Here’s What the Public Records Say About the City Council Candidate
by Rebecca LaFlure
With less than two weeks before election day May 12, Laura Pressley faces an uphill battle to unseat two-term incumbent Mike Martinez in the Place 2 Austin City Council race.Early voting for the mayoral and council election started today. For a list of early voting locations, click here.
Pressley lags her opponent in campaign donations and has been confronted with concerns about her political affiliations and lack of city policy experience.
She is also running for the council seat unofficially reserved for a Hispanic member.
Pressley, who earned a doctorate in chemistry and owns bottled water company Pure Rain LLC, admits she’s not a “career politician,” but said she would bring a much-needed business and science background to City Hall.
Although Martinez leads Pressley in overall endorsements, she has received support from a wide-range of organizations—including Better Austin Today Political Action Committee, El Concilio Mexican-American Democrats, Austin Neighborhoods Council, and Capital Metro Employees Union—several of which have expressed dissatisfaction with Martinez’s decisions.
“We don’t have anybody on the council to ask hard questions,” Pressley said. “That’s what I’ll do.”
In an effort to educate Austin residents about their elected officials before the election, The Austin Bulldog researched the backgrounds of incumbents and major challengers vying for a seat on the Austin City Council.
We used an organized plan to find locate, copy and publish every public record we could find, and compiled links to relevant news articles from local publications.
We invite readers to review our latest report and documents on Pressley, and let us know if there are any details we overlooked or items that warrant further investigation.
After more than a month of public mulling, Pressley announced at a January 20 press conference that she would run against Martinez for the Place 2 council seat.
The decision was significant in that the city’s decades-old “gentlemen’s agreement” unofficially reserves seats for an African American and Hispanic member in an effort to maintain diversity on the council. If Pressley won, she would unseat the council’s only Hispanic member.
The council’s Hispanic member also historically serves as a representative for East Austin’s Latino community. Martinez is an East Austin resident and worked as a firefighter for 13 years at the same East Austin fire station. Pressley, however, has never lived in East Austin, and owns a home in the Allandale neighborhood in Northwest Austin, according to property records.
“Over the years Mike Martinez has done very little to help the Hispanic community,” Pressley said at her press conference. “We need a change at City Hall—regardless of skin color—and directly do what’s important for East Austin and all of Austin.”
Pressley decided to run against Martinez with the support of several East Austin and Hispanic activists who feel Martinez has not addressed their concerns—including Joe Quintero, a longtime Eastside resident who ran a failed City Council campaign against Martinez in 2009, and Marcelo Tafoya, former District 12 director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).
She received early endorsements from the Greater East Austin Neighborhood Association and the El Concilio Mexican-American Democrats, led by Gavino Fernandez, who spoke out against Martinez’s use of Holly Good Neighbor funds.
Austin Energy created the Holly program in the 1990s to minimize the effects the Holly Power Plant had on the surrounding neighborhood by repairing homes and investing in neighborhood and recreation facilities. However Fernandez and other residents argued that the program has strayed from its original intentions over the years by giving money to buildings not in the program area and funding community events, such as the for-profit Pachanga Latino Music Festival, that don’t directly benefit Holly neighborhood residents.
“The policy decision to include such events in the Holly Good Neighbor Program was initiated by previous councils and supported by the entire council each and every year,” Martinez said in a February e-mail to The Austin Bulldog. “We continue to support programs that provide cultural and heritage components for this community.”
Fernandez, who according to the Austin American-Statesman received a no-interest loan from the program in 2007 to reconstruct his family’s home, also pointed out that many of the program’s recipients have donated to Martinez’s campaigns.
“The Holly Good Neighbor program is a key one that East Austinites are frustrated with. I would represent them on that,” Pressley said. “I would not waste the money the way he wasted it.”
However, Pressley is likely to have no effect on the Holly Good Neighbor Program if elected. The council unanimously voted October 20 to approve the program’s funding plan for fiscal year 2011-2012, its last scheduled year of funding.
