Steve Adler: 'New Way Forward'

Steve Adler: 'New Way Forward'
Photo by Jana Birchum

Austin Chronicle: Why did you decide to run for mayor?

Steve Adler: I love this city. I'm really excited about everything Austin is achieving, but I'm also real concerned. We're facing some pretty significant challenges: traffic congestion, education, resources, affordability, water. Austin is at a tipping point; we're at the crossroads. We need a new way forward that uses, and importantly, shares the growing economy in a way that enables us to solve these long-term and frankly longstanding challenges.

AC: And you think you're the person to do that?

SA: I have the broad experience that I think is necessary to move Austin forward. I've spent 35 years in court defending women, workers, tenants, landowners, against discrimination and abuse. I spent almost 10 years working with the Legislature working on public policy, public schools, teacher salaries, the environment and the like. I've spent over 20 years leading many Austin civic and nonprofit organizations all around town. We can't look backward and rely on how we've done things in the past, because they're comfortable and we know them well. We need to look forward and find new ways, and I have the breadth of experience to be able to deal with that.

AC: What in your experience do you think most expresses your qualifications to be mayor?

SA: I would want people to know I went to college and law school on scholarships, and worked my way through. (I don't think that fits with the narrative that was otherwise created, [of "a deep-pocketed Downtown attorney."]) When I first got to Austin, in 1978 [for law school], I was in Barton Springs within 45 minutes of arriving, just because the guys who picked me up at the airport took me there first. So I was a convert to Austin when I got here – to have that as the municipal swimming pool was just incredible. So I fell in love with the city, and like a lot of people who come to UT, I stayed. I would want people to know that I turned down a job at the big Washington, D.C., law firm in order to stay in Austin, and I stayed with the firm that I had been clerking with in law school, my part-time job that coincidentally happened to do the eminent domain work.

That's how I got into that area of the law. But the first decade, or much of the first decade that I practiced I spent doing civil rights law – Title VII, EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] law. I represented folks in administrative hearings, I was in federal court and got a verdict in favor of Hispanic construction workers who were complaining that they weren't being put on the heavy equipment and were thus being denied the higher wages. This would have been in the mid- to late Eighties. I was in state court arguing sexual harassment and wrongful termination cases. I would want people to know that because I think that also says something about me.

AC: Were these cases that just came walking in the door?

SA: There weren't a lot of people in town – just a few – that were doing that area of the law. It wasn't an area of the law to make a lot of money doing. I developed a reputation within that area, so most of the folks that came to me, came to me by word of mouth. They were folks that came in the door; I think that the Austin Human Rights Commission probably had a list of the few lawyers that did those cases, and I was on it.

At some point, the pipeline began to fill with the eminent domain, condemnation cases. And I would want people to know what that kind of law represents. Those cases are when the government is taking someone's property for the public good, and the issue in most of those cases is about what's fair compensation for the person who's losing their property. I have probably represented just about every type of tenant or property owner, because the government, and sometimes corporations take property from everybody who has property. So it's the government, or going up against corporations like Exxon, or pipeline companies that have the power of condemnation under state law. Sometimes private companies have that power.

I represented some of the families in the Blackland neighborhood, when UT was expanding east of I-35. I represented over a thousand churches; I represented the Texas Nature Conservancy. I've represented small business, I've represented big businesses. And in doing that I've always felt that I've been fighting for fairness, and I've represented an absolutely wide range of tenants and property owners.

In most of these cases you're not arguing whether the government has the power to condemn – although I have worked on a few of those cases. Most of the cases are about what's fair, what's a fair and equitable result. By virtue of that practice over 35 years, I've spent a lot of time dealing with land development codes in Austin, and also in cities across the state. And the land development code is going to be a really big issue in Austin over the next few years. The land development code has always been a big issue, but it's going to be an even bigger issue, and I think I am uniquely positioned to work with Council to understand how that can be a tool to help a city realize its vision and to protect what's important about a city.

I would want people to know that the next thing that I did, for almost 10 years, outside of the law practice, was working with the state Legislature, as chief of staff and general counsel for [Eliot] Shapleigh [D-El Paso]. For about six of those eight years, I was paid $50 a month; for a year-and-a-half of those eight years I was paid $150 a month, I think.

