Same place, same packed house as her 2014 campaign but with no opponent…yet
A raucously enthusiastic crowd greeted Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo’s official announcement February 8, 2018, that she would seek a third term as the District 9 council member.
“It has really been an honor and a privilege to serve as mayor pro tem and to represent City Council District 9 on the Austin City Council and I want to say, you know I have a very unique experience of serving on the last at-large council and [then] and being [on the] first female-majority council in Austin’s history.”
District 9 is at the very center of the city, stretching from Oltorf and St. Edwards Drive in South Austin to 53rd Street in North Austin, with doglegs to take in parts of North Loop and Delray. Parts of the district stretch as far west as MoPac Expressway and as far east as Manor Road. Austin’s City Hall and the west side of the University of Texas campus fall within District 9 while the Capitol and the east side of the UT campus are jigsawed out to fall within District 1.
In the crowd to support Tovo were Council Members Ann Kitchen and Leslie Poole, former Council Member (and now mayoral candidate) Laura Morrison, and District 8 candidate Bobby Levinski, a former Tovo staffer.
Some of the themes in her speech this year were similar to those she voiced in her 2014 reelection bid. Both speeches made strong statements about her commitment to protecting the environment, the need for sidewalk improvements, and for accommodating growth while protecting residents and neighborhoods.
Tovo touted her work with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and others “to create better rules and new alternatives for employees at the city who are experiencing discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in our city workplace.”
She announced the recent formation of the College Student Commission that will advise the City Council concerning issues affecting the quality of life for higher education students. Members of this newly formed body have not yet been appointed. One student from each institution will be selected to represent Austin Community College, Concordia University, Huston-Tillotson University, St. Edwards University, and the University of Texas.
HOT money, different response to intoxication
Tovo said the City Council had “initiated a shift” in how the City will use Hotel Occupancy Taxes so that more funds will go to historic preservation and city facilities “rather than year after year seeing it flow, primarily, to the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau.” She said, “Just in this last year alone almost a million dollars of it went to help support the renovation of places like Oakwood Cemetery and the Elisabet Ney Museum and the O. Henry Museum.”
She was pleased that after many years of discussion—and a resolution passed way back in 2001—a Sobering Center is being established and is scheduled to open in August. As a joint project between the City and Travis County, the facility will serve as an alternative to arrest for public intoxication, according to the website, which names Rhonda G. Patrick as the executive director hired in December. Tovo will serve with Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gomez on the Center’s board of a local governmental corporation chaired by District Judge Nancy Hohengarten.
A changing city
Tovo said the City faces significant challenges and District 9 “is really the epicenter of many of those changes.”
“In the words of President Jimmy Carter, we must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles,” she said.
In her 2011 campaign for the first term on the council she signaled her promise “to create a City Hall that listens” and in her 2014 campaign “to be a progressive voice on the Council.”
“I’m here tonight to recommit to all those promises,” Tovo said.
“I’ll continue to support a City Hall that works on behalf of everyday Austinites,” she said. “I believe that we can welcome new companies to our city without providing huge tax incentives,” she said. “We can embrace visitors and use the taxes they generate not just to attract more and more visitors, but rather to reinvest in our city’s really precious assets like Barton Springs.”
“Some of the most important work that I believe we have ahead relates to homelessness, and when I say ‘we have ahead’ it’s not just the work that my office is going to do along with my colleagues, but it’s really the work that I hope we, as a community, will do,” said Tovo, who chairs the Ending Community Homeless Coalition’s Membership Council. “We need to try innovative social-investment models to create more housing and most of all we really need to engage more people in the effort to raise money so that no one in the city has to sleep in the alleys, in the doorways, or shelters of our city.”
Praise for staff and consultants
Tovo was effusive in praise of her Council staff, Joi Harden, Nici Huff, Ashley Richardson, and Eunice Ko, as well as the campaign consultants “who took a chance back in 2011 on an uphill fight,” referring to her last-minute entry into the bid to unseat incumbent Council Member Randi Shade.
Tovo’s consultants in 2011 were David Butts, Matt Hersh, and Dean Rindy, and all will be working with her in this reelection campaign.
Shade had massive financial backing but was damaged by revelations from her emails published by The Austin Bulldog in which she made remarks such as, “I think we may be a point in time to ‘turn the page’ on the role the Enviro City crowd plays in our City’s decision making process.” The emails indicated she had colluded with others on the council to cajole Council Member Sheryl Cole to keep her much-needed vote to approve construction of the $500 million Water Treatment Plant 4.
In the May 14, 2011, election Tovo netted 46.38 percent of the votes to Shade’s 32.9 percent. Tovo went on to win the June 18, 2011 runoff by a margin of more than 12 percent.
Shade, along with all other council members serving with her, also were under criminal investigation during that election. County Attorney David Escamilla’s investigation began in January 2011 for violating the Texas Open Meetings Act after The Austin Bulldog exposed the Council’s institutionalized practice of holding round-robin meetings to privately discuss council agendas before every meeting.
