New faces on the City Council in January will have an effect on future actions
When the Austin City Council convenes January 6, 2021 for inauguration of the newly elected and reelected council members there will be two new faces on the dais.
Vanessa Fuentes won the District 2 seat being vacated by Delia Garza, who was elected to Travis County Attorney. Fuentes got more than 56 percent of the votes on November 3 against two active opponents and one who dropped out but too late to remove his name from the ballot.
The incumbents who won reelection include Greg Casar in District 4, Leslie Pool in District 7, and Alison Alter in District 10 (more about Alter’s win later too).
These will join Mayor Steve Adler and council members Natasha Harper-Madison in District 1, Sabino “Pio” Renteria in District 3, Ann Kitchen in District 5, Paige Ellis in District 8 and Kathie Tovo in District 9.
Women already had a 7-4 council majority and now will expand it to 8-3.
The absence of Flannigan and Garza on the council portends an entirely new dynamic.
This may manifest itself most noticeably in weakening support for a new Land Development Code. Although efforts to push through a new code are currently stalled due to litigation, it appears that the council members who have been on the short end of 7-4 votes may have two new allies. Both Fuentes and Kelly have opposed it. That would shift the balance to 6-5 against the massive citywide rezoning the council pushed for under the CodeNEXT scheme.
Some kind of consensus for a rewrite might still be possible—Fuentes and Kelly each voiced support for updating the code in some fashion—but it likely wouldn’t be as sweeping as the changes proposed while Flannigan and Garza were in office.
Kelly has called for restoring police funding and it’s not clear what effect that may have. She has said, however, “I believe our police department requires reform,” calling for thorough hiring screenings, increased training, and an audit of the cadet class curriculum.
The Bulldog’s analysis of police funding indicated that there is already some backtracking underway on the council’s August budget vote. Mayor Adler, Pool and several other council members have recently called for a cadet class in the spring.
Where Kelly may have a much smaller chance at effecting change is reinstating the camping ban. She serves as president of Take Back Austin, an advocacy group focused on that issue.
District 6 goes to Kelly
The District 6 runoff pitted two candidates who had clashed over police funding, land use, homeless camping, and property taxes.
The winner, Mackenzie Kelly, 34, is a home health care professional who formerly worked as an administrator and communications officer for various local emergency services. She’s a mother of one and married to Patrick Osborn, a news anchor and reporter for NewsRadio KLBJ.
Earlier this year, Flannigan was the clear frontrunner, holding both the advantage of incumbency and the backing of most elected Democrats in the city. But as the fall went on, his two leading challengers, Kelly and Jennifer Mushtaler, attacked him relentlessly. Each also attracted outside support from big-spending PACs.
Faced with strong general election challengers, Flannigan was denied a majority November 3. He won a plurality of the votes, 40.2 percent, but Kelly wasn’t far behind with 33.4 percent, and Mushtaler took 19.1 percent. A fourth candidate, Dee Harrison, took 7.3 percent.
Travis County leans heavily Democratic, and heavyweights in the party closed ranks behind Flannigan during the runoff. Beto O’Rourke, for instance, joined an election eve phone bank for the incumbent. In a video of his remarks shared on social media, he called the D6 race “super important” and praised Flannigan as “compelling, compassionate, kind, and empathetic.”
The party’s county-level apparatus also flexed its muscles to help Flannigan—an effort it hadn’t made during the general election—organizing phone banks and voter turnout efforts of City hall insiders, including the mayor, funneled money into the race through a political action committee, Austinites for Equity PAC. AFSCME political director Jack Kirfman, who ran that committee, told the Bulldog just before polls closed that he was feeling “hopeful, but cautious.”
But Kirfman added, “It will be a very close race. Since its inception District 6 has been a very closely divided electorate.”
Optimism among Flannigan’s supporters began to fade after early voting results came in at around 7pm. In the early voting, Kelly led Flannigan by 495 votes in Travis County and trailed him by 60 votes in Williamson County, for a net lead of 435.
“Anyone need anything from the bar?” one Flannigan supporter typed during a virtual watch party at about 9pm, as results trickled in, with Flannigan still trailing. “Election night watching is the hardest thing to do virtually so far—I can take work meetings/friends gathering by zoom…but nail biting is best done together!”
By about 9:30 pm the picture became clearer. Williamson County’s final results showed Flannigan narrowly winning that county, 3,230 votes to 3,155, or 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent. When Travis County’s complete results came in they showed Kelly winning with 4,720 votes to Flannigan’s 3,968, or 54.3 percent to 45.7 percent. That was a big enough margin to overcome Flannigan’s 75-vote advantage in Williamson County.
Minutes later, Flannigan appeared on a Zoom call with supporters, saying, “The numbers are not what we wanted to see today…I am proud of the work that I have done in the last four years for this district. This work is not easy. This work is hard. I have always sought to be the type of elected official and community leader that fought the right fight, that fought for the right thing to do even when I knew it would be challenging, even when I knew it might not be popular.”
Flannigan referred to Kelly only briefly, saying, “I hope (she) does her best to represent this district with honor.” He also said he hoped things would get less contentious now that the campaign is over: “We don’t have to be as contentious as a campaign when we’re doing the governing. I hope that’s the future that we’re going to be doing together.”
For her part, Kelly said in a prepared statement that she would “work immediately to begin healing the divisions in our community. Congratulations to Council Member Jimmy Flannigan on a hard-fought campaign. I, along with my staff, will look forward to working with Austinites from all backgrounds and political persuasions to build a better future for the greatest city in Texas.”
Kelly’s win came despite Flannigan having outspent her $225,135 to $142,378 for the entire campaign through the latest campaign finance reports filed December 7, 2020. The actual total spending won’t be known until the candidates file their next reports January 15, 2021.
