Down to the wire: Jimmy Flannigan and his challengers

0
903
An October 6, 2020, educational forum hosted by Concordia University with D6 candidates included (left to right) moderator John Gillis Jr., PhD; with Dee Harrison, Mackenzie Kelly, and Jennifer Mushtaler, M.D. Incumbent Jimmy Flannigan cancelled at the last minute.

District 6 City Council election pits strong candidates bent on preventing incumbent from winning a second term

Jimmy Flannigan

Just three months ago District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan was looking at a seemingly straightforward path to reelection, the only Democrat in the race, in a city where that’s usually an advantage, and facing just one challenger over whom he held a more than four-to-one fundraising advantage.

But in August he attracted two new opponents and now he’s at the tail end of round one of what could be a two-round slugfest for political survival.

Flannigan, whose district is in far west and northwest Austin, was at the forefront of a controversial rewrite of the city’s land development code. He championed a new mass transit plan, revoked ordinances restricting public camping, and helped lead the charge to “reimagine public safety,” which involved slashing police funding and reallocating it to other departments.

Don Zimmerman

In 2016 Flannigan, 42, defeated the infamously combative incumbent Don Zimmerman. In his winning campaign he portrayed himself as a pragmatist. He adopted a hammer as his campaign symbol and the slogan “Flannigan can fix it”—even as he cast Zimmerman as an abrasive ideologue, calling him “belligerent,” “angry,” and a “bully,” according to press coverage at the time.

But Flannigan has brought his own combative style of politics, occasionally clashing with fellow council members and members of the public. The Austin Chronicle, though it endorsed Flannigan, said his style was “brash, sometimes antagonistic,” and “can cross the line into bullying.” The paper’s publisher, Nick Barbaro, in 2018 called Flannigan “perpetually angry.”

Jennifer Mushtaler

Flannigan’s three challengers are now flipping the script on the 2014 campaign, casting Flannigan as the caustic ideologue while themselves donning the mantle of problem-solvers. “The incumbent belittles those who disagree with him. While it is okay to have a difference of opinion, it is not acceptable to bully people,” says challenger Jennifer Mushtaler.

Mushtaler, 49, is a physician with a specialization in obstetrics and gynecology. She’s making her first entry into politics and promises a “rational and thoughtful approach to city government.” She opposes Flannigan’s approach to the land code and homeless camping, saying the council’s handling of the latter issue presents a public health risk.

Mackenzie Kelly

Mackenzie Kelly, 34, is a conservative who has eschewed a party label but waged a relentless shoe-leather campaign to consolidate Republican support and attract independents, appearing at GOP events and fundraisers throughout the summer and fall, leaning heavily on Republican donors and party backing.

Kelly casts herself as a less radical and more informed voice on public safety than Flannigan, pointing to her firsthand experience as a volunteer firefighter and communications officer with Austin’s emergency response team. She also differs with Flannigan on land use, public transit funding, taxes, and the camping ordinances.

Dee Harrison

A fourth candidate, Dee Harrison, 66, has had a less visible presence, raised less money, and launched fewer attacks on the incumbent, though she called for rolling back policies he put in place. “I kept it clean,” she said of her campaign. Harrison recently retired from a long career in state government, including in emergency management and corrections.

Incumbent’s advantage

This is actually Flannigan’s third bid for the D6 seat. He first ran in 2014, qualifying for a runoff before losing to Zimmerman by just 191 votes.

That was the first year that council members weren’t elected at-large, which gave a conservative like Zimmerman a better chance at winning. “District 6 is a lot more conservative than some of the other districts out there,” noted Dee Harrison, who lives in the Williamson County portion of the district.

Still, “more conservative” in Austin doesn’t necessarily mean a GOP majority, and there were other factors at play in Zimmerman’s 2014 win apart from party affiliation. Flannigan unseated Zimmerman in 2016, this time by a 3,281-vote margin, with 55.9 percent of the votes.

Harrison was among the voters who were happy to see Zimmerman go, even though voter records show that she’s a longtime Republican primary voter (she switched to voting in the Democratic primary and primary runoff in 2020). “I disagreed with most of what Mr. Zimmerman said and did,” she said.

