Morgan Witt, an Austin native and ‘language nerd’ challenges incumbent Leslie Pool, a 40-year resident
Leslie Pool and Morgan Witt may both be Democrats, but they disagree in key ways how best to govern the City of Austin.
The two are facing off in a council race in the north-central part of the city, District 7, which stretches from the leafy Rosedale and Allandale neighborhoods in the south to the high-density Domain development in the north, and Tech Ridge in the east.
Incumbent Pool, 65, lives in Rosedale at the far southern boundary of the district, an older neighborhood where some homes date to the 1930s. Witt, the challenger, 32, lives in a far newer apartment complex at the northern boundary of the district, next to the National Instruments headquarters, and not far from the Domain, which also hosts offices for Facebook, Amazon, Indeed, and Vrbo.
Pool is a long-time government worker and neighborhood activist. Witt is a former teacher who now works for LexisNexis and describes herself as “a member of the tech community.”
The D7 race—and the candidates—exemplify differences between the core of historic Austin, which centers around government and university spaces, and where most residents are homeowners, and emerging tech-focused peripheries, where the majority are renters and, in many cases, newcomers.
During her nearly six years on the council, Leslie Pool has gained a reputation as a defender of neighborhoods, voting to raise the homestead tax exemption, pushing environmental protections, and fighting to moderate a land code reform that would upzone parts of the city.
She allied with other council progressives on public safety, homelessness, and public transit, while breaking ranks with the majority on land use.
Witt is pushing a vision of a denser, more renter-friendly city that leans into its reputation as a cultural destination by subsidizing the music industry. Pool voted for recent relief measures to the music industry but Witt was critical of them as inadequate. As for increasing density, “Incremental change obviously has not worked over the past five to ten years in Austin,” Witt said at a recent candidate forum moderated by the League of Women Voters.
In an effort to inform voters about their options, The Austin Bulldog researched the two candidates’ backgrounds and political views, relying on public records, interviews, candidate forums, and other sources.
Leslie Pool: administrator and activist
Though Leslie Pool isn’t a native Austinite, she’s lived here for 40 years. Born Leslie S. Howard in Pittsburgh, she attended high school and college in Pennsylvania, graduating in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in literature and communications from Grove City College.
Pool moved to Houston upon graduation and worked there for a few years as an assistant for the Houston Symphony Society. She relocated to Austin in 1980, the same year that she married Frank Howard, according to Travis County records. Initially, she worked as a marking assistant at a bank, then took a job as an assistant in the office of U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas).
That was the first in a long line of administrative jobs in politics and government. In the 1980s and 1990s she worked nearly seven years as an assistant to the head of the Texas Employment Commission, and eight years at the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), according to a work history she submitted to Travis County as part of an employment application, which the Bulldog obtained by public information request.
She quit her job at TxDOT and studied full-time at a “mid-career program” at the LBJ School of Public Affairs from June 1999 to May 2000. The program offered a master’s in public affairs, though UT didn’t actually award a degree to Pool, according to the university’s online degree verification site. She explained in an interview that she had completed all the coursework but didn’t turn in a thesis. A couple of life events intervened, Pool said, and “I never got back to it…after a while it just didn’t seem important.”
After graduate school, Pool plunged into political work, spending the next few months as field director for Congressman Lloyd Doggett, who was seeking a fourth term.
In December 2000 she landed a job as a legislative aide to state Representative Ann Kitchen, who she worked with until March 2003. Kitchen, who left the legislature in 2003, now serves alongside Pool on the council. Both were elected in 2014. Kitchen and her husband Mark Yznaga each have donated the $400 maximum to Pool’s current reelection campaign.
Leslie and her husband Frank Pool divorced in 2002, according to Travis County District Clerk’s records.
From 2004 to 2010 Pool worked as office manager at the National Wildlife Federation in Austin.
Outside of her professional work, Pool was active in the late 1990s chairing the Seaholm Reuse Planning Committee, which studied how to repurpose an old power plant. She was appointed in 1997, 1998, and 2004 to Travis County citizen bond committees, and in the 2000s she served on several city commissions, including Water and Wastewater.
While serving as treasurer of a group called the Austin Progressive Coalition political action committee during elections in 2009-2010, she ran into a hiccup with the Texas Ethics Commission. Pool faced a sworn complaint over alleged omissions and discrepancies in numerous campaign finances reports. The Commission findings stated the violations were “neither technical nor de minimis.” She and the commission settled the matter in a February 27, 2012 resolution agreement that imposed a $250 civil penalty.
