AUSTIN (KXAN) — There are five different races for Austin City Council this year featuring a total of 19 candidates.
Council districts 2, 4, 6, 7 and 10 are open. In four of the five districts, voters could reelect an already sitting council member. The exception is in District 2, currently held by Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, who will be the next Travis County Attorney.
We asked each candidate questions about their priorities, especially in light of a challenging year dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and debates over public safety. Seventeen of the 19 candidates responded to our questions but have also participated in virtual forums hosted by the League of Women Voters.
This is the one race where an incumbent council member isn’t running. There are three candidates: David Chincanchan, Vanessa Fuentes and Casey Ramos.
David Chincanchan – Chincanchan has placed his focus on affordability, public transportation and workers’ protection. He attended The University of Texas at Austin and is a senior policy advisor for the City of Austin.
Noting many of Austin’s frontline essential workers live in District 2, Chincanchan told us:
“The pandemic has made clear to others what those of us from southeast Austin have known for a very long time. We desperately need more investment in services and infrastructure in southeast Austin and better protections for our workers.”
“We need to make real investments to create a frequent and reliable transit system specially one that serves our transit-dependent communities,” he added. “And we need to invest equitably in education programming and work to create more middle income jobs and career training opportunities.”
Vanessa Fuentes – Fuentes is a former community health advocate with the American Heart Association.
She says her priorities are to improve and promote access to public health, healthcare and social services, which will “help make our communities of color and working-class Austinites more resilient to COVID-19 and future adversity.”
She tells us Austin needs to target relief for those most affected economically by the pandemic.
“Many of our Latino families have really struggled from the economic disruptions brought on by the virus,” she said. “I’ve helped families in my community apply for RISE funds and have seen first-hand the need for user-friendly and Spanish based information, both online and offline. Additionally, we need a proactive vaccination strategy and financial stability strategy to help our Latinx communities.”
Casey Ramos – Ramos is a professional boxer and third generation Austinite, who studied economics at St. Edward’s University. He ran for the District 2 position in 2016, losing to Delia Garza.
“District 2 has been neglected for far too long,” he states on his campaign website. “Flooding, Displacement, and the Health of our residents are my top priorities… We just have to believe in ourselves as a district and as ONE community.”
“I believe if we can solve our poverty issue, the rest will fall in line,” Ramos said in an email, citing the need for income-based housing, access to health care and access to healthy food.
Note: Alex Strenger was also a candidate for the District 2 seat but recently dropped out of the race. According to his Twitter, he is endorsing Casey Ramos.
There are three candidates running for District 4: Greg Casar, Louis C. Herrin III and Ramesses II Setepenre.
Greg Casar – Casar, the incumbent, has served on Austin City Council since 2014. He remains the youngest person ever to be elected to the council.
Casar considered running for the Texas Senate seat opened up by Kirk Watson’s retirement. He recently received a high-profile endorsement from Bernie Sanders.
“Austin must recover from COVID in a way that takes care of everyday people, not just the already well-off,” he said. “That means making sure no one loses their home, saving local businesses, reducing the cost of housing and transportation in Austin, housing thousands of people experiencing homelessness and ensuring treatment and future vaccines are free and available to everyone.”
Louis C. Herrin III – Herrin is an environmental engineer who has lived in District 4 for over 20 years. He ran for the seat in 2014 and 2016.
Herrin says he plans to prioritize public safety and homelessness, among other issues.
According to his campaign website, Herrin is firmly against defunding the police and in favor of reinstating the homeless camping ban.
“I started coming to Austin in the seventies, and I felt safe walking downtown at night and moved here in the early 80s, because Austin was a town that I wanted to raise a family, and I felt safe downtown at night,” he told us. “[I’m] hearing from people in my district they are not feeling safe, they are having things stolen.”
Ramesses II Setepenre – Setepenre is a a former security guard at Austin City Hall.
Setepenre is a self-described “Self-Funded, Gay Eco-Socialist” and according to his campaign Facebook page, “Pro-Black, Brown, LGBTQIA+, Women’s rights, Indigenous rights, Sex-Work, Drug Decriminalization, Healthcare-for-all, Slavery Reparations, Living Wages, Getting money out of politics, Green New Deal.”
“My priorities include addressing poverty, affordable housing, healthcare access, homelessness, education access, climate change, small business resuscitation, and job creation,” he said.
