District 10 incumbent Council Member Alison Alter is running for reelection against five opponents and stands ready to defend her record of accomplishments since first elected in 2016.
“It is good for democracy for people to be running,” Alter said in an hour-long October 16 interview. “It’s good that barriers are low in Austin. I welcome the opportunity to talk about the future of our city.
“You can have all the money in the world and if you don’t run a good campaign you won’t win. And if you’re not in synch with the people you’re not going to win.”
Moneywise it might seem like no contest. So far at least. Alter, 49, has raised nearly $182,000. That’s $100,000 more than even her closest rival. Still, some of the other candidates have pockets deep enough to add rocket fuel to their campaigns. (More about that later.)
Some of Alter’s opponents want to undo pretty much everything the current City Council has done. Basically that’s a throw the bums out approach. But it doesn’t take into account that Alter has opposed some of the things the council majority passed.
Homeless camping ban—The City Council majority repealed the camping ban. “I voted against repeal because we didn’t have a plan in place to deal with problems that were wholly predictable,” she said. “I’ve worked since then…on pubic spaces and how we’re responding. Making investments is part of that strategy.”
“People are homeless for different reasons. The path into and out of homelessness depends on individual circumstances,” Alter said. While there have been successes in dealing with veterans and a building a coalition to end youth homelessness, more help is needed for survivors of domestic violence and African Americans, she said. “We need to focus on single adults.”
Land development code—The Council majority pushed hard to adopt a new land development code that would rezone major portions of the city en masse. That initiative has been halted by litigation filed by those who assert they have a right to protest rezoning of their property. Alter was one of four council members who consistently voted to oppose that rezoning plan. “I voted against CodeNEXT in every decision point because it favored special interests,” she said. “I’ve made responsible development a must in my district.”
Austin Police Department—She voted with the council to restructure the APD. “We cut about 5 percent, about $20 million,” she said. “That was reinvested with money mainly from the police academy,” primarily because of ongoing reports of racism and a high attrition rate of 48 percent. “We let the academy class in February go forward with an understanding that the curriculum would be changed—and that didn’t happen.”
“My opponents say, ‘Fix the academy,’ and we’ve been asking for that. The biggest tool we have with APD is the budget and we feel strongly this needs to be changed.”
Project Connect—The council voted unanimously to put Proposition A on the ballot, asking the voters to approve a $7.1 billion transit plan that will require a 25 percent increase in property taxes. During a pandemic when many sectors of the economy have not recovered and unemployment remains stubbornly high this initiative could be viewed as being out of touch with reality.
Voices of Austin, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that does not disclose its donors, in a September 30 press release, criticized the fact that if voters approve Prop A the taxes collected will be spent by a board that is “effectively independent for oversight by elected officials.”
Attorney Bill Aleshire, a former Travis County judge and tax assessor-collector, warned in an open letter published October 6, “If you support Prop A, you are agreeing to the biggest property tax increase in Austin’s history and the increase is permanent.”
“If Prop A passes, it will stack on top of increases you will see this year for taxes by AISD, Travis County, Central Health, and ACC,” his letter stated.
(Disclosure: Aleshire has represented The Austin Bulldog in two public information lawsuits against the City of Austin and currently represents the Bulldog in public information requests.)
Alter, however, said, “I believe the plan has evolved to be fiscally responsible. The independent local governance partnership to oversee the project will be a responsible steward. I saw my job was to put a reasonable project before voters. It will reduce congestion, provide mobility, and create good jobs.”
“It’s a presidential election year so more people are able to have their voice heard…It’s better to have the vote when people are more engaged.”
She also said there is a “high cost of doing nothing.” Even with a lot of people still out of work or telecommuting, she said that traffic has already reached 80 percent of what it was in February, before the pandemic hit. “We’re supposed to double the population in the MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area) by 2040. Every single person would have to telecommute to get back to where we were in February. The majority of jobs can’t telecommute.”
Party politics a major factor
While city council elections are technically nonpartisan, party politics and voter allegiance to a party nevertheless figure into City Council election campaigns.
