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The Road to 10-1: Add One More …

Candidate pilgrimage grows, and a glance at District 4

By Michael King, 9:00AM, Mon. Jun. 30

The Road to 10-1: Add One More …

No sooner had Newsdesk counted 62 candidates (Mayor and City Council), then somebody else joined the party. And we visited with a couple of District 4 wannabes last week, with plenty more where they came from.

The candidate addition to the still unofficial District 1 race (formal filing begins July 21) is Valerie Menard, publisher of Decisive Latino magazine and president of the Center for Mexican-American Cultural Arts. In addition to what she calls the “quality of life” issues, she wants to work for completion of the Mexican American Cultural Center.

Interestingly, Menard’s entry in the race explicitly calls into question the “African-American opportunity” status of District 1 – the only district drawn to raise the potential for African-American voters to elect a candidate of their choice, although should it happen, it would require coalition voting. In a recent blog post at Latino Metro, Menard wrote about the prospects of Hispanic candidates, and in that context, she called District 1 “the elephant in the room.”

“The elephant in the room, however, is District 1. With a Latino population of 42 percent, it has been designated an opportunity district for African Americans, who make up only 28 percent of the population there,” Menard wrote. “Previously, a Gentleman’s Agreement was used to address diversity on the City Council – one seat was set aside for Latinos and one for African Americans. But since single-member districts seek to bring representation that reflects the city’s demographic and geographic make-up, it could just as easily become an opportunity district for Latinos bringing potential Latino representation at City Council to four.”

Menard has apparently decided to ride the elephant.

Among the three presumed Hispanic voter opportunity districts is District 4 – a central/north district that unevenly straddles I35 from roughly 51st St. to Braker Lane, and which features no fewer than 11 candidates who have filed campaign treasurer designations. Several have already been actively campaigning; Newsdesk caught up with a couple last weekend.

On Saturday, June 21, Katrina Daniel held a campaign kickoff in a packed event room at Quality Seafood on Airport Blvd. She was introduced by the restaurant’s owner, Carol Huntsberger (also Daniel’s campaign treasurer), who called Daniel “honest, hardworking, and friendly,” and said “she really knows this part of town.” In a brief interview, Daniel made clear that her decade-long roots in the Highland neighborhood will be a campaign emphasis, and she later noted that “about half” of her 10 opponents have only recently moved into District 4.

Re-emphasizing Daniel’s experience was former Place 3 Council member Randi Shade, who called Daniel “by far the most qualified person that I’ve seen run for City Council in decades.” Shade said she had been impressed by Daniel’s dedication as Highland Neighborhood Association president, on the residential design commission, on the state insurance commission, and said she recommended her for service on the new Central Health board as a healthcare professional (Daniel is a registered nurse), where “she’s been a great vice-chair.”

Shade noted that several of the District 4 candidates are recent transplants, and concluded, “I feel like District 4 is going to go from being under-represented to being the best person on this whole City Council – when Katrina’s elected – which is a pretty amazing thing.”

Daniel told her audience that she found her Highland home 11 years ago, when her new neighbors' lawn featured a sign, “Americans for Peace.” Saying she had “devoted her professional career to helping people,” she asked for their support in continuing that work on Council. She called District 4 “a place to get started” in Austin, as a worker or a small business person, and touted her experience in “knowing what works and what doesn’t work” in city government as allowing her to “hit the ground running” as a Council member.

Daniel told Newsdesk that she thinks city government is too “central Austincentric-focused,” and that District 4 is an “underappreciated area” that needs more attention, better infrastructure, that would also benefit from “planned redevelopment” – that what’s “beginning to happen” on this southern end (redevelopment and more small businesses) should spread throughout the district. On the two big bond issues that would directly affect District 4 – she was enthusiastic about the just-announced Austin Community College Highland area redevelopment, but more hesitant about the size of the Project Connect (urban rail) investment and its proposed alignment.

Daniel noted that the Highland NA had expressed skepticism about the proposed rail alignment, and said she’s still giving it a lot of thought, but continued, “We really need to make progress on transportation." She concluded: “Here’s the deal: We [Highland NA] considered the Lamar corridor might make more sense; but if we’re going with the project, and it’s going to be the one that’s on the table, we want to see it come to Highland.”

As it happened, District 4 candidate Greg Casar had a more informal meet-and-great the following day at House Pizzeria, just down the Airport Blvd. block from Quality Seafood. Newsdesk chatted with Casar about his campaign. He’s best known as an organizer for Workers Defense Project, lobbying Council on workers’ rights issues and improving employment conditions, especially in the construction trades.

Casar said it’s been a change coming from issues-based organizing to electoral politics. “I’m working to show that the vision doesn’t just live with one organization, and now am looking to work for the whole district and the whole city.” He said that District 4 residents have emphasized to him the inevitable city issues – affordability, property taxes, traffic, etc. – but said the most consistent complaint is a simple one: “They don’t feel that under the current system, they are heard.” Accordingly, Casar says, he hopes to become “a voice for the whole district.”

Casar acknowledged he’s one of the candidates who only recently moved into District 4, but said it was from only “a stone’s throw” away in Windsor Park (partly included in a small “boot” on the district’s southeast corner), where his landlord had sold the house he was living in. He said he knows the district well, and that the influx of would-be candidates may reflect that it has the largest percentage of undocumented residents and children of the 10 districts, and therefore the lowest number of eligible voters. But those residents – especially the 70 percent who are renters, Casar said – will understand that “their future is tied up with the future of everybody that lives there,” even if they can’t vote for their Council members.

Casar said that he’s gotten good response from homeowners in the southern parts of the district, but has also actively campaigned among renters and apartment complexes, hoping to appeal to “Latinos, renters, young voters,” all “part of the reason I’m running.” Acknowledging the current backlash over rising property taxes, he called for a review of “the entire property tax system,” but not simply a change (e.g., a blanket homestead exemption) that would shift the burden from homeowners to renters (i.e., living in commercial complexes).

“Right now is an important time to consider the future of the city,” Casar said, and that means working to lessen economic segregation, to avoid splitting the city into two kinds of housing, with “the core city prosperous and the rest of the city struggling.” He said there is “a lot of opportunity for affordable housing” in District 4, in order to sustain a “culturally diverse, working-class part of the city.” The challenge for District 4 candidates, he said, is to determine “how can we make the district feel like it has common interests?”

On the urban rail project, he said he’d “really like to get us started on mass transit,” but that he would wait to see the final bond proposal before he would take a confirmed position. “We need something functional and affordable for a first line.” On the ACC/Highland bond (just announced a few days before), he said he would have to “study up” before taking a position. He returned to affordability, noting that whatever the city does, it needs to evaluate programs for long-term sustainability, noting that he would look to expand city programs – like weatherization of older housing stock – that promise both to preserve affordability and save energy, an environmental commitment as well.

In advance of last week’s Council vote, Casar also noted his opposition to Travis County’s participation in the federal “Secure Communities” program, which helps the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Agency identify undocumented immigrants for deportation. “I don’t think participating in S-Comm,” Casar said, “is enhancing public safety.”

Daniel and Casar are among the 11 candidates who have filed campaign treasurer designations in District 4. You can read profiles of the others here, on the Chronicle’s election pages. You can also find the District 1 candidates there, who now number a mere six that have filed CTD’s.

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