Austin Council Member Ora Houston won’t run again, Dem party chair will

A wide-open City Council election awaits East Austinites as four candidates with civic experience line up to replace outgoing Council Member Ora Houston.

Houston said Wednesday that she will not seek a second term in the fall, surprising several colleagues. Only hours after her announcement, Vincent Harding, outgoing chairman of the Travis County Democratic Party, said he would join three others in running for the seat.

First elected to the council in 2014, Houston said she made the decision to leave after “months of personal discernment and conversations with confidants.”

“It has been a joy, privilege and a huge responsibility to represent the ‘blended family’ of District #1,” Houston said in the statement. “Over the next seven months there are major issues to address and votes to take which will impact our city for generations, and the individuals who live here now and in the future.”

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Houston took office as part of the first class of 10-1 district-based council representatives, running in a field of nine candidates. As a civic activist, she was known for jabbing Austin power brokers. While on council, Houston gained a reputation as one of the body’s least predictable members.

She has repeatedly reminded colleagues of Austin’s racist history. She has often joined more conservative colleagues on the losing side of votes but has sided with neighborhood preservationists on land-use issues. She has blasted the CodeNext land-use rule rewrite, saying it won’t help affordability as supporters claim but will increase displacement of minorities.

“She leaves a legacy as the first District 1 council member, and it was a real pleasure to be her ally on many, many issues,” Council Member Leslie Pool said in an emailed statement. Pool vowed to align with Houston on remaining efforts.

The other candidates

Harding, a lawyer and former member of Austin’s Board of Adjustment, said he is familiar with municipal governance and has been successful at building coalitions. He plans to focus his campaign on affordability, economic advancement, health care and criminal justice reform.

“We are at a pivotal moment in Austin’s history: We are 90 years from the 1928 (city plan that divided Austin along racial lines), are currently debating a change to our land development code, and while we are routinely ranked as a top place to live, a third of our minority children are growing up in poverty,” Harding said in a news release. “We must do better.”

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All four candidates running for the District 1 council seat have emphasized a need for affordability, equality and access to services in the district.

Lewis Conway Jr., a Grassroots Leadership organizer and criminal justice activist, is using his run to challenge a statewide ban on convicted felons holding public office. Conway has a 1992 manslaughter conviction for stabbing an acquaintance to death during a fight over stolen money. He is a familiar face at City Hall fighting for social reforms and said he plans to focus his campaign on “radical compassion.”

Mariana Salazar, director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, was a grass-roots organizer in her native Venezuela. She has focused her campaign on promoting economic equality in the district and reducing displacement of residents.

Natasha Harper-Madison is a social activist and small-business consultant. She said a cancer diagnosis three years ago led her to public service, including work on East 12th Street Merchant Association and various planning projects in the area.

Houston did not make an endorsement Wednesday.

“I have not gotten to that,” she said.

‘A whole life to live’

Houston’s decision not to run again caught Mayor Steve Adler by surprise.

“Ora’s service to the city has been a gift,” Adler said. “She has helped set a culture and awareness on the council for supporting and prioritizing people whose voices are not often heard. She has been a mentor to me, and I and the council will miss her.”

Houston said she would continue to be engaged in city business, but she added that her plans include working on her home and checking off her “ABC list — Alaska, Belize and Cuba.”

“I have a whole life ahead of me,” she said Wednesday at City Hall. “The first thing on my list is to declutter my house. I can’t go to the grocery store. I mean, the things I can’t do, because I’m here — this is a 24-hour a day job. … This has been a wonderful experience, and I’m really proud and privileged to have had an opportunity to work for the city of Austin.”

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