Flannigan’s 2016 platform focused on traffic reduction, transportation improvements, and environmentalism. In the four years since then, he’s waded into an array of far more controversial issues, and it’s unclear whether voters will embrace the policy positions he’s taken.

Yet Flannigan has formidable advantages heading into November. Besides the advantage of incumbency, he’s raised $102,000 more than his nearest rival, and he’s endorsed by many of the city’s elected Democrats, including the mayor. If enough voters cast ballots along party lines and identify him with the Democratic ticket, the race should be a lock.

Democrats for Mushtaler

But council races aren’t explicitly partisan—nobody gets an “R” or a “D” next to their name on the ballot. Moreover, while no candidate has challenged Flannigan for the Progressive banner, Mushtaler in particular has attracted bipartisan support, including the backing of an outside political action committee describing her as a “centrist Democrat.”

Travis County voter registration records show that Mushtaler has voted in one GOP primary (in 2002) and one Democratic primary (2020). She hasn’t played up any political affiliations, instead describing herself as a “moderate.” “I’m a working mom. I’m used to long days, listening, solving problems,” she wrote in a tweet October 16. “I didn’t enter this race with a politician’s slick rhetoric or thousands of Twitter followers.”

Bill Bunch
Bill Bunch

Her endorsements include the Central Austin Democrats, environmentalist Bill Bunch, and Progressive lawyer Fred Lewis, who’s been involved in long-running fights against CodeNext.

Bunch told the Bulldog that he’s opposing Flannigan because of the latter’s “rabid pursuit of CodeNext, with no room for compromise or protection of our central city from increased flooding, the urban heat island, and bulldozing.” He also cited Flannigan’s continued support for the Convention Center expansion, which he called a “black hole” for tourism tax dollars.

Fred Lewis

Fred Lewis, who canvassed for Mushtaler, says he’s “cautiously optimistic” that she will make it into a runoff. “We think that as a centrist Democrat, she will attract Democrats and Republicans…Dr. Jen is a strong candidate and we need a doctor on the council with our worsening COVID crisis.”

But to detractors on the right, Mushtaler is too liberal. Don Zimmerman lashed out at her in a Facebook post October 26, alleging that while Mushtaler was “attempting to run as a fiscal conservative,” actually she harbored liberal values and would be a “mushy mouthpiece at City Hall.”

Zimmerman has acted as a bundler to raise money for Kelly’s campaign, according to an October 26 disclosure filing. During his time in office, he appointed Kelly to serve on the city’s Commission for Women.

Kelly herself hasn’t attacked Mushtaler, but she referred to her political background as “vague,” suggesting this is a disadvantage, not an asset. “Having the support of conservative and independent voters is critical to winning this race,” Kelly told the Bulldog.

“Honestly, I don’t see how Dr. Mushtaler can make the runoff having entered the race so late in the game while still fully dedicated to running her time-consuming medical practice…the good doctor is at a tremendous disadvantage.”

Electability in a runoff

For her part, Jennifer Mushtaler is trying to make the case to Republicans in the closing days of the campaign that Kelly can’t win in a runoff. In a mass email October 28, she included a flow chart suggesting that 49 percent of D6 voters are Democrats, 21 percent independent, and 30 percent Republican.

The chart, titled “How do we beat Jimmy?” indicated that if Kelly were the runner-up in November, she would attract only Republican support in the runoff, whereas moderate Democrats and independents would abandon Flannigan if Mushtaler were the runoff opponent.

“Democrats will struggle to vote for Mackenzie Kelly, and she lacks the experience and work history to take on a Democratic incumbent in a Democratic leaning district,” she wrote.

Kelly responded to this in an email to the Bulldog, saying, “My goal is to win outright with more than 50 percent of District 6 voters on November 3.” But if the race does go to a runoff, she argued, “Our coalition is more than able to pull together and win by a large margin. That coalition includes Republicans, independents, swing voters, and Democrats who are ready for change….”

