AUSTIN (KXAN) — Early voting for Austin City Council and the Austin Independent School District runoff elections began Thursday.
In the runoff race for Austin City Council District 6 in northwest Austin, the political rhetoric has been heated, with both candidates leveling criticisms at each other on the night of the November election and accusing each other of “gaslighting” at a debate this week.
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who has represented the District 6 since 2016, is facing off against challenger Mackenzie Kelly, president of Take Back Austin, which is pushing to reinstate the ban on public camping in Austin.
A PAC which supports Flannigan, and Flannigan himself, have suggested Kelly is connected to people who used a hand sign associated with white supremacy and who were wearing gear from the right-wing extremist group the Proud Boys.
A PAC which supports Kelly, as well as Kelly’s campaign manager, characterize Flannigan as “anti-public safety” and criticize some of his past council votes.
KXAN looked into the claims leveled against each of these candidates and reached out to each of their campaigns for comment.
“Birds of a feather”?
The Austinites for Equity Political Action Committee supported multiple city council candidates this fall including Jimmy Flannigan. A flyer made by the Austinites for Equity PAC, as shown in a picture sent to KXAN, references a group photo taken in downtown Austin where Mackenzie Kelly was present, as were several individuals who appeared to be wearing Proud Boys apparel and flashing the “Okay” hand sign.
“Birds of a feather flock together” the flyer reads, with arrows pointing towards Kelly and the individuals in Proud Boys gear.
The photo matches other photos from Nov. 1, where Austin police officers, supporters of Donald Trump, individuals calling for a council recall, members of the group Wind Therapy Freedom Riders and others posed together. Mackenzie Kelly was present and wearing a red dress on the right half of the photo. On the far right side of the photo, three individuals appear to be making the “Okay” hand sign.
In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League began listing the “Okay” gesture in its Hate Symbols Database. While the ADL recognizes that the hand symbol has meant many things throughout time and different cultures, in recent years it has increasingly become a symbol used to express “white power” or white supremacism.
Two of the individuals in the group photo appear to be wearing black and yellow Fred Perry polo shirts, which ADL notes are frequently worn by Proud Boys. The individual to the far right in the photo is also wearing black and yellow apparel.
ADL describes the Proud Boys as a “primarily alt-lite” group that is “misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration.” The Southern Poverty Law Center designates the Proud Boys as a “hate group,” adding that while the group denies its ties to racism, “their disavowals of bigotry are belied by their actions.”
Austin Police Department said its officers in the photo were working to provide a safe environment during the event and had been asked to stand in a group photo.
“We are aware of the concerns raised by this photograph and have launched an Internal Affairs investigation to determine any potential violations,” the department said on Nov. 3.
In KXAN’s previous coverage about this photo, Wind Therapy Freedom Riders said the day the photo was taken, the WTFrs “Re-fund the Police” rally happened to run into a “Recall Mayor Adler” rally, and both groups mixed together. WTFrs told KXAN the men in the photo who held up the “Okay” sign were not invited to the rally, not part of their group, and photobombed the group without their knowledge (the moments right before the photo was taken can be viewed near the 38:50 mark on the live stream video WTFrs posted).
Andy Hogue, Kelly’s campaign manager, and Travis County Republican Party Communications chair, gave a similar explanation for why the individuals holding up the “Okay” sign wound up in the photo. Hogue emphasized Kelly did not pose in the photo with the people who held up the hand signs.
“There was a large group photo being taken of a peaceful demonstration supporting funding the police and nothing more,” Hogue said. “The people in question jumped into the far left-hand side of the crowd outside of the candidate’s field of vision, as plainly demonstrated by the photo.”
“Any attempt to link our candidate to a specific organization that she has absolutely zero connection to is absurd,” Hogue said, then noting his concern over what he believes to be “radical” political leanings and social media posts by Flannigan’s field director.
While Kelly’s campaign said she has no connection to these groups, an individual named Christopher Ritchie, who has a Twitter profile photo that includes him flashing a hand sign and standing in front of a Proud Boys flag, has continued to show support for Kelly on social media.
Ritchie’s Twitter bio contains “POYB,” which ADL notes, is a Proud Boys acronym for “Proud of Your Boy.” The YouTube channel with Ritchie’s videos shows him attending the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as demonstrations in Portland, Oregon, this fall.
After Twitter commenters suggested Monday that a message from Flannigan’s field director would hurt the candidate’s chances of reelection, Ritchie wrote on the social media site he would print the message from the field director and “hang it on every door in D6.”