Martinez, who has been in charge of compiling suggestions on how to spend the money and presenting them to the council, said the program and subsequent changes were instituted long before his arrival to City Hall, and many of the changes were made at the request of the same people who now criticize them.
Martinez, as evidenced by the crowd at his January 27 campaign kickoff, has a large group of supporters in Austin’s eastside and Latino communities.
Former Travis County Commissioner Richard Moya, former State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, former Mayor Pro Tem John Treviño, and former AISD Board President and Austin Mayor Gus Garcia hosted a press conference April 23, emphasizing their hope to keep a Latino voice on the Austin City Council.
Pressley grew up in Mansfield, a town outside Dallas, as the daughter of a cattle auctioneer at the Fort Worth stockyards.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Houston in 1988 and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin in 1994. Both universities confirmed that Pressley attended and received degrees from these institutions.
She went on to spend 17 years in the semiconductor industry, most recently at Motorola spinoff Freescale. There, she worked from 2006 to 2011 as an engineer and engineering manager, and was the gross-margin manager from 2010 until early 2011. As gross-margin manager, Pressley said her job was to “define cost reductions and efficiency projects with engineering teams in Austin and Malaysia to improve productivity.”
During her career in the industry, Pressley co-invented methods and processes related to semiconductor manufacturing that earned four patents granted to Motorola Inc. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.
In 2007, she co-founded Pure Rain LLC, an Austin-based company that sells bottled rainwater. She travels extensively to market the water, which is sold at Whole Foods and Central Market. Pressley said Whole Foods sells Pure Rain’s water nationally and Central Market sells it statewide in Texas.
According to Travis County district court records, Pressley started Pure Rain with Ron Blackett and David Schraub, but she sued the two men in 2009 alleging they did not uphold parts of her contract.
The parties settled outside of court, and Pressley is now sole owner of the company.
Outside of school and work, Pressley devoted much of her time to supporting survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Pressley served on the boards of the Women’s Advocacy Project, and SafePlace, a nonprofit that helps survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
On multiple occasions, Pressley has publicly shared her own story as a domestic- and sexual-violence survivor who moved to Austin as a poor, single mother to pursue a graduate education at the University of Texas.
She talked about the generations of women in her family who also suffered from abuse in a 2001 press conference video at the State Capitol that focused on funding for family violence services in Texas.
Pressley has faced some pushback throughout her council campaign for publicly supporting Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul.
City Council races are nonpartisan, but historically most successful Austin City Council candidates have been Democrats. Martinez, for example, is an outspoken Democrat, and his Travis County voting record shows that he has voted in Democratic primaries dating back to 1991.
His progressive credentials earned him endorsements from 15 local Democratic organizations, including the Austin Progressive Coalition, Central Austin Democrats, and the University of Texas Democrats.
While Pressley’s support for Ron Paul may have turned off some voters, it helped garner her support from organizations like the Northwest Austin Republican Women and Libertarian Longhorns.
Pressley said she does not identify with any particular party, saying, “I’m not a Libertarian, I’m not a Democrat and I’m not a Republican. I’m an Independent, and I vote that way.”
According to her Travis County voting record, Pressley voted in only Democratic primaries, except for the March 2010 Texas governor Republican primary.
Pressley donated $500 to Hillary Clinton (D) in 2008; $250 to John Kerry (D) in 2004; $250 to the Democratic National Committee in 2005, and $201 to Paul in 2011, according to opensecrets.org’s donor database.
She also briefly served on the steering committees of Texans for Accountable Government and Fluoride Free Austin. While the organizations are nonpartisan, they are known to have Libertarian tendencies.
Pressley said she supports Paul this election season for his anti-war, anti-National Defense Authorization Act, and anti-government bailout policies.