Three of Alter’s opponents are Republicans. The GOP opposition is significant because District 10 could be viewed as a swing district. When City Council districts were implemented via the 2014 election, the first person elected to represent District 10 was Republican Sheri Gallo. Then in 2016, Alter, a Democrat, defeated her.
Alter’s Republican opposition to reelection comes via Belinda Greene, Robert Thomas, and Jennifer Virden.
Belinda Greene—Greene, 40, earned a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Houston-Clear Lake in 2004, according the National Student Clearinghouse records obtained by the Bulldog. Although she did vote in one Republican primary and no Democratic Party primaries, she doesn’t really consider herself a Republican.
It’s her first time to run for office and she’s learning a lot. “I’m surprised how much money is in Austin politics,” she said. “I really did not think at a local level that kind of money would be thrown at these campaigns.” District 10 candidates had raised more than $402,000, according to campaign finance reports filed October 5.
Greene, whose job pre-COVID was selling restaurant supplies, said she has been furloughed since March. “I have two kids to juggle and no school,” she said, so she’s running a learning pod for five third-graders.
Her desire to be a “moderate voice” on the council, as she said in a candidate forum moderated by the League of Women Voters. That isn’t resonating with campaign donors. She raised a little more than $3,000 through the last reporting period.
She said canceling cadet classes was a mistake and APD “will lose officers faster than we can bring them on.” She pointed to news articles in which former Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, who moved on to be the top cop for the City of Houston, is inviting disaffected officers from Austin and other police departments to apply for his department. “We’re hiring,” Acevedo told Fox & Friends Weekend, August 23. “We have 400 positions thanks to our mayor and council and we’re looking forward to finding good people.”
She said she thinks the city council’s response to the pandemic has been “weak” and business owners “don’t feel supported by the council.”
“The biggest message I’d like to get across is I’m not a politician or an attorney from an Ivy League school,” Greene said. “I believe a normal citizen can participate in capacity more than voting…I’m ready to make a difference in our community.”
Robert Thomas—If elected Thomas, 53, would make history of a sort by being seated on the council dais at the same time as Natasha Harper-Madison. What’s remarkable about that is, since 1971, when Berl Handcox became the first African American elected, the city council has never had less than one Black member. But it has never had more than one, either. The long-term decline in the city’s African-American population has only made breaking out of that pattern more difficult.
When the Bulldog informed Thomas of his chance to break through a color barrier that has stood for 49 years, he replied, “Based on the information you provided, let’s make history—but only incidental to being elected as the most qualified person in the race, regardless of race.”
Thomas does have an impressive résumé. He is an attorney who earned his MBA (1990) and law degree (1993) from the University of Texas at Austin, verified through UT’s online degree database. He’s a member of the State Bar of Texas but is not currently practicing. “I served as general counsel for my own companies. I no longer provide any other legal services,” he said. He added that he once served as an assistant city attorney in Houston and clerked in the Travis County attorney’s office, then practiced commercial business litigation.
He is currently a PhD student in healthcare management and policy and said he needs only to finish his dissertation. (His wife, Amy Thomas, is senior vice chancellor for Health Affairs at the University of Texas System.)
In 2019 Thomas was appointed by Governor Greg Abbott to sit on the Texas Workforce Commission to represent the public. He was there for eight months, according to his LinkedIn profile. “I traveled the entire state to build up the workforce, provide adult education and literacy…and skill sets to attract new businesses,” he said.
Thomas chaired the Texas Facilities Commission from October 2015 to October 2018, an agency that among other things provides planning, real estate management, and facilities design and construction.
He also spent a year ending in 2014 as a board member of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, appointed by Governor Rick Perry.
On a more personal level he has volunteered with Austin Partners in Education for “black and brown boys that needed a mentor.”
Comparing himself with his opponents in the District 10 election, Thomas said. “Nobody has those experiences.”
This isn’t Thomas’s first run for office. Or even his second. In 2012 he ran unopposed in the Republican Primary for state representative in District 48. In the November 2012 general election Democrat Donna Howard won with more than 52 percent of the votes, while Thomas placed second with nearly 36 percent.
