District 10 election pits partisan opposites
The runoff election to decide who will represent District 10 on the council dais features two radically different women.
Alison Alter, 49, is an incumbent insider with four years on the council dais and a track record in which she takes pride.
Jennifer Virden, 53, is a maverick outsider running an unconventional campaign that features radio ads, door hangers, and advertising. She shies away from situations where she might be challenged, including candidate forums and formal press interviews, like the one The Austin Bulldog requested before the general election. Recently, however, she has been more responsive in answering Bulldog email questions.
Both candidates got backing from former mayors (more about that later).
Both have well funded campaigns
The Austin Bulldog’s compilation of campaign finance reports to date shows that through December 5, 2020:
Alison Alter—The incumbent had raised $328,429. She spent $274,558 and still had $115,751 in cash on hand to power through the last nine days before the December 15 runoff.
Alter started raising money for her reelection campaign as soon as the one-year window opened in late 2019 and had taken in $61,664 by the end of that year.
Jennifer Virden—The challenger put herself at a decided disadvantage in fundraising by waiting until late summer to enter the competition. She appointed a campaign treasurer August 17. Yet in the last 16 weeks she managed to raise $239,291. (That figure includes $26,443 for the runoff, which came from the Austin Fair Campaign Fund for having signed the Fair Campaign Contract.) That’s about $89,000 less than Alter raised over the course of her campaign. Virden had spent $247,052 and still had $42,713 left for the final stretch.
Virden did so well in fundraising that on November 12, 2020, she repaid herself the $50,000 she had loaned to her campaign when she first jumped into the race. But in so doing she fell more than $73,000 behind Alter in spending power for the final days of the campaign.
Virden’s campaign issues
The challenger is running against nearly everything the current council majority has approved.
As to the council’s efforts to reorganize how the Austin Police Department functions, Virden plays on fears of rising crime and wants to reinstate the department’s full funding. This stance glosses over the council’s effort to examine which functions currently housed and supervised within the APD might be better handled by people outside the department.
As the Bulldog reported December 2, Alter’s husband, Jeremi Suri, called Virden a “racist” on Twitter. He was referring to statements Virden made in a candidate forum moderated by the League of Women Voters. “When she was asked a question about racist language used by the police, instead of addressing that, she said, ‘We should support our police at all cost’ and then condemns her opponent for trying to investigate these issues.”
Virden wants to reinstate the camping ban but with solutions for the homeless. In essence her beef is not with Alter on this topic because, as the Bulldog reported October 21, the incumbent voted against repealing the camping ban.
Virden also wants to protect District 10 residents from the effects of a revised Land Development Code. Once again, however, Alter voted against the new code on several occasions, as did three other council members.
Project Connect was a point of contention between these candidates. Alter voted to put Proposition A on the ballot and voters approved it. Meaning there will be an immediate city property tax increase of some 20 percent starting with 2020 tax bills. Virden is strongly condemning that tax increase and said she would’ve never voted to put it before voters.
In addition to those issues put forth when she first declared herself as a candidate in mid-August, after the general election Virden declared in a November 8 newsletter her intent to help Mayor Steve Adler raise the homestead exemption to 20 percent.
Andy Tate, interim media relations manager for the City of Austin, verified that the current homestead exemption is 10 percent. That figure was unchanged in the 2021 budget approved by the City Council—hardly a surprise given the cratering economy and declining city revenue brought about by the pandemic.
Virden touts business experience, not community service
Candidates who win City Council elections often have deep roots in the community, not just by virtue of living here but through personal involvement in civic organizations or nonprofits. Such organizations may build a network of connections and a strong base of support for the candidate.
Virden answered the Bulldog’s question about what activities she had been involved in, in the past or currently, that would be considered of service to the larger community. This is her response:
“The usual path for a candidate running for City Council is building a résumé of board and volunteer positions at community organizations. Although I have done my share of school and sports events, I have primarily been building a successful independent real estate brokerage and running a remodeling general contractor business,” Virden wrote in a December 8, 2020 email.
Virden’s Statement of Financial Information filed August 24, 2020, with the City of Austin states that she is self-employed doing business as AustinHaus Realty and Restorations LLC and earned at least $50,000 but less than $75,000 in 2019. Records of the Texas Real Estate Commission indicate that Virden is a licensed real estate broker
“The practical skills and experience required to build and run a successful business have been entirely lacking on our City Council for the past four years,” she wrote. “This real world perspective is one additional way I will bring diversity to a City Council that too often marches in unison to the cause of the day.