“It’s kind of consistent with our campaign. We have to vote on our values and our morals. I oppose the violence in East Austin, and I oppose the violence halfway across the world. I don’t support the bailout that George Bush and Obama have supported, and I don’t support the subsidies in Austin,” Pressley said. “So all of those things related to my positions with Ron Paul are related to local issues also.”
Pressley’s support for Ron Paul may have been one factor in her failure to win an endorsement from the Sierra Club’s Austin Regional Group, an environmental organization.
The Burnt Orange Report posted an internal e-mail from the Sierra Club political committee to its members on April 5 recommending that the organization endorse Pressley over Martinez. The e-mail stated that Pressley “understands the problems with SH45 (environmental and traffic-related), issues of equitable cost distribution in water and electric utilities, (and) implementation of the Imagine Austin plan.”
However, the Sierra Club ultimately decided not to endorse anyone in that race.
“It is unknown officially why the Sierra Club has chosen to backtrack on their endorsement of Laura Pressley in Place 2,” the Burnt Orange Report post stated. “Unofficially, multiple club members have expressed to me concerns over the appearance of endorsing Pressley, a Ron Paul supporter who is endorsed by Flouride Free Austin and the Longhorn Libertarians, and how that might affect the credibility of the organization’s other endorsements.”
Karin Ascot, political chair of the Sierra Club, told The Austin Bulldog that the e-mail documented the organization’s first round of recommended endorsements, not its final decisions.
When asked if Sierra Club members were concerned about Pressley’s support for Ron Paul, Ascot said, “I have heard that concern simply because people who prefer minimum government probably don’t support environmental regulations. And sometimes regulation is the only thing that can actually save the environment.”
Pressley, however, said she is in favor of environmental regulation.
The Sierra Club did not mention Pressley’s political affiliations in its official endorsement statement, but stated that Pressley does not have enough experience to be a council member at this time.
“Mike Martinez has regularly been on the wrong side of the votes important to us. His main challenger, Laura Pressley, demonstrates an excellent understanding of our issues and appears to be a promising addition to Austin’s political discussions,” the statement said. “However, we have some concern that she lacks city experience at this time (she has not held volunteer position on neighborhood associations or boards and commissions), and she will need to gain experience in communicating a coherent philosophy of government.”
Pressley is confronted with the challenge of unseating a well-known incumbent with significantly more financial backing. She also recently came under scrutiny for possibly accepting illegal contributions.
At her January 20 press conference, Pressley told The Austin Bulldog she was advised to raise $200,000 to $250,000 for the campaign.
“We will easily have $40,000 to $50,000 by March,” Pressley said at the time. “I (had) a lot of donors waiting for us to declare against Martinez.”
However, Pressley has yet to raise as much money as she expected.
According to 2012 campaign finance reports, Pressley had raised $33,738, and spent $27,748 through the reporting period that ended April 2. Martinez, on the other hand, had raised $155,649, and spent $65,311.
Pressley did not report any bundlers—people who solicit contributions of $200 or more from five or more people—in her campaign finance reports.
Martinez reported 12 bundlers, who gathered a total of $45,650 in donations. Of the 12, four are registered city lobbyists: David Armbrust, attorney with Armbrust & Brown; Michael Whellan, an attorney at Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody; Nikelle Meade, partner and real estate attorney at Brown McCarroll; and Snapper Carr, partner at Focused Advocacy.
The report also raised questions about a donation from the Amalgamated Transit Union, an out-of-state political action committee. Pressley admitted in the story that she did not file the paperwork required for the donation to qualify as a legal contribution and was unsure if the PAC accepts donations from corporate entities. (Texas candidates are barred from accepting money from PACs with corporate funding.)
When asked about accepting corporate donations, Pressley told The Austin Bulldog that she contacted the Texas Ethics Commission earlier this year about campaign finance rules, and the commission referred her to the Austin City Code, which defines a donor as “an individual, corporation, partnership, labor union, or labor organization, or any unincorporated association, firm, committee, club, or other organization or group of persons, including a political committee organized under the Texas Election Code.”
