Mayor and council candidates rake up $2.3 million

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The leading candidates to be Austin’s next mayor are (L-R) Celia Israel, Kirk Watson, and Jennifer Virden

Updated 10:01am September 8, 2022, to upload and link the Petitions for a Place on the City General Election Ballot for the seven candidates whose petitions were sufficient.

Updated 10:18am September 8, 2022, to include information about disbursements from the Austin Fair Campaign Finance Fund for the runoff elections of 2016, 2018, and 2020, as well as the current balance in the fund.

Big haul with two reporting cycles remaining before the November 8th election

Twenty-three of the 34 mayor and council candidates who will be on the November 8th ballot collectively raised nearly $2.3 million through June 30th. Three of the six candidates vying to be Austin’s next mayor scarfed up nearly $1.4 million of that. Eleven candidates raised nothing at all.

Click this image to download the Bulldog’s complete Campaign Finance Analysis

The 23 candidates who reported raising money have racked up 11,158 individual contributions from 9,650 unique donors. The average donation for all candidates combined was $204. (For details, click the attached image to access the Bulldog’s Campaign Finance Analysis spreadsheet.)

With two reporting cycles left before the November 8th election, total contributions for this election will likely exceed $4 million, though final totals will not be known until everyone files their end-of-year reports due January 15th.

That’s a bunch of money for a local election. But it’s still short of the $6.3 million election of 2014. That was the year that the mayor’s job and 10 newly drawn geographic districts were on the ballot to implement the 10-1 City Council system approved by voters in 2012. In addition, political action committees laid out nearly three-quarters of a million dollars to influence voters in that same election.

What’s particularly notable about the big hunks of money being poured into this year’s mayoral race is that these candidates are competing for a two-year term.

That’s because in the election of May 1, 2021, two-thirds of Austin voters approved Proposition D. That amended the City Charter to shift from holding mayoral elections in gubernatorial election years to presidential election years. So, to stay in office, whoever wins the mayor’s job this year will have to run for a four-year term in 2024.

Mayoral candidate Kirk Watson, 64, pulled in more than $997,000 all by himself. He did so in a five-month fundraising scramble that didn’t begin until February 2nd, when he appointed a campaign treasurer. Yet in that short span of time he pulled in almost 3,200 donations averaging $313, according to the Bulldog’s analysis of datasets published online by the City.

State Representative Celia Israel, 58, started January 10th and raised more than a quarter-million dollars. What’s remarkable about her fundraising is the high number of repeat givers. She netted 2,033 individual donations from 1,419 unique donors. Close examination of her campaign finance report shows dozens gave five or more times, several six or more times, and one eight times. Which helps to explain why her average donation (total contributions divided by number of contributions) was only $125.

Jennifer Virden, 55, was the only mayoral candidate who started raising money last year. She appointed a treasurer in May 2021 and began accepting donations November 8th, a year to the day before this year’s election. She kickstarted her campaign with a personal loan of $300,000. Still, despite her head start and skin in the game she managed to raise from donors only slightly more than half of what Israel did and roughly an eighth of Watson’s total. But that big loan gave her more that twice what Israel had in cash on hand as of June 30th and a bit more than half of what remained in Watson’s war chest.

Phil Campero Brual, 22, collected three donations totaling $250. Three of the other mayoral candidates—Anthony Bradshaw, 62; Erica Nix, 41; and Gary S. Spellman, 56—raised nothing at all.

Spellman, who’s close friends with billionaire John Paul DeJoria, has vowed to self-fund his campaign. The Austin Chronicle reported Nix announced August 26th that she is dropping out of the race and is endorsing Israel. City Clerk Myrna Rios confirmed that Nix’s name will not appear on the November 8th ballot.

State officeholder advantages

Former Senator Watson and State Representative Israel are both sitting on substantial balances in accounts they established as state officeholders. Through January 18th of this year Watson’s cash on hand totaled more than $1.2 million and Israel through July 15th had more than $28,000.