“With my financial and business background I will emphasize the importance of oversight of the City’s $4.2 billion budget, a function that our Council has neglected in recent years. I will oppose creating new independent entities such as the Austin Transit Partnership, which was designed to avoid political accountability over how the $100 million-plus per year of our property taxes from Proposition A will be spent. “
“I think an overwhelming majority of Austinites do not know about this provision that permanently siphons this amount of money every year from taxpayers directly out to a five-member appointed panel,” Virden said. “If we’re not outraged, we should be. I would never vote for something like this, because I would take seriously the City Council’s responsibility for how our tax revenue is spent.”
The appointed panel, however, will have at least one elected official.
Section 3.8 of the draft Interlocal Cooperation Agreement between the City and Capital Metro calls for five governing members of a new Local Government Corporation, consisting of: one City Council member, one Capital Metro board member (who may also be an elected official), and three experts. Concerning the experts, one is to be experienced in finance, one in engineering and construction, and one in community planning or sustainability.
Alter’s community service
Leadership Austin—Incumbent council members are doing community service just by serving in elected office. But before running for election in 2016 Alter was already deeply involved in a number of community efforts.
Becky Austen, who was in the 2015 Leadership Austin Essentials class with Alter, said the year-long leadership program typically has 100 to 120 participants and its purpose is to “make us more civically engaged and take the knowledge we get back to our organizations.”
When Alter decided to run for City Council, Austen said, “Classmates rallied to support her.” While Austen said she wasn’t aware of Sheri Gallo’s performance on the council, she was “very positive” about Alter. “She’s just the kind of person who shows up having done the research and has the facts. She’s incredibly well prepared and willing to listen.”
Rosedale Neighborhood Association—Alter’s first community efforts began years earlier. Almost as soon as she and her family moved to Austin in 2011, she quickly got involved in the Rosedale Neighborhood Association’s steering committee. She chaired the We Love Ramsey Park renovation campaign that raised about $500,000 to transform the five-acre facility. Details about the project are on the Rosedale website.
Chris Allen, an architect and longtime member of the Rosedale Neighborhood Association, was there when Alter first showed up at the organization’s meeting. “We were all gray-hairs” when Alter attended. “Alison stood out from all young participants and immediately jumped in and started leading things. She didn’t bitch about the park but started working with the City’s Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) and the Austin Parks Foundation, doing private fundraising and grant-writing to make improvements to Ramsey Park.”
Parks and Recreation Board—Alter’s work on the Ramsey Park project increased her rapport with PARD, Allen said. She was appointed to City’s Parks and Recreation Board by then District 10 Council Member Sheri Gallo. Nearly two years later when Alter decided to run for Gallo’s seat, Gallo requested that she resign, the Austin Chronicle reported August 4, 2016. “The only reason that she is removing me is because I am running for office,” Alter told the Chronicle. “This is a purely political action.”
Alter got the last laugh, however, beating Gallo in the December 13, 2016, runoff with 64 percent of the votes to Gallo’s 36 percent.
JustFundItTX—While on the council Alter has engaged in other civic efforts. Laura Yeager, along with Alter and Janis Buckout, in the fall of 2018 cofounded JustFundItTX.org over concerns about the Austin Independent School District’s budget deficit.
The nonpartisan organization’s mission is to advocate for adequate state funding for education. Charts on the website indicate that Texas ranks 43rd out of 50 states in per-pupil spending—$4,041 less per student each year than the national average.
“Alison was on the City Council and she was smart enough and engaged enough…to see city and school district don’t stand alone and needed state funding. We came up with the (organization’s) name and 200 people showed up to first meeting at McCallum High School in November 2018.” Alter is still involved, Yeager said. “She still advocates, lends her expertise and brings a lot of perspective to the discussion.”
Impact Austin—In addition, Alter is involved in community philanthropy through Impact Austin, a program in which women participants each donate $1,250. Becky Austen said this year the group has 440 members and was able to make high-impact grants of up to $100,000 each to some nonprofit organizations. Alter is front and center in a 2019 group photo holding up a ceremonial check for $100,000 given to Con Mi MADRE, an organization that engages mothers and daughters in education from sixth grade through college graduation.
Former mayors endorsing Virden
Ron Mullen (1983-1985) and Lee Leffingwell (2009-2014) endorsed Virden in short videos shown on her website. Both made their endorsements on the basis of the City Council’s decision to reduce the Austin Police Department’s budget.
