Austin City Election
Endorsements for mayor, City Council, and urban rail
Following are the Chronicle's recommendations in the mayoral and City Council races. It's a wide and various field, and the first time for the staff as well as the voters to consider an entirely new governing system in addition to the names on the ballot. Not all of these names, of course, will appear on any particular voter's ballot. He or she will make a choice among the eight candidates for mayor, and then among the candidates for his or her particular district representative, who may number as few as four or as many as 12 candidates. In making our recommendations for all the districts, we tried to keep in mind that we were considering both the needs of the different districts and the needs of the whole city of Austin. We hope that, whoever you may choose, you keep those same overlapping visions in mind.
Early voting begins Oct. 20; election day is Nov. 4.
Mayor: Mike Martinez
As we approach early voting (Oct. 20-31), it seems that the mayor's race has been running forever – at least since Christmas, and it appears it may be Christmas again before we close the deal. That's been more than long enough for us to determine that Council Member Martinez is the best candidate to succeed at the job, among the eight candidates filed and the three of real distinction – Martinez, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, and attorney and philanthropist Steve Adler. Cole has a Council colleague's record of real achievement, and though Adler has not been much involved at City Hall, he's performed real service for the community through his legal and nonprofit work. Although we haven't agreed with Martinez on every decision he's made – an impossibility with the unending city agenda – he has a distinguished and persuasive record of accomplishment that includes, among other things, his successful leadership at Capital Metro, his sustained and finally successful support for single-member districts, his effective advocacy for workers' rights, working conditions, and wages (the often ignored flip side of "affordability"), and even his persistent effort to make Austin a "no-kill" city. What these successful efforts have in common is Martinez's determination; it occasionally gets him in trouble when he's peremptory or bullheaded, but it also serves him well when the opposition (e.g., on standards for city contracting) has been equally determined and arrayed against him. Entering this new phase of city government, we need an experienced mayor who is collaborative, consensus-building, and a leader. On those counts, we believe Martinez is the best qualified for that job.
District 1: Ora Houston
Of the nine declared candidates for D1, three stand out: Andrew Bucknall, DeWayne Lofton, and Houston. Mediator and property manager Bucknall, after running previously in 2005, has grown in experience through the thankless, necessary work on city commissions, and has Eastside history that has served him well as a grassroots candidate. Lofton, both a public school insurance risk advisor and a part-time sheriff's deputy, has found the time and energy for neighborhood engagement, politics (a 2006 run), as well as city commission work. They've both earned the honorific "public citizen." Meanwhile, for even more years, Houston has moved from legislative aide to social services case worker, all the while engaged in civic activism on neighborhood, citywide, and social justice issues. Like her opponents, she knows the district and its needs well, and on Council should be a superb advocate for her constituents, as well as an experienced hand at city politics who will understand the relationship between district needs and whole community issues. Having to make a choice among three excellent candidates, we choose Houston.
District 2: Delia Garza
Delia Garza has separated herself from her opponents as the only candidate with true political bargaining experience. As a former firefighter, she has engaged and lobbied on behalf of her local union for fair wages and safer working conditions. Most recently, she worked as an assistant attorney general, which gives her both legal experience and the fullest understanding of Austin's relationship with state government. Four district residents filed for candidacy, but with Mike Owen's ineptitude, the choice comes down to Realtor John Sheppard and Dove Springs neighborhood activist Edward Reyes. Generally, the three have campaigned on many of the same issues: affordability, transportation, education, and health and wellness. Sheppard's shown independent energy, and as president of the Dove Springs Neighborhood Association, Reyes has exhibited a firm grasp of what's happening within a core district neighborhood. But the immediate issue in District 2 right now is representation, thereby providing the area with a steady voice on the dais. Garza is the candidate best suited for that task.
District 3: Sabino "Pio" Renteria
With more than its fair share of campaign melodrama – including a string of ethics complaints, charges of intimidation, yard sign theft, and a (reportedly necessary) police presence during a debate forum – District 3 is in dire need of a calm, reconciliatory leader. Narrowing down to a singular voice isn't an easy task in a race that includes a whopping 12 contenders. Susana Almanza, co-founder of PODER, may be an obvious choice for some, for her lengthy record of fighting for social and environmental justice in the East Austin/Montopolis neighborhood. However, we worry that her often abrasive leadership style may not mesh well on Council and may ultimately undermine the district's needs. Similarly, while we admire professor and author Fred McGhee's intelligence, knowledge, and passionate advocacy for affordable housing projects and historic preservation, he, too, would likely butt heads unproductively with fellow Council members. Attorney Jose Valera is an intriguing newcomer – and we hope to see him evolve as a potential leader. Left standing is Sabino "Pio" Renteria (Almanza's brother) – a soft-spoken retired computer tech and lifelong neighborhood activist who has served on several nonprofits and community organizations rooted in the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood, but reverberating throughout the district. Solid on both district and city issues, within this field, Renteria is the most likely to be diplomatic, reach along the dais, and become both a progressive advocate and collaborative figure on Council. Struggling with affordability and quality of life in the rapidly gentrifying area, District 3 residents have been lacking a voice. While we wish Renteria's voice would sometimes be – quite literally – a bit louder and more assertive, we still believe he is the candidate best suited to bring District 3 together and lead it into the new shape of city government.
