District 3: Divided Powers
Susana Almanza vs. Pio Renteria
As the most populous district race (12 candidates) inevitably dwindled to two – Susana Almanza (21%) and Sabino "Pio" Renteria (19%) – the virtual tie in an already tense race has become a political melodrama: a brother-and-sister campaign showdown.
However, this isn't simply a tale of sibling rivalry; it's a battle between deep-seated, intra-community political powers. Almanza, of environmental/social justice group PODER, is recognized for her role in the movement that led to removing the Eastside tank farms, and the eventual closure of the Holly Power Plant. Her cohort, including other activists such as Daniel Llanes and Angelica Noyola, has come to represent – depending whom you ask – either aggressive leadership or counter-productive divisiveness.
By contrast, Renteria, a longtime community activist and now-retired computer tech, has served on several nonprofits and city boards (he currently serves on the East Austin Neighborhood Center Advisory Board). Steeped in Democratic politics, Renteria is seen as a collaborative and calm voice, especially beside his outspoken opponent. Though Almanza has picked up a few endorsements – including the Austin Sierra Club, and most recently the Statesman – Renteria has won the lion's share: the Austin Police Association, the Austin Firefighters Association, the Workers Defense Action Fund, and the Austin Central Labor Council (a coalition of most local unions), as well as the Chronicle.
The distinctions aren't only in leadership style, but in policies. For instance, while both Renteria and Almanza support the 20% homestead exemption and avenues to secure affordable housing, the approach varies. Almanza is intently focused on maintaining single-family housing, and has steadfastly resisted denser or mixed development. Renteria, supportive of dense development, is more inclined to facilitate dialogue between developers and area residents. ("We don't want to run people out of business through our zoning process," said Renteria, alluding to Almanza's opposition to Eastside projects.) Renteria encourages residents to build secondary units for rental, and to sell empty half lots, as ways to ease escalating property taxes. "You can survive here," he said, of the rapidly gentrifying landscape. "And there are a lot of creative ways to do it."
On other issues – like the contentious Springdale Farms debate and the urban rail proposal (Renteria supported; Almanza opposed) – the two also differ. Of Renteria's advocacy of the rail plan, Almanza said her brother, whom she described as "part of the city's Good Ol' Boys' system" is siding with "special interests." Of Springdale, Renteria dismissed Almanza's opposition to the urban farm, saying, "Here we've got a group that has done so much for the community. We should help them be successful instead of fighting them off."
The precinct-by-precinct district voting map reflects localized loyalties: Almanza won her East Austin/Montopolis stomping ground, while Renteria solidly captured parts of South Austin, and swaths near his East Cesar Chavez home. Renteria says in the final weeks he'll get more boots on the ground in the areas he lost.
Since only 40% of the voters chose either Renteria or Almanza, the majority must still decide on a candidate. Third-place Jose Valera (also seen as a collaborative figure) trailed Renteria by only 200 votes – should his supporters move to either candidate, it could tip the balance; much also depends on mid-December turnout.
Almanza, who has publicly objected to the Chronicle's coverage of the urban farms issue, did not return calls for this story; however, in mid-November she did tell us that in many ways she had already claimed a victory: "I had 11 men challenge me and I was the only woman, and I still came out in first place – I think that's historical in itself."