With Six Seats Up in the Air, City Council Could Look Very Different Next Year

Ready to rumble?

Art by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images

The filing period for City Council elections does not open until late July, but the races are already beginning to take shape, with 10 candidates already having declared their intent to run for five of the Council seats on the 2024 ballot.

Yes, it is already time to begin thinking about the November election – even though it's still 10 months away.

Already, the election is shaping up to be an important one for Austin voters, who will elect new Council members in Districts 7 and 10 and who will have the chance to reelect or boot out incumbents in Districts 2, 4, 6, and – perhaps most critically – the mayor's office. We know that the races to fill the open seats in D7 and D10 will be interesting. In each race, multiple candidates are prepared to run serious campaigns. The race for Northwest Austin's D6 also promises to be competitive, and it's perhaps the most curious Council district as the only one represented by a Republican and, realistically, the only one the local GOP has a shot of holding.

The Top Spot

And then there's the mayor. Kirk Watson barely beat Celia Israel in the 2022 run-off (by fewer than 900 votes). But since then he has moved swiftly (with the help of his pal, Interim City Manager Jesús Garza) to enact sweeping changes to local policy and the City Hall bureaucracy that implements it. All of those changes may bolster a reelection campaign in '24.

Watson won a shortened two-year term in 2022 thanks to a May 2021 ballot measure that aligned mayoral and presidential elections. Presumably, he'll run for reelection. He hasn't made that announcement yet, but he is expected to in the next couple of months. A few names who might challenge Watson have circulated the City Hall rumor mill, though none have taken the leap into formal candidacy.

Photo by John Anderson

But challengers are running out of time, even if candidate filing doesn't officially open for another six months. It is likely that Watson will raise at least a million dollars for his reelection by the summer, so anyone wanting to take him on will need to launch a campaign as soon as possible. They'll need all the time they can get to build up name recognition and raise their own money to pose a serious threat to Watson – one of Austin's most well-known and well-funded politicians.

The incumbents in D2 and D4 (Vanessa Fuentes and Chito Vela) are also running for reelection, but as of now, neither has drawn any challengers. (Jade Lovera, one of Vela's 2022 special election opponents, filed a new campaign treasurer appointment form with the city clerk in May, but she did not respond to our attempts to confirm her candidacy.) That could very well change, because individual Council races require less money and less time to build a platform to run on. For now, we're focusing on the candidates in contested races.

The Battle for the Burbs

Incumbent D6 CM Mackenzie Kelly will have at least one challenger in November. Krista Laine, co-founder of the small but mighty school board campaign advocacy group Access Education RRISD, is in the process of building a campaign. Laine is new to Austin politics, but she has been involved in Round Rock school advocacy since her children entered kindergarten (as an Austin resident, where she has lived since 2000).

Photos courtesy of the candidates' campaigns

That advocacy culminated in a Herculean effort to fend off an attempted right-wing takeover of the RRISD School Board in 2022. Laine estimates the Access Education candidates were outspent 6-to-1 but elected with at least a 16-point margin. Part of Laine's motivation to run, she told us, is that she recognized "many of the same forces" elevating Kelly's political ship as those who fueled the RRISD School Board coup attempt. Moreover, Laine says, Kelly has tried to stop progress at City Hall, pointing to her recent no vote on Council's HOME (Home Options for Middle-Income Empowerment) initiative. "We have had massive population inflow and voting 'no' isn't going to solve any problems," Laine told us. "We can't be perfect, but we also can't be frozen."

Kelly is a frequent dissenter – she's the only Republican on a dais with 10 Democrats, after all. But she says that doesn't mean she's been an ineffective representative of her district. Constituent services have been a priority, Kelly says – that is, addressing the specific concerns from her constituents. She is also not as provocatively right-wing as voters may have expected in 2020, when the memory of Don Zimmerman (a true knucklehead who did not take the Council job seriously) was still fresh in the minds of D6 residents.

Take homelessness, for example. She has been critical of the city's approach to addressing the issue, but she still supports Pecan Gardens, the permanent supportive housing development that remains controversial in her district. "There isn't a lot of education around it," Kelly said of the project. "There's been a lot criticism about the cost of that project," she continued, but noted that it's partly a result of renovations required to make the space more livable for the elderly and disabled population it is intended to serve – like removing bathtubs, installing grab bars in showers, and making doorways wider to accommodate people in wheelchairs.

Charting a Post-Pool Future for D7

District 7 has never been represented by anyone other than Leslie Pool, one of the more interesting figures to occupy city leadership in the 10-1 era of Council governance. For many years, Pool was a steadfast vote against land use reform – but in the past year, that has shifted dramatically. She is now one of Council's champions of reform.

But she has no interest in continuing that work through a petition for a third Council term, which opens the door for a new voice to represent the city's North Central district, which includes old neighborhoods like Allandale and Crestview as well as the Domain.

Photos courtesy of the candidates' campaigns

Mike Siegel, the progressive political organizer who waged two respectable but unsuccessful campaigns against U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul in U.S. Congressional District 10, is an early front-runner in the D7 race. He is running a campaign centered on climate action, which he says has not been emphasized enough by the current and past Councils. "Our most powerful tool on climate is spending," Siegel told us, given the Texas Legislature's penchant for preempting regulatory action enacted by left-leaning municipalities.