In Travis County, Kelly racked up big margins in the western precincts. The most lopsided outcome was in Precinct 234, where Jennifer Mushtaler is president of the River Place Limited District and the River Place Homeowners Association. Mushtaler had won a plurality of votes there in the general election with 44 percent. In the runoff, Kelly won 77.7 percent, 564 more votes than Flannigan.
Mushtaler, a self-described “moderate,” had said she would not vote for Flannigan. In a statement distributed by the Kelly campaign December 10, Mushtaler said she wanted to see the district represented by someone who “reflects our desires for public safety, respecting our neighborhoods and local businesses across the city, and ensuring economic development for our shared future.”
Fight for Austin PAC, which backed Kelly, called the result a “resounding rejection of the city’s direction.” The group labeled Flannigan an “architect of the city’s efforts to defund the police and pass the camping ordinance, both of which have manifestly harmed public safety.” (Check out the Bulldog’s coverage of the D6 campaign for more information on the camping ordinance, and this detailed analysis of city finances for more information about the police budget cuts that critics refer to as “defunding.”)
Likewise, Kelly said in her statement that there were “stark differences between my campaign’s priorities and the platform of the incumbent,” framing her win as a resounding rejection of the council’s policies on homeless camping and law enforcement.
But Flannigan said that he’s not going away any time soon. “Just because the path to equality isn’t straight doesn’t mean that we’re not on the right path,” he said. “Of course, none of us are going away. We didn’t go away when we lost in ’14, and we’re not going away now. The work will continue, we are making this city a better place for all Austinites.”
Alter wins District 10
Shortly before 10pm on election night the Bulldog spoke with incumbent Council Member Alison Alter who won reelection over challenger Jennifer Virden. The Travis County Clerk’s website showed she had 12,348 votes to Virden’s 11,761, a margin of 51.22 percent to 48.78 percent.
But Alter was not ready to make a victory speech just yet, despite a 587 vote lead.
“No, the kids have finals. Our daughter’s a senior. We’re going to celebrate as a family and make sure of Covid safety.” Right now, she said, “We’re all Zoomed out.”
She did say, “District 10 voters spoke clearly in favor of my integrity, my policy experience and my leadership and against the politics of fear.”
That was a clear reference to Virden’s contention that shifting certain responsibilities and funding away from the Austin Police Department was going to result in more crime. In fact, former Mayors Ron Mullen and Lee Leffingwell made endorsement videos for Virden over the council’s treatment of police funding.
Alter said she had not gotten a call from Virden. “I haven’t heard from her yet.” Nor did Virden return the Bulldog’s request for comment left in a voice message.
Alter raised $328,429 for her entire campaign through the December 7, 2020 campaign finance report.
Virden’s came on strong after her late summer entry into the race and raised $239,291. She opted to use some of the money to repay herself for the $50,000 loan that she had made to the campaign when she first declared as a candidate.
Virden hammered away repeatedly at the City Council’s decision to reimagine functions carried out by the Austin Police Department by reallocating money. She advocated restoring full funding for the department.
She also called for reinstating the camping ban, and protecting District 10 from the new Land Development Code rewrite.
But as reported in the Bulldog’s District 10 runoff election coverage, Virden undoubtedly alienated the nine neighborhood groups that hosted a joint forum for the D10 runoff by refusing to participate. In fact she participated only in the forums moderated by the League of Women Voters, which she was obligated to do for having signed the Fair Campaign Contract.
In addition Virden could not name any community service in which she had been involved and instead touted her business experience.
Political action committees spent big
Political action committees opposed to Alison Alter and Jimmy Flannigan outspent groups supporting them nearly three-to-one.
Austinites for Equity, which received $9,000 from Mayor Adler, spent $64,611 on behalf of Alter and Flannigan, with most of the funding going toward the latter. The fund received $10,000 each from Jonathan Coon, CEO of Impossible Ventures, and Daniel Graham, Partner at Notley Ventures. José Garza, the Travis County District Attorney-elect, donated $1,000.
Had Enough Austin PAC, which supported Kelly and Virden, was the biggest spender at $239,304. The treasurer of that committee, Ellen Wood, told the Bulldog in October, “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.”
The group’s financial backers included a variety of business leaders, investors, real estate developers, and lawyers, among others. In November and December the PAC spent $82,000 on polling, and it also hired canvassers.
The second biggest player was the Austin Police Association, which spent $122,614 in support of Virden and Kelly, directing most of that spending toward social media ads and mailers.
Fight for Austin PAC, a group co-founded by Travis County GOP Chairman Matt Mackowiak, but which also boasted Democrats on its board, spent $38,870 in the two races, including for radio ads. That spending was to support Kelly and Virden.
SafeTX GPAC, headed by treasurer Paul Bury III, spent $30,335, including $24,500 for digital ads and text messages to oppose Alison Alter and Jimmy Flannigan. It used the rest for a website, campaign management, and social media advertising. The group focused its messaging on crime and the recent cuts to the police department budget.
Other groups included the Austin Firefighters Public Safety Fund, which supported Alison Alter and spent $64,061, including a $7,500 transfer to the Workers Defense Action Fund PAC.
Texas Vote Environment reported spending $1,250 phone banking for Flannigan and $1,500 phone banking for Alison Alter.
Workers Defense in Action PAC spent $13,550, including a $5,000 transfer to the Travis County Democratic Party to support canvassing. In turn, the county party reported spending a total of about $12,000 on contract labor and consulting on behalf of the two incumbents.
Editor 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 Bulldog election coverage:
Did Austin ‘defund’ the police? Here are the numbers, December 13, 2020
D10 runoff: Alter vs Virden, December 10, 2020
D6 runoff: Flannigan vs Kelly, December 8, 2020
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