Thomas then ran for the District 10 council seat in 2014. That was the first election under the geographic representation plan approved by voters in 2012. Eight candidates were vying for the District 10 seat. Thomas loaned his campaign $100,000 early on and placed third in the general election. Asked why he fared no better, he said, “I was personally attacked as early voting started. Polls showed (Mandy) Dealey and I were statistically tied and Gallo a distant third. Then Gallo sent out an attack mailer and I didn’t respond to it. My team said I should respond with things I had on her but I didn’t. The team said it would make a difference.” What happened confirmed they were right, he said.
This time the rough stuff is coming via a different tactic. “A neighbor walked over with a door hanger that looked like it had handwriting on it,” Thomas said. He provided a copy. “I’m not going to stand for it this time…I’ll go negative. I’ll respond.”
The Virden door hanger has a handwritten sticky note attached that says, “I know you need to have a R.T. (yard) sign as he is your neighbor—BUT, in the privacy of the voting booth please remember Jennifer Virden has the best chance of defeating Alison Alter in the runoff.”
Project Connect—Thomas said, “Real leaders don’t saddle constituents with huge tax bills when people are just hanging on. To ask citizens to swallow that immediate and forever tax increase when they’re hurting—I believe it’s breach of fiduciary duty and gross negligence.”
Gentrification—On the League of Women Voters candidate forum Thomas mentioned gentrification had hit District 10 hard. For those accustomed to hearing about gentrification displacing Blacks and Hispanics in East Austin, it was surprising for him to say this is an issue in West Austin. His position starts with a definition. “To me (gentrification) is the process of moving a group of people out because can no longer afford to live in a locale. That’s it. All around me my retired neighbors can’t afford the property taxes”…it’s a classic case of gentrification.”
“It’s not fair to paint with a broad brush that every person who lives in District 10 is wealthy,” he said. “People are entitled not to be afraid of being priced out of their homes by property taxes.”
Police reforms—“APD says it needs reform and it’s trying to engage in reform. It needs council to support them so they can do it,” Thomas said. “Black and brown people suffer the most crime and police, properly funded, provide the protection.”
Jennifer Virden—In most political families the offspring follow their parents in seeking public office. In Virden’s case, she’s following the path first trod by her son, Nicholas “Nick” Virden. He graduated from UT with a bachelor’s degree in business in fall 2012. He ran for the District 10 seat in 2016, placing last in the November 2016 general election, with barely more than 2 percent of the votes. Which isn’t surprising considering his youth and pledge to raise and spend no more than $500 on his campaign.
Mom’s not going into this race on a shoestring, though. She loaned her campaign $50,000 on September 23, 2020.
The Austin Chronicle’s coverage of Nick’s candidacy mentioned that he led the Young Americans for Liberty chapter at UT Austin. He opposed the $720 million mobility bond on the ballot that year, just as his mother opposes the $7.1 billion Project Connect. “Can’t afford it. Can’t board it,” is her campaign slogan for Project Connect, apparently referring to the fact that none of the planned new rail lines would go through the district.
Virden refused to be interviewed for this article. She offered to answer written questions sent to her but the Bulldog declined, as our experience has shown that few people actually answer questions that way. What’s needed is a conversation and she did not respond to our follow-up requests to have one.
In the D10 candidate forum moderated by the League of Women Voters, Virden, 53, said, “I’m a native Austinite. I was born and raised here, and I’ve witnessed the evolution of Austin over the past 53 years. I’m a lifelong resident of what is now our District 10.”
In the same forum, Virden said she went through Austin public schools. The Bulldog verified her bachelor of business degree in 1991 under her maiden name, Jennifer Marie Zent. In the candidate forum she referred to it as a “degree in finance.”
On her ballot application Virden listed her occupation as “real estate broker and builder.” The Texas Real Estate Commission lists her as designated broker for Austinhaus Realty & Restorations LLC.
Unlike others in the District 10 field, Virden owns real estate in addition to her home. Her properties include a vacation home at Sunset Beach in Llano County that fronts on the Colorado River. In Travis County she and/or her husband Keith Virden own three condominiums in the Castle Hill complex (one jointly with their daughter Savannah Virden); another condo on Summer Side Drive; and their own homestead. In Williamson County, Jennifer and Keith own a vacant 1.22-acre lot in Georgetown. In addition she owns 56.59 acres off County Road 261 purchased in 1992 that is qualified for agricultural use.
