Casar hits speed bumps in bid to become mayor pro tem

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Council Members Greg Casar and Alison Alter are competing to be Austin's next mayor pro tem.

Alison Alter declared for the job after it looked like Casar had it locked

A post-election bid by Council Member Greg Casar to become the next mayor pro tem has run into trouble, with Alison Alter emerging as a challenger and several council members still undeclared in their support.

The office is largely ceremonial but has taken on fresh political significance. Historically, the council selected a mayor pro tem on the basis of seniority, without a lot of politicking involved.

Delia Garza

That changed in 2019 when Delia Garza, elected in 2014, secured the post despite being junior to Kathie Tovo, elected in 2011. The designation boosted her status ahead of a run for county attorney the next year.

Garza boasted that she was the first Latina to serve as Austin’s mayor pro tem, though the first Latino, John Treviño Jr., preceded her by 41 years. If Greg Casar secures the post, he’s eager to say that he is the youngest person ever to serve in the role.

Casar tipped his hand about his ambitions with a post on the council message board December 16, saying he had secured the support of three other council members—Sabino “Pio” Renteria, Ann Kitchen, and Leslie Pool—and one council member-elect, Vanessa Fuentes.

The mayor immediately chimed in to say that he too would support Casar for the role. Renteria, Kitchen, Pool, and Fuentes each independently confirmed their support. That appeared to clinch a majority for Casar, with six of 11 votes.

With the race apparently locked up, Casar wrote in a December 17 post on Facebook, “I’m thankful to my colleagues for trusting me with this position…I’m looking forward to building the consensus necessary to tackle our greatest challenges as Mayor Pro Tem.”

Since then, Casar has hit several roadblocks. Formally, he can’t ascend to the position until the “first meeting following each regular election of council members,” per the City Charter. That leaves rivals until January 6 to undercut the frontrunner.

Ellis opposes

Paige Ellis

The first sign of dissent came from Council Member Paige Ellis on the same morning that Casar declared victory in the contest. She wrote in a statement, “In January, the Austin City Council will have eight elected women on the dais, more than any other big city in Texas. There are several qualified women who could be a strong, unifying voice as Mayor Pro Tem.”

“Our city has gone through a lot over the past two years, and we should begin 2021 with leadership that brings us together. As far as I’m aware, discussions are ongoing.”

Ellis did not respond to December 17 and 27 requests for an interview to elaborate on her statement. Yet the statement implicitly suggested that Casar was too divisive for the role, alluding to his leading role in a number of the most controversial council actions in recent years.

While Ellis and Casar actually voted the same way on some key issues, such as the August vote to trim the police budget, Casar has become a lightning rod for opposition on the right, where he is villainized as a socialist bent on “defunding” the police. (Casar is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.) Governor Greg Abbott is pushing for legislation to take state control of the Austin Police Department. Casar has attracted national press coverage at times, and he flirted with a run for state senate in the spring of 2020 when Kirk Watson vacated his post.

Ellis, by contrast, is a first-term council member who has kept a generally low-key profile. Another difference is that she faces reelection in 2022, whereas Casar won reelection this year and won’t face reelection until 2024—if he doesn’t seek higher office first. He could only seek reelection in 2024 via petition to get on the ballot as he will be term-limited.

Ellis represents District 8, one of three western council districts. The two other West Austin districts that were contested in 2020 both went to runoff elections, and District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, an ally of Casar, was unseated by Republican Mackenzie Kelly.

Alter steps forward

While Ellis’ statement December 17 cast some doubt over Casar’s bid to become mayor pro tem, over the next five days it still looked like he had majority support. That began to change December 22 when District 10 Council Member Alison Alter expressed interest in the role. She wrote on the council message board, “I am humbled and grateful to have so many of my colleagues reach out to say they support my serving as Mayor Pro Tem.”

Leslie Pool

Six minutes after Alter posted, Pool wrote that she was switching her support from Casar to Alter, calling her a “consensus builder.”

Pool followed Ellis’ lead in arguing for a female mayor pro tem: “With a near super-majority of women now elected to the Austin City Council, I have been contacted by numerous constituents and community leaders—primarily women—asking me to reconsider my position…Having two men lead a dais of so many amazing and qualified women would send the wrong message to our community, and I don’t believe it matches the will of the Austin voters who have elected so many women to represent them.”

Later that day, Kathie Tovo also backed Alter for the position. Tovo has served as mayor pro tem in 2015-2018 and is the longest serving council member.

Tovo’s support gives Alter three votes to Casar’s five.

Natasha Harper-Madison

Meanwhile, Natasha Harper-Madison and Council Member-elect Mackenzie Kelly haven’t voiced support for either candidate. Ellis hasn’t said she’ll support Alter, despite opposing Casar.

