City Hall Hustle: Win, Place, and No-Show

One race, two walkovers, and games to be played later

When they said beware the Ides of March, they weren't joking.

While City Council decamps for spring break this week, Monday, March 14, was the last day to file for a place on this May's council election ballot. While filing day was devoid of any big surprises, there was certainly something of a Place 3 pileup last week, meaning at least one contest this go-round should be competitive. In other words: The Hustle's horse-race coverage might have a couple (well, at least one) photo-finishes.

Here's our handicapping:

Place 1: Funny how things work: On council for only two years, incumbent Chris Riley's seat initially seemed most vulnerable. But while Riley drew two initial challengers, they don't bring much in the realm of name awareness or fundraising – although a late filer may bring more competition.

You may recognize Josiah Ingalls from 2009's mayoral race; in that race, he raised no money (of his own volition) and finished last out of a field of five. The third man in the Place 1 race, Norman Jacobson, we know even less about.

However, there is a dark horse. Late Monday, Roger Chan filed in Place 1. Chan is a former assistant city manager (2000-2002). According to a report in the Statesman, on Nov. 23, 2010, he lost his leg in an automobile-motorcycle accident on West Cesar Chavez.

Place 3: After many fitful stops and starts, the race for Randi Shade's seat is finally on. Electric cab operator Chris Nielsen and pro- marijuana, Libertarian-aligned candidate Kris Bailey emerged early on as challengers. (Nielsen had announced, but failed to file by Monday's deadline.) Bailey lacks the institutional knowledge and constituencies that recently announced opponents – Max Nofziger and Kathie Tovo – possess. As a former City Council member, Nofziger is well-versed in the demands of the job, but one wonders if his environmental credentials (being one of the founders of the SOS Ordinance-era "Green Council") are in conflict with his avowed distrust of rail, having campaigned against light rail in 2000 and remaining opposed – and moreover, whether the two issues in conflict might to some degree cancel out votes.

Tovo represents the continuing ascent of neighborhood associations in grooming politicians, a path well-treaded by her associate, former Austin Neighborhood Council President Laura Morrison, who appointed Tovo to the Planning Commission spot from which she recently resigned. That said, neighborhood advocacy can be a turnoff to urbanist voters who (rightly or wrongly) align NAs with less dense (and ultimately less sustainable) development. However, Tovo has also made her mark in the Austin ISD schools debate, co-authoring an "Alternate Proposal for Facility Cost Savings" in lieu of the slate of school closures the task force originally floated. (Here we should note that Tovo authored this dissent with Susan Moffat, a local advocate who happens to be the wife of Chronicle Publisher Nick Barbaro.) Between the experience offered by Nofziger, the constituencies in touch with Tovo, and disillusioned voters receptive to Bailey's limited-government message, it's hard to see the Place 3 race avoiding a run-off.

Place 4: Laura Morrison looked to be heading toward a Chris Riley-style re-election challenge – i.e., not much of one at all. But while still enjoying the advantages of incumbency and a supportive neighborhood base, Morrison's re-election campaign may be a little tougher than expected.

Announcing early was Eric J. Rangel, an energetic, polished, and young candidate who nonetheless hasn't really mounted a campaign yet. Instead, with the recent filing of former 101X DJ Toby Ryan, Morrison has drawn a challenger who looks to campaign aggressively. With the help of campaign firm GNI Strategies, Ryan has begun hitting Morrison on his signature issue – music – playing her neighborhood association history against challenges to live music, like the recent rash of music permit appeal requests. Still, Morrison's semiregular 6-1 dissenting votes continually endear her to a supportive constituency that sees in her a reflection of their issues. While any challenger has his work cut out for him, it will be interesting (and instructive) to see how the Place 4 challengers fare.

Single-Member Submarine

While there's nothing as disheartening as the city's last election – where the mere presence of a former council member (Bill Spelman) scared off all comers for an open seat – the proliferation of semitoken challengers again raises questions: Why are we Austinites, as a bunch, so seemingly terminally disinterested in our elections?

The answers are complex, and probably involve some combination of our at-large system, voter apathy, the cyclical turnover of our college population, and God knows what else. A hybrid single-member district system will likely help – that is, if it actually goes somewhere;, fresh off of complaining that the mayor's initial SMD proposal (aimed at November 2012) hadn't solicited community input, is now formally doing the same: collecting signatures for a 14-member SMD scheme only it has vetted – for a charter amendment, it needs only 20,000 signatures to make the ballot this fall. Since SMD/charter elections can only occur every two years, this appears to be the quickest and most effective way to scuttle SMDs yet again.

With Festival joy in the air, now is an easy time to forget the challenges confronting us.

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election, City Council, single member districts, Kathie Tovo, Max Nofziger, Toby Ryan

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