D7 CM Leslie Pool Draws a Challenger

Friends of the Grove activist Natalie Gauldin enters race

Natalie Gauldin made her name advocating for the Grove at Shoal Creek. (Courtesy of the Gauldin Campaign)

Following months of speculation, Natalie Gauldin entered the City Council race last week to challenge incumbent City Council Member Leslie Pool for her District 7 seat. Gauldin, the founder of a Facebook forum called Friends of the Grove, said she represents growing dissatisfaction in the district with Pool's performance, especially in the areas of transportation and affordability.

"I believe that here and there she has supported some policy changes that might have a small impact on transportation or affordability, but that doesn't appear to be a priority of hers," Gauldin said. "She hasn't led on any issues or anything that has moved our city forward."

Gauldin has spent the last year working to advance a planned unit development in nearby District 10 called The Grove at Shoal Creek. She's become a regular at City Hall, testifying at the various commissions to express the views of the group's more than 600 members. It was because of her work on that issue that she was approached by district residents to run. Still, she emphasized that this election is about transportation and affordability – not the Grove.

"I happen to be heavily involved in the Grove," she said. "It's in my neighborhood. I think I'm doing the right thing for Austin with everything I've done with that group."

However, Gauldin is working to separate herself from the Grove's developers, ARG Bull Creek, Ltd. She said she specifically asked its owner, Garrett Martin, to refrain from donating any money to her campaign in order to combat any perception she's benefited from her activism on developers' behalf.

Pool's campaign, on the other hand, is already pushing back against that effort. Matt Hersh, a political consultant for the CM, pointed out Gauldin's well-documented history of supporting the controversial project. "As far as I know, Natalie's only involvement in the community has been to support the developers of the Grove," he said.

Gauldin, in response, points to her involvement with the Friends of Austin Neigh­bor­hoods as another of her civic endeavors. Formed last spring, FAN is seen as a rival to the more traditional neighborhood organizations represented by the Austin Neighbor­hoods Council. The tension between the two groups, and the larger conflict between pro-neighborhood and pro-density forces, will dominate the race even if Gauldin is successful at steering the conversation away from the Grove.

Hersh continued: "Natalie talks about affordability and traffic, but at some point she is going to have to tell people that her solution is to cram as much development as possible into existing neighborhoods without any regard for the impacts on current residents. ... Their campaign knows this is unpopular, so Natalie tries to make it as vague as possible, but at some point she is going to have to explain that instead of just using buzz words."

To that end, Gauldin has said she will advocate for "all ages" bicycle infrastructure and for less strenuous regulations on accessory dwelling units (she has one on her property). "It's time for District 7 to have representation and leadership that will move forward on the issues we care about most, which are affordability and transportation, and doing that while maintaining the things we love about Austin," she said. "I believe I am that person, and I can do the job."

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District 7, November 2016 Election, Leslie Pool, Natalie Gauldin, Friends of the Grove, The Grove at Shoal Creek, Matt Hersh, Friends of Austin Neighborhoods, Austin Neighborhoods Council, Garrett Martin, ARG Bull Creek, Ltd.

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