There are four candidates running for District 6: Jimmy Flannigan, Dee Harrison, Mackenzie Kelly and Jennifer Mushtaler.
Jimmy Flannigan – Incumbent Jimmy Flannigan has served the last six years on the Austin City Council, representing District 6.
During a recent candidate forum, he stressed his involvement in the community through the more than 60 town halls and community events he has hosted during his time as a council member. He currently chairs the council’s judicial and public safety committees, and he mentioned affordability and equity as two of his top concerns.
As of this article’s publishing, neither Flannigan nor his campaign had responded to our questions.
Dee Harrison – Harrison has argued her decades of experience in crisis management for multiple state agencies and with Williamson County will allow her to address the crises of civil unrest and COVID-19.
Harrison does not support reducing the Austin Police Department’s budget and wants to add technological approaches to community safety such as crowdsourced data and artificial intelligence.
“Our police department and training academy is not ‘broken’ as some have claimed,” she said. “It is the City that has broken its trust with the incoming cadet class and the rest of our officers. That is shameful.”
Mackenzie Kelly – Kelly cites her experience as a volunteer firefighter and president of Take Back Austin, which advocates to restore the city’s ban on public camping. The group accuses the current city leadership of “poor policies and mismanagement of the city.”
Kelly opposes city council’s cuts to the Austin Police Department and says public safety is a priority that should be “fully funded.”
“Changes to several policies on the council that have been made recently were not made with the city’s future in mind,” she said. “We need fact-based and data-driven decisions made. Not knee-jerk reactions without solutions in place beforehand.”
Kelly says she doesn’t support raising taxes related to Proposition A, which if passed in November would help fund a $7.1 billion transit project.
“Our city should instead work towards making the residents feel safe and supported through policies and programs that help those residents get back on their feet,” she said.
Jennifer Mushtaler – A physician and obstetrician gynecologist, Mushtaler has argued her background in medicine makes her uniquely capable to address the challenges posed by COVID-19. She received her doctorate at Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and has served on the Texas Health and Human Services Commission on Ethics.
Her priorities include improving police, fire and EMS services in Austin, and she opposes the council’s move to reduce APD’s budget.
“We must have a public health department that is fully funded, modernized and staffed to meet the current crisis and be on the ready for the next one,” she said. “The current policies on camping and homelessness are, quite simply, a public health hazard and must be treated swiftly and humanely with responsible policy that protects the livability for all citizens.”
She added “we must ensure for the public safety and public security through a law enforcement that is funded and staffed for a growing city our size.”
Leslie Pool and Morgan Witt are the two candidates running for the District 7 seat.
Leslie Pool – District 7 Incumbent Leslie Pool is a 35-year Austin resident and has lived in District 7 for the last 12 years.
Pool bills herself as a “leader for change” on her campaign website, citing her work on the climate, women’s rights, restructuring public safety and improvements to parks and infrastructure in her district.
Pool says her biggest priority will be ensuring local small and independent businesses make it through the coronavirus pandemic financially.
“I want our iconic culture to survive, be intact, as we rebuild our economy,” she said. “I’m looking for the funding necessary to keep these local businesses going into 2021 when we hope to see significant additional relief from the federal government.”
Morgan Witt – Witt is a newcomer to the Austin political scene. Her background is in community advocacy, and she says she is “focused on serving, supporting, and empowering people through education.”
She tells us she had a “very middle class experience” growing up in Austin. Among her other priorities, she is focused on equity, affordability and climate change.
“I can’t even live the Austin experience I grew up with,” she told us. “I’m a young, white, college-educated tech professional with a considerable amount of privilege, and I can’t afford to buy a home in the district that I may one day represent.”
“If we’re going to course correct and truly become an Austin for All, we need to make equity the basis of all decisions, plans, and policies—not just to make things better now, but to also make reparations for harm done in the past,” she added. “We can’t be a truly resilient and sustainable city without equity and justice underpinning all of our decisions.”
The most crowded field is in District 10, where there are seven candidates: Alison Alter, Ben Easton, Belinda Greene, Pooja Sethi, Robert Thomas, Noel Tristan and Jennifer Virden.
Alison Alter – Alter notes before the pandemic, she was focused on supporting neighborhoods to prevent “irresponsible development” and wildfires. She says her top priority now is improving the city’s public health response to COVID-19 and stabilizing Austin’s economy and workforce.
