The City Council is scheduled to get a closed-door executive session briefing from the Law Department September 14th to discuss legal fallout from Judge Robert Pitman’s August 30th decision. The judge’s order declared unconstitutional an Austin City Code prohibition on candidates soliciting or accepting campaign contributions until a year before an election. (Case No. 1:21-cv-00271, Jennifer Virden v. City of Austin.) The item is not on the agenda for action. At issue is whether the City will appeal that decision.
The mayoral and council elections will be held November 5, 2024, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s website. Early voting by personal appearance in that election starts October 23, 2024.
If not for Pitman’s decision, fundraising by candidates running in 2024 would have been prohibited before November 5th per City Code Section 2-2-7(B) and (G).
Two high-profile candidates—one who ran in recent elections and another who served three terms on the council—have expressed interest and are waiting for clarification of the legal start date for fundraising (more about them later).
Who’s eligible for the 2024 ballot?
The terms of six Austin City Council members will end December 31, 2024. Four of them are eligible to run for reelection:
Mayor Kirk Watson narrowly defeated Celia Israel in the December 2022 runoff. He won a two-year term that was set so that all mayoral elections, including this one, will be held during a presidential election year.
District 4 Council Member Jose “Chito” Vela won a special election in January 2022 to serve out the unexpired term of Greg Casar, who left office early to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
District 2 Council Member Vanessa Fuentes and District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly both won their first-term elections in 2020.
Two incumbents term-limited
Two current council members are term-limited. City Charter Article II Section 5, requires such candidates to step down. Or they may get on the ballot again by gathering signatures from at least 5 percent of the qualified voters within their districts. They are:
District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool. She was elected to a two-year term in 2014, then reelected to four-year terms in both 2016 and 2020. She did not respond to a Friday text message asking if she will seek another term.
District 10 Council Member Alison Alter. She won four-year terms in both 2016 and 2020. She did not respond to a Friday text message asking if she will seek another term.
Successful petition drives by previous term-limited council members were run by Kathie Tovo in 2018, and by Jackie Goodman, Beverly Griffith, and Daryl Slusher in 2002. All four succeeded in getting the ballot again.
The successful 2002 petition drives were all the more notable because at that time council members were elected at-large. They each needed more than 21,000 signatures to qualify for a place on the ballot.
Goodman and Slusher were reelected with thumping margins without a runoff. Griffith fell far behind her challenger, Betty Dunkerley, who garnered almost 42 percent of the votes in the general election to Griffith’s 29 percent. Griffith withdrew without a runoff.
Seriously interested potential candidates
Jennifer Virden—She is the plaintiff whose lawsuit blew a hole in the City Charter prohibition on raising funds until a full year before the election. Virden is eyeing two possible options. She could run for mayor again, meaning she would be running an uphill battle to unseat Watson. Or she could run for the District 10 seat that will be vacated by Alter, unless the incumbent gains ballot access by petition.
In a Friday email, Virden told the Bulldog, “I am waiting for clarification as to whether the fundraising window is open. I am considering both options.”
Alison Alter defeated Virden in 2020 by 656 votes out of the 24,304 votes cast in the December 15, 2020, runoff. That gave Alter a win with 51.35 percent of the votes.
Two years later in 2022, Virden ran for mayor. She plopped down a $300,000 loan to her campaign on the first day of the fundraising period. Despite Virden’s immense early edge in cash on hand, she managed to attract just $183,009 in contributions to support her campaign through the general election. Meanwhile Israel finished out the runoff by raising $706,055—slightly more than a third of Watson’s $1,978,354.
Virden failed to make the runoff. She placed a distant third with 18.40 percent of the general election votes. (Watson netted 34.90 percent in the general election, second to Celia Israel’s 40.00 percent. But Watson went on to edge Israel in the runoff by 942 votes out of the 114,188 cast.
After the election was over, Virden repaid herself $220,000 of that $300,000 loan.
Kathie Tovo—This former three-term Council Member also is considering the mayor’s race for 2024.
In a text message last Friday, Tovo told the Bulldog, “I haven’t made a decision yet about the mayor’s race but am mulling things over and will begin a period of more focused discernment here soon!”
Tovo was first elected to the council in June 2011 by knocking out incumbent Randi Shade in a runoff. That election happened in the wake of the Bulldog’s investigative report about the City Council’s institutionalized practice of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act. That practice involved the mayor and council members meeting with each other, one-on-one or two-on-one, behind closed doors before every council meeting. Travis County Attorney David Escamilla launched his investigation the day the story broke.
The Bulldog’s investigative report was published in January 2011. The Shade-Tovo runoff was held in June 2011. Like all others on the council at that time, Shade was under criminal investigation. Tovo breezed to an easy win with 56.26 percent.
When Tovo ran for reelection in 2014, that for the first election requiring council members to be elected to represent 10 geographic districts. When district lines were drawn by an independent redistricting commission, Tovo and Council Member Chris Riley landed in the same District 9. In the general election Tovo got 49.11 percent of the votes, Riley got 40.39 percent, and withdrew instead of participating in a runoff.
To get on the ballot again in 2018 Tovo had to petition. She and volunteers gathered at least the 3,516 signatures needed. She went on to get 52.73 percent of the votes cast in the general election, winning without a runoff against three challengers. That term was ended in 2022.
Like Virden, Tovo has very deep pockets. She loaned her campaign $61,807 for the 2011 campaign against Shade. Over the course of her 2014 reelection campaign she invested another $100,000 to bring her loan total to $161,807. The campaign finance report she filed January 13, 2023, shows that she is still carrying that debt.
Tovo appointed a treasurer in early February 2022 to indicate she would run for mayor that year. Ultimately she made no effort to raise funds and did not file for a place on the ballot.
This story was updated at 3:42pm September 5, 2023, to correct the erroneous statement that Kathie Tovo had not loaned money to her council campaigns. She is, in fact, still carrying total campaign debts of $161,807 from those campaigns.
This story was updated again 9:33am September 6, 2023, to correct the erroneous date for the 2024 election, which is November 5th, not November 7th.
Trust indicators: Ken Martin has been investigating local government agencies and officials in the Austin area since 1981. He founded The Austin Bulldog in 2009 and began publishing on the website in April 2010. You can reach him at [email protected].
Judge Robert Pitman’s Order in Jennifer Virden et al v. City of Austin, August 30, 2023 (18 pages)
Related Bulldog coverage:
Virden lawsuit overturns city campaign restriction, August 31, 2023