Two major and connected threads run through the City Council District 9 runoff between Zo Qadri and Linda Guerrero. The first is the dramatically different connections each candidate has to Austin, and their personal histories here. The second is the issue that has dominated local politics for more than 40 years; growth, and how to deal with it — with a particular focus this time around on housing and the Land Development Code.
Guerrero Has Very Deep Roots in Austin
Linda Guerrero is that rare find, an Austin native who has lived here her whole life. Her late father, Raul “Roy” G. Guerrero, is a legendary Austin figure. Roy G. Guerrero Park in East Austin is named after him and he is also the Guerrero in the Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center. He was born in Corpus Christi and came to Austin in the late 1940s to attend the University of Texas. To work himself through college, Guerrero found a part time job at the Austin Parks Department. Fairly soon he went full time and worked there for 34 years, rising to second in command of the Department.
An historic piece by Michael Barnes in the Austin American-Statesman chronicled Guerrero’s life in Austin through how he was known in various decades: “Guerrero was known in the 1940s for his work integrating Little League baseball games in Austin and for his participation with the League of United Latin-American Citizens and other civic groups; in the 1950s as the director of the Pan American Recreation Center at 2100 E. Third St., which he called the ‘hub of the community’; in 1960s as superintendent of recreation for the city of Austin; and in the 1970s as the second in command at the parks department.”
The late Gus Garcia, a legendary former Mayor and Council Member, called Guerrero a “great man” and told the Statesman: “He took a bunch of young people who had problems growing up and he straightened them out. He took them even after they went to jail and he helped them. He was one of our heroes.”
The late County Commissioner Richard Moya — himself a fabled Austin character — called Guerrero, “my father away from home.”
Linda Guerrero told the Independent that her Dad believed sports teaches discipline, teamwork and responsibility to kids. She added that he particularly focused on troubled and disadvantaged youth.
Roy Guerrero retired from the Parks Department in 1981.
Linda Guerrero said that her Mom, Beatrice “Tootsie” Guerrero, was considered “the Mayor of Landon Lane (in the Hancock neighborhood where Guerrero grew up).” Linda Guerrero says her Mom always invited over the neighborhood kids, with a particular focus on ”latch key kids” and made sure nobody was hungry. Beatrice Guerrero died in July 2001. Linda Guerrero says she was deeply moved when many of the kids she grew up with, by then in their 50s, came to the funeral with stories about the positive influence that her Mother had had on their lives.
Linda adds that her Dad told her that he couldn’t go on without her Mother. He passed away in November 2001.
By then Linda Guerrero was well into a career that continued the family tradition of public service. She was a special education teacher with the Austin Independent School District (AISD) for 28 years, certified at both the elementary and secondary levels. That way, she explains, she could help young kids as well as help secondary getting kids “get ready to cope with the world.” Guerrero said she engaged in a wide range of special education, but particularly specialized in working with autistic kids. Guerrero recently returned to teaching. She says that decision was driven by the “high cost of living and property taxes.”
In addition, Guerrero has served on a number of City boards and commissions including the Austin Parks Board and the Austin Environmental Commission. She rose to Chair of both Commissions, a position that is bestowed through a vote of Commission members. Guerrero also chaired the Barton Springs Master Plan group. She was Vice Chair of the Austin Downtown Commission. Guerrero also serves an Executive Officer of the Hancock Neighborhood Association.
Qadri’s Era in Austin
Much less is known about Zohaib “Zo” Qadri, the leader by eight percentage points going into the runoff. Qadri was born in Seacaucus, New Jersey in 1990. According to the Qadri campaign website, he is “the first born child of immigrants” from Pakistan. When Zo was 12 the family moved to Victoria, Texas where he “immediately fell in love with the state of Texas and has considered it his true home ever since.” His Dad, who passed away in 2013, was a doctor, an oncologist. His Mother “worked in a pathology lab.” (Qadri did not respond to a request for an interview.)
Like so many before him Zo Qadri came to Austin to attend UT. For him that was in 2009. He graduated in 2013 with a degree in sociology. Qadri’s campaign website says that he “had always assumed he would follow in his parent’s footsteps and pursue an education in science.” But, then he “made the decision to switch paths and study the structures of political decision making that affect all of our daily lives.”
Armed with his sociology degree he then attended Texas State and earned a Masters in Public Administration. His website does not give a date for that degree, but his LinkedIn resume says it was from 2015 to 2017. He then earned a second Masters degree, this one from Rice in Houston in Global Affairs. His LinkedIn resume says he was at Rice from 2017 to 2019. “Since finishing his graduate studies,” his campaign website reports, “Zo’s worked in advocacy roles and on political campaigns here in Austin, throughout Texas, and across the country.”
