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HomeCity of AustinCity CouncilCelia Israel in the hot seat in final stretch of mayoral campaign

Celia Israel in the hot seat in final stretch of mayoral campaign

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Closing attacks focus on Israel’s record, policy proposals

State Representative Celia Israel went from underdog to frontrunner overnight November 8th when she pulled off a surprise first-place finish in a six-way mayoral race. 

That’s given her campaign momentum heading into a December 13th runoff against former State Senator Kirk Watson. But it’s also meant an escalating barrage of attacks and questions over her record and policy proposals.

Opponents are casting her as disingenuous on housing affordability—her signature campaign priority—soft on crime, a tool of the developer lobby, and lacking executive and municipal experience.

Pretending to be poor

Israel, 58, has also taken flak for posing as a struggling renter when in fact she owns two homes in Austin. Her first-round mayoral opponent Phil Brual called her out on this at a candidate forum, after which the Austin American-Statesman spotlighted the issue in an article October 27th.

At numerous candidate forums in September and October and in media interviews, Israel had spoken about a surprise $300 per month increase in her rent that she’d characterized as a financial gut punch.

However, real estate records show that Israel owns two small homes (of 1,479 and 1,066 square feet) valued together at $1,070,101, one of which she bought recently and the other that she bought in 1999. She rents a condo in Northeast Austin, and her campaign manager Rich Thuma said she was “between homes.” 

Statesman reporter Ryan Autullo pointed out that is Israel is “by no means wealthy”—citing her modest income as a state representative, her wife’s part-time job at H-E-B, and some part-time work as a Realtor—but he concluded nevertheless that her ownership of two properties makes her quite different from the “typical Austin renter.” 

Despite this, Israel has since repeated her anecdote about getting hit with a rent increase, including most recently at a debate moderated by KXAN December 1st. “My wife and I are renting right now, we are between homes, and we got that note from the property management company that said $300 more a month, take it or leave it, last summer. It was a shock of ice water to our family.” 

Israel’s Statement of Financial Information filed with the city shows total financial income for her and her wife of $50,000 to $110,000 in 2021 (incomes are reported in ranges and not specific amounts).

Opportunistic move

Another allegation worth examining is that Israel only recently moved within the city limits to run for mayor. In a video released December 2nd, Watson said, “The truth is my opponent only moved into the city of Austin last year to run for mayor. The first vote she’ll cast in a mayor’s race in 20 years will be for herself.”

His campaign spent more than $5,000 to promote that video on Facebook in just the first three days since it was posted, and reached more than 150,000 people, according to Facebook’s Ad Library. The campaign also included the accusation in a mailer sent to prospective voters.

Watson isn’t questioning Israel’s actual eligibility to run for mayor—she meets the residency requirement in the city charter, which is just six months—but he is implying that she made an opportunistic political move.

Israel’s own ballot application confirms that she moved within the city limits in 2021. In the sworn application, dated August 9, 2022, she stated that she had continuously lived in the City of Austin for just one year and zero months. 

Israel bought this home just east of Austin in 2001 and sold it in 2021 (Google Maps Street View)

Real estate records confirm that she sold her home at 3604 Carla Drive, which is outside the city limits in an unincorporated part of Travis County, September 29, 2021, before moving into Austin. She had purchased the home in 2001 and last registered to vote at the address in 2014, before updating her registration with an Austin address in October 2021, according to voter registration applications obtained by the Bulldog by public information request. The online records of Travis County registered voters dated November 23rd shows that Israel’s address is on E. Yager Lane, where she rents.

Watson’s accusation therefore has a ring of truth to it. That said, Israel’s former home at 3604 Carla Drive is barely outside the city limits and is virtually surrounded by incorporated parts of the city. It’s about three miles east of I-35 and a mile and half north of LBJ Early College High school. 

Israel first came to Austin in the 1980s and has long identified as an Austinite, despite her long-time residency just outside the city limits. She registered to vote in Austin several times in the 1990s, has worked for several Austin companies, has served on the boards of Austin nonprofits, and has long represented Austin constituents as a member of the Texas House of Representatives (her district include northeast Austin, Wells Branch, and half of Pflugerville).

