Background on council candidates Isa Boonto, Amanda Rios, and Ramesses II Setepenre
Just two candidates filed to oppose Council Member Greg Casar when he ran for a third term in 2020, and only one of those raised money and actively campaigned. The narrow field helped him breeze to victory with 66.8 percent of the votes.
But the 2022 special election to fill Casar’s seat, which he is vacating with three years remaining in his term, has attracted seven contenders.
History tells us that a runoff is the most likely outcome in a race with that many candidates competing for an open seat, pitting the top two vote-getters from round one against each other in an election that’s tentatively scheduled for March 22, 2022.
When there are three or even four contenders in a council race, the dominant candidate can sometimes come out on top without a runoff. That’s happened six times since 2014, when the city transitioned from an at-large system of electing council members to a district-based one.
But things get tougher for the frontrunner in council races with five or more candidates. Out of 11 races since 2014 that fit that bill, only one of them didn’t go to a runoff: Ann Kitchen in 2014 defeated six other candidates with 53.6% of the votes.
If anyone’s going to repeat that feat in the current race, it’s probably going to be Jose “Chito” Vela III, described in our recent profile as the “insider’s pick,” the most endorsed, the most experienced in government, and the best-funded.
But if Vela is forced into a runoff, who’s going to be the other candidate to make it to round two? The Bulldog profiled three contenders in articles published earlier this month: Monica Guzmán, Jade Lovera, and Melinda Schiera. In this article, we take a look at three others: Isa Boonto-Zarifis, Amanda Rios, and Ramesses II Setepenre.
Of these three, Amanda Rios appears to have the greatest advantages, having announced her candidacy weeks before the others, raised the most money, launched a campaign website, canvassed, and sent mailers to voters in the district.
However, she skipped several of the virtual forums hosted by neighborhood groups, political clubs, media, and the League of Women Voters Austin Area.
Additionally, after giving an initial interview to the Statesman for an article November 30th, Rios appeared to have disengaged from the press and did not agree to a phone interview with the Bulldog or respond to emailed questions.
For her part, Boonto-Zarifis, who will appear on the ballot just as Isa Boonto, was the last to enter the race on December 16, 2021 and has raised hardly any funds that could be used for mailers, yard signs, advertising, a website, or other typical campaign tools. However, she has participated actively in the candidate forums.
The third candidate, Setepenre, has not actively campaigned or participated in candidate forums. In response to a questionnaire from the League of Women Voters about his qualifications for office, he responded, “I’m on the ballot, aren’t, I?”
Amanda Rios is the candidate in the race most focused on public safety. She would like to see more investment in policing, reversing the staffing cuts made by the council in 2020.
Rios is a caregiver to her two children and a former teacher at the Austin Independent School District. She taught bilingual prekindergarten at Blackshear Elementary from 2005 to 2011, tutored at Pecan Springs Elementary in 2012, and taught bilingual prekindergarten at Joslin Elementary in 2013, according to her resume posted on LinkedIn.
She also worked with refugees in Houston as an Americorps Vista volunteer.
Politically, Rios says she doesn’t identify as either a Democrat or a Republican and says she has voted for candidates from both parties. But she’s active in Facebook groups like “Adlervilles,” which are popular among conservative critics of the mayor and council.
“I’ve heard from the residents that they are fed up and we’ve kind of become bitter in our district because we have been ignored,” she said at a January 17th forum moderated by KUT, Austin’s National Public Radio station. “We have cried out to city council for help on various issues and our voices have not been heard. And this is why I’m running.”
On the question of housing affordability, Rios said, “We need somebody who can think outside of the box, who isn’t a politician, and who is willing to empower the residents who have been here for a long time, who want to stay here. One of the things that I’ve seen just walking in the district is that there are houses sitting empty in our district, and it’s because of lack of safety that people don’t want to be necessarily in some of the neighborhoods that we live in.”
Another priority, she told the League of Women Voters Austin Area in a questionnaire, should be green spaces for children: “The Austin Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights passed by City Council declares that children have the right to safe trails, parks and natural, open, clean spaces…Children that have access to these types of spaces are healthier, happier and perform better academically and I want to ensure that this is available.”
