Schiera stakes out middle ground on policing, zoning
Melinda Schiera, a neighborhood leader, mother, and digital marketing analyst, is fighting for a place on Austin City Council in a special election scheduled for January 25th.
Schiera is running to replace Greg Casar, the firebrand progressive first elected in 2014, who is seeking a seat in Congress. If she wins, she’ll serve out the remainder of Casar’s current term through 2024.
Schiera, 39, has never held public office or run a political campaign, but she’s gained leadership experience through a decade of service as program manager, vice president, and then president of the North Austin Civic Association, which calls itself the largest neighborhood association in Austin, both geographically and in population.
She describes herself as the most issues-focused candidate in the race and wants her campaign to be about the solutions and project ideas that she’s putting forward. “Overall I want the focus to be on the platform,” she told the Bulldog. “I wanted to present a platform that was action-oriented, that had bullet points—here are my ideas and this is what I want to do.”
She faces six other candidates: Isa Boonto, Monica Guzmán, Jade Lovera, Amanda Rios, Ramesses II Setepenre, and Jose “Chito” Vela III. The Bulldog published a profile of Guzmán last week and will cover the other candidates in forthcoming articles.
Early voting begins January 10th. If a runoff election is needed because no candidate wins a majority, it will be held March 22nd.
Only voters who reside within District 4 are permitted to cast ballots in this election. In the last two elections for the position, turnout was 12,024 in 2016 and 17,405 in 2020.
Schiera resides in the Quail Creek West neighborhood, which lies off Metric Boulevard north of US Highway 183. She’s began volunteering with the North Austin Civic Association (NACA) soon after moving into the area in 2011. Initially she helped manage the organization’s Facebook page, build a website, contribute to member newsletters, and run a door-to-door membership drive.
In 2014, she was elected vice president and in 2018 president. She saw her role in part as a facilitator and educator, engaging with members about current issues, including infrastructure bonds, urban rail, and land use.
“Communication was a huge focus, and encouraging people to come to meetings, booking presenters that were going to educate the neighborhood association, whether that was about infrastructure, public safety, or an election,” she said.
Davi Brown, a long-time NACA volunteer, said she got to know Schiera at these meetings. “She made doing good things feel possible. I was a little bit jaded (before that),” she told the Bulldog.
Schiera demonstrated strong leadership qualities, according to Brown. “She just always feels positive, she’s got a real hopeful heart and that generates a lot of her energy around issues. She is absolutely willing to put the skin in the game.”
Schiera organized neighborhood beautification efforts, including a community tree program; coordinated with the Restore Rundberg initiative; and advocated for the city’s Repeat Offender Program, which sought to address repeat code violations by apartment landlords that posed a risk to the health and safety of tenants. “NACA fought for the rental registration program/repeat offender program in 2013 and Melinda was an important leader in that effort that went well beyond NACA,” said John Green, a former NACA president and current co-vice president.
Claire Milam, who moved into the Quail Creek neighborhood in 2012, got to know Schiera through NACA meetings and became a friend. She worked with her on a NACA project to build a Gaga ball pit (Gaga is a game similar to dodge ball, played with a soft foam ball) at Cook Elementary School. In an interview, she described the candidate as “organized,” “proactive,” and “a detail person.”
“She’s got a high level of emotional maturity so she’s really level-headed,” said Milam, who is also Schiera’s campaign treasurer.
Similarly, Brown said, “I have never seen her angry and there have been so many things that she probably had a reason to be angry about. Because, you know, if you are out there in a position of power, even if it’s just the president of NACA, you’ve got a lot of stuff thrown at you. She’s calm. She just makes things seem possible, doable, and she’s kind about it. And she’s so persistent.”
Schiera currently freelances as a marketing data analyst, in addition to caregiving for her two children. “I do a little bit of everything for clients whether it’s a major educational institution or a software client or a retail client. I manage all of their acquisition marketing, their reporting, and the optimization of their strategy and business processes,” she said.
