all abandoned vehicles in District 4 and improve the process for removal.”
Schiera maintains that she has “the most experience bringing people together to discuss all issues of District 4 and ensuring best outcomes.” She adds that her activism and advocacy flow from “supporting democracy and living in a community we can all enjoy in our everyday lives.”
Jade Lovera was born and raised in District 4 and says she has lived there her whole life. Like many people over the decades, Lovera got involved in Austin politics when development threatened to encroach on her neighborhood. In her case it is a proposed apartment complex down the street from her single family neighborhood east of Lamar and north of Rundberg. As her campaign website explains, “She spent the last nine months working with the City and developers to come up with a solution in-line with the neighborhood’s character, residents, and needs. It has not been easy; the City and, unfortunately, her own Council Member have not made it easy.” The case is still under consideration and ironically, if Lovera gets elected and the case is still in play, she would likely have to abstain.
Regardless, Lovera has taken her interest in City governance well beyond that one case. For instance when asked about the LDC, she stressed involving community members more deeply in the process, and said, “it will require” that the Council “actually listen.” She added, “I do not feel that simply adding more housing at market rate is going to address our affordability issue and it’s also not going to protect our neighborhoods.” She called neighborhoods “the heart of Austin.”
Lovera discussed her career in “residential multi-family property management,” which she ultimately left for her current job at Women Who Werk. Her website provides more detail, saying Lovera stayed in the multi-family field for 12 years, “rising to a regional manager role” before leaving “to help build a non-profit organization;” that is Women Who Werk. The organization’s website says it “is a lifestyle brand that gives women the tools and community they need to live life on their own terms. We support female leaders, mothers, and boss ladies on a mission to create a life where they thrive by prioritizing healing, growth, and self-love.” Lovera serves as Chief Strategy Officer.
Lovera says this mix of qualifications will help make her a good Council Member: “My experience working with community organizations, developers and the housing market uniquely qualifies me for this role. I will bring real world knowledge and experience to City Council.”
On public safety Lovera stresses that District 4 has the highest crime rate in the City as well as the highest number of murders (which the Independent also found in our research). She favors both police reform and an increased police presence in District 4.
Lovera summarized her platform, “My priorities are housing affordability, public safety, homelessness, supporting neighborhoods and emergency disaster preparedness.” She also stressed protecting the environment, for example protecting trees while building the light rail line and other construction projects — to mitigate heat increase from concrete increase.
Monica Guzmán is a “native Austinite” and “community organizer” who works with GAVA (Go Austin Vamos Austin), a group that works to improve life for residents of Austin’s “Eastern Crescent.” Guzmán touts her advocacy for “increased access to a healthier lifestyle” and to “stop gentrification.” At the LWVAA forum, Guzmán brought up Austin’s image as a center of support for environmental protection, which she said “I strongly support.” At the same time, she said, more attention needs to be focused on residents who feel “left behind” by “gentrification and over development.”
Guzmán summarized her approach like this at the forum, “My platform is social justice reform, neighborhood stability and fighting climate change.”
Like several of the other candidates, Guzmán appears to be familiar with everyday issues in District 4, and can talk details. For instance when asked about how she sees progress on implementation of the City bond program in District 4 she replied that it is good to see new sidewalks and traffic beacons, but dangerous places remain. She singled out the need to work with TxDOT concerning North Lamar and 183, where pedestrians have limited, and sometimes dangerous, options for getting to the nearby transit center. She also called for more consideration of “Mom and Pop business owners” (who operate from rental property) in land use and other decisions.
On policing, Guzmán called for more police attention at Georgian Drive and Powell Lane where she said drug dealing and prostitution have flared since funding for the Restore Rundberg program expired. That came after Guzmán said one of her priroities would be to implement recommendations of the Austin City-Community Reimagining Public Safety Task Force. She specifically mentioned, the recommendations of the “Equity Reinvestment in Community” and the “Meaningful Community Engagement” task force working groups, working groups on which Guzmán served.
The Task Force proposals and programs Guzmán specifically mentioned largely entail recommendations for public involvement processes and recommendations to invest more in social services and less in policing. The overall Task Force recommendations, however, call for more radical measures including to “defund:” the gang suppression unit; the K-9 Unit; the community partnerships program; District Representatives; and the City’s participation in the US Marshals’ Lone Star Fugitive Task Force. “Long term” recommendations include phasing out “the entire $210,604,299 Neighborhood-Based Policing line item in the APD budget;” “phase out all use of all deadly weapons;” and “no more cadet classes.”