Pool jumped back into a government job in 2011, working for Travis County Precinct 5 Constable Carlos Lopez as an administrative associate and later executive assistant, according to her county personnel file obtained through a public information request.
Her civic involvement intensified in these years, laying the groundwork for her later council run. Pool was active with the Austin Civic Chorus, Liveable City, and the Bull Creek Road Coalition, an alliance of central Austin neighborhoods that she helped to convene in 2012. She was appointed by Kathie Tovo, a council member, to a bond advisory task force in 2012.
Pool has one grown daughter, Emily. She has a longtime domestic partner, Will Grover.
Morgan Witt: educator
Morgan Witt is an Austin native, Spanish speaker, and educator who graduated with bachelor’s degrees in Education and Spanish from Southwestern University in Georgetown in 2014. She also holds an associate’s degree in psychology from Austin Community College.
Witt calls herself a “language nerd” and she lived for a summer in Buenos Aires during college. She has leaned on her language training during the campaign, telling the Bulldog that it has helped her to reach underrepresented constituents.
Witt taught middle school Spanish for a year at Round Rock ISD in 2015, then resigned, citing plans to relocate, according to her personnel file, obtained by public information request. She moved back into Austin and over the next four years worked at a variety of private education firms, according to LinkedIn, including Orenda Education, Virginia College, Community Action Inc. of Central Texas, and Civitas Learning.
Celeste Lay, Witt’s supervisor at Civitas Learning, an “edtech” firm where Witt worked for a year and a half until November 2019, told the Bulldog that Witt “was responsible for elements of coordinating customer workshops—logistics, planning, communications.”
Witt left for other opportunities, before taking up her current job at LexisNexis Risk Solutions, where she is employed as a bilingual education advisor.
Witt was married to Karl Lavender, an Australian, from 2009 until 2017. He told the Bulldog that the two met online not long after Witt graduated high school. She was taking courses at Austin Community College, and the two got to know each other on visits.
Witt relocated to Australia on a tourist visa, then married Lavender in Queensland in 2009. The two sought to switch her status to a marriage visa, but the process was difficult and costly. “The whole thing just became stressful,” Lavender said. After about a year and a half, “Morgan went back to the U.S. to complete her college degrees,” while Lavender later followed.
The two ended up divorcing in 2017. Lavender, who became a U.S. citizen and remains an Austinite, said they left on good terms, and he has supported Witt’s candidacy financially, according to campaign finance records. He described her as “one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and she’s very caring and compassionate. I do think that she definitely represents probably a younger Austin and a growing Austin.”
In recent years Witt developed an interest in city politics out of a desire “to make Austin a better place to live.” She told the Bulldog that she and Pool “generally agree on most things”—apart from land use—but also described her approach to governing as more aggressive than Pool’s and less incrementalist: “It’s easy to have a stance; it’s harder to do something about it.”
“I have more…progressive approaches to solving our problems, prefer action over endless audits/reports, and know that systemic reform means changing even the ways in which we develop our city’s future plans.”
Leslie Pool’s entry into elective office came in an eight-way council race in 2014, around the time that Morgan Witt was wrapping up college.
She ran on a record of neighborhood engagement and experience on local commissions and bond committees. In a 2014 candidate video, she highlighted a central theme that she still adheres to, promising to “fight for neighborhoods to preserve what’s best about what we love about our town.”
Pool also identified herself as a “strong Progressive voice” on a variety of social issues, according to her campaign website at the time, as quoted by Ballotpedia. Pool garnered 32.1 percent of the votes in November 2014 and advanced to a runoff against Jeb Boyt, an attorney.
Like the current race, the runoff contest between Boyt and Pool brought out contrasting visions on land use. The two candidates would “tread different paths on growth,” the Statesman reported at the time, contrasting Pool’s image as a “‘steward’ and a ‘caretaker’ who works to protect neighborhoods from unwanted development” with Boyt’s image as a supporter of “dense, urban development along major corridors and transit stations.”
David Foster, who had worked with Boyt and Pool at different nonprofits, commented in the article, “I think it’s possible to exaggerate their differences…it’s not that (Leslie) is against (growth) but wants to be a little more deliberative about how it happens.”
Pool won the runoff resoundingly, taking 66.2 percent of the votes.
Two terms on council
Taking office in January 2015, Pool was part of the first geographically elected city council. Because council elections thereafter were meant to be staggered, the new council members drew lots to determine who would get a short two-year term, and who would get four years. Pool drew the short term, forcing her to campaign for reelection again in 2016.
During her first term, Pool championed stronger lobbying regulations, leading to a new ordinance that tightened up the definition of lobbyist, required them to register, and required quarterly activity reports.
