Chronicle Endorsements for the November General Election
Our picks for the local, state, and national races you'll see on your ballot
By The Chronicle Editorial Board, Fri., Oct. 2, 2020
We're bringing you our recommendations earlier than in the past, since voting – for those of you using mail ballots – has already begun, and early voting starts earlier than ever. We'll still have plenty of election coverage coming your way between now and November; visit austinchronicle.com/elections for more information on the contests and on how – and when – you need to voice your choice, as well as a streamlined version of these endorsements.
Partisan Races: The Democrats
Surprise! No, seriously, this needs to happen. If the court decision reviving straight-ticket voting (as of this writing stayed at the appellate level) becomes unstayed by the time you vote, you can save some time. But you need to do it.
Election results for most of the Chronicle's history have told us that most Austinites are prepared to do this without our recommendation. But many of you do carp about it, preferring to think of yourself as independent voters, or (legitimately) feeling the Democratic Party takes your support for granted as it gestures toward the center. In other election cycles, we have entertained the thought that some GOP incumbents might not be that bad, or Democratic candidates not all that great, and been less adamant about the imperative to vote-blue, no-matter-who.
There aren't such choices on your ballot this year – there are, sadly, some unopposed candidates who should not be. In any event, now is not the time for contemplating a pragmatic bipartisanship, let alone abstaining from the vote, when our house is on fire. The decadent and depraved Republican regime, in D.C. and at our own Capitol, is actively destroying lives and communities and fortunes and futures for no good reason, and elevating juvenile posturing and bullshit to the place where the party used to have values that one could acknowledge even when not sharing them. It's not even succeeding at its time-tested mission of securing the wealth and power of white America anymore; nothing it does can or should be used as a model for how we should govern ourselves.
With the stakes growing more existential with every passing WTF day, it's not going to get any better. Now is the time to call an end to this tragic travesty; yes, Democratic power does not guarantee an end to the poverty and inequity and mistreatment and suffering and violence and death, but it's the only place to start.
President/Vice President: Joe Biden/Kamala Harris
U.S. Senate: MJ Hegar
U.S. Congress, District 10: Mike Siegel
U.S. Congress, District 17: Rick Kennedy
U.S. Congress, District 21: Wendy Davis
U.S. Congress, District 25: Julie Oliver
U.S. Congress, District 31: Donna Imam
U.S. Congress, District 35: Lloyd Doggett (i)
Railroad Commissioner: Chrysta Castaneda
Chief Justice, Texas Supreme Court: Amy Clark Meachum
Supreme Court, Place 6 (Unexpired Term): Kathy Cheng
Supreme Court, Place 7: Staci Williams
Supreme Court, Place 8: Gisela Triana
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3: Elizabeth Davis Frizell
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4: Tina Clinton
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9: Brandon Birmingham
State Board of Education, D. 5: Rebecca Bell-Metereau
State Board of Education, D. 10: Marsha Burnett-Webster
State Senator, District 21: Judith Zaffirini
State Senator, District 24: Clayton Tucker
State Rep., District 45: Erin Zwiener (i)
State Rep., District 47: Vikki Goodwin (i)
State Rep., District 48: Donna Howard (i)
State Rep., District 49: Gina Hinojosa (i)
State Rep., District 50: Celia Israel (i)
State Rep., District 51: Eddie Rodriguez (i)
State Rep., District 52: James Talarico (i)
State Rep., District 136: John Bucy III (i)
Chief Justice, Third Court of Appeals: Darlene Byrne
District Judge, 460th Judicial District: Selena Alvarenga
District Attorney: José Garza
County Judge (Unexpired Term): Andy Brown
County Court-at-Law #9: Kim Williams (i)
Sheriff: Sally Hernandez (i)
Tax Assessor-Collector: Bruce Elfant (i)
County Commissioner, Pct. 1: Jeff Travillion (i)
County Commissioner, Pct. 3: Ann Howard
District 2: David Chincanchan
When Mayor Pro Tem (soon to be County Attorney) Delia Garza announced last November she was stepping down from Council, David Chincanchan and Vanessa Fuentes soon began their campaigns; they remain the leaders in the four-way race to represent Southeast Austin's D2. (Also on the ballot is community advocate Casey Ramos, who ran unsuccessfully against Garza in 2016; former mayoral candidate Alex Strenger is a hard pass.)
Chincanchan and Fuentes share many of Garza's progressive priorities, and both are focused on similar policy goals to address D2's most pressing issues: food insecurity, flooding, transportation infrastructure, displacement. The question is who would be more effective in achieving those goals. We recognize Fuentes' work as a health policy advocate at the American Heart Association, and she is clearly a strong and credible candidate. But Chicanchan's extensive experience at City Hall, in local politics, and in the Southeast Austin neighborhoods where he was born and raised gives him a clear edge.
