by Daryl Slusher
With the County Judge contest out of the way, next up in local elections are City Council races — which are on the November 3 ballot with everything from the President on down. The filing deadline for the Council ballot passed on Monday August 17. Twenty candidates filed to run for the five Council seats on the ballot. Those seats are the ones currently held by: Delia Garza (District 2); Greg Casar (D4); Jimmy Flannigan (D6); Leslie Pool (D7); and Alison Alter (D10). All but Garza are running for reelection. She did not seek reelection but ran successfully for County Attorney.
One important factor in City Council elections is that they are “non-partisan.” Candidates still tend to identify their party affiliation, but there are no primaries. Instead all candidates, regardless of party, run in the same contest. If no one gets a majority then the top two vote getters face each other in a December runoff.
In Garza’s mainly southeast Austin district four candidates are vying to replace her. Two candidates began campaigning shortly after Garza announced in November that she would not run again; David Chincanchan and Vanessa Fuentes.
Chincanchan, the first to announce grew up in the Dove Springs in District 2. There, writes Chincanchan, “I saw families like mine struggle as our community grappled with poverty, violence, health issues, and so many other forms of institutional neglect. Yet, I also witnessed resilient and inspiring leaders rise from our underserved neighborhoods and dedicate their lives to taking on these challenges. They taught me what was possible when folks are empowered, feel a sense of community, and take seriously our responsibility to care for one another.” He says that as a Council Member he would, “ensure that our neighborhoods have dynamic representation and an effective voice at City Hall.”
Chincanchan’s role as a Council aide to Council Member Pio Renteria shows in the range of issues he discusses on his campaign Facebook page. He praises the budget recently adopted by Council, specifically noting the Council’s actions on the Police budget. Among other issues, Chincanchan also heralds the anniversary of women’s suffrage, talks about the uneven impact of the coronavirus on residents of District 2.
Fuentes describes herself on campaign filing documents as a “health care organizer” and reports on her campaign website that she has worked for the American Heart Association for five years. Her website bio sounds similar to that of Garza whom she seeks to replace: “My mom and dad taught me and my siblings the importance of education as an opportunity equalizer and raised me with the values of hard work and service to the community. At every opportunity, I’ve championed, invested, and advocated for social justice issues in Austin spanning the range of criminal justice, public education, community, transportation, and women’s empowerment.”
She adds, “From the state capitol to city hall to the boardroom, I’ve always stood on the side of the underrepresented and most vulnerable communities in the fight for equity. I’m committed to amplifying the voices of my community in this critical moment of change in Austin.”
Chincanchan and Fuentes are widely expected to be the top contenders and both have been campaigning for months. Joining the race more recently are Casey Ramos, a boxer who ran against Garza in 2016. At the time of that race Ramos was pursuing an economics degree at St. Edwards University. In 2019 Ramos appeared in an anti Land Development Code (LDC) rewrite film called Upzoned.
Also in the race is Alex Strenger, a pedicab driver who finished last of six candidates in the 2018 Mayoral race, pulling one percent of the vote. Currently, Strenger tweets frequently about the Covid crisis, for instance urging people, “Eat healthy, exercise, get plenty of sleep, avoid stress, and wear a mask when social distancing isn’t feasible.” Sandwiched in between two tweets giving that advice, however Strenger retweeted a report about a huge crowd at a waterpark in Wuhan, China — where the virus originated, but has now been largely contained, “So if this can happen in Communist China, then why can’t our bars reopen here in Texas? Why are we trying to cancel college football??”
When running for Mayor, according to the Daily Texan, Strenger said, “Building a dome around Austin and getting rid of these pesky Californians is the most clear and practical way to manage our growth and address our affordability concerns.”
In District 4 Greg Casar does not appear to face a major threat. Casar is proudly leftist and often controversial. Casar was a leader in trying to push through the Land Development Code (LDC) rewrite, before it was at least temporarily felled first by Covid and then by a court ruling that determined the Council majority, including Casar, violated the law by failing to notice property owners of massive upzonings and by denying protest rights granted under state law. (link),
Casar has often been very effective in winning Council approval for his agenda. At times he succeeds more in garnering publicity than in actually making progressive gains. The biggest such example was his initiative to require local businesses to provide sick leave to employees. That initiative passed the Council, but has since been blocked by Texas state courts — something that was widely predicted would happen when Casar announced the initiative.
Casar was indisputably the Council leader in the dramatic cuts and reallocations recently made to the Austin Police Department budget.
Casar’s challengers are civil engineer Louis C. Herrin III, formerly with the Texas Council on Environmental Quality, and Ramesses II Setepenre. Herrin ran in 2014 pulling 2.6% percent in an eight person race, then ran again in 2016 rising to 16% in a three person race. Casar won both times. On his website, Herrin says his priorities are “transportation, affordable housing and (to) streamline city government.” The Travis County Republican Party website features a check by Herrin’s name on a sample ballot signifying him as a Republican candidate running in Travis County.
Setepenre is a political unknown who we will learn more about as the campaign proceeds.
The incumbent facing the toughest race may be Jimmy Flannigan in District 6. Flannigan drew three female opponents.
One is Mackenzie Kelly who ran in 2014 running fifth in a six person race with nine percent. Far right Republican Don Zimmerman eventually won the seat in a runoff against Flannigan. Flannigan then defeated Zimmerman in 2016.
Kelly appears to have strengthened her support, to at least some extent, since 2014. For instance her Facebook page features an endorsement from former Mayor Lee Leffingwell. The primary reason Leffingwell cited for supporting MacKenzie was her advocacy for law enforcement.