But spending may be harder for Republican state lawmakers to constrain, especially when it's of the voter-approved variety like in bond measures or through a tax rate election, which would authorize the city to collect property tax revenue beyond the meager amount allowed under state law – an idea that has not yet been broached by local elected officials but that Siegel supports. "We've got to figure out how to spend and to do so in ways that emphasize jobs and justice goals," Siegel said. That could include a city-funded weatherization program, which would help strengthen the climate resilience of people living in older residential buildings and create more job opportunities for people in the trades.

Another contender, Adam Powell, has become a fixture at City Hall, most recently showing up to speak in support of the HOME initiative as a neighborhood leader in the Shoal Creek area. Though Powell was born in Austin, his parents moved the family to Leander where he grew up so they could buy a more affordable home.

He moved to the North Shoal Creek area in 2017 and says a prime motivation for his Council campaign is making it easier to live and lay down roots in that part of town, and the city at large. Pursuing transportation and land use planning that will reduce car-dependency would be a top priority for both affordability and climate resilience. "Austin is always going to be a city of cars," Powell said, "but we need to do everything we can to make it as easy as possible to navigate our city without one."

Helping to improve transit – by supporting Project Connect with increased housing density – and build out more bike and pedestrian infrastructure are key ways to achieve that goal, Powell said.

At 26, Edwin Bautista is the youngest candidate to declare for any Council office this cycle (thus far) and, if elected, he would become the youngest member of the 11-person dais. He's leaning into that fact, pitching his campaign as representative of a generational shift in Austin that should also be reflected in its elected leaders.

Bautista grew up in Wichita Falls, but moved to Austin in 2016 to attend the University of Texas, where he obtained bachelor's and master's degrees. He currently works as a management assistant at Texas Housers, the nonprofit focused on improving housing policy for low-income Texans, and has served on a few commissions and advisory boards in Austin beginning in 2021.

Increasing public participation in local policymaking is a central goal of Bautista's campaign. He wants to launch an Office of Community Engagement, which would serve as a centralized part of city government tasked with coordinating engagement efforts across the entire city enterprise. Ideally, Bautista says, the office would "elevate the collective capacity of our community" to propose policy solutions and open up a "two-way street for communication with local policymakers."

Pierre Nguyễn – an EMT, firefighter, Coast Guardsman, and the son of Vietnamese refugees – is running with a focus on improving the overall health (physical and mental) of his community in D7 and across Austin. Nguyễn currently serves on several boards, including the city's Public Safety Commission and the Asian American Quality of Life Commission. Per his campaign website, he's a supporter of Project Connect and equity-focused policy.

A New Voice for D10

Like D7, residents living in West Austin's D10 will also be losing a veteran CM. Alison Alter, who has represented the district since 2016, does not plan to petition for a third Council term, meaning that the district – one of the city's wealthiest and most Republican – will also elect a new representative.

Photos courtesy of the candidates' campaigns

Ashika Ganguly grew up in West Lake and graduated from UT in 2017. She began teaching in Austin schools (first at Blazier Elementary and then at Mathews), before departing the education field to begin her political career as a Capitol staffer. She worked as legislative director for state Rep. John Bucy III, the Democrat who flipped Texas House District 136 in 2018, during 2023's 88th session of the Texas Legislature and the endless number of special sessions that followed it.

Unlike Alter, Ganguly supports the HOME initiative, which she sees as a "gentle approach" to increasing accessible housing, while potentially offsetting increasing property tax bills for D10 homeowners, Ganguly said.

"I want to look at ways we can make our city healthy, happy, and vibrant," Ganguly told us. That could include helping to subsidize child care costs throughout the city and increasing financial support of public schools in the area, which have been under attack by conservative state lawmakers. "We've seen such intense state efforts at preemption recently," Ganguly said, "we need strong local leadership now more than ever."

Marc Duchen, a former Democratic politico who worked on state and local campaigns in the early 2000s, would likely continue Alter's conservative approach to land use reform. He has become more focused on local issues in recent years, serving on the board of his homeowners association and on the boards for the Austin Neighborhoods Council and Community Not Commodity – two groups that have been skeptical of Council's recent efforts at revising the Land Development Code.

Duchen shares that skepticism, telling us he fears Council wasted "enormous political capital" on reforms that may not produce the desired impacts. He's also skeptical of Project Connect, the proposed expansion of Austin's transit network that was scaled down last year following budgetary inflation, and of how the city has approached reducing homelessness. He said his goal would be to bring a more analytical approach to these policy areas.

"Part of the reason I'm running is to fill a gap that synthesizes data and would inform our decisions as local elected leaders," Duchen told us, "because I feel that is not happening now. My fear is we're going to lose a lot of experience when people [like Alter and Pool] roll off of Council next year."

Looking Ahead

City Council campaigns unfold in cycles; we're still at a very early stage and candidates will continue to declare ahead of candidate filing officially opening July 20 (it closes Aug. 19). Before then, Travis County voters will get to choose candidates in the March 5 Republican and Democratic primaries, which will offer other interesting races. After the primary, when attention in Austin turns away from the partisan races (which are all but guaranteed for Democrats), the next phase of the Council election cycle will begin, with things heating up over the summer and concluding Nov. 5, Election Day.

That is, until voters return to the ballot box Dec. 14 for the inevitable run-off elections.

Editor's note Thursday, Jan. 4 11:05am: A previous version of the story incorrectly stated Edwin Bautista works as a right-of-way technician at Texas Housers; he is a management assistant. The Chronicle regrets the error.

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle