Experience and Identity

Place 1 opponents offer different bios, styles, priorities

Perla Cavazos
Perla Cavazos (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Although there are nominally five City Council places in the wind this election season, only the mayoral and Place 1 contests offer much in the way of dramatic tension. The Place 1 race (to fill the unexpired term of incumbent Lee Leffingwell) is too close to call, because the newcomer opponents are each strong on their own merits while indirectly aiming their candidacies at quite different local demographic groups. Either Chris Riley or Perla Cavazos would bring real strengths to the council, and their differences visibly represent different elements of the Austin body politic.

Cavazos points to her service as a Planning commissioner and as a legislative aide (to Valley Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr.) as preparing her for the council. That it does – but her earlier life experience has been equally prominent on the campaign trail, as she recounts the tale of the young Hispanic girl from the Valley (San Benito) who lost her parents at an early age, was raised by her grandparents (she basically grew up in their restaurant, she often says), and went on to Stanford and the LBJ School of Public Affairs and a career in politics. The older Riley points to longer and broader experience as a Planning commissioner and Downtown commissioner with a host of organizational and professional connections and a similarly distinguished political and academic history: page to Rep. J.J. "Jake" Pickle, degrees from Harvard and UT Law, a successful career as a personal injury attorney. And just as Cavazos' personal history suggests her appeal, it's also arguable that Riley's visible bio – as one of the Downtown/West Austin liberals who have inevitably governed the city by presumed noblesse oblige in recent decades – can be read as reflecting either known and proven credentials or, less generously, as more of the same old thing.

In that light, it seems natural that Cavazos has picked up many of the endorsements from Hispanic leadership as well as prominent local women, while Riley has garnered the large majority of the traditional neighborhood and political activist organizations.

Chris Riley
Chris Riley (Photo by John Anderson)

On the pressing local issues, the candidates aren't strikingly far apart in their positions, although their priorities are different, and they emphasize different proposals. In general, Riley has offered detailed proposals ("position papers") across a wide range of city issues, while on the stump, Cavazos has emphasized a handful of priorities, with a particular emphasis on making Austin more affordable.

Economic crisis: Riley has called for city programs to emphasize small business and "green jobs," while also insisting that economic development go hand-in-hand with environmental protection; Cavazos calls for "affordability" for residents and small businesses across the city as addressing the crisis and reducing sprawl and has also specifically proposed "financial literacy" classes as a means to help Austinites cope with the recession.

Affordability: Cavazos argues that helping homeowners increase energy efficiency will both reduce living costs and enhance environmental conditions in the city, and she recommends both citywide affordable-housing goals and city participation in subsidized small-business health-insurance programs as ways of alleviating the affordability crisis. Riley recommends a range of affordable-housing programs, from a more "coherent template of incentives" through using city-owned lands to more extensive public-private partnerships on housing programs, and he also supports "geographic distribution" of affordable housing and efforts to promote longer-term, and deeper levels of, affordable housing.

Transportation: As a carless bike rider and a founder of Austin CarShare, Riley virtually owns the transportation issue and for years has been promoting mass transit, rail transit, and related ways of discouraging automobile dependency, as projects both for increasing mobility and protecting the environment. On the other hand, from personal experience, Cavazos has pointed out that even the traditional mainstay, Cap Metro's bus system, is inadequate for many working-class residents who most heavily rely on it, and she argues that the city should focus on efficiency and affordability before it underwrites cost-intensive solutions.

Austin's future: Riley was born and raised in Downtown Austin, still lives there in his restored family home, founded the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, and expressly sees the city's future as connected to a vibrant, planned, and densified Downtown as a central aspect of Austin's overall comprehensive planning. In her first campaign ad, Cavazos leads with "valet parking and $500,000 condos!" as effectively altering the fundamental character of the city and thereby neglecting too many residents who are fleeing to the cheaper suburbs. Yet Cavazos lives on the near-Eastside and also belongs to the rising professional class that has contributed to the vitality of the urban core even as it tangentially raises the cost of living there. Riley emphasizes planning, design, mass transit, and environmental protection as protecting the quality of life for all Austinites; Cavazos describes affordability (in housing and all other common costs) as the No. 1 public priority and says she will make it her own priority on the council.

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