A former aide to both U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and D3 Council Member Pio Renteria, Chincanchan's institutional knowledge offers him a head start as he navigates the city's most vexing concerns and City Hall's most bureaucratic procedures. We believe his proven talent for policy detail will allow him to lead successfully and advocate forcefully on behalf of D2 constituents in the immediate future as well as in the long term, as the promised Tesla "gigafactory" and other major projects spur a Southeast development boom.
District 4: Greg Casar
We endorse incumbent Greg Casar as he seeks a third term representing Northeast Austin. As in his 2016 Council reelection, Casar enjoys a groundswell of well-earned support from across the community in this campaign (once again facing Louis Herrin III). Casar has led the fight on many of Austin's highest-profile political issues since 2014 – mandatory paid sick leave, lifting Austin's camping ban, and "reimagining public safety" by demanding needed revisions to the police contract and authoring the Council plan to reallocate funds from Austin's police force to better and more equitably delivered services.
District 6: Jimmy Flannigan (i)
Jimmy Flannigan is the clear choice for voters in Northwest Austin. Representing the purplest and most suburban Council district, Flannigan has shown his commitment to progressive principles by leading on issues like criminal justice reform. He's taken hard votes that he thinks reflect the true views of many in his misunderstood district; this race is putting that thesis to the test.
In June 2019, Flannigan joined the Council majority and loosened restrictions on sitting, lying, and camping in public. This has made the experience of homelessness less fraught for thousands of Austinities living in extreme poverty, but many of their housed neighbors would rather not have to see those challenges in real time. Those votes, to some degree, inspired all three of Flannigan's challengers to run against him.
As chair of Council's Public Safety Committee, Flannigan has played a key role both publicly and behind the scenes as Austin aims to "reimagine public safety" – another issue that reflects his commitment to principle over political comfort. Now that City Hall has embarked on this path, Flannigan's leadership and attention to detail will be invaluable to ensure a transition to a police department that keeps all of Austin safe and treats all of Austin well.
Of his opponents, Dr. Jennifer Mushtaler has the most to offer, particularly as Austin continues to navigate its way out of a pandemic. That alone is not enough to warrant unseating an incumbent who has been dedicated and successful at his work and enthusiastic about his service. Flannigan's brash, sometimes antagonistic approach on the dais can cross the line into bullying without him always realizing it. But no one can doubt his preparedness and commitment on issues facing D6 and Austin.
District 7: Leslie Pool (i)
We offer our endorsement to incumbent Leslie Pool for another term serving this Central and North Austin district. She's been most identified with her positions on land use, as one of the four members who has opposed proposed revisions to the Land Development Code and supported the right of homeowners to protest rezonings under the new LDC. But she's also been a solid council voice on issues that go hand-in-hand with LDC revision as tools for creating a more equitable and resilient city – environmental and resource management, public safety, and transportation. (Even though she led Council opposition to Austin FC's deal with the city to build a stadium at McKalla Place in D7, she's also been a champion of Project Connect's plan for a rail station serving the site.)
Lone challenger Morgan Witt, who comes from an education background, is a political newcomer whose campaign focus has been primarily on Pool's land-use record. We agree with Witt that younger Austinites and renters, who make up more than half of city residents, need to be better represented in Council's land-use debates, including by Pool. But the incumbent remains our clear choice.
District 10: Alison Alter, Pooja Sethi (dual endorsement)
D10 in Central and West Austin includes a number of different and important communities of interest and has drawn the most contenders (seven) of the Council races on this year's ballot. Voters have two strong and distinct choices in the incumbent Alison Alter, and Pooja Sethi.
Drawing on her academic background, Alter has proven to be a studious representative, coming to meetings and staff briefings prepared with probing questions. In 2019, she spearheaded an ongoing third-party audit of how the Austin Police Department has (mis)handled sexual assault cases, and in the fiscal year 2021 budget, she secured funding for two new ambulances for Austin-Travis County EMS, along with more medics to staff them. Alter voted against easing the ordinance prohibiting public camping in 2019, out of concern that the city did not have the strategies and services in place to reduce homelessness. She has focused on those efforts since, such as the city's purchasing motels to convert into supportive housing.
