In the first face-to-face meeting of the fledgling Austin mayoral race, the Central Texas Democratic Forum hosted candidates Steve Adler, Sheryl Cole, and Mike Martinez, Friday, June 20 at the Austin Bar Association. A lunch audience of about 100 people heard answers to questions running the gantlet of issues facing the city.
The forum’s host (and former Travis County Democratic chair) Chuck Herring introduced the “three impressive candidates” and read the audience-submitted questions that filled most of the hour.
All three candidates delivered brief self-introductions – miniature stump speeches – emphasizing their humble roots and their love for Austin. Adler spoke of his scholarships to Princeton and UT-Austin Law school – “because it was the cheapest” – in the days when a law school class hour cost eight bucks. Cole noted that she had come from a family in which her “mother was a maid and my grandmother was a maid”; she became an accountant and then an attorney, got involved in politics first via the PTA, and is determined to “pay forward” the debt accrued from schoolteachers and the community helping her raise her three sons. Martinez recalled his “working-class, blue-collar family” in Caldwell and Rockdale, his mother’s inspiration to “fight injustice,” and his first jobs in construction and as a firefighter.
In short, all three candidates rose from humble roots and worked hard to become successful public citizens – pretty much a draw on log-cabin points.
Martinez also recited specific local progressive policies – economic incentives reform, Cap Metro reorganization (as board chair) – in which he had a central hand. Adler cited his own work as an attorney defending property rights and civil rights, his legislative work (with former Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso) on public education, and his service to various local nonprofits. Cole said she had “learned what community means” from her work in the schools, and said her recent “House Party” tour had reminded her that City Hall cannot let the broad issues obscure local neighborhood matters. She and her family, she said, “have been blessed by this community, and we would like to pay it forward.”
A few more highlights:
• Martinez and Cole emphasized their experience in the detailed work of city government, from exhausting meetings to “bringing people together.” Martinez noted that he had supported single member-districting before his arrival on Council, saying, “I believe this Council will be the best we’ve ever had.” But he added that the next mayor would need to have experience helping new Council members “find common ground.” Cole recounted her work on the affordable housing bond and extensive committee work – increasingly important under 10-1 – as demonstrating her experience at “bringing people together.”
• Adler argued that there must be a “cultural change” at City Hall to echo the structural change, and argued that current leadership had more than a decade to address major city problems – transportation, affordability – and had not done so. “We need to be proactive, not reactive.”
• Asked to say what in his experience qualified him to be mayor, Adler said, “The experience we need is what I bring.” Saying that his legal, legislative, and nonprofit experience promise “a new way forward,” he noted that certain problems – e.g., persistent and growing poverty in the city and its nearby suburbs – have not been addressed by this Council, and he intends to do that. Martinez and Cole both emphasized “governing experience” as essential to the mayor’s job.
• Asked to defend her 2011 trip to South Africa, Cole drew sympathetic laughter when she said, “I regret that … interview” (referring to her impromptu interview on her travel expenses by local Fox-TV news). “But I would not take back that trip” with the Legislative Black Caucus (which paid half the cost). She noted her work on anti-apartheid efforts over many years, and said foreign travel by local officials brings trade and other benefits to Austin as a “world city.”
• On the Waller Creek project – specifically the “Capitol view-corridor” that has delayed construction and may cost millions to fix – Martinez said oversight is the city manager’s responsibility, that the problem “is a fiasco that’s turned into a nightmare,” and that he’ll expect answers when City Manager Marc Ott receives his Council review. Martinez said that if the problem ends in court, construction could be delayed for years. On the same question, Cole noted that the overall project will “bring 10% of Downtown out of the flood plain, and make Downtown more family friendly.” As to the view-corridor problem, Cole indirectly pointed the finger at the contractors, saying, “I do not believe the city was at fault.”
• Austin Energy governance: All three candidates said it needs to stay under Council, not an appointed board.
• Affordability/Property taxes: Martinez said a “blanket” appeal of commercial rates, without research or distinctions, could shift the tax burden from homeowners to renters, and “60 percent of city residents are renters.” Cole added that there had been insufficient time to mount a case; Adler said the problem is an old one that should have been addressed in other ways. “There are things we could do,” he said, including a statewide “mayor’s council,” like the Governors' Council,” that would lobby the Legislature on the issue as a group.
• Homestead property tax exemption: Adler and Martinez each noted that an exemption might be in order, but it needs to be “progressive” in design and not just a percentage of value – or it would benefit most those who need it least. Cole concurred, and said that while she supported the recent exemption granted for elderly and disabled homeowners, “there is no easy answer” to the exemption question.
• Transportation: Cole said she will support the Project Connect rail proposal, and a comprehensive (“rail and roads”) solution. Adler didn’t take a position on Project Connect, but said we “cannot build our way” out of traffic congestion, and need to work better on “how we live and where we live” (e.g., land use, telecommuting, staggered work hours). Martinez supports rail, but suggested the initial line might attract more voters if it runs from Hancock on the north to ABIA on the south – “It can’t succeed if the citizens don’t vote for it.”
• "Secure Communities"/Sheriff “detainers”: all three candidates said they would do what they could to use city authority and interlocal agreements with Travis County to end Sheriff Greg Hamilton’s voluntary cooperation with federal immigration authorities in “detaining” arrestees to check immigration status.
• Economic incentives: All three candidates said they continue to support “judicious” use of tax incentives to bring jobs and tax base to Austin, but that going forward more focus should be on small and local businesses.
In all, five candidates have declared they are running for Austin mayor (formal filing for office begins July 21). The two others are musician/businessman Todd Phelps, and aircraft mechanic/businessman Randall Stephens. Forum chair Herring said that only three candidates were invited because “we had a very limited program time – one hour – and because in our view, at present, these are the candidates who are out in the lead, and up front, and major candidates. We’re going to be back after our summer break, next month, and have more candidates – but this is the start, today.”
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