None of these appear to have been long gigs, which campaigns often are not. According to his LinkedIn resume, all but one of the jobs Qadri lists lasted less than a year. The only one that lasted longer than a year is his own campaign, which he lists on the resume.
How Long Has Qadri Lived in Austin and District 9?
The relatively short amount of time he has spent in Austin may have led Qadri to exaggerate how long he has lived here. On his official sworn ballot application to the City Clerk, Qadri wrote that he has lived in District 9 for two and a half years. In his campaign launch video, however, Qadri states, “I’ve lived in this district for the past 13 years.” Both of these statements cannot be true and it looks like the one he swore to on his ballot application is most likely the true one. At the bottom of that form, right above Qadri’s signature, was the following sentence, “I further swear that the foregoing statements included in my application are in all things true and correct.”
Qadri, who as noted earlier did not respond to a request for an interview, is evidently counting all the time since he came to Austin in 2009 as residency in District 9. We know from his website that he attended Rice in Houston, and his LinkedIn resume says that was there from 2017 to 2019. Of course students sometimes list their parents’ home at their main address when they go to college, but for Qadri that would be Victoria, not Austin. The only other possibility is that he maintained a permanent address in Austin while going to Rice. This was one of the questions I would have asked him. It seems, however, a doubtful thing for a renter to do and part of Qadri’s campaign pitch is that he is a renter.
Qadri has also acknowledged to another media outlet that he had at least two jobs in Victoria in 2013 and 2014 — for then Republican Congressman Blake Farenthold and for the Texas Republican Party. (We’ll discuss this a bit more further down.)
Also, his own campaign website reports, (emphasis added) “Since coming back to Austin in early 2020 after his work in South Carolina, Zo has taken on a number of projects in his daily work life that range from advising activist groups and advocacy campaigns on how best to utilize technology to achieve their goals, to building strategic alliances to accomplish tangible results for progressive campaigns and issue-oriented organizations.” Returning to Austin in “early 2020” is consistent with the two and a half years on the sworn ballot application, but not with the claim to have lived in the District for “the past 13 years.”
Qadri’s work in South Carolina, by the way, was for the presidential campaign of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Warren recently endorsed Qadri’s run for Council. According to his LinkedIn resume Qadri’s work with the Warren campaign lasted from May 2019 to February 2020, the second longest gig on Qadri’s LinkedIn resume, second to his own campaign. Prior to that he lists a four month job in Austin with then Dallas State Representative Eric Johnson. Before that, however, the last Austin area job he reported ended in June 2017. After that he reports several jobs in Houston, consistent with the time he attended Rice.
So, it seems that Qadri was indeed telling the truth when he had to legally swear that what he was saying was true. It also seems pretty clear, however, that Qadri is telling a stretcher when he says in his campaign launch video, “I’ve lived in this District for the past 13 years.”
Unemployed, But Doing OK
Also, on his the ballot application Qadri listed himself as “unemployed.” He is getting by somehow, however, because the address he lists as his residence is a luxury condo downtown. That condo, with the name excluded here to respect his privacy, advertises: “Experience the ultimate in urban living at . . . , a luxury high-rise set amid the historic grandeur of Downtown Austin. More than just a place to live. . . has created a modern oasis with a phenomenal package of amenities designed to enrich your life. Picture yourself at the rooftop pool and aqua lounge with its contemporary waterfall in the background. A gourmet-style outdoor kitchen with fire pits and a barbecue lounge creates a dynamic entertainment space for residents and their guests.”
Perhaps that all sharpens the mind to spark ideas for how to provide housing for the less fortunate.
On the campaign trail, Qadri touts being a renter, including complaining that his rent recently went up by $600. He doesn’t say what percentage that was. The Zillow report for the specific apartment Qadri and his wife rent shows their condo as a 2 bedroom 2 bath of 1,070 square feet. Promotional materials for the high rise say that would cost between $3,600 and $4,500 per month.
Guerrero by the way lives in a 1,053 square foot house in the Hancock neighborhood that she purchased in 1987. She also owns a 1,300 square foot house a few blocks away that she rents out.
Religion in Austin Politics
Qadri also does something in his campaign that, in my long memory, is very unusual for local Austin politics. He injects religion into the campaign; by citing his religion as a reason to vote for him. For instance in a Twitter post on July 31, one hundred days out from the election, Qadri wrote, “Austin is at a crossroads. But in 100 days, we can be the change. 100 days until District 9 can see answers to our affordability crisis. 100 days until Austin can elect the first South Asian & Muslim to City Council.” This was just one of many times Qadri has reminded voters that he would be the “the first South Asian & Muslim” elected to the Austin City Council.
