City Elections Are Nonpartisan, Right?

HomeCity of AustinCity CouncilCity Elections Are Nonpartisan, Right?

But that’s not stopping the Travis County Democratic Party from helping candidates

Updated Tuesday August 19, 2014 8:45pm

David Butts
David Butts

In Deep Blue Austin the apprehension about having a Republican on the City Council was exploited by political consultant David Butts at a meeting of the Central Austin Democrats, back in 2012 when he was stumping for passage of the 8-2-1 plan. Peck Young was on the same program, pushing for passage of the 10-1 plan brought to the ballot through a petition drive conducted by Austinites for Geographic Representation.

Butts said, you know if we have 10 council districts we’re going to have a Republican on the City Council, surely a statement meant to strike fear into the hearts of the Democrats listening.

Sitting in the audience and hearing this, I thought to myself, well what’s wrong with a little political diversity, to go along with the geographic diversity that we’re going to have with council districts?

Turns out there’s a lot wrong with it, according to J.D. Gins, executive director of the Travis County Democratic Party.

J.D. Gins
J.D. Gins

Gins believes the Travis County Republican Party is recruiting candidates to run for Austin City Council and fears if elected they will be able to build a platform to later run for state representative. Then the Democratic Party will have to spend a lot of money fending them off.

“There’s no way the GOP can’t see this as the only way to build a base in Travis County,” Gins said in a July 22 interview.

Yet the Travis County Republican Party, so far at least, is taking a hands-off approach to the city elections.

Andy Hogue
Andy Hogue

Andy Hogue, communications director for the Travis County Republican Party, said on July 21 interview, “Since it’s the first day of filing (to get on the ballot) we’re reluctant to say who our favorite candidates are but we’re grateful to have a chance to elect some conservative candidates to challenge the monolithic liberal regime we’ve had for decades.”

Hogue said the Republican Party has offered no training to council or mayoral candidates.

“If we did make a decision to train or endorse that would have to come from our executive committee and it’s not on the agenda. We’re too early in the process.”

Ellen Troxclair
Ellen Troxclair

District 8 candidate Ellen Troxclair is chief of staff for State Representative Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs), a Tea Party favorite. She responded to an inquiry with a July 24 phone message, saying, “I am not being helped at all by the Republican Party.

“It’s a nonpartisan race,” she said.

“I’m focusing on issues that I feel like people on both sides of the aisle care about, like property taxes, road infrastructure, and responsible spending. I don’t think I need help from any kind of party to get that message out there.”

Becky Bray
Becky Bray

District 8 candidate Becky Bray said she has not reached out to anyone in the party for support.

“I am not currently receiving any support from the Travis County Republican Party,” she said in a July 23 interview.

Over the years the Republican Party has offered training to candidates for higher office on a system called GOP Data Beacon, run by the Republican National Committee.

“GOP Data Beacon integrates voter and volunteer information with innovative data solutions for campaigns, committees, and other GOP organizations,” the website states. A smart phone app for databeacon is available for iPhones. One website described it as “a tool designed to make canvassing easier, more efficient, and more tech-friendly for GOP campaign volunteers. The app will allow volunteers to track their progress on given routes, record responses given by voters on their political preferences, and to upload it back to the Republican National Committee’s CRM tool.”

Democratic Party definitely assisting

The Travis County Democratic Party is helping mayoral and council candidates who are deemed sufficiently loyal to the party. To get that help the candidates must sign an Oath of Affiliation per the rules of the Texas Democratic Party, Gins said.

The Travis County Democratic Party held a council candidates school May 17 that was attended by some 60 people, including candidates and campaign staff, Gins said in a July 21 e-mail.

“We had an amazing lineup covering a number of topics. Our speakers included Gen Van Cleve, campaign manager for the Diana Maldonado Campaign, who gave the basics of organizing your campaign plan,” Gins said.

