Washington, D.C., may be some 1,300 miles away, but distance hasn’t stopped President Donald Trump’s first month as president from dominating the conversation at Austin City Hall.
Just days after Trump signed his hotly contested executive order that temporarily barred travelers from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S., several City Council members left a briefing on the city’s massive zoning code rewrite to attend a pro-Muslim rally at the Capitol.
A debate over granting Catholic Charities an additional $200,000 to provide legal services for immigrants featured an emotional row between two council members. The city’s Human Rights Commission backed a resolution calling on the City Council to “boycott all Trump-branded services and products.” And the City Council, with Council Member Ellen Troxclair dissenting, approved a resolution Thursday condemning Trump’s travel ban.
Interviews and press conferences blasting the White House’s latest policy announcements or executive orders have become staples.
“I think the reason that I speak out publicly on the immigration matters is not as an academic exercise, but because I’m hopeful that the debate and discussion might help change the practice,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. “If I think there’s something that’s happening that will make us less safe as a community, it’s my job to say that.”
He added, “There are concerns that I have now that I didn’t have six months ago.”
Even as she provided the counterpoint in last month’s debate over the Catholic Charities grant and explained why some voters had backed Trump, Troxclair noted the discussion was a departure from the usual business of City Hall.
“I wasn’t elected to City Council to talk about the presidential election or to argue against federal immigration policy,” Troxclair said at the Feb. 16 meeting. “I was elected to focus on the many issues that our city is facing and those issues that we have direct control over.”
While no stranger to demonstrations or Austin’s role as the liberal bastion of a conservative state, the local furor surrounding Trump’s election and subsequent immigration orders has few recent parallels.
Protests shut down downtown streets almost every night for a week after the November election. There were more demonstrations after Trump’s inauguration in January and rallies against his executive order on immigration and refugees. Teachers in Austin’s main school district sent fliers home with students that advised parents on how to deal with immigration officers.
On top of that, state officials threatened legislation that would push Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez from office over her refusal to hold some people, picked up as suspects in other crimes, in jail for federal officers on alleged immigration violations. Gov. Greg Abbott pulled $1.5 million in grant funding for county services in retaliation for Hernandez’s move.
Against that backdrop, Austin’s normally low-key mayor and the council’s youngest member, District 4’s Greg Casar, have become two of the most prominent faces of the city’s anti-Trump push.
Adler was spotted at an Inauguration Day protest, along with Casar and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. The mayor also addressed the Texas Muslim Day demonstration at the Capitol, went off script during his January State of the City speech to blast the president’s travel ban and recently appeared on National Public Radio to discuss raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“The mayor’s job here is really practical. We need to make sure the potholes get filled and people are safe,” Adler said. “I am really looking on who we are, and trying to preserve and protect who we are.”
His willingness to blast the administration’s immigration moves as “reprehensible” and “politically motivated” has garnered the 27-year-old national media attention, including a recent quote in The Washington Post.
“A lot of the reason we’re dealing with issues relating to Trump is because his policy directives and direction directly impact our constituents,” Casar said. His office has fielded hundreds of phone calls and emails from constituents, a spokeswoman said, but couldn’t provide an exact figure.
“I think it’s our responsibility and duty to respond to those issues, and that’s what we’re doing,” he added.
Casar recounted one such story during the council’s debate last month over granting the additional $200,000 to Catholic Charities to provide legal services to immigrants: The family of an Iraqi refugee, who had worked for the U.S. government in Iraq, was banned from returning to Austin by Trump’s January executive order.
But that Feb. 16 meeting also showed the limits of Casar’s aggressive stance, when his debate with Troxclair, the council’s lone conservative, devolved into pointed, personal attacks rarely seen on the dais.
Casar accused Troxclair of spreading “false” anecdotes and being “deliberately misleading” about the danger posed by unauthorized immigrants. Troxclair charged Casar was “continuing to stick your head in the sand” and failing to recognize fears over immigration.
The council approved the grant on a 10-1 vote, with Troxclair dissenting. Later, without singling out either council member, Adler reminded everyone of the need to remain civil.
“I watched the tape, and I wouldn’t have said a thing differently,” Casar said. “I felt like I responded the right way to that kind of disrespect in the council chamber.”
Troxclair declined to comment for this story.But in the hours after the debate, she retweeted a flurry of messages from supporters.
Then, the next day, she tweeted out a fundraising link.