As in horse racing, the bugler has sounded, “Call to the Post” for the Austin City Council campaigns that are now officially underway.
A well known variation on the Golden Rule is that, “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” That was definitely the case in the 2022 election of Mayor Kirk Watson and five council members.
Our detailed analysis of campaign finances for the 2022 election showed that in the contest to fill all six contested seats, the candidates who raised the most money won. Every. Single. Time.
Despite the 2024 election being 10 months off, the nine candidates who filed campaign finance reports raised a combined total of nearly $284,000 and have $271,000 cash on hand.
The campaign finance reports for all candidates are listed and linked at the bottom of this story.
Running for mayor
Attorney Kirk Watson, age 66 (aka “Austin’s $2 million mayor”) won a two-year term in 2022, so now he’s has to do it all over again. He hasn’t actually announced his intentions to run for reelection but he does have a placeholder website published, where you can sign up for his email list.
Perhaps to his relief, his chief opponent in 2022, Celia Israel—the person he beat by a mere 940 votes out the 114,188 ballots cast—won’t be in his face for the 2024 election. She’s busy campaigning to be the next Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector.
So Watson has started his 2024 reelection campaign by doing nothing to raise money by the December 31st deadline for these reports. Then again, he did the same thing in his last run for mayor. He didn’t file a campaign finance report until July 15, 2022. By that time he had scared up a staggering $1 million—$997,465 to be exact.
Watson was first elected to be Austin’s mayor in 1997. He was reelected in 2000. He won six elections for the Texas Senate (2008-2018). In other words, he’s a political war horse and has no need to make a preemptive show of financial force this early.
After all, election day’s not till November 5th.
Tovo’s entry changes everything
But Watson’s reelection chances took on a whole new challenge January 18th when former Council Member Kathie Tovo announced she was running for mayor. Tovo, 54, was first elected in 2011 after jumping in on March 11th to oppose incumbent Council Member Randi Shade. Despite starting her campaign just nine weeks before the general election of May 14, 2011, Tovo netted 46 percent of the votes to Shade’s 33 percent. Tovo then went on to beat Shade in the runoff with 56 percent.
In that 2011 election, however, Tovo had a decided advantage: Shade and the entire City Council was being investigated by the Travis County attorney for criminal violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act. That investigation was triggered by the Bulldog’s investigative report, “Open Meetings, Closed Minds.” Three of the council members under investigation were up for reelection in 2011 but the other two had weak opponents, and gained reelection.
Tovo doesn’t have that advantage in facing Watson. While he’s skirted the law, as the Bulldog reported here and here, there’s no dark cloud of prosecution hanging over his head. If Tovo is to unseat Watson, she will have to win support by challenging his leadership and his policies while convincing voters she’s the best person to take Austin forward.
Because Tovo announced her candidacy in 2024 she did not have to file a campaign finance report for the period ending December 31, 2023. She can accept donations through her campaign website
Beating incumbent mayors hard, not impossible
But it’s been 36 years since any accomplished that feat. The following analysis reflects the results of five mayoral elections over the last four decades in which a sitting mayor faced a significant challenge. This analysis ignores the reelection campaigns of mayors who faced only token opposition.
The last two elections involved former female council members who decided to challenge a sitting mayor, both times resulting in particularly poor showings.
⬆ 1985 Cooksey v. Mullen—Attorney Frank Cooksey bested incumbent Mayor Ron Mullen with 54 percent of the votes in a runoff.
⬆ 1988 Cooke v. Cooksey—Former Council Member Lee Cooke beat incumbent Mayor Cooksey with 58 percent in a runoff.
⬇ 1994 Slusher v. Todd—Austin Chronicle Politics Editor Daryl Slusher came practically out of nowhere yet scored within a whisker of unseating incumbent Mayor Bruce Todd. Slusher pulled 32 percent of the votes in the general election, forcing Todd with 46 percent into a runoff. Todd won the runoff by 1,359 votes.
⬇ 2012 Shea v. Leffingwell—Former Council Member Brigid Shea got 37 percent of the votes in the general election—not enough to force incumbent Mayor Lee Leffingwell into a runoff, as he won with 52 percent.
⬇ 2018 Morrison v. Adler—Former Council Member Laura Morrison’s bid to beat incumbent Mayor Steve Adler resulted in the worst possible outcome for the challenger. Adler whipped her with a whopping 40-point margin of 59 percent to 19 percent, without a runoff.
Should Tovo surmount the odds and unseat Watson, she will become Austin’s second-ever woman mayor. The first was Carole Keeton McClellan. She was first elected in 1977, then reelected in 1979 and 1981.
But even she (as Carole Keeton Strayhorn) was not able to make the comeback to win the mayor’s job again. After holding office as State Comptroller, she ran for mayor again in 2009 when there was no incumbent. She placed third in the general election with 21 percent of the votes, while Lee Leffingwell went on to win the runoff.
Running for District 2
No one has appointed a campaign treasurer to declare they’re running against incumbent Vanessa Fuentes, 37.
Despite being outspent in 2020 by David Chincanchen in a four-candidate race to win the District 2 seat, Fuentes got more than 56 percent of the votes to win without a runoff.
She cast herself in that election campaign as a “policy expert” who had worked for State Representative Abel Herrera (D-Robstown) and later as a grassroots advocacy strategist for the American Heart Association. (The Bulldog’s profile on Fuentes and her 2020 opponents was published October 15, 2020.)
Given the political axiom that says everyone should run like they’re losing, Fuentes wasted no time in starting to raise money for her reelection bid.