He said the other presenters included:

• Heidi Gerbracht, policy director for City Council Member Bill Spelman, who gave an understanding of how City Hall works.

• Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas, who talked about formulating basic messaging.

• Sheila Healy, coordinated campaign director for the Texas Democratic Party, explained how the Voter Activation Network works.

• Emily Williams presented Fundraising 101.

• Becky Moeller gave a presentation on navigating the world of endorsing groups.

• Ross Peavey outlined basic compliance rules and deadlines.

“I also peppered lots of discussions with leading questions and gave some basic advice on how to go about formulating a field strategy,” said Gins, who was campaign manager for Lee Leffingwell’s mayoral campaigns in 2009 and 2012. Gins was also field director and deputy campaign manager for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White in 2010, he said.

“Robert Thomas was not admitted to the training based on his run for state representative as a Republican against a sitting Democratic incumbent in 2012,” Gins said in a July 28 e-mail. Thomas garnered 35.54 percent of the votes in the District 48 race, losing to Donna Howard, who won with a margin of 59.20 percent. (Libertarian Nick Tanner got 4.98 percent.)

Gins said one woman was turned away from training because “she was not okay with being listed as a Democrat. Other than that, everyone who showed up was allowed to attend.”

He stressed that the training was open to all Democrats but the party is not endorsing mayoral or council candidates.

“It is in all our best interests to see well run campaigns from our Democrats running for council. I believe it is possible the races in certain districts can help drive turnout up, and in a District like 3, where turnout is traditionally low in governor year races, that it is great for the entire Democratic slate of candidates up the ballot,” Gins said.

“If runoffs emerge where it is clearly a Republican running against a Democrat the party might take action (because) allowing Republicans to take seats on the city council without a challenge only allows them to build their bench….”

Voter Activation Network

The Texas Democratic Party has provided 23 mayoral and council candidates with access to the party’s Voter Activation Network (VAN), a sophisticated database of registered voters and voting history.

“My guess is more candidates will rent access in coming months,” Gins said.

The list Gins provided indicates that mayoral candidates Stephen Ira “Steve” Adler and Michael William “Mike” Martinez have obtained VAN access, as have at least one candidate in every City Council district.

The one-time fee for VAN access is modest, and the amount depends upon the number of registered voters in the district, Gins said.

District 1 candidate Ora Elliott Houston paid $300 for VAN access, according to her Contribution and Expenditure Report filed July 15, 2014, while mayoral candidate Martinez reported spending $1,100.

Marco Mancillas
Marco Mancillas

District 4 candidate Marco Mancillas, who is running in a field of nine other candidates, is among those using VAN.

Mancillas is enthusiastic about this tool and utilizes it for such tasks as “cutting turf,” a phrase used to describe the process of providing electronic maps to each volunteer who is walking neighborhoods and knocking on doors for the candidate.

The maps can be read on a volunteer’s smart phone.

Once the volunteer’s work is completed, the block walker can update the VAN database to indicate which voters are supporting Mancillas, which are undecided, and which are supporting another candidate.

“It’s a new way of doing things,” Mancillas said. “The great thing about VAN is you can talk to voters you want to. It depends on the target you want to hit. You can select all Democrats who voted in local primary and general elections and it brings you a list.”

Jim Wick
Jim Wick

Actually the VAN is not new but it is being used this year for the first time in the City of Austin elections, Jim Wick said in a July 30 interview.

Wick is managing Steve Adler’s mayoral campaign this year and ran Bill Spelman’s 2012 reelection campaign. “It was not available to us then,” he said. “It is definitely a powerful tool.”

Although VAN is being used by the Adler mayoral campaign, it’s not perfect, Wick said. “Most of the municipal voting records are not in the VAN. “Those records would be incredibly important, but it does have all the primary and general election” data.

Wick is supplementing VAN data with records that he gets from the voter registrar and manipulates to suit the campaign’s needs.