For the first six months, while I was figuring out what I was doing, I was paid $3,000 a month. I took a leave, but there were times when I would come back to the law office and work from 11 at night to 2 in the morning, if there was something that was coming to a head. But it was more than an eight-hour job. And I think we did really good work there.

When we got there, there was nobody there, on the Democratic Senate side, who really understood the school funding formulas. They're archaic, and confusing, and not intuitive, but in order to really negotiate on school funding, and finance issues generally, you needed to understand that. Senator [Gregory] Luna [D-San Antonio] was the go-to guy, but when we came in he was in his last couple of sessions.

I learned from him, and at the knee of Rep. Scott Hochberg [D-Houston], with Scott and his predecessor as a state rep, and with CPPP [Center for Public Policy Priorities]. We learned what we needed to learn to be the expert office on that issue, so that we could actually participate in meaningful negotiations. We worked on teacher salary issues, we worked on equity issues, we worked on environmental issues, and I think we also developed a reputation as being an office where people could come to negotiate things that weren't on our agenda. And I did that for different groups.

AC: I hadn't realized you and Shapleigh go back as far as law school.

SA: We were old friends, and that's why I went to the Legislature and volunteered the time. He was a good friend, and was doing really good things at the Legislature, and that's why I got involved. I think he served as kind of the conscience of the Senate. At some point, the numbers started changing in the Senate, and he wasn't being – no Democrats, really – were being invited in the back rooms at the Senate to negotiate things anymore, and at that point he didn't really need my help anymore. [I worked there] 1997 to 2005.

AC: We could talk about education at the Legislature, and how it affects Austin.

SA: People in this town complain about "Robin Hood" [i.e., state redistribution of school funding from wealthy districts to poorer ones] as the evil, and that's not entirely accurate. The problem is not that the state is collecting and redistributing funds – because the Constitution, the courts have told us, requires that. The problem is, the courts have said, is that when the state redistributes funds, it is supposed to do that in a way that is "efficient" and "equitable." Austin has a growing population of students in poverty. I think the state average is something like 17 percent, and I think in Austin it's something like 30 percent. We have a large bilingual population. So we are a "property-rich" district, meaning we have to give money to the state. But then we're supposed to get back money that appropriately recognizes the cost of our student population, and the funding formulas, when I was at the state, didn't property compensate for poverty, bilingual students – and I'm pretty sure the formulas we use today are still the ones they were using before I got to the Senate.

AC: It also affects property taxes here in Austin – for the school district, not the city.

SA: Right. We have to charge more pennies [per assessed value] for school tax, to generate the same amount that we ought to be able to generate for fewer pennies if we didn't have to send money back to the state. I think the statistic is that this year we're sending approximately $110 million to the state; in three years, that money is going to rise to $270 million. If we were to use the comp-ed formula, and the bilingual formula that LULAC [League of United Latin American Citizens] has already argued before [Judge John] Dietz, we would be able to hold on to $93 million, or something like that, that we're sending back this year.

AC: So should you be running for president of the school board?

SA: Well, there are opportunities throughout this city for the mayor to get involved in issues that are of community importance, without regard to whose portfolio it's in. The mayor, as the only at-large elected member of City Council, has a responsibility to help set and recognize community-wide agendas on what's important, and education is as important as it gets. The mayor ought to be working with the school districts in the city, just as the mayor ought to be working with Commissioners Court, the county judge, and the mayor ought to be working with ACC [Austin Community College] and the president of the ACC. There ought to be a lot more focus on combining and leveraging the power and we all have, and to do it together, and focus the community on community agenda items.

AC: Why did you decide to run for mayor, instead of a City Council seat?

SA: I think the job of mayor and City Council are different jobs, requiring different skill sets – at least, importantly, this initial term when we're creating something new – when we have the opportunity to be innovative, when we have a whiteboard, if you will, to create a new governance culture. The skill set that I bring to the job is the skill set that the mayor needs.

We went through the law stuff, we went through the legislative stuff. The third component that I would have, in terms of breadth of background, which I think again runs different from the narrative – which I think is based on old paradigms in Austin, which are just old news – and my hope is that as we go through this election, we're not going to be defining coalitions based on the old historic battle lines that Austin has had for the last 20 years.

