Late entries could change the dynamic of Austin’s mayoral race

Sept 03, 2018
Stephen Spillman
Steve Adler, Austin’s incumbent mayor, says he’s not surprised that three opponents filed for the 2018 mayoral race at the last minute. “It’s kind of classic Austin, part of how democracy works in this town,” he says. “You’ve got to love them.” STEPHEN SPILLMAN / FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Mayor Steve Adler and his opponent for the city’s top seat, former City Council Member Laura Morrison, squared off during a downtown forum last week, discussing issues that included homelessness, pro soccer, downtown development and a larger convention center.

Other candidates in the seven-way race for mayor sat in the audience.

The five contenders beyond Adler and Morrison, including three who gave no indication of running before filing at the last possible moment, have little chance of winning, based on conventional wisdom. Together, though, they could reshape the race.

“Having more candidates makes it more likely today than 10 days ago that there is a runoff,” said Mark Littlefield, a local pollster and political consultant. “It doesn’t mean that there will be a runoff, just that the chances went up.”

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the Nov. 6 general election, the top two vote-getters will head to a mid-December runoff. Voter turnout for such races is usually significantly lower, with older, less-diverse and more politically involved voters casting ballots. In 2014, voter turnout fell from about 40 percent to about 15 percent from the general election to the runoff, which included a mayoral race.

BACKGROUND: Austin city election filing draws large field, last-minute surprises

That could help Morrison, who has very strong support in some neighborhoods and from some activist groups, but less widespread support and name recognition than Adler, political watchers said.

“With the smaller universe, it becomes more competitive,” said David Butts, a longtime political consultant who is working on Adler’s campaign.

Littlefield agreed.

“If you run 10,000 computer simulations, there are not many that have Laura Morrison winning without a runoff,” he said. “I would assume that most Laura supporters would admit that Laura’s path to victory includes some sort of runoff scenario. For Adler supporters, they would prefer to avoid a runoff, but I don’t think they’re scared of a runoff.”

Todd Phelps, a musician and farmer who’s now involved in alternative energy, ran for mayor in 2014 and earned 10 percent of the vote, finishing behind Adler and former Council Members Sheryl Cole and Mike Martinez. As a conservative candidate, he gained support from Republicans, and he could do so again this year, appealing to those unhappy with how Adler and the council have tangled with the Legislature and the Trump administration.

Phelps said Friday that he had been recruited to run by “community and business leaders,” but he wouldn’t say specifically who approached him.

“Their view is to change course from what they view as an Adler disaster,” he said. “I listened to them and I agree.”

Phelps and two other candidates, Gus Peña and Alan Pease, filed both campaign treasurers forms to initiate fundraising and applications for a place on the ballot in the final hours of the filing period. Pease is a car and motorcycle writer and a former motorcycle racer, according to an online biography.

ALSO READ: Austin Mayor Adler’s fundraising tops $574,000, Morrison raises $92,000

Peña, a Marine Corps veteran, is a familiar face at City Hall, where he regularly speaks at City Council meetings. He said he had been on the fence about running, but his increasing frustration with city operations led him to jump into the race.

Both Phelps and Peña supported Adler in his runoff against Martinez in 2014, but the two men said they have concluded that the mayor has not done enough to address affordability issues. Peña said services for low-income residents and homeless people are lacking.

Phelps expressed frustration with increasing taxes and criticized Adler for not implementing a 20 percent homestead exemption, as he vowed to do during his first campaign. (So far, the City Council has implemented the city’s first homestead exemption and recently increased it to 10 percent.)

Adler defended his record in responding to the rising cost of living in Austin.

“You have to do a thousand different things, and it’s not something you’re going to be able to change overnight,” he said. “Council was able to pass a 10 percent homestead exemption. We’ve increased spending into the housing trust fund by over 500 percent. … You also deal with affordability by helping people have more money to spend. We have created the first workforce development plan in the history of Central Texas.”

The other two mayoral candidates are Travis Duncan and Alexander Strenger. Duncan is a drummer and a former Tesla worker who has touted “cooperative projects” to create a network of free food and electricity in the city. Strenger is a pedicab driver best known for his proposal to build a dome around the city to keep out Californians. Much of his campaign has focused on reducing late-night traffic congestion downtown.

Adler and Morrison have primarily diverged on development issues, with Morrison calling Adler too development -and business-friendly. She was a critic of the now-defunct CodeNext land-use rewrite, a controversial and costly project that Adler and the council discontinued last month. Morrison said the comprehensive reworking of Austin’s zoning rules lacked for community trust.

Adler declined Friday to handicap the odds of the election going to a runoff, but said he wasn’t surprised by the race’s late entries.

“It’s kind of classic Austin, part of how democracy works in this town,” he said. “You’ve got to love them.”