Like its neighbor, District 6, the District 10 race is a humdinger. Incumbent Alison Alter drew six challengers. The bevy of candidates may more reflect overall discontent with Council policies as a whole than with Alter herself; although, like in other races, some of her challengers are critical of the incumbent’s vote on the police budget and her support for Project Connect. Alter voted against the repeal of the camping ban, although the City’s overall approach to homelessness is still raised by challengers.
The District 10 race is somewhat more nuanced than District 6, largely because of the Land Development Code (LDC). Alter opposed the LDC rewrite and proved a strong fighter in an uphill battle on the Council against the LDC — which is now on hold after a court ruled against the Council Majority’s (not including Alter) attempts to deny notice and protest rights to property owners.
Alter’s opposition to the LDC, as currently constituted, seems to reflect majority feeling in her District. Evidence of that is that two of Alter’s strongest challengers, Jennifer Virden and Robert Thomas, both express opposition to the LDC. Virden, however, is much more specific and thorough in her opposition (more on the LDC later). Both Virden and Thomas differ with Alter, however, on the police budget and both criticize her support of Project Connect.
A fourth candidate, attorney Pooja Sethi, appears to be pro-LDC, though very vague. Sethi has the support of pro-LDC groups, but avoided directly answering questions about the LDC in the Independent‘s candidate questionnaire. Candidate Belinda Greene, a “working Mom” who has “worked locally in the food service sales industry” for twelve years, also appears to support the LDC. Greene also opposes the police budget cuts as well as Project Connect, and wants to reinstate the camping ban.
Sethi, a social justice advocate, appears to be closer to Alter on police reform, but once again is rather vague, failing to directly answer a question on how she would have voted on the police budget.
Bennett Easton did not respond to the Independent questionnaire and does not have a campaign website. His website describes him as “a former math teacher, now works as a software trainer and a freelance writer.” The site touts his novel, “The Contest.” (After this story was posted Bennett Easton contacted us and said he does indeed have a campaign website. It can be found here.)
According to Community Impact, one issue upon which Easton did expound was the homeless situation. At a League of Women Voters forum, writes Community Impact, Easton said that homelessness is the “primary issue of our age” and the key reason he is running. He then explained, “It sounds like many of you want to put lipstick on the pig, but guess what? It is ugly. It is outrageous that these people are living where they are and hanging out where they are.” Yes, they are destitute. They are homeless. … But guess what? That’s not my problem or yours, in the sense that it’s our responsibility to live with the ugliness that they are creating.”
“Easton said that within a week or two of his being sworn in, he would “‘remove all of them’ to a public-owned property ‘miles away from the city center [where] they can be dealt with … safely, humanely, quietly, privately.’”
Noel Tristan, who, according to the Austin Monitor on October 12, had “not spoken to any media or filed campaign finance reports” appears to have dropped out of the race, although his name will remain on the ballot.
Virden, an independent real estate broker, remodeling general contractor, and Austin native who has lived most of her life in District 10, explains her motivation for running, ““I believe Alison Alter’s vote to ‘defund the police’ (shift their budget), her vote in favor of the unprecedented and obscene Project Connect’ . . . and her inability to effectively address the homeless population crisis, are all deeply unpopular positions to the voters in District 10 [with her wording here Virden indirectly acknowledges that Alter voted against repealing the camping ban, without saying so directly]. My position is different from hers on those three issues. I believe a critical mass of D10 voters strongly support replacing Alison Alter because of her votes on those three issues, and others.”
Thomas describes himself on his website as “a husband, father, public safety advocate, community leader, businessman, and proud Austinite.” He has run for office before. In 2012 he was the Republican nominee for state representative, District 48. He was defeated by incumbent Donna Howard. Thomas then ran in the original District 10 race in 2014, a race won by Sherri Gallo — who was then defeated by Alter in 2016. According to the Austin Bulldog, Thomas has served in the administrations of two Republican Governors. Rick Perry appointed him to the board of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs in 2014. Thomas served roughly a year there. In 2019 Governor Greg Abbott appointed Thomas to the Texas Workforce Commission, where the Bulldog reports that he served eight months. Thomas also served on the Texas Facilities Commission from October 2015 to October 2018.
In his current Council campaign, Thomas makes the police budget a priority. As his website explains, “Robert believes in public safety and fully funding our men and women in uniform. The police, fire, and emergency medical services are the three pillars of any city’s obligations to its residents. There are systemic changes that need to happen in policing all across the country, including the Austin Police Department. However, defunding and disbanding critical functions within the police department by knee-jerk policy-making is a recipe for disaster.”