Formerly, she held positions as a digital content strategist and marketing coordinator, according to her LinkedIn profile.
Prior to those roles in digital media, Schiera worked for 10 years as a deputy clerk at the Supreme Court of Texas, from 2007 to 2017. Her role was a mix of administrative and customer service functions: she managed filings, answered calls, and helped update the website, she said. At the time, the court was implementing electronic filing and Schiera helped litigants to navigate that process. The job wasn’t political, she said.
If she wins, Schiera says that her priorities as a council member would be increasing affordable housing in District 4, Project Connect implementation—including extension of the Orange Line up North Lamar to Tech Ridge—and working with the Austin Police Department to address public safety issues.
She also wants to create an create a multi-family/affordable housing commission, inventory all abandoned vehicles in the district and expedite the removal process, support Housing First initiatives, and create a multilingual platform for community outreach.
“The biggest way that I would want to support affordable housing is to address…what’s going to happen when the rail comes to North Lamar. It just makes sense that we look at North Lamar as an opportunity to increase density and provide affordable housing. So I view that as a priority,” she said.
“I think that every (council member) should be able to look at their district and work with the community and get feedback about where they’re supportive of affordable housing density.”
Schiera reiterated that view at a candidate forum January 6 moderated by the League of Women Voters Austin Area. “District 4 could and should be a leader on increasing density in targeted locations,” she said.
Asked in an interview about her views on property taxes, Schiera said, “I am very moderate. I think it’s really just about looking at the budget and trying to have the least financial impact to property taxes that I could.”
CodeNEXT and land use
In terms of a citywide land-use plan, Schiera says she thought the CodeNEXT plan was “fair,” but she points out that now the council will need a super-majority vote to pass such an overhaul, due to a lawsuit that the city lost over landowner protest rights in 2020.
That will require a more consensus-driven approach than the one taken by the pro-density majority on council in its previous attempts to pass an overhaul. Schiera cites the approach taken by her own neighborhood association, NACA, as an example of that kind of local consensus-building.
Schiera went “street by street” taking public input on the issue during CodeNEXT, according to Brown. “She would go into the neighborhoods to get information from people about their thinking,” she said.
After that, Schiera put together a vote at a 2018 NACA meeting to raise concerns about plans for increased zoning along Rundberg Lane. At the same time, the resolution called for increased density a long North Lamar Boulevard.
Schiera recalled, “North Lamar had no change in zoning and it really didn’t make sense. We knew were going to get a rail (line) eventually. we were suggesting an upzone. So during that meeting I was able to put together a vote that we could communicate to the city of Austin and to CodeNEXT planners that we would like to reduce the zoning on Rundberg, and a much bigger impact would be upzoning North Lamar.”
Subsequent NACA advocacy followed that position. For example, in the month before a critical December 2019 council vote on the land code, NACA issued a statement calling on the city “to heavily increase MS zoning along North Lamar & 183, and reduce or remove R4 zoning along Rundberg.”
On public safety, Schiera says the city needs to do more to address violent crime and property theft. She wants to see more police presence in District 4. “We do need to hire more police officers. I know that they’re recruiting for a training (class) right now,” she said.
At the League of Women Voters forum, candidates were asked where they would put District 4 “on the continuum from overpoliced to ignored.” Schiera responded, “I definitely lean towards ignored. Our nearby convenience stores are robbed often at gunpoint, people at the convenience store are sometimes robbed, and often on the streets as well. And many of those people are from the immigrant community.
“I was canvassing and met an elderly woman who was getting ready to celebrate her 60th wedding anniversary and she told me that her purse was snatched at H-E-B. Our grocery stores should be safe. There are very few gas stations where the employees aren’t even allowed to come out from behind the counter”
But Schiera said she opposed Proposition A, the police staffing initiative that voters rejected in November by a margin of more than 2-to-1, as too extreme. She told the Bulldog she intends to study the staffing issue further.
Her thinking on policing is informed in part by personal experience. There was a break-in at her house in 2011 and several others on her street, she said. “That’s probably why I’m so supportive of public safety efforts, and APD in general,” she said.