It's going to happen over the next five years, people are going to see different battle lines, because they're going to see where the tectonic plates are coming, which is going to be different.

AC: Let's talk about your experience with nonprofits.

SA: I was on the founding board for the Texas Tribune, and chaired the board; I resigned in order to be able to run for mayor. I chaired the Anti-Defamation League, and took it from an organization that was mostly in one community and made it into a citywide asset – in a sense its mission is to secure just and fair treatment for everybody. I worked on the hate crimes initiative; conceived and helped create the Hate Crimes Task Force. I helped take the No Place for Hate program, the anti-bullying program, from a couple dozen schools to 300 schools in Central Texas. I chaired the Ballet Austin board, because it was an organization focused on access. We spent a lot of time bringing people into that space that otherwise would not have had the opportunity to be there, and we did the Light Project – which was using that art as a convener and an occasion for a community conversation about hatred. I was on the board of GENAustin and Breakthrough.

Breakthrough is the one that finds kids in the sixth grade, in families where no one has ever gone to college – like me – and helps provide them the mentoring, so that they can get into and be successful in college. If you grow up in a family where no one's gone to college, you might not understand that the math class that you take in seventh grade is going to be important in four years, just because that experience base isn't there.

That's Breakthrough. GENAustin – Girls Empowerment Network – goes into schools and does clubs, to help middle-school girls make good choices. I was at the Communities in Schools walk-through today – which is another great organization – and they were talking about using GENAustin as one of the tools that they have available to them at that school, Martin Middle School.

I've been involved in a lot of city efforts. I was involved in the Create Austin effort of the city. I just think that, at this moment in time, when we're creating something new, we need to think outside the box. If we do things the way we've done them in the past, and we reflexively go back to them because we're comfortable with them and we know them well, instead of thinking big vision, and new, and forward, then shame on us.

AC: On the issues: Should we begin with traffic?

SA: Let's start with transportation. We have 2 million people in the Austin metropolitan area today, we're expected to have 4 million people in 25 to 30 years. It's hard for me to imagine an Austin, at that time, that doesn't have an integrated rail as part of an overall transportation system. We also have to do what's necessary to improve the capacity on our roads. But the Urban Transportation Commission says that if we build all of the rail and all of the roads, congestion in 25 years is still horrible. So the answer and the conversation needs to go beyond rail and roads, if you're really doing long-term forward thinking. It also has to include how we live and where we live, and that's not enough part of the conversation as it exists today, if you're actually delivering a long-term plan.

Short-term, we need to do a lot more with staggered work hours, and with telecommuting. It doesn't take very many people, or very many employers, to adjust what they do – to work at home one day a month, to stagger work hours for some large employers, to have a dramatic impact on congestion in the city. We're a city that right now is riding a wave of new technology, and focusing a lot on new technology – we're not doing as much as we should be with telecommuting.

AC: What do you think of the city's support for increasing density in the Downtown area?

SA: I think that over time we look forward to the vision of Austin in 30 years, we have much greater density, a lot more people living Downtown. It's going to happen, because the market is sending more and more people Downtown, so that they can avoid the drive and the congestion, and also from the planning perspective. And I think as we generate those larger numbers, then the transit system that we have Downtown is going to be more successful. We'll have more people that are using it, because they're living there.

But I don't buy into the suggestion that that is mutually exclusive – maintaining the diversity of people who are living Downtown, or losing the character of our neighborhoods. I think there is a way to develop that does not choke off our neighborhoods, there's a way for us to develop and still maintain affordability in the city, if it's happening as part of a long-term design that has been implemented.

AC: People say they support greater density ... somewhere else, whether it's low-income housing, or a point tower, or a PUD.

SA: My sense is that among the fear held by the neighborhoods that are fighting to ensure saving their character, is the fear of unrestrained precedent, that if there is a give anywhere, it's going to result in an avalanche of undesirable activity. I think that fear, as well as inconsistent decisions that might be made by Council, which create uncertainty as to what's going to happen on any given project go hand in hand, where at the beginning of a project, nobody really knows where it's going to end up.

I think it's possible for us to decide and then enforce community-wide determinations about allowing density and how you do that in a way that preserves neighborhoods, by giving neighborhoods greater protections and greater enforceability, where there are fewer exceptions and variances to rules that are decided, where neighborhoods have greater architectural control. Because if you properly control that kind of development, than you can have increased density at appropriate places, and scaled appropriately for those places.

