Election Ticker: Southwest Council Races Illuminate Dual Political Divides

Things get partisan in this week's election news

Mayoral candidate Celia Israel speaks at a shared event with Kirk Watson at Texas Tribune Festival Sept. 24 (photo by Jana Birchum)

At the Sept. 22 League of Women Voters forums for City Council Districts 5 and 8, the citywide divides over how, or even whether, to create more housing were further framed by partisan divides up and down the Nov. 8 ballot.

In D5, the contest to replace Ann Kitchen, the forum kicked off with a query on the role of neighborhood associations in city planning and thoughts on allowing each council district to choose its own zoning. Bill Welch, the Republican in this race, was all for this, while also fretting over rising property taxes; he endorsed loosening site standards on properties within transit corridors to encourage infill. The three leading non-Republicans – Ryan Alter, Stephanie Bazan, and Ken Craig – took the opposite view, with Bazan stressing that zoning shouldn't be piecemeal and Alter noting that the current land use code "purely incentiviz[es] scraping lots and building large mansions that a sliver of the population can afford." When LoWV asked what "neighborhood character" means to each candidate, the discussion pivoted on D5's anemic share of Austin's affordable housing (only 13% of the way toward its 2028 goal of 60,000 new units). Craig and Alter both pointed to the city's own permitting and review process as an obstacle that could be removed, while Welch said that "every neighborhood in Austin is diverse" and rejected the idea that Austin zoning is exclusionary.

Election Ticker: Southwest Council Races Illuminate Dual Political Divides

In D8, incumbent CM Paige Ellis faces three challengers, the obvious Republican being Richard Smith, who answered the same "neighborhood character" question with a full-throated endorsement of neighbors' right to protest and block things they don't like: "People don't want an apartment complex right next to their neighborhood." The far Southwest district is even further behind its housing goals – only 2% of its envisioned 7,000 new units – but Ellis pointed out there isn't much open land that can be developed (due to Austin's environmental ordinances) without redeveloping existing corridors and nodes like the Y at Oak Hill, which neighbors tend to dislike.

Ellis has been a leader on Council on mobility, especially active transportation and the new ATX Walk Bike Roll initiative (made possible by the bond package she championed in 2020), which includes a plan to extend a shared-use path along Texas 45 Southwest, which neighbors and all candidates supported – though Smith had a caveat that neighborhoods must want projects like this and be notified beforehand. Ellis pointed out that "D8 routinely doesn't fall at the top of the list when the city is funding projects like this; we've been finding private funds, other governmental partners to help with safe mobility actions."  – Lina Fisher

Hays County Commish Brings His Own Drama

If Hays County Commissioner Walt Smith wants to drive anywhere for the next five months, he first must prove he is not drunk. Earlier this month, activist news outlet Caldwell/Hays Examiner reported that the Dripping Springs-area Republican, running for reelection in November, was busted for DWI by Austin police in 2021 after he ran a red light and rear-ended a box truck on Lake Austin Boulevard. In response, Smith's attorney told KSAT News that "Walt has taken responsibility for his actions and is looking forward to putting this behind him." Just two weeks later, the commissioner's responsibility-taking came to a halt. "This matter has been fairly concluded and my innocence confirmed," Smith declared Sept. 19. This is not exactly true; he pleaded to a different class B charge and got nine months' probation, mandated alcohol education, and an ignition lock on his Dodge Ram. Smith also marveled, "I was informed that I was under arrest for DWI, even though no blood was drawn, no Breathalyzer given, and officers at the scene expressed no suspicion of impairment." This last part is also not exactly true, as Smith flatly failed his field sobriety test and refused to allow either a blood or breath test – and got his license suspended for the latter. – Jordan Buckley

The Rest of the Ticker

Face-to-Face Combat: Gov. Greg Abbott and former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke meet for the one sure-thing debate of the election cycle this Friday, Sept. 30, at UT-Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg. The last time the two met face-to-face is when O'Rourke crashed Abbott's ill-fated first feel-your-pain press conference in Uvalde – where Abbott first relayed the outright lies he'd been told about the police response to the Robb Elementary massacre – and told the guv, "This is on you." Probably won't be so dramatic this time; Abbott will talk about the border, O'Rourke about abortion and guns and foster care, no minds will be changed.

Endorsement Watch: Jolt Action for Celia Israel, Real Estate Council of Austin for Kirk Watson; D1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison for Stephanie Bazan, and a list of 25 endorsers for Paige Ellis, ranging from U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett to the Austin Board of Realtors to the Sierra Club.

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