Sethi is the strongest challenger in any of the four Council races featuring incumbents, and we believe D10 voters would be well represented by her as well as Alter. An immigration attorney who has spent time during the pandemic organizing and delivering meals to people without homes, Sethi would bring perspective and experience that's currently not found on Council. Her work on the city task forces that examined systemic racism and envisioned the Office of Police Oversight would be an asset as Council "reimagines public safety." She has also served on the city's Asian American Quality of Life Advisory Commission since 2015, where she recently helped shape the city's pandemic relief funding efforts. As a South Asian woman and only the second Asian American to serve on Council, Sethi would give voice to one of Austin's fastest-growing and increasingly politically active communities.
Proposition A (Project Connect): For
Proposition B (Active Mobility): For
For the decades since Capital Metro was formed in 1985, it's been trying to take Austin transit to a next level, and Austin has caddishly refused to commit. We've run out of time and excuses to keep pretending our mobility problems will solve themselves, or that alternatives to a clearly failed roads-first system would not be popular or successful. Many thousands of people who've made Austin their home are aghast that we had the chance 20 years ago to approve a rail system that would be a well-established fixture of urban life right now, and we biffed it. A handful of the exact same people who killed transit then are still trying to kill this much larger and more ambitious plan – one that's scaled to make up that lost 20 years – precisely because it's now So Big. And of course because they'd never use it, because they see driving alone as a civil right, rather than a privilege, let alone as the oppressive burden it actually is to myriad Central Texans. They're, if anything, even more averse to spending money on active mobility – sidewalks, bike infrastructure, trails, as well as important safety and environmental improvements – which they see as recreation rather than transportation. Our city's income segregation, inequitable distribution of infrastructure and access to public services, and still-much-too-large carbon footprint all tell a different story. It's time for us to get going.
District 2: John McKiernan-Gonzalez
Texas State professor McKiernan-Gonzalez is the "newcomer" among the three candidates in Southeast Austin's D2, but he brings a clarity of vision and specific policy ideas that we think will serve the district best. Both he and veteran activist and Austin Interfaith board member Ofelia Zapata would be a big change from unpopular incumbent Jayme Mathias, who's become best known for backing school closures – including two in D2. Zapata hasn't been able to campaign much, but her history of community advocacy and work at D2's Eastside Memorial High School is unparalleled; the third candidate, Adolphus "Andy" Anderson, is also a longtime AISD volunteer and ran against Mathias in 2016. However, we think McKiernan-Gonzalez offers the most compelling vision for specific, radical change at AISD. Inspired to run by his opposition to the "School Changes" process, he has prioritized dual-language and special education in his campaign and spoken to the ways systemic racism has shaped Austin. His outspoken advocacy for the needs of AISD's most vulnerable students and its most disadvantaged district would be a welcome addition to the board.
District 3: Kevin Foster
A UT-Austin professor and educational anthropologist, Foster is running unopposed for the seat currently held by Ann Teich.
District 5: Lynn Boswell
All three candidates in the race to succeed departing trustee Amber Elenz have similar policy goals – focusing on better communication and more equity in West Austin's District 5. Jennifer Littlefield, who served on the Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee (FABPAC) responsible for 2017's $1 billion bond package, has an encyclopedic knowledge of AISD's mechanisms and funding processes, including the school consolidation recommendations that started with her committee. Piper Stege Nelson, Chief Public Strategies Officer at SAFE, easily rattles off the problems with AISD's messaging and engagement. However, Boswell combines time as an AISD volunteer and president of the Austin Council of PTAs with demonstrated success as an advocate for young people and education in other contexts. Her work to abolish the juvenile curfew, to eliminate Capital Metro fares for K-12 students, and to sway the Legislature with Just Fund It TX show she has the chops to raise AISD's issues – maybe even recapture reform – with those who can help make change happen, in a way that the trustees have been lacking for a while.
District 8: Noelita Lugo
We think all four of the candidates for the open districtwide seat being vacated by Cindy Anderson would be assets to the board and AISD. We're endorsing Lugo's combination of passionate advocacy for AISD families during the controversial School Changes process – which closed her children's school, Pease Elementary – with professional policy expertise and commitment to equity and anti-racism. Leticia Caballero, who served as a tri-chair of FABPAC and leads the philanthropic Austin Ed Fund, is a well-versed district volunteer with an understanding of its financial challenges. Mike Herschenfeld, a policy wonk from Massachusetts, has based his campaign on a radical promise to abolish all school boundaries. And Jared Breckenridge, a 25-year-old AISD graduate and substitute teacher, has emphasized the student voice with an admirable campaign run entirely by current AISD students. While we think Lugo is the best candidate for the job, we encourage her to take on the issues and listen to the insights of her fellow candidates – all of which deserve serious consideration by the board.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since publication to reflect Piper Stege Nelson's correct job title as Chief Public Strategies Officer at SAFE.
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