A Two-Horse Race for Mayor
Can Laura Morrison hope to edge out Steve Adler?
"The Mayor Who Does Stuff" vs. "The Clear Choice"?
That's one way to think about the upcoming mayoral campaign between incumbent Steve Adler and former Council Member Laura Morrison, as reflected in their own current thoughts about the race.
"I think the defining issue is trying actually to do stuff," Adler said in a recent interview. "To be really clear-eyed about the challenges we face, and the need to do things to address those challenges, rather than just hoping they'll go away."
"I've been talking to people all over town," Morrison told the Chronicle. "People are looking for a clear choice. There's a deep concern about the path we are on, and the leadership we have. I think I represent that clear choice."
Breaking the Code
Those are not the most precise self-descriptions, but they do reflect broad distinctions between the candidates as they look toward November. In his press releases, Adler points to the accomplishments of his first term, with his City Council colleagues, as having made progress not just on local issues – affordability, mobility, homelessness – but on national issues such as immigration, discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, and climate change. "It's been a Council that's not afraid to wade into pretty choppy and opaque waters."
Morrison's counterargument is less about "doing stuff" than how that stuff is being done. She says the mayor has relied too much on "backroom deals" and "top-down" politics, instead of reaching out to a broad city constituency and finding ways to work "from the bottom up."
Central to that debate is the seemingly endless city project that is CodeNEXT, the years-long revision of Austin's land use code, that has finally arrived at the dais for ongoing discussions and revisions. Adler believes the rewriting process will end in a code that will address many of the city's housing and related problems while allaying concerns of residents who say they fear neighborhood destruction. As the mayor sees it, the headlines about CodeNEXT do not reflect the conversations he's heard around the city about the issue. "I recognize that within certain groups, CodeNEXT is an emotional and fraught issue, because you're dealing with people's homes, and their expectations about the future. ...
"Some people will show me photographs of things they dislike in their neighborhoods – a 'McMansion' or something else, and say 'that's why I hate CodeNEXT.' I can only respond, if you have photographs, CodeNEXT didn't do it ... CodeNEXT hasn't happened yet. And on the other hand, I hear folks saying that those neighborhood people who oppose CodeNEXT are just racist NIMBYs, trying to deny opportunity to people in the city.
"Neither of those things are right, and we have to stop vilifying people who have different views or priorities."
On that subject, Morrison can sound at first surprisingly like the mayor. For every person who describes "development" or "developers" as an unmitigated evil, Morrison says, "There are people on the other side who caricature those worried about their neighborhoods as just 'anti-growth,' or opposing all change. That's not fair, and it's not true."
Where Morrison differs from Adler is that she lays at least some of the blame for the public polarization at the mayor's feet. "There hasn't been sufficient outreach from City Hall – despite such a long and expensive process – and too many people feel they haven't been consulted. They say they feel like they've been disenfranchised. ... There are a lot of people concerned about Austin's future, about their neighbors having to leave the city because of rising housing costs."
Morrison similarly criticizes the mayor on other high-profile issues – for example, the current controversy over the proposal to establish a Major League Soccer team at McKalla Place. If not for public pressure and dissent at Council, she says, the Precourt/Columbus Crew proposal would have been handled entirely "behind the scenes."
"I think having a professional soccer team would be great. But the process of how we get there should be open and transparent ... and whatever happens on the site, we should give a lot of weight to the neighborhood plan." She said the widely differing appraisals (as high as $29 million and as low as $9.6 million, under different conditions) have to "raise some red flags. What's going on in the background? There's just a lot of lack of trust in City Hall."
For his part, Adler defends the city's process in evaluating the MLS proposals, and is also more enthusiastic about the potential benefits. He said he agrees with the "deal points" initially raised by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, adding, "There are still too few opportunities in the city where we gather as a community," he said, citing things like the Waller Creek Park nights or the annual kite festival at Zilker Park. "Soccer has the potential to be an element in the city for which everybody comes together ... the same as a museum or a library, bringing a community benefit."
As the campaign heats up over the summer, it remains an open question whether CodeNEXT will be a sufficiently dominating issue to exhaust much of the political oxygen. Adler says City Council will give the code revision discussion and decisions the time they need; Morrison points to Council's vote – currently subject to a court challenge – not to put the "Community Not Commodity" anti-CodeNEXT petition on the November ballot as another betrayal of the public interest. "The mayor and the majority of the council ignored the voices of 32,000 citizens [who had signed the petition]."