Alter on the Police Budget Vote and Her Overall Record
Alter defends her police budget vote, framing it as just one step in a lengthy and involved reform process. She points out that the Council’s police reform efforts began well before the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis set off national protests against police misconduct. Alter writes in her responses to the Independent questionnaire that since 2017 she has “pursued a holistic process of pushing resistant police leadership to adopt reforms that would address racism and allow for greater public safety at the same time.”
She also takes pains to address the elimination of cadet classes from the budget, one of the Council’s most controversial actions. She points out that the academy had “an astonishing 48 percent attrition rate” at one point. In a follow-up interview, Alter said that in 2019 the Council was getting complaints from cadets, especially from minority cadets, that the academy was focused on training them to be “warriors.” Around the same time alleged racist comments of a then Assistant Police Chief came to light.
Alter further explains that in December 2019 the Council directed police management to revamp the training, and that once the revamp occurred, the Council would fund a cadet class to begin in July 2020. APD management, however, explains Alter, failed to revamp academy training. Consequently, she and the Council did not support funding for the cadet class. The funds that would have gone to the cadet class, Alter adds, were “reinvested. . . in staffing and programs outside of APD, including new ambulances, mental health response, community health paramedics serving the homeless, domestic violence shelters, substance use, and violence prevention programs that will save lives and make our community safer for all.”
Alter says that it is her understanding that when APD successfully revamps academy training, the Council will take up a budget amendment to reinstate the cadet academy.
Alter discusses the police issue further in her answers to the Independent’s candidate questionnaire. She also addressed the issue in an email newsletter that she regularly sends to constituents. Therein Alter gives detailed explanations of her policies and activities as a Council Member — a constituent service that could help bolster her reelection effort. In her newsletter report Alter also noted that the actual amount cut from the APD budget was around $20 million, making that point without mentioning her colleague Greg Casar’s headline grabbing, but misleading, tweet that the Council “reduced” the APD budget by “by over $100 million.”
Alter also touts a long list of accomplishments and initiatives, including: increasing the City’s efforts to both prepare for and prevent wildfires; fighting to preserve the MUNY golf course on Lake Austin Blvd. and thus “preserve irreplaceable greenspace,” an issue still being negotiated with the owner of the golf course property owner, the University of Texas; working to increase the number of ambulances and EMS medics; increasing investments in city parks and pools each year; leading parkland acquisition and development in District 10, including acquisition of the site of a proposed Spicewood Springs Hotel property at Spicewood and Yaupon); creating an “Austin Civilian Conservation Corps” that provides jobs and job training for Austinites “while also developing critical city infrastructure and strengthening our climate resilience;” getting faster permitting for school bond projects; creating an Austin Task Force on Gun Violence; being a leader in reforming the City’s response to sexual assault; and successfully working to increase funding for Victim Services staffing. More can be found in questionnaire section.
Alter adds, “I have demonstrated a record of standing up to special interests. I regularly use my economic training to challenge lobbyists and save the city money, i.e. on real estate costs, deferred maintenance, or loans.”
Alter also explains her core reasons for seeking another term, “I believe we can turn the current crises into catalysts for solving problems that have challenged our community for too long. . . I have four years of experience on council, navigating contentious issues. I know how to listen and learn, and I know how to get things done.”
The Challengers Jockey in Hopes of Making a Runoff
The conflict in District 10 is not limited to the challengers versus the incumbent. Some challengers are critiquing each other as well as they jockey for position. Both Virden and Thomas appear to realize that each one’s best hope is to make a runoff against Alter. Consequently Virden specifically draws attention to her differences from Thomas on the issue — including in her reply to the Independent’s candidate questionnaire. She volunteers that a “key difference” between her and Thomas “is where we stand on the Land Development Code and CodeNEXT. He speaks in generalities and platitudes that would not successfully withstand the scrutiny of the D10 voters in a runoff election.”
Virden continues, “Just compare my detailed LDC position paper on my website to where Robert mentions the LDC/CodeNEXT on his website. Robert appears to talk a good game about CodeNEXT, a term for the LDC rewrite that the City has tried to abandon, but what Robert actually puts in writing is the need to be ‘flexible’ on changes to the LDC.”
