The Wrath of Don
Zimmerman's constituents accuse him of online, in-person abuse
In late August, David and Anita Bradberry walked out of their Northwest Austin home and headed to the nearby fitness center. Just a few steps out the door, the Bradberrys noticed a car parked near their mailbox. A man in a fedora soon approached their driveway. "I don't believe we've met; I'm Council Member Don Zimmerman and I'd like to talk to you," he said. Brushing off the fact they had met Zimmerman a handful of times, the Bradberrys – supporters of Zimmerman's challenger Jimmy Flannigan and with the front yard sign to prove it – pressed on. However, as they tell the story, Zimmerman was persistent.
David Bradberry, scuttling along the driveway in hopes of bypassing the District 6 incumbent, ended up taking the bait. "I really didn't want to engage him, but he kept following us," Bradberry told the Chronicle. So he asked Zimmerman about the report that he gave $2,000 in campaign funds to his wife in 2015 (if he didn't pay his wife the money, people would consider him sexist, the council member allegedly responded), and asked whether or not he had paid out all the fines levied against him after an unsuccessful defamation lawsuit against investigative reporting website the Austin Bulldog. (According to Bulldog editor Ken Martin, Zimmerman paid the final installment in May, about a year and a half after the court's initial ruling.)
Bradberry told the council member he didn't want to vote for him, especially after Zimmerman scolded a group of young Latino children during an August City Council meeting, saying they should "do something useful" and not "live off others" when they grow up – his latest controversy. Growing uncomfortable, Bradberry thought Zimmerman would let them finally go on their way, but he didn't. The couple was shocked to hear what came next.
"If you are going to believe the lies, you will be damned!" shouted Zimmerman, according to Bradberry. When he was 20 feet into the distance, he capped off the terse exchange with "Have a nice life!"
"You're out petitioning for votes and you're damning me? This is crazy for an elected official," said Bradberry, recalling his feelings at the time. A fiscal conservative who aligns more with the Republican Party, Bradberry voted for conservative Gov. Greg Abbott and plans to vote for Round Rock-based U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Texas. When his district was up for grabs during the first 10-1 election, Bradberry supported conservative Jay Wiley's campaign but was open to giving Zimmerman a fair shot when he won the race. But Zimmerman's temperament on the dais and taxpayer-friendly hypocrisy was too much to bear. "I've found him to be so unprofessional and negative. He does not act how a representative, in my mind, should act."
During a D6 debate forum on Thursday, Sept. 15, the Chronicle asked Zimmerman to respond to general allegations that he had verbally attacked his own constituents. "Well, that's a lie. That's just a lie," said Zimmerman before he abruptly ended the exchange.
While Zimmerman's abrasive and argumentative style on the dais – especially when it comes to interacting with politically progressive members of the council, city staff, and speakers with whom he doesn't ideologically agree (i.e., a climate scientist) – is well documented and often criticized, a similar pattern of attack toward his own constituents appears to have emerged.
Recent social media interactions show Zimmerman isn't shy about going after D6 residents directly. Rocco Pelosi, a D6 constituent and former City of Austin and state employee of 30 years, was recently faced with a string of hostile disparagements after posting about the council member on his personal Facebook page. Pelosi shared his disappointment in Zimmerman's recent comments toward Latino school children in a post dated Aug. 20, tagging Zimmerman and calling for him to apologize for his insensitive words. (The sentiments were later echoed in a letter to the editor published in the Aug. 25 issue of the Austin American-Statesman.) The post received at least 37 comments, largely from Zimmerman supporters, who spewed indignant defenses. To Pelosi's amazement, Zimmerman himself chimed in at 9:58am, with the following message:
"Rocco, I'm embarrassed at your small minded racist hypocrisy, and I'll continue to represent D6 with truth and rational thinking. I represent all D6 residents and gave a full time office dedicated to helping people with city problems, like a rip-off water bill, and we'll continue to serve you and all other constituents. But your opinions lack rational thinking and are not truthful, so I refuse your bad advice."
After Pelosi defended his background and career in public service, Zimmerman's campaign manager, Tim Kelly, came out swinging: "Rocco, a parasite even gives some benefit to the host. No need to explain your "Public Service" in the health field. Enjoy your bloated "Public Service" retirement check."
Later in the same post, Kelly takes Pelosi to task for his Democratic leanings and engages in a hostile back-and-forth:
"Gotta use nice and gentle words. Gotta be sensitive to everyone, Cant offend [sic] not-a-one ... The Democrat party is the Political Father of racist. Use your brain. They ran the south, they subjugated every race except the white. Sen Byrd the KKK racist is a perfect example of the OLD DOG RACIST DEM's. You think they are here to help? Tell ME... PLEASE TELL ME WHAT YOUR DEM PRESIDENT HAS DONE TO HELP ANY MINORITY other than say nice words? NOTHING! More Riots under this DEM SCUM than all modern presidents. Disgusting. Thank GOD my wife and son are INTELLIGENT Hispanics unlike you."
When asked to comment on those remarks, Kelly gave the Chronicle a full run-down of his military history, writing in an email: "For almost 30 yrs to the exact day, I willingly trained to voluntarily (of my own will) risk my life for the freedoms outlined in the US Constitution and its Bill(s) of Rights. Of which contains the right of free speech. ... The battlefield is a very harsh place to play, let's leave it up to real Men to play in it."
Pelosi, a veteran (of Italian descent), describes himself as a fairly moderate fiscal conservative and not a straight-ticket voter. In fact, he's voted in the GOP primary in the recent past. Zimmerman and Kelly's online harassment, Pelosi said, is more reason to vote against the incumbent this November. "I don't feel angry. I feel sorry for them, that they have to stoop to that level of name-calling, bullying, and humiliation," said Pelosi. "Maybe if I respected him it would sting, but I don't. I don't think he has the best interest of the district at heart. It's all about Don and all about attracting attention."
D6 resident Cindy Rhea tells the Chronicle she was met with an indirect biblically charged rant from Zimmerman online. When Rhea responded critically to another Facebook user about the council member's comments to the Latino children, Zimmerman himself chimed in, asserting that "rational thinking is bitterly opposed by legions of hateful lying bigots here in the People's Republic of Austin." He continued, "In the end, every lying tongue will be silenced by God, so we just need to be patient of [sic] persevere with what's right."
Rhea alleges the council member's response has since been deleted from record; however, she salvaged the conversation before it was erased. "He just butted into the thread; I wasn't even talking to him, but now I was having my faith and integrity questioned. He came at me with the inference that I was one of many lying bigots," said Rhea. "It was kind of creepy.
"But I guess it just solidifies what bothers me about politics these days – when the religious right doesn't agree with you, they go on the attack."