A mailer recently distributed by City Council candidate Laura Pressley’s campaign bulleted points on which she differs from opponent Greg Casar — including that she has a “strong belief in God” while he is a “self-admitted atheist.”
Pressley cited a paper Casar wrote during his college years about discussing Russian literature with youth at a correctional center. In the paper, Casar described seeing one of his students as “a symbol of hope … And perhaps a vessel for the God I no longer believed in.”
As someone who’s on record saying he doesn’t believe in God, Casar can’t legally represent North Austin’s District 4 on the City Council, Pressley told the American-Statesman. Pressley pointed to a section of the Texas Constitution’s Bill of Rights that says there are no religious qualifications for holding public office, provided that the official “acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.”
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said that provision was deemed unenforceable and unconstitutional in court years ago.
In an interview with the Statesman, Casar said he considers himself Catholic. The six-page paper he published three years ago as a University of Virginia undergraduate was more about finding spirituality than losing it, he said.
“I don’t feel like having a debate with Laura about either of our religious beliefs,” Casar said. “It’s not a relevant part of the discussion about what qualifies someone to be a City Council member.”
Pressley said a number of religious groups in District 4 had confided in her that faith was an important issue to them in the election. She declined to name the groups.
Asked by the Statesman what her religious beliefs are, Pressley said it was a personal matter and declined to go into detail.
“I hold my faith very dear to me, and I don’t wear it on my shoulder,” Pressley said.
Casar and Pressley beat out six other candidates in the November election to advance to the Dec. 16 runoff. Casar finished with 39 percent of the vote, while Pressley won 22 percent.
The recent mailer sent out by Pressley has injected another issue — religion — into a race where the debate has gone far beyond what to do about affordability and traffic.
Earlier in the campaign, Casar sent out a mailer that said Pressley was endorsed and supported by the tea party, a statement both the party’s Austin branch and Pressley denied. Pressley has taken heat for her views on water fluoridation, smart meters and the cause of the 9/11 attacks.
Both are activists who have been critical of City Hall, but their styles of advocacy and the issues they’ve fought for have differed.
Pressley’s mailer drew other contrasts between herself and Casar, including their ages (she’s 51; he’s 25), their marital statuses (she’s married; he’s single), their payment of property taxes (she has owned a home; he’s a renter) and their educations (she holds a doctoral degree in physical chemistry; he has a bachelor’s degree in political and social thought).
The mailer described Casar, who quit his job at the nonprofit Workers Defense Project to focus on his campaign, as “unemployed.” Pressley said she’s been balancing her work on her campaign with running her bottled water company, Pure Rain.
The mailer also called Casar an “8-month-old Democrat” and cited the March 2014 primary as his first Democratic vote. Casar said he volunteered for the campaigns of President Barack Obama and former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello while living in Virginia and cast votes for both of them.
An annotated version of the mailer on Pressley’s website backs up the statement that Casar has accepted “thousands in lobbyist contributions” with a list of city-registered lobbyists who donated a total of $2,000 to his campaign.
Casar said the lobbyists who support him advocate for lower-income Texas residents, teachers and labor organizations.
Pressley said she hasn’t accepted any contributions from lobbyists. She said Casar lied on an October mailer, which featured a chart showing that less than 1 percent of Pressley’s donations were from lobbyists.
Casar said he took a fair stab at the number: Because candidates aren’t required to list donors who contribute $50 or less, he couldn’t tell whether such money Pressley had raised came from lobbyists or not.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Laura Pressley previously owned a home but does not currently own property in Austin.