Pressley said she initially interpreted that to mean a corporation could be a legal donor, under the city’s definition.
“I’m not a career politician, but I can read English, and I was referred to the code,” Pressley said. “We refunded (the donations), and if there’s a fine or a fee, we will gladly pay it.”
Clean criminal record, but two prior warrants for traffic tickets
Background searches indicate Pressley has a clean criminal history, other than receiving at least six citations for Austin traffic-related offenses between 2006 and 2011, two of which resulted in arrest warrants. Pressley has since paid all fines, and the cases are closed.
According to municipal court records, Austin police issued Pressley a ticket on July 10, 2008, for speeding on a state highway and having an expired car registration. She completed the mandatory driving safety course to dismiss the speeding ticket. However, she failed to appear on her original court date for the expired registration charge, and a warrant was issued on October 8, 2008.
Pressley paid the fine due on February 17, 2009.
Pressley was issued another ticket on June 18, 2010, for speeding on a state highway and having an expired inspection sticker. She failed to appear in court twice and a warrant was generated on September 11, 2010 and October 13, 2010. The case was dismissed after Pressley submitted a driver safety course certificate and updated car registration.
The Austin Bulldog searched for Pressley on the Texas Department of Public Safety’s criminal history conviction database, and found no criminal history. The database only contains information on people arrested or prosecuted for Class B misdemeanor violations or greater. The information is made public only if a conviction or deferred adjudication has been reported to the DPS.
Pressley has touted her business and technology background at large semiconductor companies and as the owner of Pure Rain throughout her City Council campaign.
Prior to her campaign run, Pressley spoke out at council meetings to oppose adding fluoride to tap water.
If elected, Pressley said she would push Austin Energy, the city-owned utility that recently proposed a rate increase, to evaluate its budget and reduce costs. Pressley said she would support a similar cost analysis in the city’s other large departments.
“Why does Austin Energy not have the bandwidth to cut their own costs?” Pressley said at the Austin Neighborhoods Council candidate forum. “I want to be there to ask those questions and push those effectiveness studies.”
Pressley also advocates for the council to give priority to local companies when issuing city contracts, and is critical of economic incentives the council awarded to large companies, such as approving an $8.6 million property tax rebate for Apple to build a new campus at an estimated capital cost of $304 million and bring about 3,600 new jobs to the city.
Critics argued the tax breaks were unnecessary, particularly after The Arizona Republic reported that Phoenix—cited as Austin’s chief competition for the new campus—was never in the running to attract Apple.
Pressley also pointed out that the Apple facility will be constructed in far North Austin, on land that’s in the Round Rock Independent School District.
“One of the biggest faults with the (return on investment) calculation is it doesn’t take into consideration where the facility is going be. We’re not event going to get the AISD taxes for this,” Pressley said. “My bar would have to be very high to get an incentive. Apple does not meet the bar.”
Martinez stood by his decision to vote in favor of the Apple incentive package at the Austin Neighborhoods Council forum.
“It’s a vacant tract of land that’s not generating property tax revenue today,” Martinez said. “With the addition of the 3,600 jobs, you have to factor in all the additional benefits in sales tax. We will still reap the benefits of the sales tax from the commodities that will be used to construct that facility.”
Pressley also touts her knowledge in environmental issues. She criticized Martinez’s support for the construction of Water Treatment Plant 4, a hotly-debated project approved by a narrow 4-3 majority that insisted it was necessary to keep up with Austin’s water needs. Critics argued that water use peaked years ago despite a growing population and the problem was not treatment capacity but the possible shortage of adequate raw water supplies, hence their emphasis on stronger programs for water conservation.
On traffic issues, Pressley said she is against building an urban rail system, saying, “I think it’s a waste of money. We don’t have the ridership.”