He can also be critical of Austin voters for not electing a Muslim up to now. For instance in an interview with the Texas Signal Qadri said, “Yeah, I would be the first Pakistani, South Asian, and also Muslim on city council and it’s kind of ridiculous that we’re going into 2022 and that has to be said. But I didn’t run with the intention of ever being the first of anything. I’m running because I truly care about the city and the issues.”
The Very Clear Divide Over Growth, Neighborhoods and the Approach to Housing
The Qadri Coalition
Housing is the core issue in the race. That, of course, is related to growth and to the Land Development Code rewrite. Qadri is clearly aligned with the urbanists who favored Mayor Steve Adler’s and the Council majority’s LDC rewrite.
Virtually all the main backers of that version of the LDC are listed as endorsers on Qadri’s website including: Adler; former Council Member and soon to be Congressman Greg Casar; former Council Member and current County Attorney Delia Garza; Council Member Natasha Harper Madison; and former Council Member Jimmy Flannigan. That’s five of the seven votes who were in the process of ramming through the LDC when a Travis County Judge ruled they were breaking state law and threw out the two readings on the ordinance that had occurred up to that point. (Only Council Members Pio Renteria and Paige Ellis are missing.) Current Council Member Chito Vela, who picked up the LDC banner from Casar, also supports Qadri.
Qadri has also managed to win the endorsements of several state representatives and other elected officials, some of it through his work as a campaign operative. For instance he is endorsed by Austin area State Representatives Sheryl Cole, Donna Howard and Eddie Rodriguez. Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza also endorsed Qadri.
Qadri is also endorsed by the Austin American-Statesman as well as the smaller, but on a roll, Hyde Parker, the media organ of Friends of Hyde Park (FHP). The FHP is an urbanist counter neighborhood association to the older and more traditional Hyde Park Neighborhood Association.
And, of course, leave it to a predominately white urbanist group like FHP, or especially FHP, to introduce charges of racism into a race where voters in a majority white district just elevated a Hispanic woman and a Pakistani-American Muslim man into the runoff, sending several white candidates packing.
In an endorsement of Qadri the Hyde Parker wrote of the LDC struggle, “The city is fighting an uphill battle against powerful interests who find the status quo convenient and are terrified of opening up more of the city to people who might not look like, earn like, or think like they do.” This is an almost perfect encapsulation of local urbanist rhetoric. It is probably aimed more at District 9 voters than at Guerrero. I don’t want to sell Friends of Hyde Park short, but applying the “might not look like” or “earn like” invective to Guerrero — an Hispanic woman and retired AISD school teacher who returned to the classroom for financial reasons — would require some really serious mental acrobatics.
The Guerrero Coalition
In contrast to the heavy identity politics in Qadri’s camp, Guerrero has run an issues based campaign. As Qadri is clearly aligned with urbanists and the Council LDC majority, Guerrero is just as clearly aligned with people who want to protect existing neighborhoods and who don’t buy the dominant LDC narrative. She also mentions the need to protect Austin’s environment more than any other candidate currently on the trail. That is all reflected in the language on her website, including that “District 9 has some of the most iconic neighborhoods in Austin” and that she “understands the importance of preserving what makes Austin special.” Guerrero adds, “As Austin grows, we must make sure that the costs are paid by those that profit from the growth and not by the broader public through increased taxes or loss of quality of life.” These comments and this approach put Guerrero in the camp of those who opposed the Land Development rewrite, or more specifically the citywide upzonings that the Council majority insisted on packing in there.
Guerrero, however, doesn’t strike this reporter as a knee jerk vote for anything. She told the Independent that she favors putting more housing, even taller than allowed now, on corridors — or main streets. She points out that this in turn would help protect existing single family homes. A lifelong resident of District 9, she adds that many people living in single family homes have lived there for 50 years. Guerrero also talked about the level of density that her neighborhood agreed to for the redevelopment of the Concordia campus, and she remains perplexed that the developers didn’t build all the density to which the neighborhood had agreed, leaving entitlements on the table.
Guerrero has her own lengthy list of supporters including many on the against side of the LDC divide, like: Ana Aguirre of Southeast Austin; longtime neighborhood and environmental stalwart Mary Arnold; longtime neighborhood advocates like Joyce Basciano; Michael Curry; Barbara Epstein; Mary Ingle; David King; Barbara McArthur; Albert and Megan Meisenbach; Rosemary Merriam; Susan Moffat; Fred Lewis of Community Not Commodity and his wife Parks Commissioner Dawn Lewis; longtime East Austin activist Daniel Llanes; his daughter and Planning Commissioner Carmen Llanes-Pulido; Karen McGraw; Mary Reed; Wendy and David Todd; Ingrid Weigand; and Saundra Kirk — daughter of the legendary East Austin matriarch Willie Mae Kirk — and numerous others. Guerrero is also endorsed by long time environmentalists like: Bill Bunch; Mary Ann Neely; Paul Robbins; Robin Rather; Joe Kendall; and Lauren Ross, as well as independent thinking developer/LDC rewrite critic Ed Wendler Junior. Guerrero also has the support of long time players in Austin politics like Peck Young and Joe and Janis Pinnelli.