Neither Israel nor Watson are permitted to use these funds to boost their mayoral campaigns. Section 2-2-55 of the City Charter prohibits use of contributions accepted while a candidate for, or holding, an office other than a City office.

While they cannot use those funds to campaign for mayor they have in the past made significant donations from their officeholder accounts to build considerable goodwill among many in the community. Examination of just their most recent state officeholder financial reports offer a tip-of-the-iceberg view of what they’ve given over their years in office and, in Watson’s case, beyond.

Watson’s most recent report reflects donations of $25,000 to the Travis County Democratic Party, donations of $1,000 or more to the Austin Justice Coalition, Austin NAACP, Black Austin Democrats, Capital Area Progressive Democrats, Workers Defense Project, and $500 or more donations to Austin Tejano Democrats, Austin Young Democrats, Central Austin Democrats, Circle C Democrats, HABLA, South Austin Democrats, Stonewall Democrats of Austin, Texas Campaign for the Environment, and Texas Young Democrats.

With a much smaller balance Israel, whose term as District 50 state representative ends this year, was not able to spread the wealth nearly as far. She gave $2,500 to the Travis County Democratic Party, $400 to the Greater Austin Black Chamber, $300 to the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, $250 to the Pflugerville Education Foundation, $200 each to the Austin LBGT Chamber and Hispanic Advocates Business Leaders of Austin, $100 or more to Progress Texas and Texas Civil Rights Project, $50 or more to the Blue Action Democrats, El Buen Samaritano, and Stonewall Austin Democrats.

These latest contributions to community and political organizations are nothing unusual. They are examples of what politicians do to maintain strong ties with the grassroots organizations that are fundamentally important for their political futures. The return on investment is that these organizations are more likely to endorse, contribute to, and volunteer for these politicians when they’re on the ballot.

Watson always a big fundraiser

The fact that Watson is a prolific fundraiser is nothing new. Twenty-five years ago, he was running for mayor as a newcomer to city politics. He raised more than $749,000 in that 1997 election, as I reported in my In Fact Daily newsletter in May 1, 2000, when he was running for reelection. The population of Austin in 1997 was 526,000—slightly more than half what it is today. He raised that sum even without needing a runoff because his opponent, Council Member Ronney Reynolds, threw in the towel after the general election. Watson got the mayor’s job despite netting less than 49 percent of the votes. Reynolds was the last vestige of the old guard that had opposed the Save Our Springs Ordinance approved by 64 percent of voters in 1992.

Watson’s reelection win in 2000 was more like a coronation. He got 84 percent of the votes running against three nobodies in an election with a turnout of just 7 percent.

It must be noted, however, that Watson’s election in 1997 was held before an initiative petition approved by 72 percent of voters later that year limited campaign contributions to $100. That figure was later increased and a cost-of-living adjustment added. The limit was $400 for this election ($800 for couples) until on August 17th the City Council boosted it to $450 when passing the budget. It’s a sure bet that anyone who gave $400 will be getting pinged to toss in an extra fifty bucks.

Back in 1997, before the limits kicked in, musician Don Henley of the rock band Eagles, which sold more than 150 million albums, was handing out big checks to favored candidates. Daryl Slusher got $40,000 that year (up from the $30,000 Henley gave to Slusher for his 1994 near-miss bid to unseat incumbent Mayor Bruce Todd). Beverly Griffith got $20,000. Willie Lewis $15,000 and Bill Spelman $10,000, and all won their elections. That money was a big help in completing a transition to the first Austin City Council in which every member was endorsed by environmentalists.

Candidates for council districts

Natasha Harper-Madison

District 1 candidates—Incumbent Natasha Harper-Madison, 44, is getting a free pass for reelection. Two of the three challengers on the ballot raised no money. The other one scraped up less than $1,100 from five donors. Meanwhile Harper-Madison pulled in nearly $114,000 from 401 donors, an average of $284.