District 4: Greg Casar
District 4 has elicited a mixed group of candidates, including three who have distinguished themselves in principles and experience: Katrina Daniel, Sharon Mays, and Casar. Registered nurse Daniel has the deepest roots in the area, and in addition to neighborhood engagement (primarily Highland NA) has made a second career in health care policy at the state and local level, as a legislative aide and now a policymaker at the state Insurance Commission and the Central Health District. Mays has also been very active in her northside neighborhood, serving on the board of the YMCA and chairing the Community Garden. With a couple of others, D4 presents a tough field, but Casar has been a rising star at City Hall with his successful advocacy at Workers Defense Project, with the other leaders there even generating national support and engagement – improving city contracting standards and citizens' lives simultaneously. He should be particularly successful in representing the rising demographic of District 4, the many working-class immigrants and young families who are making Austin home and transforming the central city. It is a difficult choice, but on balance we recommend the spirited outreach and engagement of Casar.
District 5: Ann Kitchen
Of the seven contenders in this central/south district, two are obvious standouts. Dan Buda brings to the table an impressive legislative résumé; the Realtor spent four sessions at the Lege – including as former chief of staff to state senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis – plugging away at progressive policies on education, safety, traffic congestion, and growth. He's sharp, thoughtful, and solutions-oriented. However, by virtue of experience alone, health care advocate and former state representative Ann Kitchen rises above the rest of the field. Aside from her session at the Lege (elected in 2000), where she championed environmental regulation, quality education, and women's health care – while representing much of the district she now hopes to win – Kitchen served as a former assistant attorney general, co-founded Annie's List, and has devoted more than two decades to health care policy and advocacy. On the strictly municipal side, she's served on city commissions, chairs Liveable City, and was a founding member of the Save Our Springs Alliance. Unsurprisingly, she's garnered broad support from key local environmental, labor, public safety, neighborhood, and Dem political groups. Moreover, her depth of knowledge and thoughtful approaches to addressing the district's transportation, growth, development, and emergency preparedness problems give us confidence she's earned a seat on the 10-1 Council.
District 6: Jimmy Flannigan
While some of his opponents are content to coast on their anti-tax positions, Flannigan offers thoughtful ideas about how to address the actual problems facing District 6. An honorable mention goes to competitor Matt Stillwell; while we believe Flannigan is the best choice this time around, Stillwell has become a more confident and poised candidate as the race has progressed, and we hope to see more of him in the future. But in our review, on the basis of experience and advocacy, Flannigan has made the best case for his candidacy. In a district where rising property taxes are a persistent concern, Flannigan keeps costs in mind, and in innovative ways: For instance, he explains that paying all city of Austin employees a living wage would ultimately reduce the need for other social services to supplement low wages – a savings that reflexive tax-cutters seldom acknowledge, or prefer to ignore. From his experience at the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce as well as on the Greater Austin Chamber transportation committee, Flannigan reflects an impressive understanding of the granular details of city government. Perhaps most importantly, he's that rare breed of candidate capable of standing his ground when asked a difficult question, willing to patiently explain and defend his proposals. There's some debate about whether District 6 will turn out to be a "conservative opportunity" district. Flannigan is no conservative, but his moderate, pragmatic point of view will allow him to work with the other nine Council members and mayor to actually get things done for both his district and the city as a whole.
