Austin’s got a $2 million mayor

HomeCampaign FinanceAustin’s got a $2 million mayor

This story was updated at 4:14pm January 26th to correct the statement made about Jennifer Virden’s total spending. The $220,000 she repaid to herself for a loan is not an expenditure that furthered her campaign efforts. In addition, the latest campaign finance reports were due January 17th, not the 16th as previously stated.

This story was updated again at 4:51pm January 26th to include information about how to file complaints with the City’s Ethics Review Commission.

This story was updated again at 10:36am January 27th to delete mayoral candidate Phil Brual’s name from the list of those who did not file a single campaign finance report. He did file one in July 2022.

Mayoral and council candidates spent at least $4.8 million in the 2022 elections

Mayor Kirk Watson raised and spent $1,953,042 to win his two-year term for a job that pays $134,191 annually. Not that the pay matters. And definitely not because he needs it. The job’s about the power to once again lead the city.

Kirk Watson on his Harley (photo from his campaign press kit)

He was 39-years-old when he first took this office in 1997, 43 when he jumped ship in his second term to run for Texas attorney general. In a couple of months he will turn 65 and qualify for Medicare. But he rides a Harley, feels young at heart, and is eager to once again do big things.

Watson’s down-to-the-wire runoff victory over Celia Israel netted him an official final margin of 942 votes or 50.4 percent of 114,188 ballots cast.

The mayor raised more than 43 percent of the $4.8 million raked in by all 34 candidates who sought office in 2022. To see our Final Campaign Analysis for the 2022 Election, click here.

The $4.8 million total for all candidates is woefully understated, however, because 15 candidates failed to file the campaign finance reports that were due January 17th. (More about that later.)

Watson’s record-breaking spending for this campaign far surpassed the $1.5 million that Steve Adler spent in winning the job in 2014, which was the last time the mayor’s office was available without challenging an incumbent.

Steve Adler

Watson spent right at $2 million without using a dime of his own money. To win in 2014, Adler loaned his campaign more than $387,000 but his mandate was far more clear cut. He beat former Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez with 67 percent of the votes.

Three of the four elected officials whose terms just ended hit the exit door with their own money tied up in campaign loans they never recouped: Adler with more than $444,000; District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo $162,000; and District 3 Council Member Ann Kitchen more than $36,000. Only District 3 Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria left office with no campaign debt.

Only District 5 Council Member Ryan Alter entered office in 2023 with a personal loan to his campaign that was not recouped, that being $19,000.

The five candidates who did not win and left the field with unpaid personal loans to their campaigns were Jennifer Virden for mayor ($80,000), Ken Craig for District 5 ($16,000), Richard Smith for District 8 ($14,200), Greg Smith for District 9 ($1,969), and Tom Wald for District 9 ($1,851). These election losers who collectively flushed down the drain $114,020 in efforts to kickstart a political career are perfectly free to keep on begging for bucks to retire their debts, as provided by Austin City Charter Article III, Section 8(F)(4).

Virden launched her mayoral campaign in 2021 with a loan of $300,000. After not making it into the runoff she was able to repay herself $220,000 of that amount, despite total spending of nearly $273,000.

Best funded campaigns won every race

Austin City Council elections are not always won by the candidates who raise the most money. But in 2022 every winning candidate had that advantage.

It’s remarkable in this election that not a single winner, with or without a runoff, pulled as much as 60 percent of the votes in their races. That held true regardless of how much money was in the winner’s campaign war chest.

Natasha Harper-Madison
Paige Ellis

Districts 1 and 8—Incumbents Natasha Harper-Madison and Paige Ellis, trounced their respective trios of opponents to easily win reelection November 8th and needed no runoff.

Harper-Madison raised nearly $159,000 while her three challengers raked up a combined total of slightly more than $21,000. She netted 53.2 percent of the votes.

Ellis spent nearly $147,000. Challenger Richard Smith spent nearly $97,000 but it wasn’t enough. She got 57.8 percent of the votes.

District 3—Jose Velasquez spent $158,000 while runoff opponent Daniela Silva spent $70,000, less than half what he did. And she wouldn’t have come even that close had it not been for the $33,000 she got from the Austin Fair Campaign Finance Fund. He got 53.4 percent of the votes.

District 5—Ryan Alter (no relation to District 10 Council Member Alison Alter) spent more than $206,000 and got 59.6 percent of the votes. His runoff opponent, Stephanie Bazan, spent at least $75,000—but her final totals are unknown since she did not file the campaign finance report that was due January 17th.

District 9—Zohaib “Zo” Qadri’s financial advantage over runoff candidate Linda Guerrero was not nearly as great as in the other 2022 contests. He spent $183,000 and got 51.2 percent of the votes. She laid out $166,000. Like Silva in District 3, she got $33,000 from the Austin Fair Campaign Finance Fund, making her more competitive.

To sum up, the two women incumbents won and the four men in runoffs beat their female opponents. As a result, the 2023 council is made up of six women and five men, as opposed to seven women and four men in 2022.

Numerous candidates failed to file reports

An astounding 17 candidates—exactly half the number who filed applications for a place on the ballot—failed to file the campaign finance reports that were due January 17th.

Two were exempt: Stephanie Hawkins in District 8 and Zena Mitchell in District 9. That’s because when they appointed campaign treasurers they signed declarations that they did not intend to accept more than $940 in political contributions or make more than $940 in political expenditures. As long as they stayed within those limits they could ignore filing reports.

