Urbanists Challenge Linda Guerrero for District 9 Hot Seat

Filling Kathie Tovo's shoes (with houses?)

l-r: Ben Leffler, Joah Spearman, Tom Wald, Zohaib "Zo" Qadri, Linda Guerrero (Photos courtesy of the candidates' campaigns)

Kathie Tovo has spent 12 years on City Council, first as an at-large member and then, in 2014, defeating her then-colleague Chris Riley to become the first and only member to represent the central-city District 9. Those years are coming to an end, and the race to succeed her is shaping up as the most fiercely contested of all the council district races, with no clear favorite.

The D9 contest puts into stark relief the political and ideological divides between pro-housing, pro-density urbanists and neighborhood-activist, anti-developer preservationists that have fractured the Council dais for eight years. That's partly because of Tovo's legacy as a champion of the latter camp, who's helped thwart Council's efforts to boost housing production by rewriting the Land Development Code. D9 includes many of the oldest, most NIMBY-susceptible Central Austin neighborhoods, from Cherrywood, Hyde Park, and Brentwood in the north to Travis Heights, Bouldin, and a bit of Zilker in the south (Tovo began her political career in the 2000s as a neighborhood activist in Bouldin). But it also includes Downtown Austin and Rainey Street, West Campus, and Mueller, Austin's most dense neighborhoods, nationally recognized by urbanists as success stories.

Tovo's pick to succeed her, Linda Guerrero, will be holding up the preservationist banner under the slings and arrows of four of Austin's more prominent urbanists: Joah Spearman, Ben Leffler, Zohaib "Zo" Qadri, and Tom Wald. Greg Smith, an executive at an insurance and risk management firm without a political track record, is somewhere in between. Suzanne "Zena" Mitchell is a late entry to the race, filing Monday afternoon.

All of these candidates raised decent amounts of money as of the July 15 report (the next campaign finance filing is in October), so D9 is almost surely headed for a run-off, mostly likely between Guerrero and whichever of the four urban musketeers makes the best case to central-city voters. Part of that case has to be that they have enough staying power to close strong against Guerrero in a low-turnout December run-off. Leffler, who was O.G. urbanist Chris Riley's policy aide, has raised the most cash of the four; Spearman and Wald have more connections from their years as community advocates; and Qadri has generated the most grassroots energy so far, including on campus (he's the youngest of the quartet).

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