Morrison says she's not persuaded by Adler's argument that Council was acting on the available legal advice, that the petition's intent – essentially, to freeze for an extended period any comprehensive code revision – was impermissible under state law. "Legal opinions are always on a spectrum," Morrison said, "and the council needs to respect the voters."
Adler responds, "We acted on the legal advice we had, quickly enough to send the matter to court [via a CNC lawsuit]. If the court comes back with a different answer, we still have time to put it on the ballot."
How that argument plays out over the next couple of months could go a long way to determine the election outcome. If enough voters believe that CodeNEXT (or related land-use decisions) will only serve to transform Austin's urban landscape beyond all recognition and affordability, Morrison would have a strong chance of defeating a popular incumbent enjoying a prosperous economy. On the other hand, if a majority of voters remain persuaded by Adler's persistent refrain – "We can't be afraid of change, because we have to be able to change in order to preserve what's special about this city" – he is likely to repeat what incumbent mayors have done over the last three decades, and win re-election. To find a counterexample, you have to reach all the way back to May of 1985, when Frank Cooksey defeated incumbent Ron Mullen in a run-off.
Running the Numbers
In other words, Morrison presumably has an uphill climb. Nevertheless, when she initially announced her run, she emphasized, "I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't believe I can win." Some voters, but not many current Austin residents, are likely to remember Cooksey, Mullen, or even the Austin of 1985, population 417,000. Another version of the race might be represented as the politics of nostalgia – undeniably a potent Austin cultural force – vs. the politics of change, with Morrison amplifying the voices of Old Austin and Adler weighing in on the side of the New. That's oversimplification, but it's worth recalling that both candidates – like a majority of current Austinites – arrived in the city from elsewhere, and at roughly the same time. (Adler, now 62, first came to study law in 1978; Morrison, 63, arrived with her family in 1981.)
Austin's population has more than doubled since 1985 – 926,000 as of 2016 – and there have been other changes that might put a thumb on the electoral scales. The last spring Council election was in May of 2012, when there were 49,336 total ballots cast (Lee Leffingwell garnered 52%: 25,446). By 2014, the election had been moved to November, and there were 209,104 votes cast, with a little over 175,000 working their way to the municipal bottom of the ballot. In the first round, Adler won 37% (64,416), and then defeated Mike Martinez in a December run-off. The run-off turnout – at 15.6% of registered voters, nothing to brag about – returned 52,159 Adler voters (67%).
Presumably, the November electorate is not just larger, but more representative of the entire Austin population, and in theory less preoccupied with the provincial issues that often dominate Council discussions. That should favor the mayor, if only because his name and face have been in the local media steadily for the last four years, while Morrison is returning after three years out of the headlines. Longtime political consultant David Butts, a member of Adler's 2014 campaign team, is again supporting the mayor. But he has previously worked for Morrison – and indeed says he tried to persuade her to run in 2014, when (term-limited as a council member) she considered the possibility but ultimately decided against it.
Butts acknowledged that a lot of things can happen between now and election day, but at the moment he thinks Adler "would be overwhelmingly ahead right now." Morrison's last competitive race was in 2008, when she fairly easily defeated Cid Galindo; she was re-elected in 2011 with 73% of the vote (amid an execrable 7.4% turnout). Butts thinks perhaps the first 50,000 voters will consider CodeNEXT a primary concern (for better or worse), among 200,000 to 250,000 voters overall. But before that happens, he suggests, Council might well "iron out a lot of the peculiarities" of the code rewrite, blunting it as a polarizing campaign issue.
A different factor, one that could well favor Morrison, is an anticipated anti-Trump "blue wave," along with a spike in younger voters, including many more Democratic women. "She will generate some support because of that," Butts said. "It might not hit Adler hard, but it will have some effect." In her initial campaign announcement, Morrison emphasized that she would be the second woman to be elected Austin mayor. (The first, Carole Keeton – then Carole Keeton McClellan – was Mullen's two-term predecessor, 1977-83.)
