Council Candidates in District 6 and 10 Diverge on Police, Housing, Land Use
Race(s) to the West
Although District 6 in the city's far northwest – including the portion of Austin that lies in Williamson County – contains suburban neighborhoods that are increasingly purple, it's still home to a sizable chunk of Austin's conservative voters. That makes incumbent Council Member Jimmy Flannigan's leading role in Council's effort to "reimagine public safety" a potential vulnerability as he faces three opponents in his November reelection contest.
"The job of council member is always about making difficult decisions," Flannigan told us recently. "Inevitably, half of the community wants the thing to happen fast, and the other half doesn't want it to happen. But nobody has spent the time or invested their own existence into fully understanding the complexity of D6 the way I have before making those decisions."
He feels confident his constituents will come to understand why and how Council seeks to reduce the size and scope of the Austin Police Department. As he engages with the community as chair of Council's Public Safety Committee, on upcoming budget decisions, and within the public "reimagining" process designed by city staff, Flannigan hopes to thoroughly audit how APD spends its money.
Flannigan's two main opponents are running to his right on police funding. Mackenzie Kelly is making her second run at D6, after finishing fifth in 2014's six-way scramble. Kelly told us she did not support any cuts to the police budget, but that there is a need for reform, notably to the police academy – a process currently underway through Council-mandated audits.
Kelly advocated against Council's vote last summer to loosen restrictions on unhoused people camping in public, which made her a natural ally to the right. "I don't hate the homeless. I just don't think letting people live out in the open is safe, compassionate, or kind," she told us. Every candidate in the race thinks Austin's shelter system is inadequate, but Kelly is skeptical of the city's strategy to buy motels and convert them into supportive housing. Instead, she wants to partner with faith-based groups and establish public-private partnerships to connect people with resources to help stabilize their housing status.
Kelly has been a declared candidate for a while, but Dr. Jennifer Mushtaler, an OB-GYN in private practice, is more of a wild card. Mushtaler tells us she feels her medical expertise could serve the city as it navigates the COVID-19 pandemic. "The campaign is about a rational and thoughtful approach to public health, public safety, and the future of our economic well-being," Mushtaler said. "We need to take a more collaborative and less contentious approach to solving these problems."
Mushtaler and Flannigan were at odds last year when Council, against staff's recommendation, rezoned a portion of her River Place neighborhood for 30 single-family condos. She and her neighbors cited wildfire risk in Northwest Hills and their inadequate means of escape should the condos increase traffic; under Flannigan's proposal adopted by Council, the developer must build a new access road before accessing the full entitlement.
Dee Harrison, a retired Texas Department of Criminal Justice employee, is also running for the D6 seat. She's taken issue with "bonehead" decisions Council has made – like those on homelessness and police funding – and said, "It was time for me to step up instead of just ranting and raving to friends and neighbors."
To the south of D6, CM Alison Alter – whose District 10 stretches from Central Austin to the western edge of town – will face more challengers (six in total) than her colleagues. One who's been running for months is Pooja Sethi, an immigration attorney who has devoted time during the pandemic to organizing and providing outreach to people experiencing homelessness. She has proposed regional community centers in every district to provide mental health services, as well as police officers to investigate property crimes alongside staffers from the Office of Police Oversight (Sethi served on the task force that led to the modern OPO). "The plan is really about how to break down systemic inequities by providing EMS, educational, and preventive resources into community centers," Sethi told us. "When we talk about these services and support systems, we need to invest in systems that are regionally based so they are available to more communities."
Sethi has become the de facto choice for activists pushing to revise the Land Development Code; she has said Transition Zones – the most contentious aspect of that effort in many D10 neighborhoods – are needed, especially around transit stops. She's less committed to rezoning D10 more broadly, saying only that "Austin needs more housing in all parts of the city."
Alter remains committed to an LDC vision that she sees as adhering more closely to the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan's goal of "compact and connected" communities – with higher density on transit corridors but not neighborhood upzonings.* "I want to see a more strategic and thoughtful approach" to LDC Revision once it resumes, Alter told us. "I feel like if we had done it that way instead of 'my way or the highway,' we would have been able to adopt changes we had unanimous agreement on."