She added, “I do know that over time there have been less home burglaries in our neighborhood—and probably in Austin overall due to the increase of cameras—but we still have property theft, vehicle theft, vehicle break-ins, and we do have open drug dealing at convenience stores and near convenience stores that I definitely think is a problem. And gunshots.”
Schiera coordinated with APD’s district representative during her time as president of NACA, and she convened a community meeting with public safety officers in 2018. Community Impact Newspaper, which covered that meeting, reported, “Public safety and community health are top areas of concern for members of the North Austin Civic Association…In particular, NACA President Melinda Schiera cited issues with insufficient police presence, homelessness, abandoned vehicles, businesses operated out of residences and public substance use.”
Schiera’s views on public safety put her in the company of three other candidates who have called for more police presence in D4—Isa Boonto, Jade Lovera, and Amanda Rios—while setting her apart from the outgoing incumbent and the candidate who is politically closest to him, Jose “Chito” Vela III. Neither Vela nor another candidate, Monica Guzmán, who served on the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, have taken the view that police staffing should be increased.
Schiera told the Bulldog that she identifies as a “moderate Democrat.” But she hasn’t played up her political orientation on her website or campaign materials, as some candidates do. “The type of person that I am is that I work with people. I’m open, I want community feedback,” she said.
On Facebook, Schiera was labeled a “lefty” by a commenter on a post announcing her candidacy, to which she replied in part, “I vote on both sides of the ticket… and support some Republicans in office. I am most definitely moderate, but I understand that I won’t have everyone’s support.”
People who know her described Schiera as not being outwardly very partisan. Her treasurer, Claire Milam, an active Democrat, said she’d never seen campaign signs in Schiera’s yard and hadn’t seen her at political gatherings. For example, she said, “there was a party in the neighborhood in 2016 that someone threw for Greg Casar where we were smashing Trump piñatas. I haven’t seen her at that kind of a gathering.”
“She’s much more even-keeled, moderate. I think she can work with people on both sides of the aisle. She can talk to somebody that’s really emotional or extremist, but they’re not going to like sway her or get her riled up.”
Davi Brown, the NACA volunteer, hesitated when asked to characterize Schiera’s political views, saying she felt she was liberal in orientation but couldn’t “stick a pin it.” She said, “She very much wants to be diverse, inclusive, and helpful to people who need help.”
Federal Elections Commission records show that Schiera has made one federal political donation: $25 to Beto O’Rourke’s senate campaign in 2017. She also donated $25 to Casar’s council campaign in 2016, according to city campaign finances records. Asked about Casar’s record, Schiera declined to comment other than to say, “I’m a moderate Democrat. Of course there are things that I am supportive of, and of course I’m not going to agree with everything that someone has done.”
Education and personal life
Schiera moved to Austin in 2005, soon after graduating from Indiana University Bloomington with a Bachelor of Arts in Biology and Business. She was drawn to the city for a variety of reasons: “I was very intrigued about moving to another college town, very outdoorsy, a music town.”
“I knew that there were job opportunities but I didn’t have a job yet. I didn’t know very many people, but my mom’s cousin lived nearby, and I went and lived with her.” Schiera met her husband in Austin, Domenic Schiera, a web developer. The couple have two children.
The Schieras own two homes, both in District 4, according to real estate records. They bought a first home in the Jamestown neighborhood in 2011 and lived there for six years. Then they bought a second home two miles north 2017, where they currently reside. The couple claim a homestead exemption on the latter property but not on the former.
Schiera said, “I moved to Austin for opportunity and now a lot of people are calling it the ‘opportunity city.’ And I just want to make sure that that the people of District 4 are a part of that opportunity.”
Trust indicators: Bulldog reporter Daniel Van Oudenaren is a journalist with 13 years experience in local, state, and international reporting.
Links to related information:
Melinda Schiera’s campaign website is at https://www.melinda4austin.com/
Links to related coverage:
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