The most controversial item found in the Bulldog’s research of candidate background checks was her direct involvement in the heavily litigated probate of the wills left by her father, Robert Byron Zent. He was a wealthy real estate developer who died in 2015. In April 2017, his estate was inventoried and appraised at more than $4 million, according to court documents.
While the probate court files for Robert Zent’s estate are voluminous, the gist of it is that upon her father’s death March 4, 2015, Jennifer Zent Virden and her two brothers, Christopher and Michael Zent, filed on March 24, 2015, an application to probate a 1998 will that would have passed their father’s assets in one-third shares to each of them. A 1999 will also on file in the court records would have cut Jennifer Virden out of the will entirely and instead passed her third of the estate to her two children, Nicholas and Savannah.
Later wills, as well as the Omega Trust established by Robert Zent, eventually were validated by the court. One of her brothers, Michael Zent, allegedly tried to bribe Miguel “Mike” Lopez, who had witnessed Robert Zent signing a later will. He offered Lopez $1,000 to sign a false statement that Robert Zent “was not competent” when he signed a will on July 6, 2012. When Lopez refused, Michael Zent returned a few days later and upped the offer to $5,000, according to Lopez’s affidavit filed with the court. That resulted in Michael Zent’s cause of action being severed from the probate case. Finally in November 2016 the other parties, including Robert Zent’s widow, Sandra Zent; Christopher Virden; Jennifer Virden and her children Savannah and Nicholas Virden; and the Omega Trust trustee, reached a confidential settlement and mutual release of claims.
The contentious legal wrangling left a bad taste in Sandra Zent’s mouth, so much so that she has a yard sign out for Robert Thomas at her home in Austin’s northwest hills. Thomas told the Bulldog, “I got an endorsement from Jennifer’s (step)mother. She sent me $100 and asked me for a yard sign.” That $100 donation is recorded in Thomas’s October 5, 2020, campaign finance report.
Virden is running an unorthodox campaign. In addition to ducking press coverage she participated in just one candidate forum, the one hosted by the League of Women Voters. Several of the other District 10 candidates say she skipped the rest.
Instead, Virden has taken to the airwaves, running 30-second radio spots on four radio stations. In those ads she personally addresses the camping ban, CodeNEXT, cadet classes, Project Connect, community policing, and Prop A. Those recordings can be heard on her campaign website.
Virden does not list any endorsements on her campaign website. But a general purpose political action committee, Fight for Austin, issued an October 7 release to endorse her. The PAC didn’t form until September 3, 2020, and has not yet filed a campaign finance report. Fight for Austin purports to be “nonpartisan public safety-focused” group. But as it happens all three candidates it has endorsed are Republicans. In addition to Virden, Fight for Austin endorsed Richard C. Herrin III in District 4 and Mackenzie Kelly in District 6.
Contacted by the Bulldog via email, PAC organizer Matt Mackowiak, president of Potomac Strategy Group LLC and chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, responded: “We sent questionnaires to every candidate and will only support a candidate if they sufficiently support public safety. We are considering those other two districts, but have nothing to announce at this time.”
Those other Districts are 2 and 7, in which all candidates are Democrats.
“We did not ask partisan questions and don’t know how those candidates describe themselves. Local offices are nonpartisan.”
The other Democrat running for D10
Pooja Sethi, 41, is Alter’s only fellow Democrat in the race. Like Robert Thomas, Sethi is an attorney. She practices immigration law—or did until she got so deep into running for the city council. Immigration courts are conducted where there are detention facilities. In Sethi’s case, the nearest facility is in Pearsall, Texas, home to the South Texas Detention Center. Getting there involves a drive of about 135 miles each way. The drive wasn’t the only deterrent to representing detainees seeking protection or relief from deportation.
“We’ve done some research and see men do better in those courts,” Sethi said, so those cases are handed off to either a Hispanic or Asian-American male attorney. “I want to do what’s best for clients and I know they will get a better outcome.”
Sethi said she prefers to take cases involving women suffering family violence and takes those cases pro bono.
