The question of whether the court ruling a week ago that ordered the Austin City Council to put the CodeNext petition ordinance on November’s ballot would affect campaign rhetoric was answered within hours.
The anti-CodeNext political action committee IndyAustin made it clear three hours after the ruling was handed down July 16. Yes, the PAC said, supporters of the petition should remember which candidates voted to keep it off the ballot when they go to the polls in November.
“Whether Mayor Steve Adler or Ann Kitchen get re-elected … is totally up to the voters,” said an emailed newsletter from the PAC, naming two council members up for election this year who voted against putting the ordinance on the ballot. “Whether you will have good choices in all council races up in November is a very serious question.”
Opinions vary on what real impact the CodeNext petition ordinance will have on local races. The rewrite of the city’s land use code and zoning maps was going to be an issue no matter what, according to several candidates and political consultants.
And while mayoral hopeful Laura Morrison said after the ruling that the initiative would ratchet up the election a bit, local political consultant Mark Littlefield said it will not drive voter turnout.
“What (turnout) is going to be based on is Donald J. Trump,” Littlefield said. “I do not believe there will be many cases of people saying, ‘You know I was going to stay home this year, but that CodeNext has really got my juices flowing.’”
The petition ordinance would allow voters to decide whether they wish to vote on CodeNext and any future large-scale revisions of Austin’s land development code. It also calls for a waiting period before any voter-approved land use rewrite is adopted.
Dean Rindy, another consultant who is working on Adler’s campaign, said he suspects the initiative will have a good chance of passing, but he doesn’t think it will affect the mayoral election.
“Voters in Austin like to vote on important measures, and I suspect that this is true of CodeNext,” Rindy said. “I suspect it will be fairly popular.”
Council candidates largely said it would not affect how they would conduct their campaigns. But Nelson Linder, the president of Austin’s chapter of the NAACP and a plaintiff in the lawsuit that led to the judge’s order, said he would be paying close attention to council members who supported putting the petition ordinance on the ballot and those who didn’t.
“We are looking at people that stood with our petition to be on the ballot,” said Linder, who is against CodeNext in its current form.
On May 24, the council voted 6-4 to keep the petition ordinance off the ballot with the caveat that it was taking action before an August deadline to allow for time for the court challenge. The approved resolution stated that the council would comply with any court order, and no council members have since come out in favor of appealing the ruling.
Of the six who voted to keep the CodeNext petition off the ballot, Adler, Kitchen and Sabino “Pio” Renteria are up for re-election this year. Of those against, only Kathie Tovo is seeking re-election.
Kitchen, so far, is unopposed in her District 5 race. Adler is being challenged by Morrison, a former council member who has made disrupting CodeNext a cornerstone of her campaign. Renteria has two District 3 challengers: James Valadez, a real estate agent, and Jessica Cohen, a network security administrator.
But Rindy, the political consultant, said the CodeNext ruling, if anywhere, might have an impact in Tovo’s District 9 race. That contest is heating up as former transportation engineer Danielle Skidmore posted impressive fundraising numbers last week, according to campaign finance reports.
Skidmore is challenging Tovo for the district that encompasses much of Austin’s central core. The district has been highly engaged in CodeNext deliberations, with many of the project’s most ardent critics living there.
The CodeNext petition ordinance election “will help Kathie Tovo in her race because she has been willing to talk about CodeNext and was also one of the people who voted to put it on the ballot,” Rindy said. To her, “it is kind of a vindication.”
Both Tovo and Skidmore told the Statesman the initiative measure would not affect their campaigns.
“It is very clear that CodeNext is playing a big role in all the campaigns,” Tovo said. “That would be true with or without this measure going to the ballot this fall.”
Tovo said she would need to see the ballot language before deciding whether she would vote for the petition ordinance but said she would probably be in favor of it.
Skidmore, who quit her job to campaign full time, said she was undecided on the ordinance and would need to see the ballot language as well. But she did say that Austin shouldn’t abandon CodeNext.
“It comes back to people being frustrated because they don’t think their voices are being heard,” Skidmore said. “But with CodeNext, just because people think it is hard doesn’t mean we should give up.”
The Nov. 6 election is shaping up to be a long ballot for Austin voters. On top of the congressional midterms, a U.S. Senate seat and six City Council races, voters will decide on several bond propositions for affordable housing, parks and transportation totaling $925 million. With so many items, the CodeNext petition ordinance could seem like an afterthought.
But Linder, the NAACP Austin president, stressed the importance of the measure and the recent court ruling that will place it on the ballot.
“I don’t think people fully comprehend that ruling,” Linder said. “We are going to be involved. Hope is not lost. We can vote, we can organize, and we change the whole course of this city.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct a characterization of a quote from Danielle Skidmore.