“The key issues in my campaign are quality of life issues that have garnered a lot of crossover support with those in the district of all political backgrounds.”

Kelly further pointed out that runoff races draw a slightly different crowd than primary elections or general elections: “Due to these elections standing on their own, winning becomes a matter of getting out the vote, not being nominated by any one party.”

Leffingwell endorses Kelly

Lee Leffingwell
Lee Leffingwell

Kelly has won one key Democrat endorsement, from former Mayor Lee Leffingwell, over her support for law enforcement. Leffingwell said he trusted Kelly would be more fiscally responsible and would “work hard to keep taxes lower, perhaps even reduce taxes.”

“The council has taken on a new direction. You know, I’m old school. I believe that public safety is number one, you’ve got to fund that fully and first,” Leffingwell told podcaster Brad Swail. “And then you’ve got to perform the other quality of life issues—roads, parks, libraries, etc.”

“But I think the focus has been more on the welfare state as opposed to the basic functions that the city should be addressing.”

Besides Leffingwell, Kelly says she’s gotten grassroots support from a lot of independents and Democrats who are fed up with “delusional and dangerous decisions” at City Hall. “All throughout this campaign we have been excited to receive support from donors of all political backgrounds.”

Ed English

She cites Democrat Ed English, for example, a 2014 D7 council candidate. Kelly said, “I consider him to be a great sounding board for my campaign…While he lives just outside the district, his yard is one of many that display both my sign and that of the Biden-Harris campaign.” English donated $100 to Kelly’s campaign way back in May 2020.

Dan Crenshaw

While touting Democrats’ support, Kelly also hasn’t been shy about associating with GOP leaders, posting to social media photographs of herself with Texas GOP Chairman Allen West, Congressman Dan Crenshaw (Houston), and Senator John Cornyn, among others. She also has relied on county GOP operatives to staff her campaign.

Fight for Austin

Kelly is getting a big boost from Fight for Austin, a political action committee, which produced a TV ad for her that began airing October 26.

Matt Mackowiak

The PAC is active in three council races and is headed by SAFE project founder Cleo Petricek, a Democrat; Travis County GOP Chairman Matt Mackowiak; and former City Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who after leaving the council in 2018 became a senior fellow of the rightwing Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Fight for Austin presents itself as nonpartisan but the three candidates it has endorsed are all Republicans: Louis C. Herrin III in D4, Kelly in D6, and Jennifer Virden in D10.

The group raised $187,497 through October 25 and spent $38,870, according to filings, which don’t break down how much of that is for Kelly. Matt Mackowiak didn’t respond to a question about how much of the total PAC haul would go toward the D6 race.

Most of that money looks like it’s being held in reserve for an advertising blitz in December, should any of its endorsed candidates make it to a runoff: the PAC still had $148,627 on hand October 25, according to a campaign finance filing.

Kelly’s campaign also produced its own two-minute video, but she said she just put the video on social media. “Fight for Austin has done such a great job with their media buys that we haven’t purchased any air time of our own just yet,” she said.

Besides television advertising, Kelly has taken to the streets, carrying out an ambitious block-walking campaign. “Our team has knocked doors, made calls, spread the word on social media, hosted fundraisers and socials, and recruited volunteers…I’m routinely floored at just how deep into the neighborhoods our volunteers have gone.”

Attack ads

Like Kelly, Mushtaler is getting help from PACs, but in her case they’re not holding back but are going all-out to advance her into a runoff. Ellen Wood, treasurer of Had Enough Austin?, told the Bulldog by email, “We anticipate spending approximately $70,000 in the D6 race.”

That’s big money for a council race, and it helps Mushtaler overcome the fundraising advantage held by Kelly, who raised $64,000 to Mushtaler’s $40,000.

Wood said the group’s operations began the week of October 5. According to campaign finance disclosures, the PAC shelled out funds for voter data, printing, web expenses, advertising, and canvassing.

Michael Searle

The bulk of its outlay is for canvassing and is handled by a contractor, Aro Group, LLC, which is headed by Michael Searle, who served as chief of staff to then Council Member Ellen Troxclair.