As with Herrin in Place 4, the Travis County Republican Party website features a check by her name signifying her as a Republican candidate running in Travis County. Kelly is also President of the blast from the past group Take Back Austin. Actually it is difficult to tell if the group descends from a group of the same name that unsuccessfully tried to mount a right wing takeover of the City Council in the mid-1990s. [Full Disclosure: The author was one of the candidates that defeated Take Back Austin in 1996, which might make for some fun stories sometime.]
The reason it is difficult to tell if this is the same Take Back Austin is that Kelly’s is the only name that appears anywhere on the website. There she writes:
“Born and raised in Austin, Texas, I’m aware enough of how much things have changed in the City over the years. In recent years, the current state of our City has built increasing concern in me more each day. This growing concern has made it so that I could no longer sit back and watch the downfall of our once great home, it has forced me to take action.”
Also running is OBGYN Doctor Jennifer Mushtaler who serves as President of the River Place Limited District Board of Directors. To the Independent’s knowledge Mushtaler has not released any information on her campaign platform. The same is true of a fourth candidate in the race, Dee Harrison; so more to come on that.
MacKenzie Kelly has probably already identified the key issue in the race, public safety. Flannigan has been a leader on the Council in cutting the police budget. Flannigan even proposed going further than the rest of the Council was willing to go, so far, for instance proposing to split APD into five separate departments of Patrol, Investigations, Traffic Safety, Professional Standards, and Emergency Communications and Technology. He also wants to move APD out of its downtown headquarters, watch for some real estate deal to be in the works.
Flannigan was also an uncompromising supporter of the LDC rewrite before it washed up on shore, at least temporarily (as described in the District 4 section above). The LDC may not be a huge issue in his district because more of the damage was being inflicted on central city neighborhoods outside Flannigan’s district.
Public safety though is likely to dominate the race. As previously, this is the district that elected right winger Don Zimmerman in 2014. It begins on the north side of U.S. 183 near Angus Road, including the neighborhood to the south of Angus. It then rolls all the way to the northwestern city limits, including the parts of Williamson County that are in the City of Austin. The District also hops south of U.S. 183 along Big View Drive and the River Place neighborhood, then extends from there to the northwestern city limits. It competes with District 8 in Southwest Austin as the most conservative district. Both D6 and D8 began with Republicans, when single members districts was launched in 2015, but are now both represented by Democrats.
Many people in District 6 do not support the cuts to the police department made by Flannigan and the Council. Numerous residents, although not all, likely support police reform, but don’t see the wisdom in the kind of rapid, deep cut, including cutting positions for new and replacement officers as crime rises.
In District 7 Leslie Pool drew only one opponent, Morgan Witt. Pool is a fighter for environmental, social justice, women’s rights, and other progressive causes — among others. She was also a strong opponent of the LDC rewrite, which will likely win her considerable continuing support in her district.
Witt, on her website, cites standard campaign themes of “make Austin affordable, mobile, affordable, equitable, sustainable, musical, and engaged.” It remains to be seen how she might differ much on the issues from Pool. One issue due further examination is whether Witt is an urbanist/pro-LDC candidate trying to knock out LDC opponent Pool. Witt’s website explanation of “Make Austin Affordable” strikes many rhetorical notes similar to those espoused by pro-LDC supporters, including the Council majority of Mayor Steve Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Garza, and Council Members Natasha Harper Madison, Sabino Renteria, Casar, Flannigan, and Paige Ellis. For instance Witt decries the rising cost of living, and says she will “work to expand housing choices and create an affordable Austin where everyone is able to live in the neighborhood of their choice,” without citing any specifics ways to get to that utopian goal.
Finally, in District 10 basically covering West Austin south and east of District 6, stretching from MoPac to west of Loop 360, with a leap across MoPac to encompass Rosedale. Incumbent Alison Alter drew nine opponents. Alter often teams with Pool and Council Member Kathie Tovo. Like Pool and Tovo, Alter was a strong and vocal opponent of the LDC rewrite. She also works hard at constituent service, frequently sending an email newsletter to constituents covering a wide range of topics.
Pooja Sethi has been Alter’s only active opponents so far. Like many other candidates in the coming months, Sethi will also likely have to move beyond utopian rhetoric such as her stance on “Housing Affordability” which reads, “Pooja believes in eliminating barriers. Pooja knows how important it is to offer affordable housing and encourage community input. As your City Council Member, Pooja will bring communities to the table to drive smart growth and fight displacement in an equitable way.“
As, in District 7, a campaign issue will be whether Sethi is an urbanist, pro-LDC rewrite candidate trying to unseat LDC opponent Alter — and, if so, how the residents of District 10 feel about that.
Five more candidates filed recently and the Independent will take a closer look later. Notably one of those, long time realtor Jennifer Virden somehow merited a report from KVUE News headlined, “Native Austinite Jennifer Virden announces campaign for Austin City Council.” Virden said opposing the Council’s light rail initiative, Project Connect, will be her top issue.
The Independent was unable to locate any KVUE reports on the other nine candidates in the race, but will continue to look and will also monitor whether Virden somehow manages to continue getting more publicity than the other candidates.
Those other four candidates are: Ben Easton who lists his occupation as “writer” on his ballot application; Belinda Greene who lists her occupation as “sales;” Robert Thomas, an attorney; and Noel Tristan, a “business owner.”
The Independent will continue to cover the Council races as they develop.
This article was updated to correct the spelling of Flannigan.
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