With Morrison in, expect Austin mayor’s race to heat up

Laura Morrison, a former Austin City Council member and staunch neighborhood advocate, will challenge Mayor Steve Adler in November, setting up a competitive race for the city’s top elected seat.

Morrison, who had  indicated she was weighing a run, filed notice of a campaign treasurer with City Hall on Monday. She kicked off the filing with a news release saying she would “reset the path that Austin is on.”

“I hear from anxious Austinites from every corner of town, from every income level, and across every walk of life,” she said in the release. “All of them are worried about Austin’s direction. It’s time for a leader whose priority is the people who live here now.”

Morrison served two terms as a council member, from 2008 to 2014. A former president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, she drew support from many neighborhood groups for questioning city growth policies. Many urged her to run for mayor in 2014, but she chose not to.

Morrison jumped into the local political scene again in 2016 as one of the leaders of Our City, Our Choice, a group that supported the council’s ride-hailing regulations against a challenge from Uber and Lyft in a  special election.

ADLER-O-METER: See how Mayor Adler has fared on his 2014 campaign promises

Morrison, 63, moved to Austin in 1981 with her husband, a physics professor. With a master’s degree in mathematics, she has worked as an engineer for Lockheed and a consultant developing business compliance systems. She got involved in city politics through the Austin Neighborhoods Council.

Central to her position today is opposition to recent iterations of CodeNext, the city’s massive rewrite of the zoning code that spells out what kind of development can go where. Morrison said the proposal, which creates corridors to allow greater density, “perversely upzones stable communities” and promotes redevelopment.

Instead, she’d support promoting density on any undeveloped chunks around the city and “gentle upzoning” in some corridors. Adler has supported the CodeNext process but not taken a stand on individual provisions, which are expected to come to the council in April.

VIEWPOINTS: Adler says CodeNext could help provide affordable housing

Morrison named several other issues on which she believes she diverges from Adler. She would not support a proposal, currently being evaluated, to let a Major League Soccer club build a stadium on city parkland. She would stop creating task forces on institutional racism and displacement and take action on proposals given to council members early last year, she said.

She criticized the council for its handling of the search for a city manager, which drew a lawsuit from the American-Statesman after the city refused a records request under the state’s Public Information Act and fled the location of a posted meeting to try to hide candidate interviews.

“Backroom secret processes don’t work in the city of Austin — never have, never will,” Morrison said. “The city manager search turned into a circus.”

Adler, who is finishing his first term this year, did not return calls for comment Monday but said last month that he was ready for competition. He said he’s proud of things begun while he’s been mayor and wants to finish them, particularly with local versus state battles and with mobility and affordability challenges.

“We’ve been able to move forward on a lot of things over the last few years,” he said. “We’ve been able to build a strong network with other cities within the state and internationally. I bring what I’ve always brought, which is a willingness to work really hard, really focus. I’m proud of the things we’ve done, but there’s still ground to be had.”

VISIT VOTETRACKER: See how your Austin City Council member voted on key issues

A court ruling last year overturning Austin’s fundraising blackout period has paved the way for earlier campaign seasons. Adler has been actively fundraising since early December and has a campaign launch party scheduled for Sunday. Morrison, who is just beginning to raise money and said she expects Adler to outspend her, will have a kickoff party next month.

The timing of the race in November — as opposed to May, when city races were held before the 10-1 district system was instituted in 2014 — will be a new dynamic for Morrison, several political observers said.

David Butts and Dean Rindy, longtime political consultants who are working for Adler, said state and national races will draw a broader turnout of people less familiar with city issues. That will make it more challenging for Morrison to work against Adler’s name recognition, with less of the strong influence the neighborhoods council traditionally held in local-only May races. Campaigns might be able to tap into other areas of interest.

“Instead of having 50,000 voters in a City Council race, we’ll probably have over 250,000 voters” in November, Butts said. “Laura had a built-in base of support among the first 50,000, who normally would participate in city elections. An electorate that is much larger — maybe five times as large — is going to be more approachable on issues other than just the neighborhoods.”

RELATED: How Trump is changing the conversation at Austin City Hall

Rindy noted that backlash to President Donald Trump and other national factors are likely to drive a surge of Democratic turnout, and Adler’s visibility fighting against Republican state issues at the Legislature and national issues from the dais could help him there.

But Mary Ingle, a recent president of the neighborhoods council, called Adler too friendly to development and vulnerable on a variety of issues on which, she said, constituents haven’t seen movement.

“We haven’t made any strides,” she said. “We’re still waiting for a new city manager to come. We haven’t cleaned up any of the things in city bureaucracy the Zucker report pointed out (about permitting delays in the planning department). We still have CodeNext going forward. … I don’t think people are seeing great strides in transportation bond improvements.”

Regardless of the outcome, she said, “it’s good for the mayor to have a challenger.”

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