Rios holds a Bachelor of Arts in Global Studies from Azusa Pacific University, which she graduated from in 2003, according to degree verification. She said during the KUT forum that she spent eight years of her childhood in Mexico before attending middle school and high school in Austin, graduating in 1998. She is married to Antenor Pablo Rios, whom she wed in Travis County in 2006. Together they own a home in St Johns, which they bought in 2008.
Until recently, Rios went by her maiden name, Geurkink, according to public records, including her witness registration at the Texas Senate in April 2021 last year. That prompted the Statesman to point out in its coverage November 30th that Rios was “of European descent” and “not Hispanic,” implying that this mattered because the district has always been represented by a Hispanic and has more Hispanic residents than any district but District 2. However, Rios is bilingual, and she introduced herself in both English and Spanish during the KUT candidate forum and called herself “bilingual and bicultural.”
‘End homeless camping’
Although several candidates in the D4 race have expressed concerns with the city’s homeless policies, Rios has been the most emphatic about restricting camping, including by enforcing the Proposition B ordinance that voters approved in May 2020.
On her campaign website, she calls for “ending homeless camping,” saying, “It is not acceptable for our city to allow people to camp in unsafe manners. I will work and continue to seek out solutions by looking at successful models.”
Even before launching her council campaign, Rios advocated passionately for more restrictions on public camping, both on social media and in other public forums. She got involved because of a homeless camp in front of her home, which she considered created an unsafe environment for her children.
In emotional testimony before the Senate Committee on Local Government at the Texas Capitol on April 12, 2021, Rios asked lawmakers to approve a bill proposed to criminalize public camping statewide, except in areas designated by local authorities.
Rios said, “I’m here for my children because we cannot walk in our front yard and we can’t go to the street park because there are homeless encampments on every corner.” She referred to drug dealing and violence in the camps and told a story about a woman who was camped near her home for several weeks. Rios said she was being “sex trafficked” and suffered from mental illness, and would wail uncontrollably at night, frightening her children.
Rios added that she had considered leaving the city on account of the encampments. “I even told my children: either we can run and we can escape from this problem and we can move to Arkansas (because we bought a property there for $1,000—we can go build a house in Arkansas), or we can face the problem head on and we can make a change.”
The bill that Rios was supporting, House Bill 1925, was opposed publicly by Mayor Steve Adler and Austin’s Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey. It became law on September 1, 2021. It says in part, “A local entity may not adopt or enforce a policy under which the entity prohibits or discourages the enforcement of any public camping ban.”
Late in the race, Rios was endorsed by Save Austin Now, the group co-led by the Travis County Republican Party Chairman Matt Mackowiak, which orchestrated the policing and camping propositions on the ballot last year. In a joint statement January 17th, Mackowiak and the group’s co-founder Cleo Petricek, a Democrat, called Rios a “courageous community leader” and the “best candidate,” while also giving a nod to Jade Lovera and Melinda Schiera, saying either would likely be better than the current incumbent.
Isa Boonto is an art teacher at Navarro Early College High School and a part-time restaurant worker who pitches herself as a positive candidate with a focus on social justice who will listen to both sides of an issue and do her best to represent everyone in the district.
She says priorities for the council should be housing affordability and changing the land code. Boonto also advocates for a minimum wage and rent control, even though Texas law prohibits cities from doing either.
“I would demand that we talk about a living wage in Austin,” she said in an interview. Many of her teacher colleagues supplement their income with outside work, she noted, because the city is getting so unaffordable.
On the issue of land use, Boonto says she’s probably somewhere in the middle on the spectrum between preservationists and urbanists, saying the city needs more housing stock but “we can’t just have concrete jungles.”
“To represent a community, one can’t just say I am pro one side and against the other. Because not everybody in this community are urbanists. Not everybody in this community are preservationists, so how do I take, as my father would say, the middle path? How do I hear both sides, and how do I come up with solutions?”
Boonto’s father came from Thailand to the United States to study at the University of Maryland and landed a job at the Thai embassy, going on to become a career diplomat, she said. Boonto said she was born in Maryland, grew up partly overseas, and has dual citizenship.
Boonto said her candidacy grows out of a long history of volunteerism and civic engagement. She served on the campus advisory council for her school, worked for Austin Mutual aid as a moderator and crisis supporter, and was vice president and then co-president of the North Austin Civic Association (NACA) alongside Melinda Schiera.
