First-term incumbent Paige Ellis and prospective challenger Richard Smith differ on key issues
Paige Ellis, the first-term council member representing District 8 in southwest Austin, could face a veteran attorney as her opponent in 2022, should she run for reelection.
Richard J. Smith filed a campaign treasurer form with the city clerk July 2, appointing corporate attorney Jennifer Cheskiewicz as his treasurer and indicating Ellis’ council seat as the office sought.
Smith, 65, has also launched a “professional website” that expresses his “interest in being a voice for positive growth and reform in Austin.”
However, Smith wasn’t ready to confirm his candidacy to the Bulldog, declining an interview. He said in a text message, “I did file a treasurer appointment, but have no further comment at this time.”
Not everyone who files a treasurer appointment ends up filing for a place on the ballot, but the step does indicate interest. Appointing a treasurer allows a candidate to test the waters and fundraise quietly while honing their strategy and messaging, before jumping into public outreach.
If he were to run, Smith would be the first council challenger of the 2022 election cycle, apart from Jennifer Virden, who is running for mayor.
According to his website, Smith is a retired intellectual property attorney with 33 years experience, who also worked five years as an administrative patent judge from 2015 to 2020.
The incumbent, Ellis, 37, was one of five Democratic candidates to win a council seat in 2018 in a sweep that also saw Steve Adler winning a second term as mayor. She succeeded Ellen Troxclair, the sole Republican left on the council at that time, who had represented District 8 since its creation in 2014 at the inception of the 10-1 geographic representation system. Troxclair chose not to seek reelection in 2018 and is currently a candidate for state senate.
In her three years on the council, Ellis has aligned with Adler politically on some of the most contentious issues of the era, including land use, property taxes, public safety funding, transit infrastructure, and the city’s policies governing public camping and homeless services.
On his website and social media, Smith has begun positioning himself as a sharp critic of some of those policies, following in the mold of Mackenzie Kelly, the conservative underdog who unseated District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan last year by assailing him over public safety and unrestricted homeless camping.
But to capture Ellis’ seat in 2022 as a conservative would be an even harder feat, judging by results of the 2018 general election. In a four-way race, Ellis and two other liberal candidates captured 75.3 percent of the votes, compared to just 24.7 percent that went to the conservative Frank Ward. (Ward fared better in the lower-turnout runoff election, taking 43.9 percent of the votes to Ellis’ 56.1 percent).
In 2022, Ellis will have the advantage of incumbency and may benefit from running in a presidential election year alongside an incumbent U.S. president and a slate of other Democrats. And one of her Democrat rivals from 2018, Bobby Levinski, told the Bulldog that he won’t be running next year, which could boost her odds of avoiding a runoff, especially if Smith ends up being the only challenger.
Rich DePalma, the other Democrat candidate of 2018, didn’t respond to an inquiry about his intentions.
Council races are nonpartisan in the sense that there are no party primaries or party labels indicated next to candidate names on the ballot. But Ellis ran in 2018 as “a proud Democrat” and “loud progressive,” according to remarks she made at the time and campaign marketing materials. She was also endorsed by the Travis County Democratic Party while her runoff opponent Ward was endorsed by the Travis County Republican Party.
Smith’s civic and political involvement
Richard Smith stands in contrast to Ellis both in his apparent political orientation and in his views on some specific policy topics. While he declined an interview to elaborate on his views and affiliations, he has a record of campaign giving to Republican candidates and causes. According to Federal Election Commission data, Smith donated $5,000 to the Travis County Republican Party Federal Committee March 24, and to several Republican senate candidates in 2020.
Smith also has taken to social media to criticize a variety of Democrat politicians, while showing support for some Republicans, including Chip Roy, the U.S. Congressman representing part of southwest Austin.
However, Smith’s professional background is not generally political. Most of his career was spent in patent law firms in San Antonio, Austin, and Palo Alto, California. In the 1990s he was also an adjunct professor at the University of Texas Law School and St. Mary’s University Law School, teaching a course in biotechnology law.
Smith was a member of the Austin Chamber of Commerce and once served on its federal policy committee. For the past several years he has also volunteered with Mobile Loaves and Fishes, an organization that helps the homeless.
Currently he is a member of the city’s Board of Adjustment, which conducts hearings to grant or deny variances to zoning rules. He was appointed to that role by Mackenzie Kelly.
Property records show that he owns a home in the Lost Creek neighborhood west of Loop 360, Capital of Texas Highway, located in District 8.
Smith on the issues
It’s too early to tell what kind of campaign Smith might run, but he’s staked out positions on several hot political topics. For instance, he wrote a blog post about Proposition B, the recent ballot measure on public camping, calling it a “a reasonable response by the citizens of Austin,” while adding that Proposition B was “not a solution to homelessness or the end of our shared responsibility to our homeless neighbors.”