Sethi is licensed in New Jersey, where she had previously practiced, and verified by the Bulldog. She conceded that her law firm’s website is outdated. Because of COVID and running for office she has no employees. The Immigration For All portion of the website talks about free legal services for low-income immigrants. Although Immigration For All operated as a nonprofit she said she never sought an IRS exemption for it. Instead she just provided services, asking clients for a $500 retainer to cover costs. “We give back whatever we don’t use,” she said. The Backpack Project mentioned on the website is also defunct, Sethi said, but in the past she delivered backpacks with supplies to immigrant families arriving in San Antonio.
“Women released at the border would get a bus ticket to come to San Antonio. We met them and gave them supplies and talked to the kids there. It’s heartbreaking,” she said. Yet, she added, “The moms and the kids are some of the happiest people I’ve seen because they had been separated” and were back together again.
Her last big involvement with immigration court was representing six students picked up when they registered for a fake university that Immigration and Customs Enforcement set up in a sting operation. The Washington Post reported in November 2019 “that U.S. immigration officials created a fake university to lure foreign-born college students who were trying to stay in the country on student visas that may not have been legal.”
The scheme snared about 250 students. The recruiters that lured the students drew prison sentences.
The six clients Sethi represented all sought voluntary removal from the United States, she said. For that, they had to go through an immigration court and were granted it. “We call that a win,” she said. Otherwise they could have been deported and subjected to a 10-year ban. As it is, however, they are eligible to come back on a student visa, for marriage, or a work visa.
Like Thomas, Sethi also can make a bit of history. She wouldn’t be the first Asian American elected but winning would still be seen by some as a breakthrough. Fifteen years ago Jennifer Kim became the first—and still only—Asian-American elected to the Austin City Council. She won against Margot Clarke in the 2005 runoff. But upon running for reelection in 2008 Kim netted just 27 percent of the votes while Randi Shade scored a landslide 64 percent.
Sethi, whose parents came from India, is well aware of Jennifer Kim’s precedent but points out, “I’d be the first South Asian.” She views Kim as an East Asian. Given the large number of countries encompassed in each of those segments of Asia, it’s an important distinction from Sethi’s viewpoint.
Sethi, 41, in terms of Austin residency, is the new kid on the block. In 2016 she formed her law practice, The Immigration Law Offices of Pooja Sethi, and started voting in local elections in 2016. She bought her first house in 2012, she said. Appraisal District Records indicate she bought her current home in 2016.
But she’s made a pretty big splash in this campaign. She grabbed a co-endorsement with Alison Alter from The Austin Chronicle.
Sethi was one of the women who spoke at last Saturday’s Austin Women’s March that also turned out to also be a Proud Boys gathering. She said she took a turn right after Wendy Davis. Somebody handed her a bullhorn labeled “Nasty Woman.”
“I spoke mainly about voting and getting our voices heard,” she said. “It was about voting and not letting anyone silence women.”
She is the only non-incumbent candidate running this year who began raising money in 2019, as soon as the one-year window opened to allow soliciting and accepting donations.
“It wasn’t a last minute decision,” she told the Bulldog in an hour-long interview yesterday. “I had to plan ahead. I have a small child, a spouse, and needed to make sure the family was taken care of…I have a lot of people to think about.”
Through the latest campaign finance report filed October 5, Sethi has raised a respectable $86,000—still almost $100,000 behind Alter’s $182,000.
Homeless camping ban—Sethi agrees with the council’s decision to repeal the camping ban. She said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit “stated your can’t ticket or put someone in jail for being homeless.” The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, so the lower court ruling stands. She said that decision applies to a city that can’t provide enough beds to serve the homeless population. The city has 2,000 beds and Austin has more homeless than that, she said.
“I wish the city had been more aggressive about creating solutions and metrics and had a plan to resolve the situation,” she added.
Land development code—With CodeNEXT stalled by litigation, would Sethi support whatever comes next after the election?
“That’s hard,” she said. “I don’t know what version will come up…”I will work with neighborhoods on how we can move forward. I want density where it’s appropriate.”