Mullen contributed $150 to Virden’s campaign November 17, 2020, according to her finance report. Leffingwell has not contributed financially.
Leffingwell said in his video, “It should be a first priority at budget time to be sure that public safety is funded first and fully. Then we can go on to other things. When you get right down to it, it doesn’t matter what else you do if people don’t feel safe in their homes and on the street.”
Mullen, a former San Antonio police officer, said in his video, “I’m voting for Jennifer is because of her attitude toward our police department…A city is not going to be safe if you don’t have enough officers to cover it. And this city council and this current person in District 10 voted to not only to cancel a cadet class but also consider defunding the police department for $150 million. To me that was absolutely absurd.”
He also said, “…we have to have somebody who is assertive and aggressive about taking care of the camping in this city, the homeless in this city… Let’s get somebody in there that is assertive and aggressive about solving that problem.”
Former mayors endorsing Alter
Frank Cooksey (1985-1988), Bruce Todd (1991-1997) , and Kirk Watson (1997-2001), who was mayor before elected to the Texas Senate, endorsed Alter.
Todd contributed $400 to Alter’s campaign November 23, 2019. Cooksey contributed $100 September 22, 2020. Watson contributed $400 November 17, 2020.
None of these three made video endorsements but Cooksey wrote a statement that Alter distributed as a press release.
“I voted for Alison Alter today, by mail,” Cooksey wrote November 24. “When you have the opportunity, I hope that you do the same.
“She has done a fine job in protecting the integrity of our neighborhoods and is a very creative force on the Council. Alison has a challenge for reelection from interests associated with the Republican Party, even though council elections do not involve a party designation on the ballot. These interests are using the reorganization of the law enforcement functions in the budget as an issue they characterize as ‘defunding’ the police, something that is not a fact in Austin.
“This is part of a nationwide propaganda effort to smear those who favor restructuring law enforcement in order to deal more effectively with the community/police relations and reduce the abuses of the police power that have overtones and actual realities on the ground reflecting racial discrimination.
“’Defunding the police’ has not happened and is not happening in Austin, but political opportunists have used the tensions associated with attempting to deal creatively with these issues as a means of creating well financed propaganda machines whose real purpose is to gain power for other purposes.
“As a former mayor who acted to give the police department a large budget increase and as a former Grand Jury foreman and federal prosecutor, I fully support the police as they carry out their legitimate functions in ways that conform to our Constitution and laws.”
Candidates supported by political parties, too
Incumbent Alter is a Democrat. Challenger Virden is a Republican.
Alter, according to Federal Election Committee (FEC) records, donated $198 to Joe Biden for president, $250 to Mike Siegel for Congress, $372 to Amy McGrath for U.S. Senate against incumbent Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) , $1,000 to MJ Hegar for U.S. Senate against incumbent John Cornyn (R-Texas), and $50 for incumbent Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York)
Virden, according the FEC data, contributed $275 to the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, $320 to the Republican National Committee, and $175 to the WinRed Committee that fundraises for conservative causes and candidates.
While Austin City Council positions are nonpartisan, there’s no mistaking that the Travis County Democratic and Republican Parties are getting heavily involved in runoffs for both District 6 and District 10.
Andy Hogue, communications director for the Travis County Republican Party (and advisor to the D6 runoff candidate Mackenzie Kelly) said, “The Travis GOP has supported Mackenzie Kelly and Jennifer Virden with regular social media and email messaging and with appearances at several club meetings.
“Individual precinct chairs in Districts 6 and 10 have been busy organizing block walks and other events supportive of each candidate. Chairman Matt Mackowiak has been very supportive of each in his media appearances and other endeavors.”
Katie Naranjo, chair of the Travis County Democratic Party (TDCP), sent a December 8 email calling for volunteers.
“To help protect our Democratic incumbents, I need you to take action today,” her email stated. “Local races often fly under the radar, but the decisions made there have the most effect on our lives every day. Will you help TCDP protect our Austin City Council seats and keep Travis County completely blue?
“We need to fill 100 volunteer shifts before December 13th. Please help us this last week before the election. Can you sign up to call voters today…Can you sign up to…drop (literature) this weekend?”
In a late-breaking development, Alter issued an email at 3:12pm today stating, “This weekend, Texas Republicans are busing GOP activists from around the state to campaign for my opponent. They’re encouraging Republicans from across Texas to spend the entire weekend here, just to put a Trump supporter in the District 10 Council seat. They’re even paying for everyone’s hotels and meals in full.”