On land use, she voted against an ordinance easing restrictions on accessory dwelling units, also called granny flats, according to the Austin American-Statesman’s VoteTracker. The measure passed over her objections, opening the way for such units on smaller lots than previously had been allowed.
Her 2016 campaign for reelection reprised many of the same themes as the 2014 campaign, promising to “keep Austin affordable for all our families” and “protect neighborhoods and keep them safe and family friendly,” according to her campaign website at the time.
Pool defeated challenger Natalie Gauldin with 72 percent of the votes. Gauldin, who took 28 percent, had a background in teaching and tech training—similar to Witt.
Like Witt in 2020, Gauldin in 2016 attacked Pool on land use, saying that the incumbent “fought for years to maintain outdated regulations at the expense of affordability to the rest of District 7 and the City of Austin,” according to her campaign website at the time, as quoted by Ballotpedia.
During her second term, from 2017-2020, Pool was one of four council members to vote against a new Land Development Code, which passed on two readings in December 2019 and February 2020, before being struck down by a district court in the case Acuña et al v. City of Austin et al.
Judge Jan Soifer ruled March 18 that the city had failed to honor a state law giving landowners protest rights in rezoning cases. Pool had opposed authorizing legal funds for the case, saying the state law was clear and the city shouldn’t have ignored its requirements in the first place.
The land development code remains a live issue because the case is still under appeal. Even if the court decision is upheld, the council bloc that passed the land code likely will press ahead with new ways to implement changes.
If elected, Witt says that she would “eliminate apartment bans” in Austin’s central single-family neighborhoods and “permit a diversity of housing options” like accessory dwellings and fourplexes.
Adding more density to the central neighborhoods would boost housing supply and make the city more affordable for “essential workers,” like teachers and service industry workers, who are being priced out of the city, she argues. Not only are homes unaffordable but apartment rents also are too high in part because supply is constrained by land use restrictions, she says.
As she has pushed this line of argument, Witt has cast herself as the “real progressive” in the race, implying that Pool isn’t deserving of that moniker because of her record on fighting the new Land Development Code.
But Pool doesn’t accept that framing of the issue, saying that the land use issue is “extraordinarily multi-layered with thousands of nuances.” While rejecting “transition zones” that would allow multi-family buildings several lots deep into the single-family neighborhoods. Pool does advocate for denser development in some areas. “I agree with most in Austin that the LDC should be updated,” she said at a recent candidate forum moderated by the joint Austin area chambers of commerce. “I support density and mixed-use along corridors to provide more foot traffic, small business opportunity, increase commerce, and so forth.”
In an interview, Pool pointed out that she had voted against relatively few zoning cases: “Usually that’s because there was significant opposition by the neighborhood, and one of my values is representing the neighborhoods, because these are the people that live in our city.”
The incumbent also resisted Witt’s characterization that she was only concerned with existing homeowners and hadn’t done enough to help renters, pointing to council programs to provide legal support for tenants, lower utility rates, and create a COVID-19 rent relief program.
Given the recent court ruling, the council might need to move forward with land reform on a more granular level, rather than a citywide approach. Pool said, “We could move forward with some small area planning where we divide the city up into, say, seven or eight sections and then work at the ground level with the neighbors there to find where the best places for density are, where they don’t want it, and how they see their community growing.”
Views on transit
Both Witt and Pool are supporting Project Connect, a new mass transit plan that comes with a $7.1 billion price tag and would hike the city’s property tax rate by some 25 percent. Voters get to vote up or down on the new transit tax, called Proposition A, on this year’s ballot.
“We have to bite the bullet and do this,” Witt said.
Witt has made public transit a cornerstone of her campaign, casting herself as a representative of commuters at the northern edge of the city who are forced into long, “soul-sucking commutes” because of gridlock and a lack of affordable housing in central parts of the city.
At a recent candidate forum, she sought to draw attention to a north-south divide within District 7 when it comes to services like transit. “I’m going to speak for people who live all over the district but especially those who live in the northeastern portion: they feel completely underrepresented,” she said, citing the example of the Tech Ridge area, which is “historically underserved with things like parks, trails, and public transportation.”
She elaborated on this in an email to the Bulldog, saying, “Generally speaking I see US-183 as a significant dividing line in our district, both in representation and the provision of resources, services, and public amenities. Looking at demographic breakdown, there’s a clear overlay between zip code, race/ethnicity, income level, voter turnout…”
Pool, speaking at the same candidate forum, acknowledged that some recently annexed areas are deficient in infrastructure, and she said that she and her staff have been working on that. Prop A and Prop B will help with that, she noted, referring to the public transit tax and a new active mobility bond that includes funds for sidewalks, trails, and bike paths.