Guerrero has been rocked by accusations that she opposed the Cady Lofts, a proposed housing development in the Hancock neighborhood, near IH 35. The project is intended to house currently homeless men. This was in her role as an officer in the Hancock Neighborhood Association. Guerrero says, however, that she did not oppose the project itself. Her original position was to avoid changing the zoning in the neighborhood plan, which she says would have allowed the project. She also sought a vegetative buffer between the project and existing homes. Guerrero says she also dialogued with neighbors who did initially oppose the project and was trying to work out a compromise. Guerrero emphasizes that this was all early in the process and that eventually the neighborhood association supported the project.
Qadri regularly heralds his support for affordable housing, but Guerrero is the only one in the race that has actually participated in creating affordable housing. She and the late North University neighborhood leader Mary Gay Maxwell were instrumental in negotiating the University Neighborhood Overlay (UNO) which the Chronicle urbanist columnist Mike Clark Madison recently touted as an example of successful affordable housing. Guerrero says she worked for four years with developers, neighborhood organizations, the City Planning Department and others to come to an agreement on UNO; all work she did as a citizen volunteer. As Guerrero puts it on her website, “The plan allowed for a large increase in density where it was desperately needed.”
Guerrero Takes Off the Gloves – Was Zo Once a Republican?
Guerrero’s campaign recently did their version of taking off the gloves, releasing a flyer maintaining that Qadri wasn’t always so progressive and that, in 2015, he worked for both the Greg Abbott campaign and the Texas Republican Party; and in 2015 and 2016 for then South Texas Congressman Blake Farenthold. The flyer from Guerrero’s campaign also said that Qadri voted in the 2016 Republican primary.
As noted earlier, Qadri did not return inquiries from the Independent. He did talk about Guerrero’s attack flyer with Jack Craver of the urbanist Austin Politics Newsletter, Qadri denied ever working for Abbott, but acknowledged working for Farenthold and the Texas Republican Party. He said that was in 2013 and 2014, earlier than the Guerrero campaign claimed. He doesn’t list either job on his LinkedIn resume.
In Craver’s summary, Qadri described his work for Republicans as “simply reflecting the opportunities that existed in a solidly red part of the state at the time.” Qadri also acknowledged to Craver that he voted in the 2016 Republican primary, once again in the reporter’s summary, “to try to stop” Muslim basher Donald Trump from winning the nomination. Qadri insisted to Craver that he was always “liberal leaning,” Craver’s term again. Later in the story, however, Craver describes Qadri as saying (once again in the reporter’s description) that Trump’s election “prompted him to reassess his previous political calculations.”
The view here is that it is not right to hold a person’s previous political stances against them, especially a young person, if they change or evolve in their views. Qadri sort of said that’s what he did, but he also maintained that his work for Republicans, to repeat Craver’s description, was “simply reflecting the opportunities that existed in a solidly red part of the state at the time.”
This could lead an inquiring mind to wonder if Qadri’s run as a progressive in Austin simply reflects the opportunities that exist in a solidly blue part of the state at this time. Also, as Craver pointed out before going on to slam Guerrero as the “real conservative in the race” because of her stances on housing:
“I don’t think whatever he (Qadri) was doing nine years ago really calls into question Qadri’s progressive politics, but he should have anticipated this and been more upfront about it. Indeed he could have made it part of his story.”
“If there’s any critique of Qadri that resonates with me,” continued Craver, “it’s that he doesn’t have much experience with local government or advocacy on local issues. He’s spent much of the past decade getting two master’s degrees and in various internship roles.”
Regardless of the actual reason Qadri worked for Republicans, his acknowledgement that this work was done in another part of the state further refutes his claim to have “lived in this district for the past 13 years.”
Qadri, however, is undeterred. He seemed particularly cheered when an allied group reassuringly tweeted that Qadri “is a champion of affordable housing, racial justice, equity initiatives, and representation, and always has been.”
Qadri retweeted the above and then reminded his followers once again: “Austin has never elected a South Asian or Muslim to city council, ever. From the beginning we’ve ran an unapologetically progressive campaign focused on the issues that matter, like affordability.”
Qadri concluded, “Let’s not get distracted, Dec 13th we can make a big change towards progress.”
Right, we wouldn’t want any distractions, like, say, injecting religion into an Austin City Council race.
(This story was corrected to say that Eric Johnson represented Dallas, not Houston, in the Texas Legislature. I apologize for the error.)
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