Initially, Boonto got involved in NACA through beautification projects that she worked on with her art students before she was asked to serve as an officer. After two or three years in leadership, she had a falling out with others in the organization and stepped down. “I struggled in my role as vice president and even as co-president to get my voice heard,” she said.
Boonto-Zarifis has two children and takes the second part of her name from Ken Zarifis, the head of Education Austin, the largest teacher’s union in the city. They are separated since last year but not formally divorced, she told the Bulldog. She said that she gained some campaign experience from having helped her husband wage his campaign for union president.
Politically, she told the Bulldog that she shies away from labels but votes Democrat. Her views generally align with the Democratic Socialists, though she hasn’t directly been involved in that group. Boonto offered praise for the outgoing incumbent, Greg Casar, calling herself a supporter, but noted that she heard “grumblings” in the community about some of his policies.
Change of heart on APD
Boonto took part last year in a series of workshops run by Joyce James Consulting, a firm that was contracted by the city to help identify racial inequities in policing in Austin and transform the culture of the Austin Police Department. The workshops, referred to as Groundwater Analysis Training, invite participants to reflect on issues of race and racism.
In an interview, Boonto said she was a community participant in the workshops alongside the 144th cadet class—the first one trained after the city overhauled the academy curriculum—and another for APD top staff.
Prior to participating, she had “not been very supportive of police departments,” she said. “I have advocated for defunding the police.”
But the workshops brought her into closer contact with police officers, humanized them, and gave her insights into their challenges, she said. She had a change of heart. In both an interview with the Bulldog and the League of Women Voters candidate forum she criticized the council for its decision in 2020 to cut funding to the department and freeze hiring and cadet training, saying it left APD short-staffed and impacted morale.
“I was able to hear directly from police officers that are working the beat, a lot of them from District 4, that are saying we got thrown under the bus. We have been made out to be the bad guy in the situation.”
The Joyce James training was excellent, she said, and gave her hope that such “honest conversations” could change policing for the better. “If we want to change policing, it’s not going to change if we just take their money away.”
Ramesses II Setepenre
Ramesses II Setepenre, age 29, is a rideshare driver who identifies as a “gay eco-socialist.” He ran against Casar in 2020, describing his campaign at the time as a “vendetta” because he had been mistreated while working as a contract security guard at City Hall and felt snubbed by his council member when he reached out for help.
Setepenre said he supports legalization of drugs, health care for all, college for all, slavery reparations, living wages, abolishing police unions and qualified immunity, enacting rank-choice voting, and a Green New Deal.
Setepenre, who is Egyptian-American, shares his name with Ramesses II, the Egyptian pharaoh (his surname, Setepenre, is a pharaonic title). Records indicate that he went by the legal name Youssef E. Abdalla until 2017, when he petitioned a Travis County court for a name change. According to a LinkedIn profile associated with Setepenre’s former name, and other internet records, he attended Cherry Hill High School West in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, from 2007 to 2011. He arrived in Texas soon after that, according to dates given on his ballot application.
As he did in 2020, Setepenre has used this campaign as an opportunity to air personal grievances. He lashed out at his landlord in social media posts and in a questionnaire submitted to the League of Women Voters Austin Area, complaining that the property company had failed to control rats and did not provide hot water to the entire building for over a month.
“I’d make the city crack down on these slumlords and ignominiously put them on a blast,” he wrote. LWV redacted the response in part, saying it did not meet their criteria.
Setepenre was threatened with eviction by his landlord in October 2021, because he was verbally abusive, had violated the lease terms, and was not offered a lease renewal but stayed anyway, according to a letter from the property manager that he shared on his Facebook page. The letter notes also that the company staff had stopped responding to emails from Setepenre “due to the aggressive nature of all your correspondence.”
Trust indicators: Bulldog reporter Daniel Van Oudenaren is a journalist with 13 years experience in local, state, and international reporting.
Links to related coverage:
Vela leads the District 4 pack in council race, January 19, 2022
Moderate campaigns for D4 council seat, January 10, 2022
Anti-displacement campaigner runs for Casar’s council seat, January 6, 2022
Vela takes big lead in fundraising for D4 special election, December 30, 2021