Harper-Madison did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kelly told the Bulldog that she hadn’t made up her mind but was disinclined to support Casar, saying he had “not been supportive of me or my campaign thus far.” She said she’d rather support “someone who is less divisive and who will support more independent thought.”

Casar has built his political career on representing historically underprivileged constituencies, and he plays up his parents’ immigrant origins. But Kelly sought to undercut that portrayal, saying that Casar had “come from privilege” (Casar, the son of a physician, grew up in Houston where he attended private high school, before attending the University of Virginia.) Kelly contrasted his background with her own, saying her family had worked low-wage jobs and been evicted from home three times during her early life.

“I think we need to support someone less extreme than he is—which I have told him.”

Vanessa Fuentes

Council Member-elect Fuentes did not respond to a request for comment. In a tweet December 17 she explained her support for Casar: “At a time when our Latino community is disproportionately affected by COVID19, we need strong leadership in our response & recovery efforts. I look forward to working with #atxcouncil on addressing these disparities.”

Powers of the Mayor Pro Tem

Per Article II Section 10 of the city charter, the mayor pro tem “shall act as mayor during the absence or disability of the mayor, and shall have power to perform every act the mayor could perform if present.”

But because Austin has a council-manager form of government—also known as a “weak mayor” system—the mayor is little different from any other council member, apart from his title and certain emergency powers conferred by state law. The city charter says the mayor has “no regular administrative duties.” Instead, City Manager Spencer Cronk, who was hired by the council, runs the day-to-day affairs of the city, while the council serves in a policymaking and budget-setting role.

Practically, this means that the mayor pro tem basically just gets to facilitate council meetings when the mayor is off the dais.

Still, the position would confer political benefits on Casar. Mayor pro tem is short for the Latin phrase mayor pro tempore, which means “mayor for the time being.” The designation would give Casar a chance to take center stage during any potential absences of the mayor over the remaining two years of Steve Adler’s term. He could leverage his time in that role to run for higher office, just as Delia Garza did when running for county attorney in 2020.

Adding weight to the decision is speculation that Adler might take a position in the new Biden Administration. During the Democratic Primary, Adler was a major early booster of Pete Buttigieg, whom Biden has named as his pick for Secretary of Transportation. If Adler vacated his position for whatever reason, Casar would serve as acting mayor until a special election was held.

Given this context, the political calculus in the mayor pro tem race involves two distinct sets of considerations. On the one hand are questions of representation and political status—what Ellis referred to as the “voice” of the position. On the other hand is a practical question of efficiency and order in the running of council meetings.

In terms of the former, both Casar and Alter have appealed to considerations of equity and representation as they make their respective cases to become the next mayor pro tem.

The latter is a matter of process rather than substance. Theoretically, a council member could support a political opponent to fill the role of mayor pro tem if he or she thought the opponent would do a good job running meetings without quashing dissent.

Casar has promised an inclusive approach to running council meetings. He wrote when he announced his candidacy, “As District 4 Council Member, I will continue to represent my constituents directly. However, as Mayor Pro Tem, I would have new and different duties. We are greater than the sum of our parts, and as Mayor Pro Tem I would take seriously the responsibility to actively welcome diverse perspectives, encourage healthy debate, and help build the consensus necessary to address our greatest challenges….”

Casar willing to step aside for Fuentes or Harper-Madison

While Casar has declined to step aside for Alter, he says he would do so for “a female candidate from the Eastern Crescent.” Only two candidates fit that description: Vanessa Fuentes and Natasha Harper-Madison.

In the case of Fuentes, it would be unprecedented to designate a first-term council member as mayor pro tem.

Casar wrote a post December 21 defending his candidacy and arguing against electing a “West Austin” mayor pro tem “from one of the whiter and wealthier districts.” He faulted “antagonists” for a pressure campaign on other council members, saying, “Shortly after my announcement, many of you began receiving calls urging you to switch your votes.”

“Let me be clear, if the interest amongst my colleagues is to ensure greater female representation, you have my support. But we cannot cave into right-wing pressure from the wealthiest parts of town, simply because our Council has voted to affirm Black Lives Matter, advance labor victories, and to protect the civil rights of our homeless population.”

“We must make it clear that we are not willing to back down if we truly believe what we are doing is right for Austinites.”

He added, “Our 10-1 system was created in large part to correct historic wrongs done to my constituents, and all those on the Eastern Crescent of the city. To not select any candidate from the Eastern Crescent for Mayor Pro Tem sends a message that Council is willing to fight for equity, but only until it becomes too controversial.”