The big lesson from Austin’s City Council elections


Ora Houston spent more than a decade jabbing at Austin power brokers.

To Houston, a civic activist who is not shy about sharing her thoughts, Austin’s transformation into a full-blown metropolis has been accelerated by City Hall mistakes made at the expense of longtime residents. In the Nov. 4 City Council election, Northeast Austin voters rewarded Houston’s years of skepticism, giving her an overwhelming 49 percent of the vote in a 9-person field.

Many other candidates critical of City Hall landed at the top of the heap in the city elections. Of all the lessons from this month’s election, the most obvious is that much of the electorate is unhappy with the direction of the nation’s fastest-growing big city – and voters tended to reward candidates who were the most articulate, or loudest, about their grievances.

“There’s been an underlying murmur from residents that rapid growth has negative impacts on residents’ daily lives,” said Ed Wendler, Jr., a developer and one-time council aide who watches city politics closely. The November election, he said, “set that murmur free.”

In some parts of the city, skepticism about Austin’s direction meant the pace of growth and effect on established neighborhoods. In other parts of the city, it was about City Hall’s emphasis on central-city issues at what some residents felt was the expense of other areas.

Robert Jones, a political consultant who worked for mayoral candidate Steve Adler during the general election, noted that polls showed a majority of Austinites believed the city is heading in the wrong direction. “There are definitely some common pain points, like traffic and affordability,” he said.

And while attacks on Austin’s approach to growth fared well, campaigns that implicitly endorsed the city’s general direction were punished. Voters appeared to recoil from the urbanization policies that successful candidates touted a decade ago.

District 9 is the purest example of that. There, Council Member Chris Riley, a bicycle/mass-transit enthusiast who is perhaps the most visible of Austin’s New Urbanists, ran against fellow Council Member Kathie Tovo, who has roots in neighborhood activism — and who is often on the losing end of votes on major developments she thinks the council is too eager to approve. A candidate enthusiastic about Austin’s general direction faced one skeptical of it.

The contrast was sharpened by the nature of the district itself. It encompasses the booming downtown and West Campus areas, as well as established neighborhoods fearful that quiet, leafy enclaves will be overwhelmed by apartments, traffic and other aspects of urban life.

The skeptic gave the enthusiast a thumping. Tovo finished nearly 10 points ahead and barely missed an outright majority in the three-person field. The margin prompted Riley to drop out of the December runoff.

“You take Tovo and none of the above and add them together, and you’ve got a solid majority (in that district) for doing something different than what we’ve done the last dozen years or so,” said Peck Young, director of Austin Community College’s Center for Public Policy and Political Studies.

Similar dynamics played out in District 7. That is a north-central swath around Burnet Road where older neighborhoods and hip commercial districts are bumping against one another. Neighborhood activist Leslie Pool ran a campaign skeptical of the area’s urbanization. She doubled the votes of second-place finisher Jeb Boyt, another advocate for targeted urbanization. They are heading to a runoff.

Skepticism about Austin’s growth is nearly as old as Austin itself, where the population has roughly doubled every 25 years since its founding. But the frustrations expressed Nov. 4 weren’t always so noticeable. Former Mayor Will Wynn espoused a version of New Urbanism, seeing it a way to keep sprawl from spreading into the environmentally sensitive hills west of Austin, under which flows the aquifer that feeds Barton Springs. Wynn led council majorities generally amenable to that philosophy, as outgoing Mayor Lee Leffingwell did for much of his tenure.

Municipal lobbyist Glen Coleman, who supports a New Urbanist philosophy, said the approach was punished by voters on Nov. 4.

“Austin voters, for the most part, chose a time-honored, and totally absurd story about change: We’d prefer none, thanks,” Coleman posted in an analysis on his Facebook page. “Politicians who cultivated that story were rewarded. Those who chose a story about adaptation to change were not.”

Much of the electorate saw things differently.

Houston, the candidate in Northeast Austin’s District 1, was among the most vocal of the early skeptics of big-city Austin. In the 1990s, as tech workers and other newcomers of means moved en masse to Austin, many houses just east of Interstate 35 were sold because, despite the area’s neglect, they were near a booming downtown. Neighborhoods that were historically African-American and Hispanic began looking whiter. Houston disputed the notion that adding to Austin’s housing supply would help satiate demand and relax prices; instead, she linked the arrival of condominiums and other urban-feeling development with the rising taxes in East Austin.

Houston told anyone who would listen that the city’s business-recruitment strategy was causing gentrification.

She narrowly missed the 50 percent needed for an outright victory in the Nov. 4 election and heads into the December runoff against DeWayne Lofton, who secured 15 percent of the vote.

Such concerns were once limited mainly to East Austin. No more. Even candidates who cruised into office did so with implicit skepticism of Austin’s direction.

Delia Garza, who won nearly two-thirds of the votes in Southeast Austin’s District 2, ran an even-keel campaign that was nonetheless critical of City Hall. It is perhaps best summarized by her assessment of a long-term transportation plan drafted to help Austin handle its urbanization. That plan, Garza said, is inadequate because its authors omitted virtually all of her district – which has some the city’s deepest pockets of poverty and is most in need of public transit, she argued.

Prior to this year, people seeking council seats ran citywide, and in that system, most candidates couldn’t afford to reach voters all across the city under the city’s strict campaign-finance laws. Successful city campaigns focused their energies on winning hard-core voters and limited constituencies, most of them in the city center.

Many candidates who succeeded this year said Austin’s newly overhauled election system was the reason they stood a chance, because the district setup gave them a manageable territory to cover and freed them from appealing to a central-city power structure.

In far Northwest Austin’s District 6 – about as far from the power bases as one can get in this city – it’s difficult to discern exactly how much voters were attracted to heat, and how much they were attracted to a familiar message.

Though the races are technically nonpartisan, Republican Jay Wiley was the preferred choice of party leaders and campaigned as the congenial conservative, able to articulate limited-government principles while striking deals with colleagues to his left due to dint of personality. Fellow conservative Don Zimmerman ran on a strident anti-tax, anti-government platform, saying Austin has been “using the suburbs like an ATM to fund a downtown agenda” – a riff on the tune he has been singing years, often solo.

Zimmerman emerged as the top vote-getter in District 6. Wiley came in third behind Democrat Jimmy Flannigan – who himself offered a scathing assessment of City Hall’s treatment of the suburbs.

In another outlying district, Oak Hill, every candidate talked about Austin heading in the wrong direction, differing mainly in tone and points of emphasis.

The five candidates in District 8 – Democrats and Republicans alike – appealed to the notion that a downtown-centric city had neglected the outlying areas. The top vote-getter, Republican Ellen Troxclair, focused on property taxes she considers too high, city spending she considers frivolous and city permitting practices she considers dysfunctional.

Her opponent in the December runoff, Democrat Ed Scruggs, also made property taxes a central plank in his campaign platform. He had supported a theoretical rail system for years but attacked the proposal the city put to voters, arguing that rail line was too costly and would unnecessarily accelerate growth at a time when the city should “give homeowners a chance to take a breath.”



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