On Austin’s new council district map, Districts 4 and 5 stretch narrowly north and south, respectively, from the center of the city. Neither East or West Austin, they are an eclectic mix with a reliance on small business and service sector jobs, with a diverse array of residents and needs.
The heft and thoughtfulness of the candidates in District 4 came as a pleasant surprise to this board. And the fact that four of the eight candidates have raised more than $20,000 in the last round of campaign finance reports suggests that many Austinites feel the same way.
The top two candidates in the board’s estimation are small business owner Laura Pressley and community organizer Gregario Casar. Given the fact that District 4 was drawn as a Latino opportunity district, we gave strong consideration to endorsing Casar. Katrina Daniel, associate commissioner at the Texas Department of Insurance and a Central Health board member, also is a strong candidate.
However, when Casar’s credentials were weighed against Pressley’s attention to detail and willingness to press affordability issues at City Hall, Pressley won our endorsement. She would be the kind of council member to dig into the details before taking a vote, even if the results are unpopular. She has a doctorate in chemistry and talent for number crunching after decades in the semiconductor industry, which will come in handy once this council is seated.
Pressley has come a long way from 2011 when she pleaded with council to remove fluoride from the city’s water. That campaign gave us some pause, but her actions and statements since have persuaded us that she has moved on from that fight.
Pressley was criticized during her race against incumbent Mike Martinez in 2012 for her lack of political experience and her temerity for running for a seat that has historically gone to a Latino. Even so, she ran a relatively close race against Martinez, with far less funding. In the intervening period she has served on the executive committee for the Austin Neighborhoods Council and as president of the Windsor Hills Neighborhood Association. She supports a flat, 20 percent homestead exemption, which we have advocated for on these pages, and she has specific ideas on where there is money in the budget to make up the difference.
Casar is energetic and has a sharp intellect. He has garnered the support of most of the city’s Democratic organizations, the Workers Defense Project, where he has served as political director, and various other labor groups. He’s earned his political stripes organizing construction workers to protest safety problems and pay disparities. The campaign resulted in the City Council-enacted mandatory water and rest breaks at job sites and a policy requiring companies that get city tax breaks to pay construction workers at least $11 an hour, with opportunities for higher wages.
He has a dim view of the current city management. While there is certainly room for change at City Hall, a wholesale, immediate overhaul is likely unwise until the districts are able to come together on a set of city priorities. He would have a steeper learning curve than Pressley, and we believe that she is better suited to represent North Central Austin during this transition.
Other candidates include activist Monica Guzman, environmental engineer Louis Herrin, legislative policy analyst Marco Mancillas, former restaurateur Sharon Mays and social services advocate Roberto Perez.
Across town in South Central Austin, as with many districts, the old comes crashing into the new. The district, which starts at Auditorium Shores, includes many older, politically active neighborhoods and stretches south to capture newer developments that are cropping up in old South Austin all the way to the Onion Creek subdivision, just grazing the Hays County line.
During the redistricting battles of 2000, Austin lost Ann Kitchen as a state representative. The Democrat only served one session, before being ousted in the newly redrawn district by Republican Todd Baxter. In her short time in the Legislature, she made a name for herself as a quick study who was instrumental in shaping legislation on women’s health, environment and education.
Kitchen, who has worked primarily as a consultant in the health care arena since that time, retreated largely from elected politics. However, she has remained active on issues dear to her in other ways. She’s a co-founder of Annie’s List, and she was the executive director of the Integrated Care Collaboration, a regional nonprofit composed of safety net health care providers in the Austin area. She’s also served on a number of boards and commissions, including Liveable City, City of Austin Commission on Seniors, Mayor’s Task Force on Aging, Community Advancement Network and People’s Community Clinic.
Even though environmental issues aren’t the dominating force they once were in Austin politics, Kitchen is a co-founder of the Save Our Springs Alliance, and a fair portion of her platform is focused on water conservation, renewable energy and flood/wildfire prevention. She told us that on affordability she supports “using the tools we have,” which include phasing in a 20 percent homestead property tax exemption and examining utility fees to reduce rates. She also supports the use of future bond proposals to expand and preserve affordable housing.
Legislative experience does not always translate to city governance, but Kitchen’s intellectual acumen, consensus-building approach to governance, connections to all levels of governance and deep roots in District 5 make her uniquely positioned to be a strong council member and representative for her district. Austin should welcome her back to elected office.
Other candidates in the district include Realtor and former legislative aide Dan Buda, General Land Office employee Jason Denny, lawyer and business consultant Dave Floyd, retired IRS employee CarolAnneRose Kennedy, businessman Mike Rodriguez and computer systems analyst David Senecal.