Which leaves 15 other candidates with no excuse for ignoring filing requirements.

Three of the 15 candidates did not file even one campaign finance report for the entire election cycle. Three of those were mayoral candidates Anthony Bradshaw, and Gary Spellman. The other was District 8 candidate Antonio Ross.

Other candidates who failed to file the campaign finance reports due January 17th include;

Mayor—Phil Brual.

District 1—Melonie House-Dixon, Misael Ramos, and Clinton Rarey.

District 3—Gavino Fernandez Jr. and Esala Wueschner.

Stephanie Bazan

District 5—Brian Anderson II, Stephanie Bazan (a runoff candidate), Aaron Velazquez-Webman, and Bill Welch.

District 9—Kym Olson and Greg Smith.

Ignorance is no excuse

It’s not unusual for people to run for elective office when they have no intention of raising money and running a viable campaign. That’s called vanity.

But to ignore the responsibilities that come with being on the ballot runs a risk of complaints that could lead to fines.

Every candidate is provided a copy of the Candidate Packet—all 745 pages of it—issued by City Clerk Myrna Rios. The packet spelled out in detail what the candidates needed to know and what they were responsible for doing. The packet included links to documents, sample forms, and instructions.

Not that the City of Austin is going to take any action against the scofflaws.

As stated in the Candidate Packet, “The duty of the City Clerk’s Office is to accept, retain and provide access to the election documents including the application for place on the ballot and campaign finance documents. The Office is not responsible for providing campaign advice or completing, correcting or ensuring the timeliness or accuracy of the documents filed.”

If the conduct of these candidates is offensive then it’s up to up to the press to expose their negligence and the public to file complaints.

Sworn complaints initiate enforcement

If you’re upset that these wannabe mayor and council candidates can’t be bothered to comply with reporting requirements, there are two avenues for filing complaints: the City’s Ethics Review Commission and the Texas Ethics Commission.

Ethics Review Commission—Per City Code Chapter 2-2, this commission has jurisdiction over, among other things, campaign finance.

The Commission’s website provides links to a complaint form and instructions for filing complaints, which must be sworn and filed with the City Clerk at 301 W. 2nd St., Suite 1120, Austin TX 78701, or emailed to [email protected].

The rules and procedures for how complaints are processed by the Ethics Review Commission are also available online.

Texas Ethics Commission—Action against non-filers is also a responsibility of the Texas Ethics Commission, based on receipt of sworn complaints, said Commission Executive Director J.R. Johnson

“Candidates for local offices who fail to timely file their campaign finance reports may face a civil penalty from the Texas Ethics Commission of up to $5,000 or triple the amount at issue, whichever is amount is more. The Texas Ethics Commission encourages individuals who are aware of a violation to report it by filing a complaint with the Commission,” he said.

“In assessing a penalty, the Commission considers several factors, including the filer’s history of previous violations, the demonstrated good faith of the filer, and the penalty necessary to deter future violations.”

Complaints must be sworn and may only be filed by Texas residents. A page on the commission’s website explains the procedure. The instruction guide for filing a sworn complaint is here. Complaints may be filed online with the commission after registering for an account.

Complaints are not anonymous and the respondent will be provided a copy. The online complaint form warns, “A person filing a frivolous or bad faith complaint may be subject to a civil penalty.”

TEC instructions skew expenditure totals

Six of the 17 candidates who filed all required campaign finance reports for the 2022 election cycle had what seemed to be expenditures that far exceeded the amount of money raised.

Turns out this apparent discrepancy is the direct result of instructions published by the Texas Ethics Commission that require “Unpaid Incurred Obligations” to, in effect, be reported twice—once when a campaign orders something and again when that something is paid for.

Most campaigns just ignored this reporting requirement and only reported expenditures at the time they were paid.

To correct the total expenditures for candidates who did report Unpaid Incurred Obligations, the Bulldog’s analysis backed out these figures to arrive at accurate totals (shown in red in the far righthand column of the speadsheet).

Photo of Ken MartinTrust indicators: Ken Martin has been doing investigative reporting in the three-county Austin metro area since 1981. His aggressive reporting twice garnered first-place national awards for investigative reporting. Both of those projects resulted in successful criminal prosecutions. His 2011 investigation of the Austin City Council’s open meetings violations triggered a 20-month investigation by the Travis County attorney that resulted in the mayor and council members signing deferred prosecution agreements to avoid being charged, tried, and if convicted serving one to six months in jail and forfeiting their elective offices. See more on Ken on the About page. Email [email protected].

Related documents:

Campaign Finance Reports filed by the candidates are posted on the City Clerk’s website: For reports filed in 2022, click here. For reports filed in January 2023, click here.

Candidate Packet for the General Election of November 8, 2022

Final Campaign Analysis for the 2022 Election of Austin’s Mayor and Five City Council Members, current through January 15, 2023

Related Bulldog coverage of campaign finance:

Guerrero and Silva earn $33,000 runoff bonuses, November 15, 2022

Watson grabbed 70 percent of mayoral donations, November 3, 2022

2022 candidates have raised $3 million-plus, October 14, 2022

Mayor and council candidates rake up $2.3 million, September 7, 2022

Part 2: The $6.3 million election, April 6, 2015

10-1 elections cost $6.3 million, March 25, 2015

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