“We are interested in this race because Flannigan voted to defund police, supports Project Connect, supports CodeNext, will not reinstate reasonable homeless policies, and totally misrepresented himself as a fiscally responsible successful businessman,” Wood said. By contrast, Mushtaler “is a professional” who ran her own medical practice for many years.

Another committee working on Mushtaler’s behalf is Positive Change PAC, which has raised more than $21,000 in contributions and pledges. It’s spending on Facebook ads and mailers, according to a filing October 26.

One ad run by the group calls the incumbent “Tax & Spend Jimmy Flannigan,” according to Facebook’s ad library. The ad says, “Pay your fair share, Jimmy,” citing the costs of Project Connect and the Convention Center expansion, while pointing out that Flannigan is a renter and therefore isn’t directly impacted by property tax hikes.

Another organization running attack ads against Flannigan is Metric Media, under the brand Austin News. That company has been described as being part of a “pink slime journalism” network, a pay-for-play operation with a reported 1,200 websites. Metric Media launched ads in October linking Flannigan to CodeNext, “defunding the police,” and the end of the homeless camping ban.

Another ad highlights Flannigan’s support from a developer law firm, saying, “Armbrust & Brown gave significant campaign contributions to Flannigan, and he voted in favor of their real estate cases before Council.” (According to a Bulldog analysis, more than a third of Flannigan’s donations through June came from developers or real estate interests).

Flannigan’s opponents are taking to the airwaves too. Mushtaler has paid for radio ads through Waterloo Media, which owns several local stations. The challengers also have made numerous unpaid media appearances. Mushtaler and Dee Harrison each placed an ad in Four Points News, a weekly newspaper focusing on coverage of west and northwest Austin. And they’re all block-walking.

Social strategy

Against this onslaught, Flannigan is running his own fairly robust social media operation. He spent heavily on Facebook ads and invested time in creating a livestream show in a talk-show format, which he calls “The Clawback Live.” The livestream features interviews with Democrat candidates for office and musical guests, with himself in the role of host.

Flannigan significantly outspent his opponents on Facebook, according to Facebook’s ad library, which provides some transparency on political ads on the platform, though not full details. He spent $7,951 through October 28, compared to Kelly’s $1,771 and Mushtaler’s $2,118.

Apart from digital advertising, Flannigan placed ads in the Austin Chronicle and Community Impact. He’s also done mailers, yards signs, phone banking, and text messaging, according to his expense reports. The incumbent says he appeared in more than 20 candidate forums, and he did more than 60 town halls during his four years in office.

Flannigan’s blunders

A couple of gaffes have worked against Flannigan’s effort to cultivate an upbeat, accessible, “Jimmy-can-fix-it” persona.

Kathie Tovo

In one incident, Flannigan got into a heated exchange with fellow Council Member Kathie Tovo, a fellow Democrat, and the longest serving current council member, first elected in 2011. Flannigan told her, “I will continue to diminish your work.” The exchange took place more than a year ago, at an October 19, 2019, council meeting, but a video of the incident has circulated widely on social media during the campaign.

The context for the remarks was a discussion of homelessness policies. Flannigan was arguing that the council should take practical actions rather than merely pass “grandstanding” resolutions.

Yet critics on both left and right have seized on the exchange, with Mushtaler calling it an example that Flannigan “can’t work well with others, especially his women colleagues. He’s dismissive and disrespectful.”

Positive Change PAC, which is funded mostly by Democrat donors, spent $12,358 on direct-mail flyers blaring, “I WILL CONTINUE TO DIMINISH YOUR WORK!” The mailers equate Flannigan to his predecessor in office, Don Zimmerman, calling both of them “grandstanding political ideologues.”

Flannigan also drew fire for skipping a candidate forum (billed as an educational event) at Concordia University October 6. “Incumbent Flannigan is a no-show,” the Four Points News trumpeted in a headline afterwards.

Moderator John Gillis Jr. slammed Flannigan for canceling last-minute. He said that they already had communicated repeatedly about the event, and Gillis even had moved the date of the event at the incumbent’s request.

