Mayor Pro Tem Contest Kicks Off New Council Storylines

A leading role at City Hall?


CM Greg Casar speaks during a rally on October 24, 2020, in remembrance of nearly 200 incarcerated Texans and 20 prison staff who have died of COVID-19. (Photo by John Anderson)

The drawn-out debate to decide who will be Austin's next mayor pro tem will finally end next week, as City Council convenes for its first meeting of the year on Wednesday, Jan. 27.

“Mayor pro tem” is just a title; it does not come with additional authority, pay, or staff, or a fancier office. But the MPT wrangle has highlighted tensions among Council factions that will be important to understand as they shape how City Hall functions for the next two years.

Historically, the selection of an MPT has happened off the dais and behind closed doors. The city charter requires that Council pick one of its members to hold the post but says nothing about how that person is to be chosen. In past years, on the at-large councils that served before 2014, the title was generally reserved for the longest­-serving members, who were often the Black or Latinx members elected under the "gentlemen's agreement"; consensus formed around a candidate, and the MPT was elected unanimously. In 2014, when Kathie Tovo was the only at-large member to continue on the first 10-1 district council, her selection as MPT was almost automatic. She later yielded the title to Delia Garza, whose status as the only Latina elected to Council gave the title added significance.

These changes have happened smoothly because "mayor pro tem" is just a title; it does not come with additional authority, pay, or staff, or a fancier office. Though the symbolic importance of the title is meaningful, its duties are few: The MPT chairs and runs Council meetings in the mayor's absence, and can step in when an emergency or a financial transaction, such as a bond sale, needs "the mayor" to take immediate action. That's it.

But in 2021, we are seeing an actual contest for the post of mayor pro tem, and through media reports and posts on the Council message board, the campaigning has become visible to the public. It's simple, but lazy, to write off the back-and-forth as comedy, a race for a post with "no power." But the MPT wrangle has highlighted tensions among Council factions that will be important to understand as they shape how City Hall functions for the next two years.

Eastside Boys, Westside Girls

The actual outcome of the MPT contest on Jan. 27 is still not certain, with the face-off the Chronicle reported on earlier this month unresolved. To briefly recap: Late last year, Council Member Greg Casar announced he had enough supporters to be elected MPT, but that he wanted to achieve consensus.

The next day, CM Paige Ellis objected, saying that the new Council, with eight women and three men (including Mayor Steve Adler), should elect a woman to succeed now-County Attorney Garza as MPT.

The following week, CM Alison Alter announced her own interest in serving as MPT; she is evidently the longest-serving woman on Council who wants the title. Former MPT Tovo could serve again but has not expressed a desire to. Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchen, both of whom have served since 2015 (as has Casar), have also declined to enter the fray; Casar had identified both as backers of his bid.


CM Alison Alter at Ramsey Park on December 2, 2020 (Photo by John Anderson)

Casar responded via the Council message board, concurring with the view that a majority-female body should have a woman in a leadership role. But, he wrote, the MPT should still be someone representing East Austin, signaling that Council remains committed to reversing decades of policy decisions that have led to a range of inequitable outcomes among the mostly Black and Latinx communities living in the Eastern Crescent.

In his post, Casar did not name CM Natasha Harper-Madison – the only incumbent woman representing the Eastside (before the swearing-in of Garza's successor, Vanessa Fuentes) – who had herself let people know during the summer that she'd be interested in the MPT role. Harper-Madison formally entered the race on Dec. 28, and as of now either she or Alter could prevail in next week's vote.

Speaking with the Chronicle, all three CMs at the forefront of the saga expressed some level of distaste with how much attention has been paid to the contest. Casar, Alter, and Harper-Madison each told us they've been focused in recent weeks on preparing for Council's return to regular business and on helping constituents sort through the muddled rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. However, their cases for who the next MPT should be have not changed.

Strength, Unity, Healing

Alter told us the new MPT should help members "unify, get consensus, and be more collaborative" and improve Council's overall functioning. "I put myself forward because I am ready and willing to serve if the opportunity is there," Alter told us last week. "I do believe the next MPT should be one of our eight female council members. We should be helping to lead the Council; we bring different approaches. It sends the wrong message to our community to have two men leading a council that has a supermajority of women."

Alter's District 10, which narrowly reelected her over GOP-backed Jennifer Virden in last month's run-off, is more conservative than the Council's progressive consensus that Casar has championed, while still leaning Democratic in partisan races. Alter's own voting record on key issues reflects that character. In 2019, she voted against lifting the city's restrictions on public camping; then and now, she says the city's systems that respond to homelessness are not prepared to help the increasing numbers living without shelter in Austin.

On housing and land use, she has remained firmly opposed to efforts to expand entitlements and remove restrictions on density in the city's Land Development Code. However, on policing, Alter joined early on with Council's push to reallocate funds from the Austin Police Department budget, and she's been the leading Council advocate for change in how APD manages sexual assault cases and responds to survivors. She's been an outspoken critic of police Chief Brian Manley, a relationship that's continued to sour even in the last week (read more).