Homestead exemption

Watson’s campaign has also criticized Israel for having a homestead exemption on one of her homes. Campaign Manager Max Lars wrote in an email to supporters December 2nd that this was “problematic,” saying, “If she’s a renter, she’s taking a tax break she isn’t entitled to. So, which is it?”

However, the Bulldog investigated this and found that Israel had not actually claimed a homestead exemption. Instead, an exemption claimed by the former owner carried over when she bought the property February 28, 2022.

“That exemption stays on the property for the entire tax year—so all of 2022. It will be removed automatically” in 2023 unless Israel herself applies for an exemption, said Cynthia Martinez, Travis Central Appraisal District Communications Director, in an email to the Bulldog.

Israel ‘derailed’ affordable housing project

A potentially more damaging attack concerns Israel’s record on affordable housing. A four-page brochure sent by the Watson campaign to prospective voters in recent days seeks to raise doubts about how genuine Israel is about building more subsidized housing, stating that she blocked a plan for 83 affordable housing units “after complaints from neighbors.” 

The mailer quotes an article by the Texas Observer, which reported in August 2016, “A lack of support from Celia Israel, one of the House’s most liberal members, derailed a plan to add 83 units of affordable housing in a city that desperately needs them.” 

The development would have been just west of Mopac in North Austin near the city’s boundary with Wells Branch. That article noted that then-Council Member Greg Casar, who is now a Congressman-elect, was “especially critical of her decision.” Casar has not endorsed either Israel or Watson. 

Greg Casar

At the time, Israel defended herself in a statement in which she said the proposed project “was not served by public transit and was not safe or accessible for pedestrians.” She pointed to two other affordable housing projects that she had supported.

She said, “I know that at times it is hard for some advocates in the daily fight for affordability to imagine, but not every project with ‘affordability’ in the title is a winner. I look forward to helping to continue to create actual affordability for our residents most in need.” 

Watson’s mailer contrasted Israel’s role in that episode with his own role in launching an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, “helping create over 1,400 affordable units in Austin,” and passing a homestead preservation law. 

Israel released a video Sunday responding to Watson’s attacks and reiterating that housing affordability is her top priority: “Unfortunately my opponent is distorting my record to attack me and to scare you.. This campaign is about who can afford to live here and who gets to decide.” 

Legislative record

Israel’s legislative record has also provided fodder for her critics. As previously reported by the Bulldog, Israel delivered a dismal performance as chair the House Democratic Campaign Committee. 

During her eight years in the Texas House, she passed eight bills, four of which did little more than tweak an existing deadline or procedure. Watson criticized her for this in a recent video, saying, “She just doesn’t have a record of getting things done. As a state representative, she passed zero bills in the last legislative session. My opponent isn’t a bad person, but she hasn’t…proven she can lead Austin in the direction it needs to go.” 

Controversially, Israel also shot down funding for a state fund to aid crime victims—an issue spotlighted by both the Watson campaign and an allied political action committee in advertisements.

As the Bulldog reported, Israel killed that funding using a floor maneuver, without offering explanation at the time. In response to criticisms during the campaign, however, she clarified that she did so because she objected to the source of funding, which would have taken money away from community colleges and other local governments. Israel’s maneuver did not actually negatively impact the victim fund because the legislature eventually settled on an alternative funding source. 

‘Defund the police’ criticism

On the issue of public safety, Israel has come under attack from Save Austin Now, the political action committee that initiated two petition elections in 2021 to ban public camping (which passed) and to set a minimum police staffing level (which failed). 

In an October 18th press release, the PAC took aim at Israel for voting against HB 1925 and HB 1900. The former bill sought to compel the city to enforce the citizen-approved camping ban, and the latter restricted cities and counties from cutting their law enforcement budgets. 

Matt Mackowiak

The Bulldog, which covered the legislative debate on HB 1900, noted at the time that the bill “would make it difficult for Austin to move forward with aspects of its ongoing Reimagining Public Safety process, and could even pressure the city council to roll back cuts made to the police budget (in 2020).”

