Jam-packed crowd enthusiastic about keeping Tovo as sole survivor from current city council
Rousing cheers greeted incumbent Council Member Kathie Tovo, a District 9 candidate, as she launched her campaign to win a second term Tuesday night at El Mercado Restaurant in South Austin.
Tovo’s chief opponent is Council Member Chris Riley, who was first elected in 2009 to fill the unexpired term of Lee Leffingwell, when Leffingwell vacated that seat to run for mayor. So far the only other candidate to appoint a treasurer for the District 9 contest is Erin K. McGann, who lives on South Third Street. Riley lives downtown on San Antonio Street and Tovo lives north-central on West 32nd Street.
“When I ran for Council in 2011, I promised to be a different kind of council member, and I have worked hard to keep that promise,” Tovo said. “My service on the Council has been about representing people, representing everyday Austinites—not the lobbyists and developers that come before us in a steady stream. And I weigh every Council action, large or small, against the effect that it’s going to have on the people who live and work and raise their families in our neighborhoods.
Tovo noted that she had lived in what became District 9 for 22 years, both north and south of the river, first as a graduate student, then as a married woman and mother.
“You know, out of our 10 Council Districts, District 9 faces some of the most intense pressure from rapid growth and change, and here’s what this race is about. We need to guide development, not rubber-stamp it. We need to make growth pay for itself instead of asking taxpayers to subsidize it. We need to protect the quality of life for the citizens who live here, and not let out-of-control development bulldoze what we love about Austin. In growing our city, let’s not destroy the neighborhoods and the lifestyle in our natural environment. All of that defines our unique Austin culture. We need a philosophy at City Hall that puts people first.”
Tovo said she has made affordability a priority in her first term, fought the proposed 12 percent increase in electric rates, and led adoption of an ordinance that allows for reasonable payment plans for people who fall behind on utility bills. She said she had worked to find budget cuts to keep the city’s tax rate level.
“But we need to do more,” Tovo said. “On June 12, Council will vote on a resolution I sponsored to require developers to pay the full cost of electrical service hookups. Right now we collect as little as half the cost. And this change is projected to save our public utility millions of dollars.”
“I’m also introducing a resolution that would push the City of Austin to take a leading role in encouraging fixes to our property taxes here in Austin. I don’t need to tell you that property tax valuations have skyrocketed and are driving long-time residents out of our city. And with our state and our county partners, I will work for changes that ease the burden on our residential property owners.”
“I have also heard loud and clear that Austin residents are fed up with City Council giving unnecessary subsidies to corporations. As you heard, at my first Council meeting I voted against two waivers and public subsidies for a luxury hotel, and public subsidies for F1. And since then I’ve worked with community leaders to strengthen the vetting process for economic incentives, and I supported only those economic incentive proposals that resulted in strong benefits for Austin,” Tovo said.
“Austin is now the fastest growing city in America, and companies are moving here without City assistance because of our talent pool and because of the high quality of life. So we cannot continue to give away your money to any company that asks, and we shouldn’t provide support, unless that company can demonstrate an extraordinary benefit for Austin residents.”
Tovo said she will continue to support public schools and advocate for keeping central city neighborhood schools open and vibrant.
She said she would continue to champion environmental issues, protect Barton Springs, and confront the effects of climate change. “I’m dedicated to aggressively preparing our city to be a sustainable one.”
She promised to keep her attention focused on enhancing the quality of life for people and small businesses.
“Austin also has an ever-widening gap between the poor and the wealthy, and in fact, this gap is growing at such a pace that our city demographer identified it as one of the greatest challenges our city is now facing. So we are going to need imagination to face these challenges, and a philosophy that puts the people and the livability of Austin first.”
Other speakers endorsed Tovo
Tovo got a rousing endorsement from three women who preceded her in speaking—Naria Zaragoza, Ruby Roa, and Council Member Laura Morrison—and a strong call to action from Saundra Kirk to end the speeches.
Morrison’s lengthy and impassioned introduction of Tovo left no doubt she preferred Tovo to their City Council colleague Riley.
“Let’s get right to the heart of the matter,” Morrison said. “Kathie Tovo is the best person to represent District 9 on the Austin City Council. Since being elected to the Council in 2011, she has a proven record of protecting what we love about Austin. She understands that balance is needed to manage the tremendous growth our city is experiencing. She strives to create and maintain quality of life for all of Austinites, not just narrow or special interests.”
Morrison praised Tovo’s “core values” and said she bought “to my mind a quote from Jimmy Carter: ‘We must adjust to changing times and still hold true to unchanging principles.’”
Morrison lauded Tovo’s community service for neighborhoods, schools, social service and youth organizations, as well as her work on the city’s Planning Commission as Morrison’s appointee, “where her core values, her smarts, and her dedication came shining through.”
She credited Tovo with saving Becker Elementary and other central city schools from closure and continuing that work on the Austin Families and Children Task Force.
As a council member Tovo had been an “important force against the government giveaway of Austin Energy to a non-accountable utility board,” Morrison said, and in efforts to ensure that “Austin Energy rates reflect our community’s values to promote sustainability, fairness, affordability and to protect the most vulnerable among us.”
Morrison urged the crowd to pay close attention to the current work being done to rewrite grandfathering rules and to resist efforts to weaken protections for the environment. She noted that her vote and that of Tovo had “defeated the super majority on many, many SOS experiences that would have harmed the environment and the beautiful waters of Barton Springs.”