“The other problem is the VAN is not coded for city voters at all, or council districts,” Wick said. Instead, the data is arranged by whole intact precincts but without coding of voters to denote the district or municipality.” Another problem is that some voter precincts are actually split between council districts, or have part of the precinct inside the city and part outside.

Gins said, “That level of municipal data has never been a priority for the party.”

Matt Stillwell
Matt Stillwell

While the VAN appears to be favored by the less experienced candidates it is not being used by some experienced candidates like Matthew Duane “Matt” Stillwell, a District 6 candidate (Correction: an earlier version of this story erroneously stated that Stillwell was a District 5 candidate) who in 2012 ran for state representative as a Democrat in District 136. He got 40.71 percent of the vote but lost to Republican Anthony Dale, who got 53.05 percent.

“I personally don’t like VAN,” Stillwell said in a July 23 interview. “I’m using a different tool: NationBuilder.”

Gins said, “It is interesting to note that NationBuilder is available to anyone of any party, whereas VAN is a Democratic tool. Some Democrats don’t trust putting data in NationBuilder for various reasons but mostly because Republicans can use it and there are concerns about how secure the data is. …

“In a city race in Austin I don’t think those concerns really matter.”

Majority of city candidates Democrats

In Texas voters do not register with a political party. The only public record of a person’s party affiliation is in which party’s primary elections they have voted.

The field of actual candidates won’t be set until the close of business Monday, August 18, the last day to file for a place on the ballot. But as of this writing seven candidates have appointed campaign treasurers indicating they will run for mayor, while 66 have appointed treasurers to run for council seats (the latest being Mackenzie Kelly in District 6, who appointed a treasurer Monday, and Jose Antonio Vallera in District 3, who did so Tuesday).

Three council candidates appointed treasurers but have indicated they are no longer a candidate and they are not included in the 66: Miguel M. Ancira in District 3 and Chelsea Elizabeth Brass and Gabriel “Gabe” Rojas in District 4.

The Austin Bulldog’s analysis of the Mayoral and Council Candidate Voting History records obtained from voter registrars in Travis and Williamson counties indicate that:

• 48 candidates have voted exclusively in Democratic primaries.

• 7 candidates have voted only in Republican primaries.

• 16 candidates have voted in both parties primaries. Of these, 10 have voted more often in GOP primaries, 5 have voted more often in Democratic primaries, and one voted the same number of times in each.

• 2 candidates are registered to vote but have not cast ballots in any election: Frank R. “Franko” Guajardo in District 3 and Xavier Hernandez in District 4.

Republican-leaning candidates actually make up the majority of the field in Council District 6 and constitute fully half the candidates running in Districts 5 and 10.

District 3 candidate Sabino Pio Renteria and District 5 candidate Ann Kitchen have each voted in 22 Democratic Primary elections since 1990, which is as far back as the Travis County Voter Registrar’s electronic records go. That’s the highest number of Democratic Primary votes cast by the candidates in this election.

District 5 candidate Luis Miguel “Mike” Rodriguez tops the Republican candidates, having cast ballots in 15 GOP primaries since 1996.

Link: Mayoral and Council Candidate Voting History

Related Bulldog coverage:

Travis County Democrats Upbeat: Pep rally revs crowd to achieve the dream of turning Texas blue, July 22, 2014

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.

Related Content

Ethics? Who gives a damn?

“I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now, and go to the...

They’re off and running for council

As in horse racing, the bugler has sounded, “Call to the Post” for the Austin City Council campaigns that are now officially underway. A well...

Are tax subsidies for luxury development legal?

In a lawsuit filed last April plaintiffs sought a permanent injunction to prevent the City of Austin from diverting $354 million in future property...


What's really going on in government?

Keep up with the best investigative reporting in Austin.

* indicates required

Donate to the Bulldog

Our critical accountability journalism wouldn't be possible without the generous donations of hundreds of Austinites. Join them and become a supporter today!