Petricek and Mackowiak said that Israel’s vote against that bill “shows that she would govern just as Mayor Adler has on this issue critical to the city.” They called the city’s police budget cut in 2020 a “failed social experiment” that led to a spike in homicides and property crimes.

Most Democrats in the Texas House opposed HB 1900 on the grounds that it would interfere with local decision-making and impede implementation of alternative public safety strategies. But the bill won 11 Democratic votes when it passed in the House by a vote of 90 to 49, and seven Democratic votes and four Democratic abstentions when it passed in the senate, 23 to 3. 

Anti-camping legislation

Similarly, HB 1925 passed the House 88 to 56 and the Senate 27 to 4. Watson has cited that bill repeatedly at candidate forums, stressing that it gives the city a mandate and a duty to enforce a ban on public camping. Israel, on the other hand, has stressed a service-focused strategy to help the homeless. 

Mackowiak and Petricek claim that “Celia Israel’s vote against HB 1925 demonstrates that she holds Mayor Adler’s position that the solution to addressing homelessness is for cities to repeal their laws regulating homeless encampments. In light of this vote, Austin voters cannot reasonably expect that Celia Israel would govern any differently if elected Mayor.”

The influence of this duo in the general election was very limited; none of their endorsed candidates won or advanced to a runoff. But the group’s constituency—which is mostly though not entirely Republican—is a key swing vote in the mayoral runoff, given that Watson and Israel will split the Democratic vote.

Mackowiak, who is also chair of the Travis County Republican Party, threw his support to Watson December 2nd, writing on Facebook, “he is the better choice. Celia Israel would be a disaster.” 

Jennifer Virden

Likewise, Jennifer Virden, the Republican mayoral candidate who placed third in the general election, tweeted implicit support for Watson on Sunday, sharing photos of a mailer sent by the Watson campaign and urging supporters, “Go vote, Austin’s future depends on it.”

Virden won 56,189 votes, 18.4 percent of the total, which was more than three times Israel’s lead over Watson of about 15,000 votes. 

However, Israel’s campaign doesn’t seem to fear GOP turnout. It wants voters to know that Watson is attracting GOP support, hoping that it backfires and deters Democrats from voting for him. Israel’s Communications and Digital Director Parisa Mahmud emailed reporters Saturday with a screenshot of Mackowiak’s Facebook post, asking “I was just wondering if you’ve seen this yet.” 

Demolishing affordable homes

Perhaps the biggest policy difference between Kirk Watson and Celia Israel is the issue of land use and housing. While both have called for more housing and a revision of the land development code, Israel has criticized the existing code more harshly and promised a more radical overhaul. Watson, on the other hand, has cautioned that neighborhoods must also be preserved and protected. 

The political action committee supporting Watson, Stand Together Austin, recently released a video accusing Israel of being part of a developer push to tear down affordable homes in Austin and replace them with “McMansions.” 

The narrator of the ad says, “In Austin’s booming neighborhoods, developers tear down affordable homes to build high-priced McMansions. And Celia Israel helps them destroy these homes. For seven years, Celia Israel got permits for developers to knock down over 30 livable homes and duplexes.” 

Israel’s former employer Kerry Tate confirmed Israel’s role in this type of work, while defending her. She wrote on Facebook, “As a local woman-owned business, we build five to ten homes annually, each requiring a slew of applications and permits—for construction plans, waste/wastewater, electric utilities, tree protection, certificates of occupancy. And yes, demolition permits.” 

“Celia’s task has been to wait in line with hundreds of plumbers and electricians and builders just like us who apply, wait to receive and pay handsomely for these various permits required by city government. This job takes time, tenacity and patience and she served us well.”

The attack plays into broader fears among some Austinites about displacement, gentrification, and neighborhood rezoning. 

‘Both candidates leave a lot to be desired’

Ora Houston

Ora Houston, a former city council member representing District 1 in northeast Austin, cited this same concern in an email to friends and neighbors. Though she said she would vote for Israel, she worried that both she and Watson were “strongly influenced by property development enterprises.”

Houston wrote, “Deciding who to vote for as Austin’s next mayor has been extremely difficult for me,” adding, “Israel’s and Watson’s policies will both be bad for ordinary Austinites.”