Both campaigns are clearly aware of that factor. Although the race is still fairly sleepy, with few public events, the mayor and Morrison have each held "Women for ..." fundraising events in the last few weeks. In terms of listed supporters, Adler edged out the challenger, with a lengthier roster bearing heftier political résumés. Among the Adler host committee for his Mercury Hall soiree on June 3 were: Wilhelmina Delco, Wendy Davis, Rep. Celia Israel, Sheriff Sally Hernandez, Rep. Donna Howard, District Attorney Margaret Moore, and plenty more. Morrison's event, a couple of weeks later at Chez Zee, featured a shorter host list and not quite as many Democratic heavyweights: Constable Maria Canchola, former Council Member Beverly Griffith, Rep. Gina Hinojosa, AISD Trustee Ann Teich, and former County Commissioner Karen Huber.
On either side, it's a very small sample, and in any case high-profile endorsements do not inevitably lead to electoral victories. Recall that when Andy Brown kicked off his 2014 campaign for Travis County Judge, establishment Democrats in daunting numbers quickly lined up behind him ... and Sarah Eckhardt proceeded to defeat him easily in the primary.
One other factor – the money race – we'll know much more about in a couple of weeks. The first fundraising period closed June 30, but the numbers won't be posted by the city clerk until Monday, July 16. Thus far, Morrison's visible campaign has been fairly threadbare, so that filing should give a better indication of her competitive financial strength. We already know that Adler – who can lean heavily on his personal wealth, and overwhelmingly outspent Martinez in 2014 – will have a more than adequate kitty. His most recent finance report, dated Jan. 15 (with minor corrections posted June 20), reflected $236,000 on hand as of the end of last year. The campaign has certainly been both spending and raising since then – and the mayor's campaign will not wilt for lack of funding.
Who's the Establishment?
At this stage, the campaign is quietly civil, and it might well remain that way, since the lion's share of votes for either candidate will come from Westside precincts where both candidates reside and the political air is generally earnest but mild. (And those folks vote: largely Westside districts 6, 7, 8, and 10 produced just under half of the 2014 mayoral tally; Eastside districts 1 through 4, by contrast, accounted for less than 25%.) The candidates' prominent supporters are themselves polite as well. Rep. Hinojosa said her support of Morrison is not "anti-Adler," but based on her experience of Morrison as a "stand-up leader." She cited Morrison's Council work supporting Austin Interfaith's living-wage campaign and her commitment to help Capital IDEA in funding job training. "When the votes weren't there on Council," Hinojosa said, "she used funds from her own office account. She also led the charge to use city money to fund afterschool programs for AISD, and take some pressure off the school budget and property taxes.
"I gave her my support because I believe in her."
Another member of the Central Texas delegation, Rep. Donna Howard, is supporting Adler. She says that while she has "admiration" for Morrison, she "doesn't see a reason for a change" in the mayor's office.
"I'm pleased with the mayor," Howard said, noting the good working relationship the delegation has with Adler and indeed with nearly the whole City Council. "Just one of the things I would point to," she continued, is Adler's advocacy for public school funding, which is not only crucial for Texas children but – via the state's property tax recapture policy – greatly burdens local priorities. As a legislative aide to former Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, Adler developed an expertise on school funding, and Howard says "he's taken the time to understand the situation, is able to articulate the real issues, and actually understands the subject. And he's willing to come up with out-of-the-box solutions." Howard cites Adler's attempt, last year, to design a property tax "swap" that would raise city rates (not subject to recapture) in order to allow AISD to reduce its rates correspondingly. The proposal proved unwieldy, largely because there are half a dozen other Austin-area school districts, but Howard applauds the effort. "It didn't work out, but he was willing to try to do something differently."
By contrast, former County Commissioner Huber says she likes Adler, but agrees with Morrison – "I just think he's gotten too cozy with real estate developers." Huber doesn't live within city limits, "but I have plenty of former constituents who do, and I'm concerned about how growth affects the whole region. We need to grow realistically, and I would rather have Laura driving that train. ... She has a long-term vision, but is realistic, and she knows how best to make it happen."
Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, has worked closely with both candidates, so to a degree has to thread the needle – but is publicly supporting Adler. Morrison serves on the ECHO board, while Adler "has been a huge champion for us." Howard cites the mayor's work on the successful "ending veteran homelessness" campaign (begun under Mayor Leffingwell), which she says effectively initiated a broader effort against homelessness. "He opened his Rolodex and connected us with people all over the city," Howard says. "It jump-started our ability to engage more people under the tent.