KXAN was sent a screenshot of a posting on Dec. 22, 2019 from the “Take Back Austin” Facebook group, which shows Ritchie asking “How does one go about running for city council.” Kelly replied to Ritchie’s post and said “Sending pm.”
The individual who sent the screenshot, who wished to remain anonymous, also sent KXAN a screenshot taken Nov. 2, 2020 of Ritchie’s Twitter followers, which showed Kelly among them. But presently, Kelly does not follow him on Twitter.
KXAN asked Kelly’s campaign if she spoke with Ritchie about running for office and if she accepts his support for her campaign.
Hogue replied “Mr. Ritchie makes appearances at many local events and met the candidate and is a member of the Take Back Austin Facebook Group. Any attempt to read more into those simplest of interactions is absurd.”
At a candidate forum this week, when Flannigan brought up Kelly’s participation in the group photo on Nov. 1, she said, “I do not stand with white nationalists, I do not support racism, and the circumstances regarding the photo that he is speaking about is such that I did not know that those people were present.”
“My opponent’s words simply do not match her actions,” Jimmy Flannigan told KXAN in an email Wednesday. Flannigan pointed to Kelly taking photos with InfoWars host Owen Shroyer at a Travis County GOP event and posting about it on social media. Shroyer has openly promoted conspiracy theories, including conspiracy theories that George Floyd’s death was a hoax.
But Hogue chalked up the suggestion from Kelly’s opponents that she is connected to Shroyer as just “mudslinging.”
“Mr. Shroyer makes appearances at many local events and met the candidate,” Hogue told KXAN. “Attempting to read more into that is absurd. “
This week, the political action committee for the Austin Police Association shared a video urging voters not to vote for Flannigan.
The 16-second video referred to Flannigan as “the most anti-public safety council member in Austin history.”
Citing Flannigan’s actions on council over the past year, Hogue added a caveat to the label from APA: “if Flannigan is not the most anti-public safety council member in modern Austin history then he is awfully close.”
Flannigan, of course, vehemently disagrees with that assessment. He told KXAN the APA video represents “extreme rhetoric and misrepresentations from my opponent and her supporters.”
“My steadfast commitment to public safety is why my colleagues appointed me chair of the city’s Public Safety Committee, and why I have received the continued support and endorsement of both the Austin Firefighters Association and the Austin EMS Association,” Flannigan said.
The council created a Public Safety Committee—which Flannigan chairs—in June to ensure the city follows through on its plans for police reform and to address racial justice through public safety.
A flyer from Flannigan’s campaign provided to KXAN says he is endorsed by every public safety group covering D6. Austin Police Association posted on social media on Nov. 19, saying this claim by Flannigan was a lie, because they do not support him.
APA, which represents more than 1,800 men and women who work as police officers for APD, did not endorse any council candidates during the November election, which featured five races and many candidates.
Commander Donald Baker, committee chair of the Austin Police Association PAC, explained to KXAN the PAC had recommended several candidates in the District 6 and District 10 runoffs, but none of those recommended candidates were the incumbent council members.
“We could not support the current council,” Baker said, citing the council’s actions this year to make cuts to the APD budget and to cancel police cadet classes while training materials are revised.
On Sept. 24, APA’s political action committee did pay $12,000 for polling expenses. On Oct. 28, the PAC reported spending money to oppose Flannigan’s reelection campaign as well as Council Member Alison Alter’s campaign. Both Flannigan and Alter are now the two incumbent council members whose races went to a runoff election this year, as neither got 50% of the vote.
Baker told KXAN the APA PAC waited to make an endorsement until the association talked to its members about which candidates they could see themselves putting support behind.
KXAN asked Flannigan how this campaign flyer squares with APA’s endorsement of Kelly.
“For the entire duration of this year-long campaign, I was the only candidate to receive public safety endorsements—from both the Austin Firefighters Association and the Austin EMS Association—and printed my campaign materials in early November accordingly,” Flannigan responded, adding he was not offered a chance to earn APA’s endorsement. “It is only at the 11th hour that APA has decided to get involved in this race.”
Flannigan said of APA’s criticism of his public safety record on the council, “the very association who purports to be trained to de-escalate conflicts has instead escalated the rhetoric, falsely describing the work we are doing to address widely agreed-upon issues of fiscal responsibility and training within the police department.”
On APD cadet classes
The video ad from the APA states Flannigan “shut down the police academy.”