Look at Hyde Park. Hyde Park has development that is ASTI [Trattoria], and a grocery store, and restaurants. That's five blocks from where I lived when I lived at 43rd and Avenue C. That fit within my Hyde Park community, that was good in my neighborhood, I liked having that there. That's a different kind of development. Sometimes it can work.

I've seen people's concern that they're going to have a neighborhood with much greater density that is entirely around the neighborhood, as part of a compact and connected neighborhood. And then you transition from that greater density toward the core of the neighborhood, and you lose the next block of the neighborhood with your transitional housing. And then you're left with the next neighborhood where you have your streets, you're left with a neighborhood that's destroyed. And until you see the rules, you would be afraid that this is the kind of development that might result.

But this Council's going to have the opportunity to set those rules, and it would be inappropriate, and wrong for the city I think, to allow that kind of densification. But there are ways to appropriately locate where the density might occur, where the people are going to live that you bring additional people into the Downtown area, that does not result in the loss of the neighborhood. My sense is that there are in fact good and valid ways forward, that we're not reaching yet, because everybody's not listening to everybody else, and because nobody has faith in the process that they can actually make an agreement will live as a rule. And when you're afraid of that, then you can't make the agreement. As a city, again, we need a new way – we literally just need to do this differently than we have in the past.

AC: What would you like to see come out of the current Project Connect deliberations, assuming there will be some kind of a vote on rail in November?

SA: What I'd like to see is a plan that everybody agrees on. You're asking me what is the best plan, I don't know what the best plan is. There are people that have been on that committee [Central Corridor Advisory Group], doing those deliberations, for months or years. There have been experts that have been brought in, and there are community stakeholders that have been living that issue. So, for all the reasons why I'm not ready to endorse a plan that comes out, that's recommended, without knowing what that plan is, I'm not in a position to step in front of all those people and say, I know the way.

I'm very interested in seeing what that proposal is going to be, and I'm interested in seeing the discussion on that proposal. I will tell you again, that long term, it's inconceivable to me that we have a city growing the way that Austin is growing, that rail's not part of. Just today they were discussing an issue of how many lanes being closed or not closed [on East Riverside] that wasn't front and center in the discussion for the last several weeks or months.

AC: Yet given the history of these proposals and votes, there's no such plan that everybody can agree on.

SA: I will say this. We have to get to a place in Austin where we can trust, and give significant weight, to the deliberative processes that we set up, so that when we have experts and stakeholders going away to research and deliberate, it is open enough and transparent enough so that people feel that they understand the data that's being considered, and any objections they have to that data has been heard, where the theories being presented are things that people understand are being discussed, so that at the end of the process – recognizing that not everybody's going to be in agreement – and whenever you're choosing between Choice A and Choice B, there's always going to be good things about Choice A and B and bad things about A and B. But if you believe in the integrity of the process, then at the end of that process, you make the best decision that you can, and you move forward, and you execute, and you move to a solution. And if you have to make course corrections along the way, you make them.

But the history of Austin is not that. The history of Austin is that we get to the place where it's time to make a decision, and maybe we have something that comes from a deliberative body – and we need to rethink, and re-deliberate, and re-do the study at each step of the process. We need to grow up. We need to set up a deliberative process that people have faith in, that they feel that they were able to participate in, that they feel like they were heard and that they know what happens in that process, so at the end of the process, we can actually make the hard choices. We can actually make the long-term decisions. That's part of the new way.

AC: What should we be looking for on energy and water?

SA: Let's talk water. We have people all over this city that are conserving more and more water, and then watching their water bills go up, and they don't understand why, because they're using less and less water. We have a water supply in Lake Travis, that is down to 600,000 acre-feet, that if it doesn't rain, is going to run dry. And even though we have a contract that guarantees us all of the water coming out of the lake, if there's no water coming out of the lake, there's no water coming out of the lake. At some point, if we have to find a new water supply, then we're going to be spending hundreds of millions of dollars. I don't know what the number is, but it's got to be huge, to find new water supplies. We should be doing, at this time, everything that we can, to give us as much time as possible to not have to incur that kind of an expense. Because a big part of our water bill now, are the capital expenses that we've paid in the past.