Pressley said she is a big supporter of Capital Metro’s bus system, and she received the endorsement of the bus drivers’ union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091, primarily because of what union officials call Martinez’s attempts at union-busting.
Martinez, who is chair of the Capital Metro board, addressed his failure to garner the bus drivers’ endorsement at the Austin Neighborhoods Council forum.
“My opponent has reaped the benefits of the leadership and positions I’ve had to take at Capital Metro by getting the endorsement of the bus drivers,” he said. “As chairman I have to do what’s best for the agency and what’s best for the community as well as the employees, and I haven’t done everything they’ve asked me to do.”
While Pressley is the underdog in the Place 2 race, she has built a diverse following that hopes she will be Austin’s next new city council member.
“She has a fire in her belly and a passion for this,” Harlan Deitrich, owner of Brave New Books, said of Pressley at a December 10 event announcing her candidacy. “She’s doing this to win.”
Birth date: December 20, 1962
Current office: None
Office sought: Place 2 on the Austin City Council, held by two-term incumbent Mike Martinez
Office salary: $64,043 a year plus a $5,400 annual car allowance
Board of directors, current: None
Board of directors, past: Served on Texans for Accountable Government steering committee, Fluoride Free Austin steering committee, SafePlace board of directors, Women’s Advocacy Project, and was the volunteer development and fundraising chair of DiscoverHope Fund
Joe Quintero of the Greater East Austin Neighborhood Association works as a campaign consultant.
Municipal court (traffic tickets)
Education: Pressley earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Houston in 1988 and Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin in 1994.
Marriage record: Pressley married Leif Allred, an engineering manager at Applied Materials, in August 1999.
Patents: Pressley co-invented four methods and processes that were granted U.S. Patents between 1995 and 2005, according to the U.S. Patent Office. Three were while working for Advanced Micro Devices, and one with Motorola.
Political Party: Pressley, an Independent, has voted in Democratic primaries dating back to 1990. However, she voted in a Republican primary in March 2010. She publicly supports Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul.
Property records: Pressley owns one house in Austin. The house, located at 2210 White Horse Trail in the Allandale subdivision, is worth $469,665, according to the Travis County Appraisal District. Pressley and her husband also own a townhouse they rent out in Houston worth $341,714.
Travis County Grantee Records (87 pages, property acquired)
Travis County Grantor Records (110 pages, property sold)
Campaign Facebook: http://on.fb.me/IjM8cn
Campaign website: http://www.pressleyforaustin.com/
Note: Some Austin American-Statesman articles are linked here through the Austin Public Library online databases. Access is free but requires a library card number to view. You must log in on the library site for these links to work.Or, alternatively, Statesman articles can be accessed by searching the newspaper’s online archives and creating a user account.
Incumbent Martinez to face business owner Pressley in Austin council race, April 24, 2012, Austin American-Statesman
Money and Minds: Campaign finance reform is not a zero-sum equation, April 20, 1012, The Austin Chronicle
Mike Martinez vs. Laura Pressley, Place 2: Fire and Rain, April 13, 2012, The Austin Chronicle
New Austin Mayoral & City Council Endorsements, Sierra Club “Drama”, April 5, 2012, Burnt Orange Report
Pressley settles on Martinez, January 27, 2012, The Austin Chronicle
It’s Pressley vs. Martinez: First-time council candidate to oppose city council’s only Hispanic incumbent, January 21, 2012, The Austin Bulldog
Fluoride-free Pressley for Council, December 16, 2011, The Austin Chronicle
Laura Pressley’s campaign kicks off: Candidate Drew Big and Loud Crowd in Announcing Run for City Council, December 12, 2011, The Austin Bulldog
Fluoride critic to run for council, December 10, 2011, Statesman archives
Despite drought, three companies collect, bottle rainwater, July 18, 2011, Statesman archives
This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help to sustain The Austin Bulldog’s reporting by making a tax-deductible contribution.