Pool’s website touts the role she has played in developing plans for two new rail stations on the Red Line, one at the McKalla Place soccer stadium and the other at the Broadmoor development near the Domain, both of which are within District 7. She also pushed for a public-private initiative aimed at creating a 32-mile bike trail along the Red Line.
Neither candidate has committed to halting property tax increases. At a candidate forum hosted by the Austin area chambers of commerce, Witt and Pool were asked, “Would you advocate to raise taxes above the state limit of 3.5 percent over prior years or hold the line at 3.5 percent?”
Witt spoke about “increasing the tax revenue base that will distribute burden,” without answering directly how she would vote. Pool noted she did vote to put such a tax hike on the ballot (Proposition A), but pointed out that ultimately the decision was up to the voters. Under state law, any increase in property tax revenue above 3.5 percent triggers a tax election.
Pool’s voting record on property taxes includes three votes to reduce the rate (in 2015, 2016, and 2018) and three votes to increase it (in 2017, 2019, and 2020). However, the effective rate rose in all of those years as property values rose. The effective rate is the rate at which the city would generate the same amount of revenue as in the prior year.
“Environmental legislation has been a hallmark of my almost six years on the council,” says Leslie Pool. She points to efforts to advance solar power use, reduce the city’s carbon emissions, and reduce natural gas leaks.
She’s also proud of her work to protect and invest in outdoor spaces and civic assets —“parks, libraries, pools, trails”—she said in an interview.
For her part, Witt says the council has achieved only “incremental changes” toward environmental protection and addressing climate change. She links the issue to land use and mass transit, arguing that denser, smarter development will halt urban sprawl and reduce auto emissions.
“We certainly don’t share a stance on addressing climate change,” Witt told the Bulldog. “The 2012 Imagine Austin Plan and Austin’s Climate Equity Plan are great examples of inequitable community processes, lack of commitment to real systemic change, and the tendency of city leadership to not follow through on its intentions.”
Both Witt and Pool support the council’s recent decision to trim the police budget. After downtown protests May 30-31, Pool said that police went overboard in how they responded. Witt herself joined protests and she faulted police for their conduct, saying at a candidate forum, “I am one of those peaceful protesters who has been tear gassed, spit on, and otherwise brutalized by police.”
Council members weighed various options for budget cuts ahead of an annual budget vote in August. Pool released a proposal to slash the police budget by $79 million, $39 million from reductions and $40 million from “realignments”—transfers of APD operations to other departments, including 9-1-1, forensics, traffic investigations, and victims services.
On the council message board, she wrote, “I consider this to be just a start to the larger effort we will need to reimagine public safety…I am eager to restore our police officers to their core mission of collaborating with the community and fighting crime, not responding to code violations or littering in the park, which dilutes and distracts from that core mission.”
The council ended up voting for about $20 million in immediate cuts, plus about $130 million that would be cut by “decoupling” certain functions from APD and assigning them to other departments, or by eliminating services altogether and performing them in an alternative way. Pool voted for that plan, as did all other council members.
After the vote, she told constituents that she had played a role in ensuring that the new budget included increased funding for mental health first responders at EMS, an Office of Violence Prevention, and victims services, according to an August 14 newsletter.
The budget vote drew attacks from challengers in some council races, who have made opposition to “defunding” of the police a centerpiece of their campaigns. But Pool’s opponent hasn’t criticized her over the budget vote itself, saying, “I support recent changes to the APD budget.”
Instead, Witt has faulted the process, saying at a recent candidate forum that residents were “angry and afraid” and lacked easy access to their elected representatives. She also questioned Pool’s commitment to following through on the process of “reimagining” public safety. She cited Pool’s record of “significant APD budget increases during her six years on the council,” prior to the August 2020 budget cut.
“How substantial will that restructuring be?” she told the Bulldog. “I don’t see any indication of real commitment.”
City council candidates are required to file Personal Financial Statements that disclose personal assets and income. The Bulldog typically reviews these filings to uncover potential conflicts of interest.
The filings show that Leslie Pool’s only occupational income is her salary as a city council member. Her partner, Will Grover, is retired.
Witt held a couple of jobs last year, including briefly as an axe throwing coach, before taking up her current job at LexisNexis. She doesn’t own property and rents an apartment on Duval Road, near Mopac, not far from the neighborhood where she grew up.
