The Road to 10-1: WDAF Forum
Yesterday, Aug. 17, the newly formed political arm of the Workers Defense Project, the Workers Defense Action Fund, held its first citywide candidate forum as part of its endorsement process.
Considering that, as of early this morning, 52 candidates had filed ballot applications, and several more are expected to file before the deadline tonight, there was some question as to how all of the candidates would fit into the Workers Defense headquarters at 5604 Manor. However, many candidates were no-shows, most notably District 3's Susana Almanza, and the audience mainly consisted of candidates waiting their turn and WDAF members.
As the city heads towards its first 10-1 election, everyone’s improvising to some extent, and the WDAF is no exception. The candidates were asked to fill out in advance a questionnaire covering the issues most pressing to WDAF, including the candidates’ positions on living wages for all workers, measures to punish wage theft, and opposition to Secure Communities. The candidates were then given the opportunity to give a one-minute speech at the forum introducing themselves and to answer varying questions from the moderator, Cristina Tzintzún. With 28 candidates present, this meant that the forum clocked in at three jam-packed hours.
Many of the candidates who chose to attend were eager to establish their pro-labor, pro-immigrant bonafides, introducing themselves briefly in Spanish; listing any past work with WDP; telling stories about their own job struggles; and declaring themselves to either be immigrants, the descendants of immigrants, or friends of immigrants.
When it came to the question of S-Comm, not all of the candidates appeared familiar with exactly how the program works and how it affects Austin residents. (The Chronicle would like to take the opportunity to suggest they read this.) District 4's Roberto Perez Jr. said that “as the father of an 11-year-old daughter,” he didn’t want high-risk offenders coming back into the neighborhood, but he also didn’t want low-risk offenders to be deported. He then told a story about going to the “7-Eleven in District 4,” seeing a drunk driver and passenger – immigrants – who were about to be arrested and possibly detained, and trying to convince the officers to release them and let him drive them home himself. He urged that people remember “if you’re going to be driving, don’t be drinking.”
In District 1, Ora Houston expressed disbelief that City Council would be able to affect Travis County’s participation in S-Comm. It wasn’t clear if she doesn’t believe that Council’s ongoing actions regarding the program will have no real effect or she isn’t aware of all the possibilities that have been discussed. When asked, she did say that she would have voted to denounce S-Comm, had she been on Council at the time. Perhaps the most passionate opponent of S-Comm was Andrew Bucknall, also of District 1, who called it “racial profiling” and said that Sheriff Hamilton should be kicked out of office.
Mike Martinez brought up a potentially more concrete and realistic solution to Austin’s involvement with S-Comm: APD Chief Art Acevedo has been exploring the possibility of the city of Austin doing its own magistration of minor violations at APD substations, preventing those lower-risk offenders from being subject to ICE detainers.
In general, candidates supported a municipal ID, and most were willing to come out in favor of the idea that it would be nice if everyone made at least $11 an hour. Jason Meeker of District 10, when asked what he thought about a living wage, responded that since he won’t work for less than $25 per hour, he doesn’t think he can expect anyone else to work for less than that. District 1’s DeWayne Lofton wasn’t sure that he could support a higher wage for everyone, because it could have “unintended consequences.” He gave the example of a food truck owner with a passion for barbecue who might not be able to afford to pay his employees $11 an hour. However, he did not address what a food truck owner with a passion for barbecue who can’t currently afford to pay his employees minimum wage should do in this instance, or whether the two situations are appreciably different.
Many candidates, including District 6’s Jimmy Flannigan – who refused to endorse a specific minimum number – believe that any dollar amount would need to be tied to the city’s cost of living index, and expressed concern that a higher wage would be inadequate without the city somehow ensuring that housing costs stay at 30% or less for low-income residents. Tina Cannon of District 10, after mentioning that she had grown up in Section 8 housing, stressed the importance of making affordable housing available in a variety of neighborhoods, because, according to her, people are “motivated by their surroundings.” District 4’s Monica Guzmán and Greg Casar displayed a refreshing understanding of the complexities of the issues at hand: Guzmán argued that the city should create and manage a land bank of its own dedicated to affordable housing, and said that she had already submitted a proposal to AISD in 2013 suggesting that the district do just that, while Casar said that he is working on his own property tax proposal to take into account the needs of District 4 residents.
Affordable housing and the related issue of property taxes remain central to the election: Martinez and the two other frontrunners for mayor, Steven Adler and Sheryl Cole, continued to tangle over competing property tax proposals. Adler defended his proposed homestead exemption, saying that it’s a progressive tax that will help with the immediate burden, and that when “people are losing their homes” because they can’t pay their property taxes, “we have to use every tool,” instead of waiting for a perfect solution. Martinez, speaking after Adler, attacked the homestead exemption, saying that it would “benefit the wealthiest” and is “the worst possible proposal that can be made.” Cole said that a $5,000 blanket exemption (item 91 on the Aug. 28 agenda) would be a better solution for lower-income residents, including renters.
WDAF is continuing to interview candidates one-on-one, and plans to announce its endorsements in the next few weeks.