In that, Alter aligns with Casar and Harper-Madison, both of whom serve on the Council Public Safety Committee. The other two members of that committee – Garza and recently defeated D6 CM Jimmy Flannigan – are now gone; Mackenzie Kelly's defeat of Flannigan and Virden's strong showing against Alter suggest an emerging right-wing backlash to Council's positions on both policing and homelessness, as well as on workers' rights and other progressive milestones.


CM Natasha Harper-Madison addresses socially distanced MLK day festivities at St. James Missionary Baptist Church (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Casar is keenly aware of the fragility of his victories on these issues and the work it will take to preserve them. "When I came on Council we still had a city government that, in my view, heavily favored incarceration in policing over other solutions," Casar told us. "We have to keep organizing and pushing for our progressive movement to stay viable. The right is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and organizing against us. We have to keep pushing forward."

As an organizer by training and as a left-aligned democratic socialist, Casar is accustomed to being a polarizing figure, the leading bogeyman (alongside Adler) of right-wing attacks. Harper-Madison, though just as progressive, is less aggressive, and has made trying to bring people together part of her political brand. "Given the work we've been doing and will be doing going into 2021 and the importance of lived experience," Harper-Madison told us, "I am the person best situated to handle that" as the next mayor pro tem.

"I was talking with my colleagues about Black Lives Matter and racial reconciliation in July," Harper-Madison continued. "I think it's important to have a person like me in a leadership role, who is moderate enough to have these conversations without them devolving into name-calling."

As the only Black CM – there has never been more than one at a time – Harper-Madison views the mantle of representation as both a burden and an opportunity to highlight the importance of diversity and inclusion in government. (She notes that Council currently lacks Asian American/Pacific Islander representation.) "I'm disproportionately [under-]resourced to do this work," Harper-Madison said. "It doesn't matter if you live in Bastrop, Giddings, or Hays County, you can still call the D1 office. If it's a Black-person issue, people defer to me."

As Council begins to focus on its next steps to "reimagine public safety" by using police funding for investments in different social services, Harper-Madison feels she could serve as an honest broker between law enforcement backers and Austin's Black and Latinx communities who have borne the brunt of current policing practices. "I think I have a unique ability to see where people and their fears are coming from," Harper-Madison said of asking mostly­ white people to cede power and seek racial reconciliation.

Saying she prefers to "call in people" instead of calling them out, Harper-Madison told us, "I am willing to give people the space to grow out of that mindset. But I am not here to deliver anyone. If your mindset is harming me in any way, I am not going to deliver you."


The Rest of the Agenda

Electing the next mayor pro tem isn't the only business Austin City Council will handle on Jan. 27; there are 81 other items on the agenda. Here are some we'll be watching:

Several items deal with Council's short- and long-term strategies responding to homelessness. Two items will extend funding for two of the city's "protective lodges," which have been used to temporarily house unsheltered people who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Another would set up a new ProLodge in Northwest Austin, which the city would rent while it negotiates to purchase the property and another motel on the Northside.

The two current ProLodges are a 65-room motel near I-35 and 32nd Street and a 129-room motel near Ben White and St. Elmo; Council is being asked to approve just over $1 million to keep them running for up to three more months. The new ProLodge would be located on Pecan Park Boulevard near the intersection of FM 620 and U.S. 183, in newly elected CM Mackenzie Kelly's District 6. The lease for three months will cost about $700,000; its purchase, to be converted into permanent supportive housing for those exiting homelessness, would cost about $9.5 million.

Kelly campaigned on a platform highly critical of the city's response to homelessness, including the motel-conversion strategy that's been viewed as a way to quickly build up the PSH supply. She told us that she supports the plan to rent the property for a ProLodge but isn't yet sold on purchasing it, wanting "more background and understanding if there was any community input prior to [its] placement on the agenda." The other motel purchase on the agenda (without current plans to make it a ProLodge first) is for a property at 13311 Burnet Rd., with an estimated $6.7 million price tag.


CM Vanessa Fuentes on October 6, 2020 (Photo by John Anderson)

CM Vanessa Fuentes will bring her first resolution to the meeting as well. It's an item that would direct City Manager Spencer Cronk to address flood risks throughout the city – a major issue in her District 2, which has seen multiple devastating flood events, and one championed by Garza before her. The resolution would task staff with assessing the city's current flood mitigation plan and developing new recommendations – including revisions to the Land Development Code – to be presented to Council before April 30.

A resolution from CM Kathie Tovo, whose D9 includes most of Downtown Austin, directs Cronk to work with the Downtown Austin Alliance Foundation to "create and help fund immediate interventions that create positive change and help reactivate Downtown." Tovo asks that Cronk return with short-term recommendations by Feb. 4 and a longer-term plan by March 1.

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