It's those fixed expenses that are responsible for people's water bills remaining high, when they're conserving more water. Water Treatment Plant 4 is an example of that; we now know we don't have the demand, there's not a demand that requires that plant to come on line. At some point in the future, we're going to need to do that, but we're paying for that now.

AC: The Austin Water folks counter that it's not the plant that's driving up those costs, it's the fixed costs for running the same equipment, with declining income.

SA: It's those too. It's not just [WTP4], that's just one of the components. But we should be doing everything we can to avoid incurring additional capital expenses. I think if people in the city understood that conservation was buying time in order to avoid having to incur that expense, then people would see the direct relation between conservation and avoiding that expense – the number of days they were buying down, in order to avoid that expense, I think the community would get involved with that in ways that they're not now, because it's kind of an abstract concept.

I think that as a city we should be trying to increase the drought-resistant trees that we have. We should be providing people incentives to go to lower water usage. I recognize that the lower the water we use, the less water we're selling, and it has a bottom-line effect on a water company that's selling water. But there's also a bottom-line effect of using water at a clip that's going to have us shortly facing pressure to start building pipelines east, to aquifers, or building plants to treat brackish water. We should be reusing the water we use a lot more.

AC: The utility has been using those methods to various degrees for the last decade.

SA: We reuse three percent of the water in Austin; San Antonio reuses almost 40 percent of their water. We have city ordinances that are preventing the University of Texas and the state from tapping into available water that could be reused. People talk about that, in the classic Austin way of talking about what it is we should be doing, and we need to actually do them, we need to have the will to actually execute the plans and strategies that we've been talking about. There's a big difference between identifying all the solutions and executing all the solutions.

On the power issue, we own our power company. We have a power company that has been out front in encouraging clean energy and sustainability. That's Austin, that's our culture, that's what makes us special. That we have a power company that reflects that is absolutely appropriate. But the impact on a business model that comes from homes having more and more solar panels, is just the precursor to having solar panels on top of all commercial buildings, which is what's going to happen next. And I understand that you can get a 3-D printer now and pretty much print yourself out a solar panel. The barriers for entry to that will rapidly go away. So we have, as the owners of an electric utility, a business model issue that is ultimately to be faced by every power-generating company in the country.

I think – I'm not the expert in this – but I would want to see what the city's transition is going from today's business model to the business model that we're going to be working on in 20 years, because the business model we're going to have in 20 years won't look like the business model we have today. There very well may be some element of generation involved, but it's going to be a lot more, I would think, about distribution and service. Austin ought to be out in front in figuring out how that business model is going to transition. We should be doing that.

One of the things that we're dealing with, with old decisions, like the decision to get the biomass plant [in East Texas]. That was a pretty big expenditure. When I look at it, I don't see how that was the appropriate decision.

AC: Yet that was part of the city's push to acquire an increasing percentage of renewables.

SA: And I think that that pressure to increase renewables and to hold ourselves accountable to a really high standard for sustainability is good. I'm just not sure I understood the economics of that particular plant at that particular time. I just think that with water, and with electric as well, I want the city to be proactive, in a long-term planning sense, that is transparent and available to everyone, so that people know what we're doing about water, and water supplies, and people know, what our transition is on the business plan both on the sales of water and sales of energy, as those sales go down.

AC: What do you think of these periodic demands that we should sell the utility and move to the private market?

SA: I think the power company is a really valuable asset, and when it's owned by the community, the community is able to set priorities, and customs, and tone and tenor to the business, because we own it. I think that's something that's special in Austin. We just need to figure out how to do it, but in a way that keeps it affordable.

AC: Let's talk about affordability for a bit. What's your approach to that problem?

SA: That's a tough one. I think that when you talk about affordability, you need to look at all of the components of affordability, rather than any one aspect of it, because they're all tied together. People talk about 110 folks moving to Austin every day. That's not the right number to look at. The right number to look at is that there are 150 people moving to Austin every day, and there are 40 people moving away. (That's a number we've confirmed with Ryan Robinson, the demographer for the city. It's probably an MSA number, not the city of Austin.)

