Give him another four years and he’ll finish what he started.
That’s the message from Mayor Steve Adler as he kicks off his campaign for re-election Sunday with a rally and party at the Austin Saengerrunde Hall. There will be music from local artists. There will be Amy’s Ice Cream. There will be words from former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.
And there will be plenty of talk about whether the first term of the city’s first 10-1 district-based council has had an effective leader.
Adler, 61, an attorney, now has a serious competitor in the race, after former Council Member Laura Morrison, 63, last week made it official she plans to run. Morrison, a former president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, has blasted Adler for being too pro-development and friendly with business interests.
Elect her, Morrison said, and she’ll prioritize the people who are here now — not the newcomers moving in.
Preparing for growth is one of the most important parts of leading Austin, Adler said Friday, saying the lack of housing is driving up prices and forcing people to leave the city.
Adler has been actively fundraising since early December and drew donations from about a thousand people in three weeks, according to campaign manager Jim Wick.
Morrison filed paperwork for a treasurer to begin collecting donations last week. This will be her first time running for office since the city switched its local races from May to November, drawing a wider pool of voters.
CodeNext, the city’s massive rewrite of its zoning code, might be the biggest issue coming down the pipeline this year at City Hall, and one of the most fiercely contested. Morrison strongly opposes recent drafts of the plan, which would allow more townhomes, apartments and high-density development in certain major corridors across the city.
“The current code isn’t serving us well—it’s leading to too much gentrification and displacement in the city,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of anxiety, and that’s understandable, but I have faith.”
His goal coming into office in 2015 was to lead the transition from an old way of doing things, under a council elected by the city at-large, to a new era with council members representing distinct geographic districts. And Adler thinks he’s done that “without devolving into ward politics,” at the helm of a council he says has “done more things at a faster pace than anyone else.”
He points to the $720 million mobility bond passed last year, improvements to traffic signals, work on a funding stream for an affordable housing trust fund, regional workforce training, the push to require long-term affordable housing in some development agreements and the national recognition the city has gotten for climate change efforts and opposition to state immigration policies.
The job has had its low points. Adler points to moments when he mismanaged things. For example, “I stubbed my toe trying to find resources available to council offices,” he said, referring to his controversial 2015 idea to double his own office staff, which later became a plan to add staff positions to all council offices.
The recent mad-cap antics of trying to maintain secrecy in searching for a city manager — drawing a lawsuit from the American-Statesman — could have been handled better, the mayor said. And he wishes the disagreements with Uber and Lyft over city regulations had been handled in a way that wouldn’t have drawn the Legislature to overturn them.
“I’ve probably learned enough to have done everything a little differently,” Adler said.
He didn’t expect to spend as much time as he has on state and national issues. Last year, measures targeting Austin policies in the Legislature and pushback against some of President Donald Trump’s proposals took up much of the council’s time.
“Frankly, I hoped we’d be focusing more on our local agenda, but it became apparent that if we were going to preserve what’s special about the city, it meant also fighting for our values and our culture and who we are,” he said. “There was no choice but for us to step up.”
Adler said he welcomed Morrison’s challenge, but he hadn’t spent enough time looking at her stances on issues to know yet what the biggest differences between them are. He rejected the urbanist versus neighborhood paradigm that many have pointed to as the divide.
“That’s kind of an old way of looking at things,” the mayor said. “We don’t have to look at everything as an either-or choice, or as adversarial.”