To the The Austin Bulldog’s request for a Republican response from Mackowiak, he emailed to say, “I know nothing about it.”
Allen West, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Virden missed most candidate forums
Incumbent Alter participated in most candidate forums, all but one by her own count.
Virden skipped all forums except for one moderated by the League of Women Voters. She was obligated to participate in it as part of her responsibility for having signed the Fair Campaign Contract, which earned her $26,443 to help defray her runoff campaign expenses.
Virden even avoided a District 10 candidate forum hosted by a nine neighborhood organizations located within the council district. Moderator Joanie Arrott announced at the beginning of the recorded forum that Virden had initially agreed to participate but on Friday before the Sunday November 22, 2020, forum called to say she would not do so.
In response to the Bulldog’s question about that neighborhood forum, Virden emailed the statement she sent to organizers: “I have decided to only participate in forums that are organized by neutral parties, therefore I will not be participating in the forum on Sunday. I invite all interested parties to watch the League of Women Voters forum on November 30th.” (It’s not clear why Virden views neighborhood associations as not being neutral. She did not respond to the Bulldog’s request for clarification.)
She told the Bulldog, “I think it is telling that the forum organizers only publicized my not participating, without the explanation of why, or my invitation to watch the League of Women Voters forum.
“Let’s keep the discussion about issues facing Austin and Alter’s record as a council member, rather than the mechanics of campaigning. There is a reason why she received the lowest percentage of the vote of any incumbent Council member.”
While the latter statement is literally true, the three other incumbents seeking reelection had fewer opponents on the November 3 ballot: District 4 incumbent Greg Casar had two opponents and netted almost 67 percent of the votes. District 6 incumbent Jimmy Flannigan had three opponents and got 40 percent of the votes. Leslie Pool, the District 7 incumbent, had just one opponent and got 67 percent of the votes. Alter initially had six active opponents (one dropped out but too late to remove his name from the ballot). She got 34.2 percent of the votes. Virden got 25.43 percent.
But as to the forums, Virden added this regarding Alter in a December 1 email: “She is running as a Democrat in this nonpartisan election, but she only received half of the vote that Biden did in District 10. Her votes on police defunding, the homeless crisis, and permanently raising property taxes for Project Connect show how out of touch she is with the majority of District 10 voters. It’s apparent she wanted more debates in order to try to rehabilitate her record.”
Only time and the votes cast in the December 15 runoff will tell whether snubbing candidate forums—especially ones sponsored by major neighborhood groups in District 6, whose residents she wants to represent—will earn Virden a seat on the dais.
The one thing they agree on
To address the rumor that Virden was an anti-vaxxer, the Bulldog emailed each of the candidates to ask if they were willing to take the Covid-19 vaccine when it becomes available for them to have the opportunity.
Both Virden and Alter responded with the same one-word answer: “Absolutely.”
This story was updated at 4:18pm December 10, 2020, to insert Matt Mackowiak’s response.
This story was updated again at 5:43pm December 11, 2020, to include a link to the executed Interlocal Agreement between the City and Capital Metro to oversee construction of Project Connect.
This story was updated at 1:06pm December 13, 2020, to correct the name of the woman who moderated the November 22, 2020, candidate forum hosted by neighborhood associations within District 10.
Trust Indicators: Ken Martin has been covering local government, elections, and politics since 1981 in Austin’s three-county metro area. See more about Ken on the About page.
Links to related documents:
Jennifer Virden’s Statement of Financial Information, August 24, 2020 (16 pages) 20200824 JV SFI
Jennifer Virden’s license as designated real estate broker for AustinHaus Realty and Restorations, expiring March 31, 2022 (6 pages) Broker Renewed
Links to other Bulldog election coverage:
Alter’s husband calls challenger Virden ‘racist’, December 2, 2020
Council challengers get big bucks boost, November 17, 2020
Underdog Fuentes wins open D2 seat, November 4, 2020
Down to the wire: Jimmy Flannigan and his challengers, October 30, 2020
Council candidates raised nearly $1.2 million, October 27, 2020
Land battle: D7 candidates Pool vs Witt, October 22, 2020
Alter’s odds against winning, five to one, October 21, 2020
Three candidates vie for District 2 council seat, October 15, 2020
Council candidates so far raised $930,000, October 7, 2020
Transit tax draws attack from the left, October 2, 2020
Council Member Flannigan’s bad debts, September 24, 2020
Council candidates have voting records too, September 18, 2020
Developer dollars flow to favored candidates, August 27, 2020