She credited Tovo’s “tenacity and perseverance” for lighting a fire on the council regarding substandard housing, regulation of private water wells, and resistance to building State Highway 45 Southwest over the aquifer.
Morrison recalled that Mayor Leffingwell joked in his State of the City speech this year that he was planning to cut a Country Western hit with Willie Nelson called, “That Passes on a Vote of Five to Two,” referring to the fact that she and Tovo often voted against the majority. “I love that joke,” she said.
Naria Zaragoza made it personal by noting that her sister had moved to Cedar Park, saying, “I’m moving to the suburbs and it is irresponsible for you not to do the same.’ She said, ‘Your kids won’t have sidewalks to ride their bikes on, your schools are a mixed bag.’ And in short, she moved to Cedar Park and I stayed.
“My sister was not alone in moving out of Central Austin. Families with children now make up only 14 percent of the urban core. This pivotal race comes at a time when decisions are made upon what Austin is going to look like in 30 years. And I understand we need to make room for people who have heard about how great Austin is. However, we need a strong leader like Kathie has been, to make sure that vision includes you and it includes me, it includes our families, it includes our neighborhoods, and it includes our schools.”
Ruby Roa, named Volunteer of the Year by the Austin American-Statesman in 2012, said, “From the day Kathie took office, she has gone back to resolve some of the housing problems that plague our city, especially for those that do not have a voice. And she never backs down from her personal values. And that’s one of the things that I love about Kathie. I mean, she is right on target for others.
“Kathie’s gracious, she’s smart, she accepts the challenges, works hard, and stands for all the citizens of Austin,” Roa said. “I, my family, and the people I served, which are many of the poor of this city, will work hard to elect Kathie Tovo as our next council member for District 9, and I urge you and your friends to do the same.”
Sampling of supporters attending
Jeff Jack is a longtime activist, a former aide to Council Member Beverly Griffith, and currently chairs the City of Austin’s Board of Adjustment. He is also on the board of the Better Austin Today Political Action Committee. Of Tovo, he said, “She’s got backbone to stand up for the issues that affect us most in the community.”
Ann Graham is a professional arts administrator and former co-president of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association. Of Tovo, she said, “She studies all sides of an issue and is thoughtful in her decision-making. She stands up for neighborhoods, but not carte blanche. She knows how important neighborhoods are in the overall scheme of the city but not at the expense of considering overall city needs.”
Carmen Llanes Pulido said, “Kathie’s base lies in the neighborhoods. She’s shown good allegiance in her time on the council to make sure we have good representation. I trust her moral center.”
Lanetta Cooper, a part-time attorney with the Texas Legal Services Center, said, “I support her because she’s a critical thinker and very concerned about Austin being an affordable city. … She knows the essence of civilization is how we take care of the disenfranchised.”
Marion Mlotok is a southwest neighborhoods representative to the Austin Neighborhoods Council. She said she volunteered and worked “night and day for Kathie in 2011,” the year that Tovo jumped into the race at the last minute against incumbent Council Member Randi Shade. “She’s one of the very few candidates I worked for that I didn’t regret voting for. She votes right every time. You can count on her for the neighborhoods and the environment.”
Ken Zarifis of the nonprofit Education Austin said, “I like the fact that she sees education as an integral part of how Austin becomes a better city. The city and the school district have to work together to create better outcomes for our kids.”
Carolyn Palaima, president of the Hancock Neighborhood Association, said she supports Tovo “because she takes a broad view of living in Austin from families to new people coming in, and quality of life and infrastructure needed for sustainable growth.”
Tovo was elected in 2011 by defeating incumbent Council Member Randi Shade. Tovo didn’t appoint a campaign treasurer until March 11, 2011, just two months before the May 14, 2011 election, but garnered 46.38 percent of the votes, far outpacing Shade’s 32.90 percent showing. Shade, unlike others before her who bowed out of a runoff after a poor initial showing, soldiered on to suffer a 56-44 percent defeat in the June 18 runoff.
As for Tovo’s current chief rival, Chris Riley: If Riley had served just one more week on Lee Leffingwell’s unexpired term, to which he was elected to in 2009, he would be term-limited and ineligible to run this year unless he got on the ballot through a petition drive.
Tovo was not elected until after The Austin Bulldog’s investigation exposed the years-long practice of holding round-robin meetings before each council meeting, a practice that established a walking quorum in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act. Riley was, and like others serving at the time came under a criminal investigation that resulted in signing a deferred prosecution agreement, also called a compliance agreement, to avoid being charged. (Link: Chris Riley’s Compliance Agreement)
Although the November 4 election will be the first major step toward installing a new City Council elected from 10 geographic districts (to be followed by an inevitable runoff election December 16), it should be noted that both Riley and Tovo were on the City Council and voted to put an alternative 8-2-1 hybrid plan on the ballot to compete with 10-1. Only Council Member Mike Martinez, currently a mayoral candidate, and Council Member Bill Spelman voted against putting 8-2-1 on the ballot (although Spelman was absent the day of the final vote to do so).
Link to recording: Kathie Tovo’s Campaign Kickoff Speech Recording
Transcription of recording: Transcript of Kathie Tovo’s Recorded Campaign Kickoff Speech
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