Seven Candidates Vie for the Future of District 4

Special election decides who will complete Greg Casar's term at City Hall

José "Chito" Vela (Photo by John Anderson)

Ever since Austin's first 10-1 district council took office in 2015, the northeast District 4 has been represented by Greg Casar, who's now running for Congress. Over these seven years, Casar has won four elections for the seat (counting both the general and run-off in 2014), the last in 2020. As Casar is only a year into his current term, he has to resign to run for another office, as required by Texas law. Beginning next week, D4 voters will choose who'll take his place, leading up to the special election day Jan. 25.

With seven candidates on the ballot, a run-off between the top two finishers is a possibility; that date is not yet set.

Those seven contenders are:

• José "Chito" Vela, a immigration and criminal defense attorney, former planning commissioner, and 2018 candidate for the Texas House, losing narrowly to now-Rep. Sheryl Cole;

• Monica Guzmán, a local policy advocate with the nonprofit Go Austin/Vamos Austin (GAVA), a member of the city's recent Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, and one of Casar's seven opponents in the 2014 race (she finished fifth);

Monica Guzmán (Photo by John Anderson)

• Melinda Schiera, a marketing analyst who has been involved in D4 neighborhood politics for years;

• Jade Lovera, a newcomer to local civics who has been active in opposing a rezoning case in her D4 neighborhood;

• Amanda Rios, also a newcomer, moved to run by Council's decision to decriminalize homelessness in 2019 and the effect that decision had on her neighborhood when unhoused people began camping hereby;

• Isa Boonto, a teacher and artist who's also been involved in D4 neighborhood politics; and

• Ramesses II Setepenre, a former security employee at City Hall who ran against Casar in 2020, earning 8% of the vote.

Vela is the clear frontrunner: He is dominating in fundraising and has earned key endorsements from local elected officials. Guzmán has years of experience as an advocate at City Hall and a neighborhood defender; unsurprisingly, then, it appears neighborhood groups are coalescing around her as the counter to Vela, who's aligned with local urbanists as is Casar. Schiera and Lovera are underdogs by comparison but are clearly putting in the work to be serious candidates, albeit not very well funded.

Jade Lovera (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Lovera is more of a political conservative than Schiera, and Rios may be even more so, although she's mostly a single-issue candidate. She's raised the most money other than Vela, but hasn't been as active on the campaign trail as the others; she did not respond to several requests from the Chronicle for an interview for this story.

Save Austin Now's co-founder and campaign manager Matt Mackowiak did promise to run a contender in the D4 special election following the resounding defeat of SAN's police staffing initiative in November. But while Rios has sought SAN's endorsement, she does not appear to have earned it, at least formally. However, Cleo Petricek, SAN's other co-founder, maxed out to Rios with a $400 contribution; Mackowiak contributed $150 in in-kind work on her campaign website.

In a blog post on that website, Rios recalls hearing an unhoused woman in her neighborhood "wailing for help" and says she tried to help, but could not connect with any organizations who could provide support. Shortly after that incident, she got an email from SAN asking for help collecting signatures for its ballot initiative to reinstate the camping ban; later, she was asked to testify at the Texas Senate's April 12 hearing on legislation (later enacted as House Bill 1925) to ban public camping statewide, which she did with her young daughter in tow. Both the SAN initiative and HB 1925 would be passed the following month.

"I helped pass the camping ban here in Austin, as well as at the State level and I will continue fighting for Austin to be a safe, equitable city for all," Rios writes of the experience. Her website doesn't offer much substance on other big policy issues she'd face on Council – such as how she thinks D4 land use should evolve, or how she would steward Project Connect as the $7 billion overhaul of Austin's transit system is implemented over the next decade.

Boonto, an artist, teacher, and part-time cook, recognizes a lack of housing as one of the primary challenges facing Austin and D4, but said they want to hold "community-driven conversations" to determine what solutions the districts needs. Guzmán and Boonto both noted that D4 has the highest level of impervious cover of all Council districts; Boonto said it would be important to "responsibly increase housing supply so as to be considerate of environmental impacts and maintain quality of life of our community members."