Which means that the Austin City Council will likely retain its only Black council member despite decades of declining African-American population. In 1971 Berl Handcox was the first Black elected to the (then at-large) City Council. Since then every succeeding council has had one and only one African-American member. Blacks now account for less than 7 percent of Austin’s population age 18 and older. City demographic data for District 1 residents age 18 and older in the 2020 census shows barely 19 percent are Black, 36 percent are Hispanic/Latino, and more than 33 percent are white.

Jose Velasquez

District 3 candidates—Heavily endorsed candidate Jose Velasquez. 42, raised nearly four times the amount of his best-funded opponent, Daniela Silva, 30. His netted more than $44,000 from 417 donations for an average of $106. Silva, the second-best fundraiser in the field, got nearly $12,000 from 145 donations for an average of $82.

José Noé Elias, 40, was far behind in raising almost $4,000, about a third of Silva’s total, from 61 donors averaging $62. Yvonne Weldon, 52, the only Republican running in District 3, netted $450 from a half-dozen donors and loaned her campaign $1,670.

Last-minute District 3 entrants Gavino Fernandez Jr., 68, and Esala Wueschner, 31, were not eligible to raise money before the deadline.

Aaron Velazquez Webman

District 5 candidates—The leading fundraiser, Aaron Velazquez Webman, 35, had almost $108,000 but barely half the number of unique donors as Stephanie Bazan, 42, who raised more than $54,000. She was the only District 5 candidate to start raising money in 2021. Even Ryan Joseph Alter, 33 (no relation to Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter) who raised more than $57,000, had more unique donors than Webman.

Candidates Ken Craig, 63, a Democrat, and Bill Welch, 67, the staunch Republican in District 5, at least got out of the starting blocks, each raising about $14,000. Welch also loaned his campaign $6,032.

The reason that Webman’s average donation seems so out of whack at $739 is because the candidate donated—not loaned—his campaign $50,000. Contributing such large sums to one’s own campaign is practically unheard of, because candidates have traditionally loaned money to their campaigns. Loaning one’s campaign money preserves the ability to claw back those amounts from future contributions not spent campaigning. That’s of no interest to Webman.

“I contributed the $50K because I’m serious about this campaign and want to make sure people understand that I’m not doing this for personal financial gains,” he told the Bulldog in text communications September 4th.

But that’s not all that’s unusual about Webman’s campaign finance report. Until the City Council on August 17th increased the maximum allowable donation to $450, based on an adjustment for inflation, individuals were allowed to contribute no more than $400 each to a candidate. Yet by June 30th Webman’s report showed 11 individuals had contributed $800 apiece to his campaign, which at the time was twice what was allowed, for a total of $8,800. Not only that but one of them, Teresa Andresen, contributed $800 in addition to the $800 donated by she and her husband. (Webman told the Bulldog that he has since voided her individual donation.) One other donor, Rolando Pablos, only stepped over the $400 line by $100 in donating $500.

Apparently Webman missed that limitation, which is stated in the Candidate Packet published April 1st by the City Clerk and distributed to all candidates. “No candidate for Mayor or City Council shall accept campaign contributions in excess of $400…per contributor per election from any person….” (Admittedly it’s on p. 38 of an encyclopedic 745-page PDF.) Further, Article III, Section 8(E) of The Austin City Charter states that candidates, or their committees, “shall determine whether accepting each contribution would violate this section before accepting the contribution.”

Contacted by the Bulldog, Webman insisted all those individual $800 donations were, in fact, made by couples.

“To the extent I can correct them in the reporting to represent that they are couples (which they are), I will. If not, I’ll make sure to do what I need to do to correct/comply with all rules since it’s very important for me to follow all the rules.”

One other remarkable thing about Webman’s contribution report is that fully three-quarters of all donors gave the maximum allowed amount. Only 35 of his 146 donations were for less than $400.

Paige Ellis

District 8 candidates—Incumbent Paige Ellis, 38, like Harper-Madison in District 1, has three opponents. But at least one of hers is showing some spunk. Richard Smith, 67, has raised more than $36,000 to her nearly $100,000. Her average contribution is $231 and his is $130.

