The firestorm over Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman’s remarks to a largely Hispanic group of students and parents continued to burn Friday, as his opponent and fellow council members slammed the District 6 representative.
The controversy erupted Thursday night when Zimmerman told a largely Hispanic group of students at a City Council meeting to complete their education, learn job skills and “do something useful” so “you don’t have to live off others.”
Zimmerman’s remarks came during a marathon budget hearing after several students and their parents — many of whom addressed the council in Spanish, with the aid of a translator — pressed city officials to continue funding after-school programs at Austin’s public schools.
“I’d ask for everyone here, including the children, when you grow up, I want to ask you to pledge to finish school, learn a trade, a skilled trade, get a college education, start a business, do something useful and produce something in your society so you don’t have to live off others,” he said, adding “Thank you” as boos erupted in the chamber.
His remarks shocked the activists and parents who were there asking for the continued support for the programs.
“To hear him just say those words, it was very offensive, especially because the kids were there. We’re taxpayers,” said Montserrat Garibay, vice president of Education Austin, the teacher’s union for Austin’s public school teachers. “I felt very disrespected.”
Garibay, who previously taught for eight years, added: “I was listening and I was like, ‘This is the Trump of Austin.’”
Zimmerman’s fellow council members largely ignored the remarks until a visibly angry Delia Garza, the first Latina to serve on the City Council, offered an emotional condemnation later in the evening.
“We do not condone what he said,” Garza, who represents Southeast Austin’s District 2, told the audience. “We have your back, not just the ones that are brown or black on this council. There are other progressive members of this council that understand you and support you.”
Garza’s rebuke received thunderous applause, and she was seen wiping her eyes in the moments after. She reiterated her remarks in a statement she posted Friday on Facebook.
“I often stop listening when he starts talking because these types of comments for him are not uncommon,” she wrote. “I did eventually respond because I felt it necessary for the public to know that the majority of the Council does not condone his hateful comments.”
This isn’t the first time Zimmerman has stirred controversy since taking office in January 2015. Last year, he questioned whether the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage could pave the way for legalizing pedophilia, and earlier this year he introduced language from the Satanic Temple website to register his opposition to a “Charter for Compassion” resolution that he thought was too religious.
Zimmerman, who represents Northwest Austin’s District 6, declined several requests from the American-Statesman for an interview. However, he issued a statement late Friday that blamed his colleagues for the controversy, which said in part they had “assumed there was a racist motive behind the comment.”
The statement went on to cite three other instances where Zimmerman made similar remarks. However, a review by the Statesman found those remarks were made in different circumstances and didn’t include “you don’t have to live off others” — the source of much of Friday’s anger.
It was a dramatic shift in tone from a text message that Zimmerman sent Friday morning to TV station KXAN in which he defended his remarks.
“On behalf of those non-subsidized taxpayers being forced out of our city by legions of special interests, I apologize for the greed and selfishness of those willing to expand city government force, through the ‘political process’ to maintain and increase their own subsidies at the unaffordable expense of others,” he said in the message to the TV station.
Local politicians and activists quickly voiced their opposition.
Council Member Greg Casar, whose North Austin District 4 includes many of the families who addressed the council, slammed Zimmerman on Twitter late Thursday.
“He implied that those that rely on, (and) ask for, public programs are nonproductive citizens,” Casar wrote.
Zimmerman’s opponent in this fall’s election, Jimmy Flannigan, also issued a condemnation Friday.
“These are not the values of District 6,” Flannigan said. “His offensive statements, ideological grandstanding, and constant bullying are an embarrassment to our community and it’s time for him to go.”
Watch what happened
Video of the statements by Council Members Don Zimmerman and Delia Garza is posted with this story on mystatesman.com.