Urbanists and Neighbors

Whichever of the seven emerges from the off-year, likely low-turnout contest for Casar's unexpired term will be operating in his long shadow, regardless of whether or how closely they align with the votes he's taken on Council. One of the four remaining members of the Class of 2014, Casar is one of Council's hardest workers and one of the city's most polarizing politicians. His fan base is large enough and devoted enough to make him a viable candidate for Congress in a district that stretches all the way to the Alamo; his detractors were motivated enough to go after his signature Council achievements with not one but two special elections to undo them.

Casar endorsed Vela in December, immediately after the field for the D4 special was set. "I know that Chito will be a champion for increasing affordable housing, investing in public transportation, and protecting our environment," Casar wrote at the time. Vela was Casar's appointee on the city Planning Commission, and of the seven candidates, he most likely offers the most continuity with Casar's policy legacy, even if he doesn't possess the same activist energy that made Casar a star in Austin's political scene.

On housing, Vela says a substantial increase in supply across the board is key to increasing affordability in Austin. That includes market-rate units, which other D4 candidates and some current CMs view more skeptically, arguing that big increases in what property owners can build by right will cause yet more displacement and gentrification. "I cannot think of a city in the United States that has been able to deal with this crisis without providing for substantial amounts of new market-rate housing," Vela counters. "I don't think we're going to deal with our affordability crisis without substantial growth in the market-rate sector."

Vela said he would also advocate for more affordable housing funding – suggesting Austin consider bond programs in the $250-$300 million range every two years – to help the city purchase land and fund subsidized units alongside those priced at market rates. He points to the University Neigh­bor­hood Overlay, a small-area plan covering the center of West Campus that was designed to produce more student housing near UT. The plan includes one of Austin's most successful density bonus programs, allowing for building heights ranging from 65 to 220 feet in what was mostly a one- and two-story neighborhood, but requiring that developers either build income-restricted housing into their projects or pay for it elsewhere.

Guzmán and Lovera are on the other end of the land use spectrum. For Lovera, opposition to housing density is more personal; she has been fighting a zoning change in her neighborhood for most of 2021, to build a 70-unit multifamily complex on Grady Drive near I-35. (Council has approved the request on first and second readings; third and final reading vote is expected at the Jan. 27 Council meeting.) Opposing the rezoning "really opened my eyes to how little community and neighborhood voices are able to be heard and considered in these matters," Lovera said.

She is strongly against "mass approving high density" developments, because they "do not address the affordability issue." She called Council's most recent effort to revise the Land Development Code "extremely destructive for our future" and said that future LDC changes need to be vetted through community and neighborhood groups before being brought to Council. Austin needs a more "candid and inclusive approach" to its housing supply and affordability crisis, she says.

Guzmán comes to the issue as an advocate for Austin's lower-income earners and renters, both making up larger shares of D4 residents than in other districts. As an organizer with Go Austin/Vamos Austin, she regularly testifies at Council against upzonings she thinks will exacerbate gentrification. She wants the city to forge more partnerships with business and nonprofits to create more income-restricted housing opportunities, especially on publicly owned land.

Guzmán said she would avoid any kind of "blanket" rezoning, because she would want to incorporate as many neighborhood voices as possible. If the city wants to avoid "disrupting neighborhoods" and "throwing the gentrification level," she said, then gathering as much feedback as possible before approving meaningful LDC changes would be critical. "I see progress like a train," Guzmán told us. "We can't stop the train, but with more community members onboard, we can help direct it better."

Melinda Schiera (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Schiera is closer to the middle on this issue. She's been president of the North Austin Civic Association and briefly helped the Austin Neighborhood Council with communications (although, Schiera told us, she didn't much like her time there, feeling ANC had little focus on neighborhoods beyond the central city). But she has also advocated for Project Connect's Orange Line to extend past Rundberg on North Lamar all the way to Tech Ridge (currently in the undetermined second phase of the long-range transit plan), and she supports adding housing density along that corridor – and all throughout the city along the future rail lines.