Here Virden is making at least two points. One, she believes Thomas is shallowly informed on the LDC and not sincerely committed to opposing it. And, since this is the case, in her view, he would lose to Alter who would then continue to support other policies with which both Virden and Thomas strongly disagree.
Indeed on his website, Thomas’ addresses the LDC in one paragraph, under the headline, “Save Our Neighborhoods:”
“Robert believes increasing density in our neighborhood does not solve the affordability problem and opposes CodeNEXT. Any changes to the Land Development Code must happen with input and support from our neighborhood.”
By contrast, Virden states, “Opposed to any Land Development Code (a/k/a CodeNEXT) rewrite that includes blanket zoning (comprehensive rezoning of nearly the whole city at once), or that doesn’t include required notice to neighbors, or that takes away our legal right to protest. I’m FOR maintaining our property values, property rights and for maintaining the precious green space that we have left “inside the loop.” Virden backs that with a four point position paper, saying she is “opposed to increased density in District 10, other than considering allowing the addition of one accessory dwelling unit (ADU) per single family lot.” She also opposes “any decrease in the parking space minimum requirements” and is “opposed to comprehensive rezoning of the whole city all at once,” as the Council majority seeks to do. Instead, Virden continues, zoning should be taken up on a “case-by-case basis, and any LDC rewrite must not take away proper notice to surrounding owners or take away property owner’s or nearby property owners’ legal right to protest.”
Thomas provided Virden and everyone else more evidence of his shallow understanding of the LDC when he sent out a flyer which warned, above a graphic of a bulldozer, “City Council wants to Bulldoze our Neighborhoods.” Thomas though neglected to mention that the incumbent, Alter, was a leader against just what he was decrying. He either thought Alter is in favor of the LDC — in which case he is a very poorly informed candidate — or he is willing to falsely give voters the impression that Alter supports the LDC in order to help his own chances. Neither is a particularly good campaign look.
Sethi Takes a Different Approach
Meanwhile, immigration attorney Pooja Sethi, as noted above, offers a different sort of contrast to Alter. She does not state disagreement with Alter on the police budget or the camping ban, but when asked in the Independent questionnaire how she would have voted on the police budget and the camping ban, Sethi simply laid out her thoughts on the issue without addressing at all the question of how she would have voted.
For instance on police, Sethi offered, “My own work has led me to realize that we need actual police reform to diminish deep systemic inequities. I would like to see us working with advocates, community members, and our first responders to truly start dismantling systemic inequities.”
She came slightly closer to answering how she would have voted on the LDC as considered by Council on second reading, “I strongly believe that more community engagement within all communities would have been necessary before voting for the Land Development Code on second reading.” What her position might have been had that input been given, or on what was actually before the Council, remains unaddressed.
Asked whether she would “support petition rights for property owners and nearby property owners” and whether she would continue the City’s appeal of a decision which said the Council needs to allow those rights, Sethi replied, “As an Attorney, I would defer to what the Courts determine in our LDC.”
On whether she would oppose transition zones like those before Council on second reading, Sethi offered, “There were areas in Northwest Hills where the Land Development Code would have added density in areas that were already dense.” She did not express concern about transition zones in any other area, either in her district or the rest of the City. The Rosedale neighborhood in District 10 faces serious impact from transition zones/upzonings in the LDC.
A potential clue to Sethi’s position on the LDC is that she is supported by the urbanist, pro-LDC-activist group AURA.
Belinda Greene says on her website that she and her husband moved from her native Houston area to Austin fourteen years ago and “we have loved every minute of it.” She wants to “make sure it remains as great of a place to live as it was 14 years ago.”
As to, “Issues I’m going to tackle,” she opposes the police budget cuts as well as Project Connect, and wants to reinstate the camping ban. She does offer some further thoughts on the homelessness issue, saying, “implement models that do work such as Mobile Loaves and Fishes’ Community First! Organization,” and supporting occupational training and temporary housing for “women, minors and veterans.”
Greene also appears to support the LDC rewrite, or at least uses language like that often utilized by LDC supporters, “Identify and address areas of Austin where we can add density and more housing to help drive housing prices down. ‘One size fits all’ zoning policies hurt neighborhood character.”
As noted earlier, the hope of challengers in a crowded field is to push the incumbent into a runoff where anything could happen. Stay tuned.
To learn more about the District 10 race, see the Independent’s candidate questionnaire. Candidates Thomas, Tristan and Easton did not respond to the questionnaire and the Independent did not locate photographs.
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