District 7: Jeb Boyt/Leslie Pool
The Burnet/Lamar corridor district not only has a large number of candidates (eight) but several of the strongest and most qualified running in any of the 10 districts. Melissa Zone's urban planning experience has made her a powerful advocate for future-thinking, and Jimmy Paver's youthful energy, combined with legislative and congressional experience, makes him a hot contender for future office. However, with an eye to candidates with experience in city politics, we edged toward Boyt and Pool. Both have years of experience on boards and commissions, and while both have been focusing on the persistent tides of development, they show differences in emphasis. Hill Country Conservancy board member, former Texas Coastal Management Program director, and avowed urbanist Boyt is more proactive about guiding and finessing development along the Burnet corridor, as strategies for keeping negative impact out of the neighborhoods. Pool has her own development credentials, having spearheaded the push for the city to buy the state's Bull Creek property – still an unresolved question – and advocating for sustainable development there. However, she is also much more aggressive on fighting to keep the existing neighborhood plans inviolate. Whoever wins, the district will be in good hands. However, a stern warning to any victor: The concerns of the wealthier, more entrenched voices of the south end of the district – dubbed "Lower Seventh" – cannot be allowed to drown out the equal concerns of the more resource-deprived north end ("Upper Seventh") or the ever-rising number of young families.
District 8: Ed Scruggs
Considering all five candidates in the running for the new District 8 seat, four demonstrated an edge over their colleagues in both experience and temperament. Transportation engineer, land planner, and moderate Republican Becky Bray promises a holistic approach to addressing Southwest Austin's preoccupying traffic conditions. Management consultant Darrell Pierce's campaign theme – "One Team, One Dream, One City" – reflects his open-minded pragmatism and his dedicated community engagement. Former state administrator Eliza May also has government experience and progressive principles, but her single-minded devotion to budget and tax cuts is not persuasive. We're recommending clinical research associate and neighborhood activist Ed Scruggs, who worked to shift control of the Circle C Ranch Homeowners Association from the developers to the actual homeowners, and helped establish an organized Democratic outpost in the previously red-leaning area. Like May, he opposes the SH 45 SW project (the others support it) – and like his very public stand for gun control, that's a difficult position to take in at least parts of District 8. On the stump, he's not been stuck on script – he's acknowledged the effects of global warming on local conditions and has spoken frankly against the state's dismal system of public school funding. With his collaborative style, his ability to engage those who disagree as well as agree, and his genuine understanding of District 8 and its issues, Scruggs is most fit to usher in a new era of leadership from this district.
District 9: Kathie Tovo
This choice was not easy. Choosing between incumbent Council Members Chris Riley and Kathie Tovo – drawn, in the 10-1 process, into the same central city district – involves breaking down a favorite in the only district that encompasses any of the six Council incumbents, let alone two vying for the same chair. If we could move Riley's home into a neighboring district, we would. In many ways, Tovo represents a vision of Austin that no longer dominates the political landscape. It's small-town and familial, built around neighborhoods; it's also predicated on carefulness and consideration, and the preservation of an ideal. Riley's eagerness to work with innovative developers and provide incentives for new businesses – and to deemphasize passenger-car domination in favor of Austin's multimodal future – may herald the inevitable reconfiguration of the city that's already well under way. But in practice, he's proven a fraction too eager. Look no further than his early-October insistence on passing an ordinance to legalize transportation network companies on an emergency basis so as to get the companies on the books in time for the Austin City Limits Music Festival (for which Uber was a sponsor). Tovo, conversely, has provided stark opposition to Riley's urgency, and insisted that the companies work within city needs, expectations – and the law. That sort of discretion will prove invaluable as the District 9 seat becomes the most proven on the Council.
District 10: Mandy Dealey
Dealey considers public service "a calling" – in spirit and in action – and to that end, in her 40s she enrolled in UT's LBJ School, in order to become a more effective community advocate. She chaired the boards of such worthy organizations as Planned Parenthood of Austin and Austin Area Mental Health Association; and she's been on six city of Austin boards and commissions, including the vital Planning Commission as well as the Waterfront Overlay Task Force. Dealey emphasizes that on a Council that will include at least nine newcomers, it will be helpful if some know how the city works. But her formidable amount of experience is just one reason she's the candidate most qualified to represent District 10. Dealey is also patient and reasonable, a quality not shared by all of her opponents. We like some of the ideas that Tina Cannon and Jason Meeker have brought to the race, but neither can begin to compete with Dealey's record. Meeker is actively engaged in community and neighborhood politics, but he's a bit too eager to go on the offensive, claiming, for instance, that Dealey owes her endorsements to her pro-rail stance. We worry about how that impulse would affect his ability to work with the rest of Council. Cannon's level of civic engagement – apart from running for Council – has been relatively thin, which makes it hard to predict how well she'd be able to implement her proposals if elected. And, while both Meeker and Cannon have attempted to use Dealey's personal wealth against her, it's admirable that she has demonstratively chosen to spend her time doing the unglamorous work of making the city a better place for everyone, not just those who share her tax bracket.