"We can't afford to lose Mayor Adler."
It's worth noting that both candidates support a major affordable housing bond – Council voted last week to approve $250 million for housing – and that their differences on issues like these tend to be in the process details. Says Morrison, "We all [mayor and Council] tend to agree ... on the broad social justice issues. But in the process of making decisions – we always need to ask, is it a fair decision for the community, or is it a giveaway?"
Longtime local political observer (and former Chronicle reporter) Mike Clark-Madison – still a fairly skeptical pundit – says he "can't say he has a strong preference" in the race, but that it seems likely to become "a big battle between the Central Austin neighborhood people and everyone else," with Morrison the voice of those central city, mostly single-family neighborhoods. "It reminds me of the early Nineties, when the 'Green Council' [of environmentalist candidates] overthrew the old guard. Those were the people fighting the establishment back then; they are the establishment now.
"On the other hand, Adler is a perfectly good mayor for a city going through so many convulsions right now, but doesn't really know what it wants. He's also the person who explains progressive politics to the people who have money. I don't see that Morrison has a citywide following ... her base is really those Westside and central city neighborhoods.
"She has a shot, but not an ironclad shot."
Adler reiterates that as a city, Austin "needs to keep doing stuff." He explicates that to mean – since we have no single magic programs that can at a stroke resolve big problems like affordability or traffic or sustainability (and the Legislature reflexively acts to undermine the city's solutions) – "we need to use all the tools we do have, in as many ways as we can." Counters Morrison, "When solutions come from the top down, or without transparency, or driven by special interests ... it weakens the tools we do have." Expect to hear that difference in perspective, and the political argument it reflects, from now until November 6.
And in These Corners: Space Aliens, Flamethrowers for All
The mayor's race tends to attract a handful of candidates beyond the likely front-runners. The 2014 race, which featured dozens of Council candidates overall, also included four long-shot mayoral hopefuls who as a group garnered 9% of the vote. This year, a couple of long shots have filed early: former solar panel salesman Travis Duncan and pedicab driver Alex Strenger.
Duncan began his campaign with a strong environmentalist message, saying the city was moving far too slowly to end its use of fossil fuels, and should henceforth "cease permitting any fossil fuel infrastructure." He's continued in that vein on his Facebook page and website (www.wearethemayor.com), where he has posted a series of rambling videos endorsing a "new paradigm" to replace the current "corrupt system." He declares that when elected, he would "ban all plastic and petrochemical products," require all new construction to eliminate all fossil fuel infrastructure, "eliminate the cost of electricity by transferring ownership of that infrastructure to the people" (apparently unaware that Austin Energy is in fact a public utility), and so on. Asked how he would impose policies that are currently illegal, he said he would "change the laws."
More recently, Duncan's been promoting something called "Ubuntu Contributionism," a political philosophy popularized by Michael Tellinger, a South African promoter of various conspiracy theories and author of books claiming that space aliens founded human civilization 200,000 years ago.
Duncan appears relatively earnest if completely uninterested in the actual responsibilities and practice of government. Strenger, by contrast, seems essentially a prankster running his campaign as a joke. He advocates "building a dome" over Austin in order to "kick out the Californians" and prevent more from arriving, and "make Uber pay for it." (Strenger is himself a recent transplant, from New York.) To reduce police shootings, he says he'd replace officers' guns with flamethrowers, as well as providing flamethrowers for self-defense to schoolteachers. As mayor, he would "legalize all street drugs" – marijuana to cocaine – and use the consequent tax revenue to fund the city.
Asked whether voters should take his campaign seriously, Strenger said he is using an "unconventional presentation" to address serious issues such as affordable housing and traffic. "What I'm proposing makes more sense than much of what the city spends its money on. ... These are serious issues, and there is nobody better than me to address them."
At the moment, Duncan and Strenger join Steve Adler and Laura Morrison as the only declared mayoral candidates (that is, they've filed the required campaign treasurer appointments with the Office of the City Clerk). Note: Aug. 20 is the final filing date to get a name on the Nov. 6 ballot.
See austinchronicle.com/elections for more coverage of the November 6 general election.