She said she made sure that when the 2019 version of CodeNEXT was issued it was translated into foreign languages. The Asian American Quality of Life Advisory Commission, of which she is a member, passed a resolution November 19, 2019, recommending the 2019 Austin Land Development Code be “translated into the top five languages spoken by the City of Austin residents….” She said the city ultimately translated it into Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese. (“Hindi and Arabic are typically the other two languages, she said.)
“I would advocate for a simpler code,” Sethi said. “When buying a house you should know what your neighborhood would look like.”
Austin Police Department—Sethi served on the Police Oversight Focus Group that wrapped up its work last December but doesn’t favor restructuring that would take resources from APD.
“I don’t support taking millions and millions of dollars from the department. I wish there had been more engagement. People felt like that was a very fast reaction” to the protests over police misconduct.
She would advocate for a reform plan developed with District 10 residents that would bring more resources into the community “to make everyone feel safe.”
“I would love to see a way to pump money into prevention over punishment.”
Project Connect—“ I support public transit. I have a father-in-law who uses it because he can’t drive anymore. I don’t like tax increases,” she said. She realizes that economically it’s hard to ask during COVID 19.
“I really do support putting things on the ballot and letting families make their decisions. My family will be voting for it. I would try to make it more affordable moving forward.”
Bennett Easton, 61, rounds out the District 10 field. He ran unsuccessfully for Congressional District 17 in 2012. He also ran unsuccessfully for Texas House District 48 in both 2014 and 2016. For his city council campaign he pledged not to raise or spend more than $500, in effect unilaterally disarming himself in the bid for hearts and minds.
His presentation in candidate forums probably isn’t winning support either. In the September 29 forum moderated by the League of Women Voters, he sounded a bit like Jack Nicholson in the movie, A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!”
While Easton didn’t shout it, he was nevertheless forceful in saying, “I tell the truth plainly, boldly, and repeatedly. I will not—absolutely will not—be speaking the language of moderation. I will be speaking the truth.”
If that wasn’t harsh enough, he added: “I don’t think you guys are ready for me. I don’t think you’re ready for someone to tell the truth. I will be telling the truth boldly with language that most people aren’t willing to use, and I’ll be saying it proudly and gladly, because that’s the most important thing to me, telling the truth.”
Then he slammed the people who have come out to publicly protest what police have done to people of color.
“I’m, frankly, not sympathetic at all to the protestors being ‘manhandled’ by any Austin Police Department officers. I think that the fact that Black Lives Matter, whoever the people were that went out there and painted big yellow letters on Congress, that’s outrageous. They should’ve been arrested. They should’ve been fined. I do not like that at all. The systemic racism, that’s ridiculous. I don’t believe that there’s systemic racism.” (Actually the painting was “Black Austin Matters”).
He has little faith in the government even though he seeks to be a council member.
“Generally, I trust developers, bankers, architects, and engineers. I mistrust government, community boards, and special interest group helpers. So the free market, the profit motive, is the way that people get the best things at the cheapest price the quickest” he said.
In an earlier interview with Bulldog reporter Daniel Van Oudenaren, Easton said he had been a full-time teacher for 20 years and currently is a substitute teaching fifth-grade classes for the Eanes Independent School District.
“I do not want donations,” Easton said. “I’m not asking for them, don’t accept them. I do not seek endorsements, don’t believe in them.”
He has no campaign website and likes it that way.
“I am doing a grassroots, email, word of mouth campaign. I don’t believe in littering the neighborhood with yard signs. To me that’s just insulting. A good smart voter will go read The Austin Bulldog, they’ll go read the newspaper, they’ll read the League of Women Voters Guide, they’ll do their homework. They don’t need to look at a bunch of yard signs.”
An earlier version of this story misstated Robert Thomas’s role with respect to the Head Start program.
Trust indicators: Ken Martin has been covering local government, elections, and politics since 1981. See more about Ken on the About page.
Related Bulldog coverage:
Three candidates vie for District 2 council seat, October 15, 2020
Council candidates so far raised $930,000, October 7, 2020
Transit tax draws attack from the left, October 2, 2020
Council Member Flannigan’s bad debts, September 24, 2020
Council candidates have voting records too, September 18, 2020
Developer dollars flow to favored candidates, August 27, 2020