In another post, he criticized the council’s decision last year to cut the police budget, suggesting that it “emboldened criminals.” He expressed concern over staff shortages at APD.
If he follows in the mold of other Republican candidates in District 8, Smith is likely also to campaign on the issue of rising property taxes. Both Ward and Troxclair made that a priority in their campaigns.
Lately, the District 8 incumbent has also sought to cast herself as a proponent of tax relief for homeowners, despite not having campaigned on that issue in 2018. Ellis co-sponsored a resolution June 10 to increase the general homestead exemption to 20 percent and the senior exemption to $25,000.
She said at that meeting, “There are many neighborhoods in my district where people are on fixed incomes or their home prices have skyrocketed over recent years, including this past year in particular. There are many, many folks that need this type of relief.”
The resolution passed unanimously, and Ellis later touted it in a July 8 constituent newsletter, calling it a “relief proposal” to address this city’s “affordability crisis.”
In terms of the actual property tax rate, however, Ellis has moved in the other direction. She voted for rate increases each year that she’s been on the council, including a 24.6 percent increase in 2020.
District 8 has the second-highest median family income of all the ten council districts, according to city demographic data, and the highest proportion of homeowners to renters.
In her two-and-a-half years on the council, Paige Ellis has supported a major transit expansion, known as Project Connect, a bond to improve sidewalks and bikeways, a variety of Covid-19 relief programs, and significant new investments in housing for the homeless.
In general, Ellis has cast herself as an environmentalist and a supporter of Austin’s parks and trails. Before taking office, she worked as a marketing specialist for ACI Consulting, a firm that advises engineering and construction firms on environmental compliance and natural resource management.
In a January 14 newsletter about her accomplishments last year, Ellis said she had played a role in creating a “creating a Clean Creeks Crew to provide litter abatement services” and “securing $1 million to produce 273 miles of operations & maintenance for our urban trails.”
While her constituent communications play up these less controversial issues, Ellis inevitably also has been drawn into council decisions that have stoked public debate and opposition.
For instance, she was among a group of council members that pushed for a new land development code, including higher-density zoning in some single-family neighborhoods. That issue, which has plagued Austin politics for years, was bitterly fought at the beginning of Ellis’ term.
She joined a 7-4 majority in voting for a rewrite of the land code. The proposal cleared the council on two readings in December 2019 and February 2020, but those votes were voided by a state judge before final adoption. That ruling and the Covid-19 pandemic have put the issue on the back burner.
Ellis voted in June 2019 to lift a ban on public camping, a decision that was later reversed by voters. On May 1, voters approved Proposition B, which re-criminalized camping outside of designated areas.
Proposition B put pressure on the council to sanction certain encampments, and it ended up landing Ellis in a tough spot with constituents when a prospective campsite was identified in her district.
Constituents flooded her office with calls, she wrote in a July 27th newsletter: “we immediately started to receive calls from our constituents worried about the schools and daycares nearby, the lack of infrastructure and transportation, wildfire risk, and more.”
Ellis then joined Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison in proposing that sanctioned encampments be taken completely off the table: “We believe our city’s limited dollars and time would be better spent on getting folks into permanent housing, rather than on Band-Aid tactics when we should be focusing on the real, proven long-term strategies.”
In its July 27 edition, the Statesman portrayed this move as a flip-flop, writing: “In May, Council members Paige Ellis and Natasha Harper-Madison supported a proposal to identify possible locations for city-sanctioned homeless camps. Now, two weeks after sites were identified in their districts, they’re calling the plan a ‘Band-Aid.’”
‘Leadership that brings us together’
Flip-flop or not, the incident serves as an example of the usually low-key incumbent’s willingness to adapt politically and to speak out forcefully on an issue. She displayed those same traits in December 2020 when she spoke out against the selection of Council Member Greg Casar for mayor pro tem.
After the November 2020 election, several council members quietly jockeyed for the position, and Casar appeared to have the advantage. He announced December 17 that he had secured the support of a majority of council members.
But Ellis issued a statement that same morning implying that Casar was too divisive for the role, and suggesting that his announcement of victory was premature. “Our city has gone through a lot over the past two years, and we should begin 2021 with leadership that brings us together. As far as I’m aware, discussions are ongoing,” she wrote.
Ellis also framed the issue as a matter of representation. Because there were eight elected women on the dais, she argued, one of them should serve as mayor pro tem. Council members Alison Alter and Leslie Pool soon chimed in in support of this view.
Ellis’ intervention helped torpedo Casar’s bid to become mayor pro tem. Eventually the council members reached a deal to give the job instead to Natasha Harper-Madison in 2021 and Alison Alter in 2022.
Trust indicators: Bulldog reporter Daniel Van Oudenaren is a journalist with 12 years experience in local, state, and international reporting.