On public safety, Alter has championed reinvestments of police dollars, particularly in EMS, which will receive funding for new medics, ambulances, and a new chief medical officer position in the new budget. "The community is asking for change to public safety in Austin," Alter told us. "Some feel they're not receiving the level of safety they expect and some feel their very existence is overcriminalized. We have tried the route of growing the system by adding police officers and it didn't work. Now, with the help of public safety experts and community leaders, we are trying a new approach."
Another notable D10 candidate is Robert Thomas, a GOP-friendly lawyer and former leader of the state Workforce and Facilities commissions, who placed third in the eight-way D10 race in 2014. Thomas is aggressively attacking Council's votes to reallocate police funding: "Police brutality and disregard by a few can be addressed without demonizing every man and woman that takes the oath to protect and serve," his campaign website says.
2020 Austin Council Candidates
(I) – Incumbent
District 2: David Chincanchan, Casey Ramos, Vanessa Fuentes, Alex Strenger
District 4: Greg Casar (I), Louis C. Herrin III, Ramesses II Setepenre
District 6: James "Jimmy" Flannigan (I), Mackenzie Kelly, Jennifer Mushtaler, Dee Harrison
District 7: Leslie Pool (I), Morgan Witt
District 10: Alison Alter (I), Robert Thomas, Belinda Greene, Bennett Easton, Noel Tristan, Pooja Sethi, Jennifer Virden
A Brief Listicle of Your AISD Board Candidates
Four trustee races are on the November ballot
None of the four incumbents whose seats are up for election on the Austin ISD Board of Trustees are seeking another proverbial trip around the dais. Districts 2, 5, and At-Large Position 8 have drawn 10 hopefuls, and one seat – District 3 – remains uncontested. Here's a quick rundown of the candidates running in November's races. – Beth Sullivan
District 2: The first candidate to file to replace Trustee Jayme Mathias, Patrick Sherrill, ultimately withdrew his application before the filing deadline, leaving a three-way race to represent portions of Southeast and East Austin: IT manager Adolphus "Andy" Anderson, who unsuccessfully ran against Mathias in 2016; Ofelia Maldonado Zapata, a longtime Austin Interfaith board member; and Texas State University history professor John McKiernan-Gonzalez.
District 3: Kevin Foster, a UT-Austin professor and executive producer of PBS' Blackademics TV, is the only candidate to have filed in Trustee Ann Teich's North Central Austin district. A leading critic of AISD's controversial school closures plan, Foster was one of the co-organizers of Reframe the Game, a coalition which sought to provide alternatives to the plan.
District 5: The three candidates jockeying to fill Trustee Amber Elenz's Central and Southwest Austin seat each bring CVs heavy with civic engagement and district involvement. Lynn Boswell, a documentary producer, has helmed the Austin Council of PTAs as president, in addition to serving on several district volunteer committees and councils. Haynes and Boone counsel Jennifer Littlefield, to quote Littlefield's campaign website, has "seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in AISD's decision making process" in her six-year experience serving on AISD's Boundary Advisory Committee and Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee, the latter of which developed 2017's historic $1.05 billion bond proposal. Piper Stege Nelson is the chief public strategies officer for SAFE Alliance. Before that, she worked as deputy director of Annie's List and was once the publisher of The Texas Observer. Nelson has served on the city's Commission for Immigrant Affairs and chaired the board of directors at AIDS Services of Austin (now Vivent Health).
District 8: It's a crowded field in the bid to replace Trustee Cindy Anderson. Huston-Tillotson University student Jared Breckenridge serves on the city's Human Rights Commission and College Student Commission. Mike Herschenfeld has experience working in education, both in the private and public sectors, as founder of an education consulting firm and a recent stint at the Texas Education Agency. Chronicle readers might recognize public policy consultant Noelita Lugo from her leadership in myriad equity-centered coalitions, including Save Austin Schools and Austin Equity Coalition, which have been at the forefront of calling for a third-party equity audit of the district. Leticia Moreno Caballero, a health care lobbyist, has already secured Anderson's endorsement. She is the vice chair of Austin Ed Fund, Austin ISD's nonprofit education foundation.
* Editor's note: This story has been edited since publication to clarify the candidates' positions on Land Development Code revision.