Candidate for Austin mayor sues city over election rules

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — A candidate for running for mayor of Austin is suing the city.

Jennifer Virden, who announced her campaign for mayor earlier this week, filed a lawsuit against the City of Austin alleging it is unconstitutional to prevent her from fundraising before November.

City ordinances prevent candidates in city general elections from accepting campaign donations until one year before election day.

Virden’s campaign announcement came Monday in a series of three tweets. In these tweets, she said she would focus on funding municipal services as mayor and further expands on her platform on her official website.

In March, Virden filed a lawsuit against the City of Austin alleging Section 2-2-7(B) of the city ordinances is unconstitutional and “has the effect of silencing the competing speech of challengers.”

In a hearing Friday at the federal courthouse, Virden’s lawyer, Jerad Najvar, requested a judge put a preliminary injunction on §2-2-7(B), which would allow Virden to start fundraising immediately.

Najvar explained the prohibition against candidates fundraising more than a year out from the election allows incumbents to speak on issues as they arise but prevents challengers from doing the same thing.

“People with a different perspective, people who want to come out and challenge what’s going on in the city right now don’t have those [media] advantages. And so, they must raise money. So, Austin’s law, as it stands now, prevents organized opposition from coming together,” said Najvar in an interview earlier on Friday.

Also, when questioned why it is important Virden is granted an injunction, Najvar referenced the voters who want to start donating now but are not allowed to.

“She’s got many people who already want to contribute to the campaign, including people, you know, supporters from a prior campaign, and new people who were just organically drawn to a message,” said Najvar.

According to the City of Austin’s written response to the request for a preliminary injunction, Virden should not be granted an injunction for several reasons, including a lack of standing and a failure to be diligent in challenging the ordinance.

“In election-related cases, no less than in the more general run of cases, a party requesting emergency relief of the sort Virden seeks has to show ‘reasonable diligence.’ Diligence like that is something Virden plainly cannot show,” wrote the City of Austin’s attorneys.

The city’s response also pointed out the restrictions on fundraising were the result of a 1997 citizen initiative, and voters approved the provisions by “an overwhelming 72% margin.”

Najvar asserted he was not impressed with the City of Austin’s arguments against granting Virden an injunction.

“The city basically admitted today, and all along, is that they don’t have any reason, they don’t have any rationale to justify this ban on campaign contributions. And they asked the court for time to basically fish around for one. That’s not how the First Amendment works,” said Najvar.

Virden did not speak in an interview Friday, and Najvar did not speak in depth about her platform, but he did say Virden’s lawsuit is important for all Austinites who want to challenge incumbents in the future.

“What we’re trying to do is break open this, you know, pathway for challengers, for candidates with a different perspective to come in and disseminate their message,” explained Virden’s lawyer.

The general election is in November 2022.

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