Ellis also loaned her campaign $3,500 and was well positioned with nearly $101,000 cash on hand. That’s more than twice Smith’s balance of $41,000 on hand as of June 30th.

Ben Leffler

District 9 candidates—Six of the eight people running for District 9 have raised substantial sums, collectively more than $336,000. Which makes this the most expensive contest so far, other than the mayoral campaign.

Three of the District 9 candidates—Ben Leffler, 38, Zohaib “Zo” Qadri, 32, and Joah Spearman, 39—got a head start by appointing campaign treasurers in November 2021 and between them had pulled in more than $115,000 by the year’s end.

By the June 30th reporting deadline Leffler emerged as the leading fundraiser with a $30,000-plus advantage over other candidates. But three late-starters, Linda Guerrero, 68, Greg Smith, 57, and Tom Wald, 47, had each raised substantial sums.

Campaign technicalities

Voluntary Campaign Contract—Twenty candidates signed contracts in which they agreed to abide by limitations on contributions and expenditures to qualify for public funds from the Austin Fair Campaign Finance Fund, should they qualify for a runoff. Under that contract, mayoral candidates are limited to $120,000 in the general election and $80,000 in a runoff. Council candidates are limited to $75,000 plus $50,000 in a runoff.

In addition they must agree to participate in a series of three required candidate forums arranged by the City’s Ethics Review Commission, record a five-minute campaign video to be aired on the City’s government access channel, ATXN, complete a questionnaire that will be published online, and participate in a live candidate forum moderated by the League of Women Voters of the Austin Area.

However, 11 of those 20 candidates do not appear to qualify for payment from the Austin Fair Campaign Fund because they signed the voluntary contract more than 30 days after appointing a campaign treasurer. (Those contract dates are marked in red on the accompanying spreadsheet.) City Code Section 2-2-11 states, “A candidate must personally sign the campaign contract the earlier of (emphasis added): (1) 30 days after he or she becomes a candidate under the Texas Election Code; or (2) the date the candidate filed for a place on the ballot. Appointing a campaign treasurer is an indication of intent to run for office, a declaration of one’s candidacy.

Jannette Goodall
Jannette Goodall

In the 2014 election, the Bulldog reported that two of the three candidates who received nearly $28,000 each from the Austin Fair Campaign Finance Fund were actually ineligible. Then City Clerk Jannette Goodall said that for future elections she wanted to make changes in how decisions are made for distributing the Fair Campaign Funds. The Bulldog has filed a public information request for details about the current balance of funds available and rules for this election cycle.

In response to a public information request, the City provided the following information about Austin Fair Campaign Finance Fund disbursements:

2016 runoff election—Candidate Alison Alter got $64,171 and incumbent Sheri Gallo got nothing.

2018 runoff election—Candidate Natasha Harper-Madison, incumbent Sabino Renteria, candidate Susana Almanza, and candidate Ellis Paige each got $15,491. Candidates Mariana Salazar and Frank Ward got nothing.

2020 runoff election—Candidates Mackenzie Kelly and Jennifer Virden each got $26,443. Incumbents Alison Alter and Jimmy Flannigan got nothing.

As of September 6, 2022, the Austin Fair Campaign Finance Fund had a balance of $61,747.

Few signed up to run a fair campaign

Texas Election Code Chapter 258 encourages “every candidate and political committee to subscribe to the Code of Fair Campaign Practices. Those who do are pledging to “follow the basic principles of decency, honesty, and fair play to encourage healthy competition and open discussion of issues and candidate qualifications and to discourage practices that cloud the issues or unfairly attack opponents.”

Compliance with the Code is strictly voluntary. Unlike signing the Fair Campaign Contract, which offers the potential for receiving funds in a runoff election, the only incentive is that signers may mention it in their political advertising.

Signers for this election cycle are Fernandez and Silva in District 3, Ross in District 8, and Mitchell and Qadri in District 9.

Money isn’t everything, is it?