The Austin Police Department Academy is on pause, but that is a result of a series of decisions from the council as a whole and city staff over the course of the last year.
APD cadet classes have been put on pause following a third-party investigation into alleged racism and homophobia in the department earlier this year, as well as an ongoing audit of training materials at APD’s training academy which the council called for.
The department confirmed to KXAN Thursday that while none of its 2019 cadet classes were affected, two of its 2020 cadet classes were cancelled.
APD was able to graduate 42 new officers in October as that cadet class was already underway before the council decided in August to continue pausing cadet classes into the following year.
The budget that Austin City Council approved in August did not include funding for APD cadet classes. A city spokesperson told KXAN at the time that meant all APD cadet classes are canceled, including the planned cadet classes for November 2020, March 2021, and June 2021. Flannigan did vote to approve the budget in August, but so did all ten of his colleagues on the council.
Flannigan spoke to the Austin American-Statesman in October about the cadet class delays saying “it’s not a punitive measure; it’s not even a cost-saving measure.”
“The academy we have is not training people consistent with the values of this community,” he continued.
A spokesperson for APD told KXAN Thursday, “dates of future cadet classes have not been determined.
Officers on staff
The APA video claims Flannigan “eliminated 150 police jobs.”
Were 150 vacant police officer positions in APD cut as a result of the budget Austin City Council unanimously approved in August? Yes.
KXAN reported those 150 vacant positions being cut in August, and APD confirmed to KXAN Thursday the number is still accurate. Only vacant positions in the department were cut. APD confirmed to KXAN Thursday that no non-vacant (otherwise known as “filled”) positions were cut in the budget.
Did APD leadership decide to move 95 officers from specialty units back onto patrol as a result of the budget council passed? Yes.
APD confirmed to KXAN Thursday that while no employees have been reassigned yet, a reassignment of 95 officers back to patrol is expected to occur in January.
Did Jimmy Flannigan singlehandedly eliminate 150 police jobs? No.
The budget for the 2021 fiscal year, which Flannigan and his ten colleagues approved in August, will ultimately move around $150 million dollars from APD to other areas of public health and safety over the course of the next year. These budget decisions came as movements nationwide—and within Austin—pressed for racial justice and transformation in policing.
The APA video also claims Flannigan “pushed to demolish police headquarters.”
As KXAN has noted in previous coverage, the idea of moving APD’s headquarters has been tossed around for years as the building experienced issues with plumbing and asbestos.
During the budget amendment process this summer, Flannigan floated his own proposal, which included a plan to expedite the already-planned demolition of the existing APD headquarters and move the department into other city facilities.
“Bottom line: The current police headquarters building is old and in poor condition,” Flannigan told KXAN, noting the city moved the entire Municipal Court from that facility earlier this year. “Moving police headquarters comes at the request of the department itself dating back many years.”
This fall, as part of the city’s larger effort to “reimagine public safety,” Austin’s Public Safety Commission has been working on a new plan for the downtown site, which the council will ultimately have the chance to vote on. Austin Police leadership has been involved in those discussions.
Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay told the commission he believes the last time the department considered the possibility of relocating its headquarters was around five years ago.
“Specific plans for what will replace the HQ building are still being considered,” Flannigan told KXAN, “but one can imagine the value of a facility that can help address economic inequalities and support future economic success in east Austin and for the black community, an opportunity that makes sense given the site’s location.”
A heated campaign
Runoff races can often be politically charged, and the District 6 race is no exception. Both candidates claim they have been threatened or intimidated in the course of their campaign work this fall.
Flannigan also said he and his field director were accosted at his car following a get-out-the-vote event on Nov. 21 by WTRrs president Luis Rodriguez. Flannigan noted Kelly has been in recent photos with Rodriguez. The WTFrs posted on social media, countering Flannigan’s characterization of the incident and threatening to sue Flannigan.
Hogue said Kelly has received threats of violence and murder from people during the campaign. While Hogue claimed these threats have come from people supporting Flannigan’s campaign, KXAN has not been able to verify that. Hogue shared with KXAN a screenshot of a Twitter user suggesting in September that “antifa” (or anti-fascists, who ADL characterizes as a loose collection of groups who oppose far-right movements) would tag Kelly’s house that night.
- Early voting for the December runoffs begins this week on Dec. 3, with Election Day happening on Dec. 15. You can find voting locations in Travis County for early voting or on Election Day at this link.