Alter, the incumbent, says her accomplishments include co-leading the creation of local funds to provide direct financial relief to Austin’s small businesses, non-profits and childcare centers.
She says she has also focused on protecting the most vulnerable: seniors, individuals experiencing homelessness, and essential workers, particularly through partnerships and engagement with our medical providers and nursing homes.
She added, “I will continue to increase EMS and public health resources and to create workforce development programs like the Austin Civilian Conservation Corps to provide job training employment opportunities to Austinites impacted economically by COVID.”
Ben Easton – Easton describes himself as a philosopher, teacher and writer who is running as the “common sense candidate.”
With no prior government experience, Easton says he is in the race to spread his ideas about the “truth” and does not see earning office as the end.
He criticized the city council’s response to homelessness issues and stressed personal responsibility.
“As a City Council member, I would respect YOUR ability to manage YOUR life,” he said. “I would speak out harshly against those who seek to handicap and choke us by mandating that our healthy abilities be restrained and severely limited to a regimen that is appropriate for only an exceedingly tiny portion of society.”
Belinda Greene – Greene positions herself as the moderate choice. A wife and working mom, she expressed ardent disapproval of the current City Council’s and the city’s rhetoric, which she dubbed “extreme.”
“Most Austinities do not identify with extremes, that’s why I want to offer the moderate voice,” she said.
Greene specifically takes issue with the council’s “irresponsible” budget policies, tax increases and the “lack of direction” in the city’s homeless policies.
“My top priority is fiscal responsibility,” she told us. “As taxpayers, we pay entirely too much into a system that does not manage our money wisely and has not effectively addressed the issues facing our city.”
Pooja Sethi – Sethi is an attorney, mother and nonprofit founder who has been active in City Hall prior to her campaign for City Council. She stressed her experience creating a taskforce in partnership with city services to feed vulnerable communities during the pandemic and founding a nonprofit to afford services to women caught in family violence.
She has also worked in City Hall on the Climate Plan Steering Committee and on other initiatives including increasing transportation for senior citizens and funding for census outreach.
Sethi says making Austin a more equitable city is her biggest priority.
I support increasing affordable housing in collaboration with neighborhoods and AISD and expanding transit-oriented development with affordable housing,” her statement read. “As your city council member, I would work to make Austin a city where our teachers, first responders, and city workers can live and ensure I listen to the voices of my district.”
Robert Thomas – A lawyer and former assistant city attorney in Houston, Thomas points to his resume of community involvement to argue he is the most qualified candidate.
Throughout his 30 years living in Northwest Hills, Thomas has served as the Texas Facilities Commission Chairman and the Commissioner of the Texas Workforce Commission. He says these credentials qualify him to lead the city through economic development and infrastructure planning.
He supports fully funding the Austin Police Department and reinstating the Camping Ban, Panhandling and No Sit/Stand/Lying Down Ordinances. He also says he would vote against the proposed Land Development Code in order to “protect the unique charm and character of Austin neighborhoods.”
“The city council has openly adopted an increasingly disrespectful disregard for the will of the average Austin families,” Thomas told us. “Instead of re-assessing these policies in light of significant taxpayer and small business hardship, the city council has doubled down on pushing the city to extremist and fringe partisanship and positions, making all of Austin less safe and less affordable.”
Noel Tristan – We have been unable to learn much about Noel Tristan’s campaign. Tristan has not responded to multiple inquiries, and did not participate in the recent District 10 forum.
Tristan does not appear to have a campaign website. If and when we hear from the candidate, we will update this story.
Jennifer Virden – Virden is running to the right of the current Austin City Council, pitching herself as a conservative owner of a real estate brokerage firm without a traditional political background.
She voiced her staunch opposition to Project Connect, citing its increase in taxes. Virden also opposes budget cuts to APD and if elected said she would try and restore the money City Council diverted away from the Austin Police Department this year.
“I’m not a polished politician. I’m just like everyone else in D10 who are sick and tired of the current city council’s flagrant disregard for the best interests of Austin,” she said.
“My views on the needs of Austin have evolved over my 53 years here,” she said in an email. “It used to be that we had what I’d now consider more benign problems like affordability to focus on, but now we have the very basic cleanliness and safety issues that take priority. Our quality of life and Austin’s reputation on the world-stage is now at stake. If we continue to allow our image to be tarnished and degraded, we will lose our customary immunity to economic busts.”
KXAN Intern Ryan Chandler contributed to this report.