City Charter Article III Section 4 requires candidates to pay a $500 filing fee with their application for a place on the ballot. But state law requires the city to provide candidates with an alternative to the filing fee. The City of Austin provided candidates with that alternative by establishing the minimum number of valid signatures that a candidate must gather, based on a percentage of the total votes cast in previous elections.

Although petitioning does offer a way to conserve funds that might be better used for other campaign expenses—and permit ballot access to candidates short of funds—petitioning also offers a great way for candidates and their assistants to practice retail politics by getting out and raising awareness of and support for the candidates.

For the November 8, 2022, election, mayoral candidates would have needed 1,584 valid signatures from people registered to vote in Austin. None of the six mayoral candidates attempted to petition for those signatures.

Candidates for the five council districts on the ballot needed numbers of signatures varying from 122 to 209 and those signatures needed to come from voters registered in their districts.

Only seven of the 34 candidates on the November 8th ballot candidates managed to get sufficient valid signatures from their respective districts: Natasha Harper-Madison and Clinton Rarey in District 1; José Noé Elias, Daniela Silva, and Yvonne Weldon in District 3; Ryan Joseph Alter in District 5; and Ben Leffler in District 9.

Those are indicated on the Campaign Finance Analysis spreadsheet with a “P” behind the candidate’s name. Those who paid $500 filing fees are denoted by “$” behind their names. (Those petitions are listed below and can be accessed by clicking.)

Two other District 9 candidates, Zena Mitchell and Tom Wald, submitted petitions that were insufficient and wound up paying the $500 filing fees.

Photo of Ken MartinTrust indicators: Ken Martin’s first big political story was published by Third Coast magazine in January 1982. The story, “Decency Ordained: Austin’s Anti-Gay Crusade,” focused on Austin Citizens for Decency’s ballot initiative that would have allowed landlords to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. The ballot, “Providing that it shall not be unlawful to deny housing on the basis of sexual orientation,” was defeated by 63 percent to 37 percent.

Related documents:

Austin Fair Campaign Contract (8 pages)

Campaign Finance Analysis for the 2022 Election of Austin’s next Mayor and Five Council Members, current through June 30, 2022

Code of Fair Campaign Practices subscription form (2 pages)

Decency Ordained: Austin’s Anti-Gay Crusade, January 1982 (5 pages)

Instructions for Filing a Petition in Lieu of Filing Fee for a Place on the Ballot (2 pages)

Petition for a Place on the City General Election Ballot (2 pages)

Petition for Place on the Ballot for Ryan Joseph Alter (16 pages)

Petition for a Place on the Ballot for José Noé Elias (15 pages)

Petition for a Place on the Ballot for Natasha Harper-Madison (20 pages)

Petition for a Place on the Ballot for Ben Leffler (35 pages)

Petition for a Place on the Ballot for Clinton Rarey (15 pages)

Petition for a Place on the Ballot for Daniela Silva (18 pages)

Petition for a Place on the Ballot for Yvonne Weldon (18 pages)

Related Bulldog coverage:

Urbanists vie to replace council member Kathie Tovo, August 30, 2022

Let the mayor and council campaigns begin, August 22, 2022

Delgado will not be on the District 3 ballot, August 18, 2022

Half the mayor and council candidates haven’t file for a place on the ballot, August 18, 2022

Cosmetic executive runs for mayor on message of unity, ‘cooperation’, August 18, 2022

D3 candidate Delgado disqualified but seeks reinstatement, August 12, 2022

Candidates have voting records too, August 11, 2022

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for your interest in the story and for taking the time to provide feedback. Please note that Daniela Silva filed two ballot applications: One was filed at 8:56am (using the form designed for Spanish speakers) that checked the box for a petition. She filed another at 1:35pm and checked the box for paying $500. Because she waited until the very last day to file for a place on the ballot, it appears that she provided a $500 check in case her petition was ruled insufficient. The City’s response to my public information request listed those whose petition was accepted in lieu of filing fees and Silva’s was among those.

  2. In addition, I have uploaded and linked the Petitions for a Place on the Ballot that were accepted by the City Clerk as being sufficient in lieu of paying a filing fee.

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