She attracted individual donations totaling almost $46,000. She’s spent little so far and has upwards of $40,000 left on hand. She’s accepting donations through her reelection campaign website.
The $3,400 in loans Fuentes reported includes more than $2,800 carried over from her 2020 campaign.
Running for District 4
Incumbent Jose “Chito” Vela, 49 also has not yet drawn an opponent. And like her, he’s chasing down all the contributions he can get.
The Bulldog’s profiled Vela, an attorney practicing immigration and criminal defense law, during his 2020 campaign.
You can donate via his reelection website, where apparently lots of folks already have. He reported contributions of $63,000 already—the most so far for any candidate for 2024.
The $10,500 in loans that Vela reported represents a campaign debt carried over from his 2020 election campaign.
Running for District 6
Mackenzie Kelly, 37, is the only other incumbent running for reelection who has attracted an opponent, that being Krista Laine, 50.
Kelly reported raising nearly $42,000 by December 31st, while newcomer Laine tallied nearly $16,000.
Kelly is also the only Republican currently on the council dais. While council elections are technically nonpartisan, Austin’s election history has repeatedly demonstrated that voters care about the candidates’ party affiliations. Laine is a Democrat.
When Austin implemented elections from 10 geographic districts in 2014, three of the seats were captured by Republicans: Don Zimmerman in District 6, Ellen Troxclair in District 8, and Sheri Gallo in District 10.
In 2016 Zimmerman was knocked out of office by Flannigan. Gallo also lost to Alison Alter that year.
Laine was president of Access Education RRISD when in 2022 the organization endorsed all five candidates who won election or reelection to the Round Rock ISD’s Board of Trustees. One of the defeated candidates was none other than former Austin Council Member Don Zimmerman. He was part of the far-right slate of conservatives called Round Rock One Family, which wanted to ban books in school libraries and opposed accommodation of LGBT students. Zimmerman challenged board president Tiffanie Harrison, who snared 62 percent of the votes to win reelection.
The Bulldog detailed Kelly’s 2020 candidacy in the heat of her runoff campaign against incumbent Council Member Jimmy Flannigan.
Given the District 6 seat has swung from Republican to Democrat and back again with Kelly’s election, it will be interesting to see which way the political weather vane blows in 2024.
Kelly recently published an opinion piece in the Austin American-Statesman that candidly discussed her mental health challenges, which she attributed to domestic violence trauma and distressing incidents she witnessed as a volunteer firefighter. To assist her in coping with these issues she is now is accompanied by her small Havenese service dog, Frank. The City’s Human Resources Department has approved Kelly’s right under the Americans with Disabilities Act to be accompanied everywhere she is required to access as part of her council duties.
Running for District 7
Four candidates have so far declared they want to succeed Leslie Pool on the council dais by appointing campaign treasurers.
Edwin Bautista, 26, reported raising just $240 through the end of last year. He works as a management assistant at Texas Housers, a nonprofit that helps low-income Texans to buy affordable homes in quality neighborhoods. He’s accepting donations on his campaign website.
Pierre Nguyen, 35, hasn’t yet filed a campaign finance report. He responded to the Bulldog’s text message by saying he’s currently training with the Coast Guard and “will be submitting my finance report in the next couple of days.” He’s the son of Vietnamese immigrants and works full-time as a firefighter with Travis County Emergency Services District 8. Donations to his campaign can be made on his campaign website.
Adam Powell, 29, raised slightly more than $12,000. He’s campaigning full-time. His most recent job was as chief of staff for a company that aims to transform the business of sports and entertainment by measuring the value of sponsorships. Before that he worked for three years at the Texas Education Agency as a “talent acquisition specialist.” He’s accepting campaign donations on his website.
Mike Siegel, 46, is an attorney who cofounded the nonprofit Ground Game Texas, whose mission is to build coalitions for progressive wins for Texas communities. He is adept at fundraising, given the skills developed as a two-time congressional candidate running against an entrenched Republican opponent. For his council campaign he has so far raised more than $57,000, second only to District 4 incumbent Vela. Donations may be made on Siegel’s campaign website.
The Bulldog reported on Bautista, Nguyen and Siegel last October 31st. (Powell will be profiled later.)
Running for District 10
The Bulldog profiled opponents Marc Duchen and Ashika Ganguly December 14th. He was born in South Africa and emigrated to the United States at age 4 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen at age 12. She is the daughter of Indian immigrants who came to this country for graduate studies and stayed. She was born in Austin.
Duchen, 45, is a longtime neighborhood activist and himself an experienced campaign manager. He kickstarted his own run for council with a personal loan of $10,000 and raised more than $12,000 as of December 31st.
Ganguly, who turns 29 next month, is a former school teacher who worked last year as legislative director for State Representative John Bucy (D-Cedar Park). She launched her website early on and lined up a long list of endorsements. Through the end of last year she raked up $35,000 in donations.
Trust indicators: Ken Martin has been covering local government, politics, and elections in the Austin area since 1981. He wrote the Ron Mullen portion of Third Coast magazine’s March 1983 issue. That’s when incumbent Council Member Mullen ran for mayor against former Council Member Lowell Lebermann. Mullen won. The cover photo was so cleverly done that you couldn’t recognize that Lebermann was blind. See more on Ken on the About page. Email [email protected].
Campaign Finance Report for Mike Siegel (Corrected)
Related Bulldog coverage:
District 10 council candidates jump in early, December 14, 2023
Siegel running for City Council District 7, October 31, 2023