“Based on their platforms, as well as their actions as elected officials, both candidates leave a lot to be desired. They both appear to be strongly influenced by property development enterprises and the transportation industry. I fear neither candidate will consider the impact of their short or long term decisions on ordinary Austinites. I also fear neither will even listen to ordinary Austinites.”

Others disagree, of course. Israel is endorsed by three former and three current city council members—Vanessa Fuentes, Natasha-Harper Madison, and Chito Vela—as well as Congressman Joaquin Castro, several current and former state lawmakers, and numerous community leaders and nonprofit leaders.

Early voting runs through Friday, December 9th at 7 pm, and is available at 17 voting locations. Election Day is December 13th. In addition to the mayoral race, three council seats are up for grabs. Only voters in Districts 3, 5 and 9 will be able to cast a ballot in one of those races. 

According to the Travis County Elections Division, turnout has been very low so far, with just 21,264 voters casting ballots through Sunday, which is 3.4 percent percent of registered voters.

Trust indicators: Bulldog reporter Daniel Van Oudenaren is a journalist with 14 years experience in local, state, and international reporting. 

Bulldog Editor Ken Martin contributed to reporting for this article. 

Related Bulldog coverage: 

Celia Israel blasted for defunding crime victims—but is it true? December 1, 2022

Mayor Watson’s scheme broke law, Senator Watson’s bill provided alternative, November 20, 2022

Mayoral race and three council contests will go to runoff, November 9, 2022

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

Watson circumvented law to fund new medical school, November 1, 2022

What kind of legislator was Celia Israel? October 28, 2022

What kind of mayor was Kirk Watson? October 24, 2022

Candidates offer competing visions on homelessness, October 18, 2022

The man who would be mayor…again, October 10, 2022

4 COMMENTS

  1. 1. Good article summarizing the issues that we have heard since the general election.
    2. Excellent that you included Ora Houston’s comments. She has a more independent view than we usually hear, and I agree with her about the undue influence of big development and transportation companies on Austin politicians.
    3. Minor edit suggestion: under “Related Bulldog Coverage” you have “What kind of major was Kirk Watson?”, but perhaps you meant “What kind of mayor was Kirk Watson?”

  2. We have two candidates here. I see attacks on Israel for her wealth, income, housing history, legislative record, etc. But I know nothing of Watson’s wealth, income, housing history, legislative record, etc. It’s not like Watson while a mayor or a legislator pushed thru changes to solve homelessness, fix police culture, improve housing affordability and availability, properly fund the schools, etc. And I doubt that Watson lives in a rental or has assets of less than a million.

    And remember, Israel may own two houses with a combined value of $1,070,101, but I suspect there are mortgages on them? And if so, the actual value of them could be considerably less. It’s possible she is even underwater!

  3. John Tate, thanks for taking the time to comment. We appreciate your comments. Not sure where you saw “major” that should be “mayor” because on my screen it’s mayor. Is there a ghost in your machine?

    Forget what I posted. I just learned that Daniel Van Oudenaren changed major to mayor after seeing your comment.

    Thanks for keeping us on our toes!

  4. James Peterson, thanks for taking the time to comment. We appreciate the feedback.

    It’s interesting that you characterize our coverage of Celia Israel as an attack. We don’t attack candidates, we just publish the facts and conclusions that derive from those facts.

    The personal finances of all runoff candidates were detailed in another story published later on December 5th. See https://theaustinbulldog.org/the-scoreboard-for-eight-runoff-candidates/

    In addition, we’ve published five stories focused on Kirk Watson, including how he campaigned for mayor in 1996-1997, his performance as mayor 1997-2001, how he circumvented the law to fund a medical school, and how as mayor he initiated regular private meetings among council members to discuss public business in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act. All those stories are linked at the bottom of this story (see above).

Congratulations. It looks like you’re the type of person who reads to the end of articles. Now that you’re informed on this topic we want your feedback. We want to add your knowledge to amplify, clarify or criticize what you’ve read. And we definitely want to correct the record if we’ve gotten something wrong.

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