Given that Guzmán only specifically brought up the two areas of the recommendations on which she worked, the Independent contacted her and asked if she supports the rest of the task force recommendations and if so, would she work to implement them if elected. Guzmán replied by email, “Yes, I support all the recommendations in the Austin City-Community RPS Task Force 2021 Mid-Year Recommendations Report. And yes, if elected I will work to implement all recommendations in the report.”
Chito Vela emphasized his governmental experience: “I am the most experienced candidate (in the race).” He cited his work as general counsel to a Texas state representative and his role as Board Chair of Workers Defense — a workers rights group that also spawns political candidates, including Greg Casar and Jose Garza. Vela also noted that he was Casar’s appointee to the City Planning Commission.
Vela did not tell the stories of everyday life in District 4 as several of the other candidates did. The closest he got was talking about working with criminal defendants and others he has encountered through his work as a lawyer. That specifically came when Vela was asked where he would place District 4 on “a spectrum of ignored to over policed.” He answered, “A little bit of both,” and elaborated, “On the one hand, we have police responding to situations that I don’t think they are the best fit to respond to; for example as a criminal defense attorney I have handled many cases involving family violence or people that are in mental health crisis who, their family members call for a police officer, or they call 911, but they don’t want a police officer. They want somebody that can respond to somebody in mental health crisis. And, I hear the 911 calls and they are saying, ‘we don’t want a police officer,’ but they send a police officer because that’s the only option that there is. And, sometimes that can aggravate a situation. So in certain ways we need the police to step back from certain situations. But, in terms of violent crimes and burglaries and those kind of things we need the police to be engaged and helpful.”
Vela’s core theme is the need to build more housing in Austin. At the forum he spoke passionately and at length about real estate prices forcing working class people out of the City and concluded, “That has to stop.” The specifics Vela offered were more frequent affordable housing bond elections and publicly funded housing along rail lines. He did not, however, address how the City could combat market forces that drive up prices, something that has confounded the current Council as well as many others.
Vela also clearly sides with developers who want to massively upzone huge swaths of Central Austin, including East Austin neighborhoods where many low and mid income working people own their homes, are trying to hold on and have — in large numbers — opposed the type of upzonings and other LDC policies Vela and his backers support.
On the Ballot, but Not At the Forum
Amanda Rios did not show at the forum, but she raised the second largest amount of money, behind Vela. So she probably should not be counted out. On her website Rios states, “I’m a wife, I’m a mom and I’m your neighbor! I have lived in Austin for 30 years and in east Austin for 13 years. I have always served diverse communities ranging from working with refugees in Houston to Title 1 schools here in Austin as a bilingual teacher.”
The Austin Chronicle tied Rios to Save Austin Now and slammed her as the candidate “who wants to be the Save Austin Now-approved candidate in a race that shows no sign of either needing or wanting one.” Indeed Rios did support repeal of the camping ban and emphasizes “comprehensive public safety” on her website: “We need to bring our community together to ensure we are providing world class police, firefighter, and first responder services. Residents shouldn’t worry that if they are in an emergency that help might or might not come.”
Whether the Chronicle approves or not, Rios appears to be trying to work a different vein of voters than some of the other candidates. That is a long shot in District 4, but Rios should not automatically be counted out, especially in a low turnout election like this one will be.
Ramesses II Setepenre
The other candidate not appearing at the forum was Ramesses II Setepenre. He also did not file a financial report. He did respond to a two question questionnaire from the Community Impact newspaper. Asked what “tangible change or policy” he would pursue, Setepenre answered, “Since we’re approaching winter, an emergency small fleet of city snow plows/road salt trucks would be a lesson-learned idea—You ain’t gotta get ready, if you stay ready baby.” (photo not available)
The election is January 25 and, as already noted, early voting is underway. It ends Friday January 21. Early voting locations are closed on January 17 in observance of the Martin Luther King holiday.
Turnout is likely to be very low. In all the election cycles since 10-1 went into effect District 4 has had the lowest number of voters; and that is among districts with roughly equal populations. Turnout will be particularly low in a January election with no other issues on the ballot. So get out there and vote.
In closing, a note of congratulations to the League of Women Voters Austin Area. They put on a good, solid forum and in addition they deserve immense credit for getting it together to hold a forum so early in the year. The entire forum can be found here.
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