Diversity in our city is crucial to preserving the soul of Austin, it is the fabric of who we are. And when you have a city that can't be afforded, where seniors can't afford to live here, where long-term residents are getting priced out, when the musicians and artists and creatives can't afford to live here, when our children graduating from school can't afford to live here, we have a pretty serious problem.

Affordability hits us at lots of levels. Housing costs are too high. Rents are too high. They're too high, in part, because the supply is too low. We need to provide the city with the resources to enable projects to be built more quickly, and with less cost. We need a [land development] code that is not self-contradictory and confusing, so that when somebody begins a project, they know what they're going to have to do when they end that project. When you don't have those things in place, you begin to artificially change the risk profile of projects, and you start to monkey with what the market would otherwise be building. We have one of the top number of jobs in the country, in terms of jobs created, last week – and 57 percent of the jobs created don't pay a living wage. 57 percent. Which means that everybody that has one of those jobs is being subsidized in one way or another by the rest of the community.

We're doing a really good job at the high-end jobs, and a really good job at the service-level jobs; but the middle-class jobs? Not so good. And those are the type of jobs that provide people with the income, so that they can actually afford to buy something. So that they can actually afford to live here. We're talking about jobs that are paying in the $50- $60- $70,000-a-year range. Those are the jobs that enable people to ladder up the economic scale in the community. This city, to protect its very soul, needs to focus on getting those jobs for people who live here, and making sure that we're properly and appropriately training those people to take those jobs. That needs to be, I think, where the economic development efforts of the city and the Chamber need to be focused.

AC: Do you think the current city incentives plans help or hurt that process?

SA: I don't think they give appropriate weight to that consideration. I think that the metric that's used to judge those kinds of economic development packages, focus on rate of return to the community – significantly the amount of capital that comes in, and the higher-level jobs.

AC: Council wants to encourage well-paying jobs; simultaneously they don't want to discourage employers who would provide entry-level jobs.

SA: Part of it is defining what is an entry-level job. The metric that the city uses, focusing on a return on investment, needs to focus on a return on values. If the value that you're using, is focusing on jobs that pay a living wage, so that people can be self-sustaining, and can ladder up the economic community here, those things are factors which have been a consideration when considering these packages, but haven't been given as much weight as they should be given. I think the Chamber and the Economic Development office ought to be graded on how many jobs they're able to develop in that range, above all, living wages. That ought to be the grade.

I think it's a question of focus. It's a question of community will. As a community, we should be focused for a year on poverty. Our poverty rate has gone up 150 percent in the last 10 years or so, something like that. There was an article that came out earlier this year that said we were the second-most [economically] segregated city in the country. This is Austin, Texas.

AC: Some people are making out very, very well, and other people are not making out at all.

SA: Right. And we need to be doing a better job of sharing with that economic growth.

AC: There are also those who say we shouldn't be doing any incentive programs at all; we don't need to be giving any incentives to bring more people here.

SA: I would not take economic incentives out of the toolbox that the city has. I think we need to be judicious in their use, and I think there needs to be a focus on using them to ensure a return on our values, as part of the conversation that looks at return on investment. People come in, with these middle-class jobs, and they want somebody who's already been doing that job for five years. If I was running that company, I'd want somebody who's already been doing it for five years too.

But if somebody's going to come into Austin and says, "I'll take those group of people that are living in Austin and I will train them, I will participate in training them, so that in five years they're skilled – but I'll stick with them, and I will hire them, and I will pay them a living wage." How do we get there? I think we ought to be encouraging those kinds of people to come to Austin. We need that. That is a gap that we have, that we are not otherwise filling.

There will be greater minds than mine on how you do the economic development, but I'm not ready to take any of the tools out of the toolbox.

AC: Anything else you'd like to address?

SA: I think the overriding thing is that, working on this campaign, we have the widest coalition I have ever seen in my 36 years in Austin. There are people working on this campaign that have never worked together on a campaign before. There are people working on this campaign that don't want to be in the same room with other people working on this campaign. (I'll try to preserve that during the campaign, but if we get elected mayor, they'll have to actually be in the same room together.) I think Austin is ready for a new way. I think Austin is ready to find coalitions that we didn't know existed before. And I think that the 10-1 system is a gift to the city. We're going to have new leaders and new communities sitting at the table, and we need to leverage this gift, to drive and find those commonalities that escape us, when so much of our city seems disengaged.

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