District 1 candidates face-off in election forum

Austin City Council candidates for District 1 sought to distinguish themselves from a crowded field during the city’s candidate forum Thursday.

But given the short amount of time allotted for each answer and the large number of candidates, it proved difficult. Several of them were often cut off mid-answer by a no-excuses time keeper, and some commented that at times it felt like they were repeating answers others had already provided.

In total, seven candidates are vying to succeed Council Member Ora Houston, who announced in June that she was not seeking re-election. The field of candidates is one the largest for any of the district council seats up for election on Nov. 6.

Candidates for District 1 — which stretches from the Capitol to Walter E. Long Lake across swaths of Central, East and Northeast Austin — include mostly new faces with a wide array of experiences.

They are: Mitrah Elizabeth Avini, 29, a former child actor with degrees from Oxford and Yale; Natasha Harper-Madison, 40, a small business consultant and activist; Lewis Conway Jr., 48, a Grassroots Leadership staffer and a convicted felon whose candidacy could test Texas law; Reedy Macque Spigner, 46, a grant monitor at the Texas attorney general’s office; Mariana Salazar, 37, a former director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition and the only immigrant in the group; Vincent Harding a lawyer, real estate agent and former head of the Travis County Democratic Party; and Misael D. Ramos, a write-in candidate.

While many community groups are expected to organize forums for the mayoral and five council races, the District 1 forum was the second in a series of city-sponsored events. A District 3 candidate forum was held last week. The League of Women Voters moderated that forum as well as Thursday’s event.

Nearly every candidate touched on the need to increase mass transportation in some form in District 1, with many mentioning the need to improve the efficiency and frequency of bus routes as well as making bus stops more hospitable for riders.

But Harding, who many consider a front runner in the race, took the most diversified approach, noting that all modes of transportation should be embraced to create a “21st century” transportation system in Austin, including scooters.

All said they want to see more sidewalks in East Austin. Salazar noted that when she walks her children to school, she has to walk on a busy street for stretches, even though she lives close to their school. Only Avini took a step back from a full-throated endorsement of increased sidewalks, noting that adding concrete would contribute to storm runoff and possible flooding. She said new sidewalks should be built with environmentally-friendly porous materials.

Many candidates embraced short-term rentals for East Austin, but some called for either a moratorium or an all-out ban on so-called Type 2 short-term rentals in which homeowners do not live in the property and rent it full time to guests through online services like Airbnb.

Harper-Madison, another candidate widely considered to be a leader in the race, said she supported eliminating Type 2 short-term rentals but had issues with increasing code enforcement at short-term rentals in which the homeowner lives in the home.

“The imagery of code enforcement cracking down on renting out a room in their home sounds gross and undignified,” she said.

Salazar said she recognized that short-term rentals are a source of income for many in East Austin who might be forced out of their homes if not for the supplemental income. Ramos said the cap on STRs should be eliminated while Avini said the city should stay out of it all together.

“I don’t think we should be restricting what people can do with their own homes,” she said.

As candidates summed up why they should get East Austin’s vote, Harper-Madison appeared to take the only shot at another candidate, Harding. Harper-Madison said that with political connections also have political debts.

“It is time for us to have regular citizens become members of city government,” Harper-Madison said. “I don’t have any political debts.”

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