Pool owns a home in the Rosedale neighborhood, which has an appraised value of $636,622, according to the appraisal district.
Her partner Will Grover also owns a home in the South Lamar area, and earns between $500 and $5,000 in mortgage interest on that property, according to Pool’s Personal Financial Statement filed April 3, 2020. The home is worth $456,768, according to the appraisal district.
Grover is also a member of a company called Long Acres Enterprises LLC, which owns commercial real estate in San Antonio, a fact not disclosed on Pool’s PFS. The firm housed a Planned Parenthood clinic for many years, though since 2017 has had different tenants. Grover derives about $1,300 a month from that, according to Pool.
Asked about the firm, Pool said that she and Grover keep their finances separate and “I had not even given any thought to the Long Acres Enterprises until you brought it up.” She added, “I will report it on my next Personal Financial Statement.”
So far Leslie Pool has a big edge over Morgan Witt when it comes to campaign funds. Pool had raised $52,137 through September 24, while Witt has raised $15,505, according to The Austin Bulldog’s analysis of the latest filings.
Pool’s top donors include the Austin EMS Association, Silicon Labs CEO Tyson Tuttle, Circuit of the Americas founder Robert Epstein, and Moonshots Capital founder Craig Cummings, among others. Each gave the maximum allowable donation of $400, according to a September 28 filing.
She also received $400 from Andy Loughnane, president of the Major League Soccer team Austin FC, and $400 from Anthony Precourt, owner of the club. Pool had opposed a city land deal with Precourt in 2018, but was outvoted. Since then she has come to support building a passenger rail station at the site of the new stadium, which is in her district.
According to the filing, Pool’s fundraising also got a major bump from attorneys at a firm that lobbies the council over a variety of issues. She raked in $8,500 from attorneys employed by Armbrust & Brown or their spouses, accounting for 16 percent of her total fundraising.
Asked about this, she said, “This is the first time I’ve really taken any money from developers. Because this year was extraordinary, I felt like I needed to be willing to accept donations from the developers. We didn’t know what this year would bring and what campaigning would be like.”
She added, “Nothing about that $400 check is going to influence any kind of decisions that I would make.”
As previously reported by the Bulldog, Armbrust & Brown attorneys also gave generously to two other incumbents—Greg Casar and Jimmy Flannigan—as well as a candidate in the open race in District 2, David Chincanchan. They aren’t backing Alison Alter in District 10.
For her part, Morgan Witt’s top donors include a number of tech workers and entrepreneurs, Planning Commissioner Greg Anderson, and Pool’s 2014 opponent Jeb Boyt, all of whom gave the maximum $400 donation, according to her latest October 4 disclosure.
Boyt told the Bulldog by email that he’s supporting Witt because, “The incumbent has done nothing over the last six years to warrant another four years in office,” though he wouldn’t elaborate.
Leslie Pool is endorsed by The Austin Chronicle, Austin American-Statesman, Austin Sierra Club, Workers Defense Action Fund, Austin EMS Association, Austin Firefighters Association, a number of local unions, and several neighborhood-level Democratic groups.
Witt’s endorsers include University Democrats, Austin Young Democrats, Sunrise Movement ATX, the urbanist organizations AURA and Friends of Austin Neighborhoods, and the Homebuilders Association of Greater Austin.
Whichever candidate wins the race will face a city still grappling with an economic recession and pandemic. Witt promises to move aggressively to help businesses that have been shut down, including music venues. She’s critical of the council’s existing efforts on that front, saying the council is moving too slowly and indecisively. “You can’t preserve a dead industry.”
Pool, too, supports aid for small businesses, having voted for a recent stimulus package for hard-hit music venues, child care providers, and ‘legacy businesses.’ She says her next term in office will focus on “ensuring the fiscal health of the City of Austin, and extending the partnerships the City has with the private sector” and other local governmental bodies.
“Will our local small and independent businesses make it through financially, or will they fall victim to the economic devastation of the pandemic? We don’t yet know,” Pool reflected in an email. After the pandemic, “Relationships will be different. The economic landscape will be different. How people work and interact and travel will be different.”
Links to related documents:
Leslie Pool 2021 Police Budget Proposal (2 pages)
Leslie Pool Travis County personnel file (17 pages)
Leslie Pool’s Travis County personnel file (17 pages)
Long Acres Enterprises LLC property deed (3 pages)
Morgan Witt Round Rock ISD personnel file (19 pages)
Morgan Witt LinkedIn (4 pages)
Links to related Bulldog election coverage:
Alter’s odds against winning, five to one, October 21, 2020
Three contenders 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