Just minutes before the event started, Flannigan wrote in an email to Gillis, “I feel strongly that it is irresponsible to host an in-person event—both as a matter of safety for the candidates and as a symbol to the public,” according to a copy of that email, shared with the Bulldog.

But the organizers had taken precautions against the spread of COVID-19, and Flannigan hadn’t raised any concerns ahead of time. Mushtaler, a physician, attended the event apparently without concern.

“To email four minutes before you are supposed to attend shows a lack of respect for others—to me as the organizer, to the other candidates, and to the District 6 residents,” Gillis told the Bulldog.

“If COVID really was his reason for not attending, he could have sent that email a month ahead of time, weeks ahead of time, days ahead of time, or hours ahead of time.”

Jacob Aronowitz

Another decision that could come back to haunt Flannigan in a runoff is his choice of field director, Jacob Aronowitz, a self-described “vulgar Marxist,” per his Twitter profile. Aronowitz announced his hiring as Flannigan’s field director on Facebook and Twitter July 27.

Recent posts on Aronowitz’s social media accounts include repeated calls to #DefundAPD, #AbolishCapitalism, and #DefundthePolice, and he shared a link to an op-ed titled, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.” He also posted a pro-Antifa meme and organizing information for the Democratic Socialists of America, which is not Flannigan’s political party.

Aronowitz has attacked Mackenzie Kelly as an “actual fascist pretending to be a republican,” and a “Nazi…(who) must be stopped.” She responded to these attacks saying they were “weasel-words,” and “baseless and juvenile name-calling.”

Flannigan’s campaign finance reports don’t list payments to Aronowitz directly, but instead to a firm called Collective Campaigns, where Aronowitz is the director of business development. That firm performed field services on Flannigan’s behalf, as well as phone banking.

The underdog

Moneywise, Dee Harrison is the clear underdog, having raised less than $2,500. But she said in an interview, “I’ve done a lot of block-walking.”

Given coronavirus concerns, and the fact that many folks are working from home and don’t want to be disturbed, she and her team often just left information on the doorstep, she explained.

Harrison participated in candidate forums but didn’t run ads on radio, TV, or social media, though she placed an ad in Four Points News.

She didn’t run with a party label, and she said she didn’t use voter lists targeting primary voters of either party, though she homed in on precincts that had turned out the most voters in the last couple elections, such as areas off McNeil Road and 620, and her home precinct of Anderson Mill.

“We didn’t do the traditional (political) party walk lists.”

Flannigan’s reinforcements

Steve Adler

If Flannigan wins an outright majority November 3, it would give fresh confidence to Mayor Steve Adler and his coalition on council, which is seeking to reshape public safety and land use regulations, and push forward with an ambitious agenda on mass transit and homelessness.

If denied a majority in November, Flannigan might still sail to victory in the December 15 runoff. But a late-in-the-game intervention by political allies suggests that the incumbent may be worried, and would rather avoid a runoff.

Leslie Pool

Austinites for Equity PAC dumped $12,000 into the race October 15, spending the money on direct mailers on Flannigan’s behalf. That amount is six times what it put into the D7 race to back incumbent Leslie Pool, who has only one opponent. The PAC is funded by AFSCME Local 1624 ($7,500), Mayor Adler ($4,000), Council Member Greg Casar ($505), and a number of developers.

For most Austinites, November 3 will bring a halt to months of political advertising, and it could ease a period of heightened political contentiousness. But for District 6 residents, the prospect of a runoff means potentially six more weeks of continuing campaigning.

The electorate this year is “a lot more separated than we’ve ever been in the past,” says Dee Harrison, who first canvassed in 1972. “The voters that are angry are very, very angry. I’ve seen both extremes.”

“I’ve worked on a lot of campaigns. I grew up working on campaigns.”

“It’s just different this year.”

Trust indicators: Bulldog reporter Daniel Van Oudenaren is a journalist with more than a decade of local, state, and international reporting.

Links to related Bulldog election coverage:

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