Away from transit corridors, Schiera told us, she would support mixed-use developments in the right parts of the district but would want to work with community groups to determine where those locations should be. She also noted that D4 is already one of Austin's densest districts, so putting more multifamily projects there may not be what's needed to achieve the right housing mix of new units and protecting existing affordable homes. "I'm focused on targeted upzonings to better protect the existing low-income housing," Schiera told us. "Specif­ic­ally, that housing should be built along the rail lines."

Public Safety, ReImagined

One issue on which all the candidates may put some daylight between themselves and Casar is public safety. Nearly all expressed support for increasing police presence in parts of D4 identified as "high crime areas" and said they would support hiring more police officers. Guzmán and Vela expressed the most desire to continue down the path of reimagining public safety; Guzmán's time on the RPS Task Force gave her a close look at how City Hall responded to directives from Council to find alternatives to investing in policing.

While the task force presented its recommendations before City Manager Spencer Cronk proposed his fiscal 2022 budget, little of its feedback made it into the spending plan, which restored the Austin Police Department to prior funding levels under threat of new state law punishing cities that "defund the police." "I would push the recommendations from the task force," Guz­mán said. "Especially through policies that can produce more meaningful community engagement, because we can't be equitable without community input."

HOW DID YOU VOTE? We asked each of the seven candidates about three recent city propositions: the tax-rate election to earmark funds for the $7.2 billion Project Connect overhaul of Austin's transit system (Prop A on the November 2020 ballot); the Save Austin Now initiative to reinstate Austin's ban on public camping (Prop B on the May 2021 ballot); and SAN's unsucessful initiative to permanently increase Austin police staffing (Prop A on the November 2021 ballot). "N/A" above means the candidate did not respond; we've verified that the D4 candidates actually voted (but not how) in the elections in question. (Vela and Guzmán photos by John Anderson; Schiera and Lovera photos by Jana Birchum; Rios, Setepenre, Boonto photos courtesy of the candidates)

As a defense attorney, Vela has seen firsthand the devastation the criminal justice system can produce, especially for those already living in poverty who may not have the ability to escape the system through financial means. "I have been handling criminal cases for 12 years now and I can tell you ... for so many types of situations, the police and time in jail are not the appropriate solution." He would prefer to see more emphasis on diversion initiatives, especially in the form of drug treatment programs for people arrested on low-level drug possession charges.

Lovera and Schiera are further to the right on policing. Lovera told us public safety would be her top priority if elected, noting that she has seen the level of crime in D4, where she has lived all her life, grow over the years. She spoke positively of the Restore Rundberg initiative, a federally funded grant in which APD partnered with community groups and leaders to improve city services in the neighborhood, and said she would like to see similar focused deterrent programs implemented throughout the district. On the RPS effort, Lovera said she likes the idea of partnering with social service providers to address mental health needs, but "defunding the police is not the answer."

Schiera also said public safety would be a top priority. She supports some of the ideas under the RPS umbrella, such as dispatching mental health services to 911 calls, but said living in a higher crime area has made her question whether reducing the police budget was the right decision. "I am looking for some accountability so that we do have enough officers patrolling higher crime areas," Schiera told us. "I just want to make sure there are enough officers to support the city."

The special election is on Tuesday, Jan. 25, with early voting running January 10-21. See voting info and our endorsements.If a run-off is needed, it would occur in February, at a date to be agreed on between the city and Travis County, which administers the elections.

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Austin City Council, January 2022 Special Election, Greg Casar, City Council District 4, Chito Vela, José Chito Vela, Monica Guzmán, Melinda Schiera, Jade Lovera, Amanda Rios, Isa Boonto, Ramesses II Setepenre, Save Austin Now, Matt Mackowiak, Cleo Petricek, public safety

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