Also ready to help out again is Jeff Smith of Opinion Analysts, a polling firm Tovo used in 2014, although in a follow-up email Tovo told The Austin Bulldog “I don’t know whether I will be doing a poll or not for this campaign.”
What the crowd said
Jack Kirfman of AFSCME Local 1624 attended Tovo’s kickoff and said the union will not decide which candidates to endorse until after the filing period, which opens July 21, 2018, and closes August 20, 2018, according to the City Clerk’s website.
“We want to focus on challenging District 8 (incumbent Council Member Ellen Troxclair) and have a more progressive attitude there,” Kirfman said.
Carol Lee, who lives in northwest Austin near Emma Long Park and is not in District 9, supported Tovo in past campaigns and will do so again, she said. “She’s honest, balanced, and really smart.”
Jeff Jack, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, praised Tovo for “threading a fine needle and keeping her perspective on what she intended to do as a council member. I’m hopeful that will continue.
“We need candidates like Kathie to fulfill the promise of 10-1,” he said, “government for the people.”
Chris Allen, an architect who is supporting the petition drive to give citizens a vote on CodeNEXT, said, “It’s all about unwavering integrity—not the most common commodity in a politician these days.”
Jolene Kiolbassa chairs the Zoning and Platting Commission, to which she was appointed by Tovo, and says of the council member, “I think she’s won-der-ful, She is tremendously empathetic for all sorts of different people.”
Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, said his organization will not make endorsements till after it goes through the process of reviewing questionnaires completed by candidates who want support.
“The biggest issue is retaining four-person staffing” on fire engines, he said. Although that important safety measure is in effect for now, he said budget discussions last year seem to question the need and indicated some council members were opposed to it. “We need to get away from the idea we can lower standards and firefighters safety to save money,” he said.
Will Tovo be challenged?
Asked about candidates to challenge Tovo, no one seemed to know of specific people, but William Burkhardt, who serves as chair of the City’s Board of Adjustment and is an ex-officio member of the Planning Commission, said that organizations are working to recruit.
In that regard Burkhardt named the nonprofit Evolve Austin, which works with partner organizations to champion the Imagine Austin comprehensive Plan, according to its website, and AURA, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that opposes the IndyAustin petition that would allow citizens to vote on CodeNEXT before its implemented.
Not named by Burkhardt but publicly known to be recruiting is the Center for Austin’s Future, which has filed with the Secretary of State as a Texas nonprofit. The organization is running the ATXelerator, a school for potential City Council candidates, and was featured in a KUT-FM 90.5 report January 17, 2018. Classes are scheduled to end March 25—four months before the window opens to formally file for a place on the ballot.
Strong support from warmup speakers
Tovo delivered her remarks after effusive introductions by Nuria Zaragosa, Ruby Roa and Saundra Kirk—three who also advocated for Tovo when she kicked off her 2014 reelection bid.
Zaragosa praised Tovo for a number of things, including “standing up and asking for help for those hurt by development.”
Roa praised Tovo for integrity and said, “She absolutely listens.”
Kirk said she had served with Tovo on the Planning Commission. “Kathie has a serious IQ” and “spends time to study the consequences of actions taken,” Kirk said. “Kathie Tovo is someone I can trust because she has our best interests at heart.”
“And this is personal,” Kirk added. “She looks damn good on TV.”
The fourth woman who helped launch Tovo’s 2014 campaign was then Council Member Laura Morrison, who was term-limited and did not seek reelection or make a bid for the open mayor’s seat, as did then fellow council members Sheryl Cole and Mike Martinez.
Morrison was present again for Tovo’s 2018 campaign launch but did not take the mic. She told The Austin Bulldog that she will be kicking off her mayoral campaign “in a few weeks” to run against incumbent Steve Adler. He is an eminent domain attorney whose name is still carried by the law firm of Barron Adler Clough & Oddo. The firm is still listed as a source of income in financial statements Adler filed with the City Clerk’s office.
Adler launched his reelection bid with major support from a huge crowd at Saengerrunde Hall January 14 and reported raising $236,307 through December 31, 2017. He carries campaign debt totaling $449,200 from personal loans to his 2014 campaign, a burden easy to carry given his personal wealth.
Petitioning to get on the ballot
Tovo is the only holdover from the at-large City Council that finished serving December 31, 2014. She served one term at-large and one for the newly created District 9. Now her campaign is gathering petition signatures sufficient to put her name on the ballot again despite the term limits imposed by the City Charter.
The City Charter requires the petition to be signed by at least 5 percent of the qualified voters of District 9. City Clerk Jannette Goodall said that translates to 3,516 signatures.
“The window for petitions opened up about two weeks ago and we’ve already had several great teams of people knocking on doors and collecting signatures at community events and it is really off to a great effort, so thank you,” Tovo said at the kickoff.
In the 2002 City Council elections, the petitioning provision to override term limits was seized by Council Members Jackie Goodman, Beverly Griffith and Daryl Slusher. As at-large council members they had to gather 5 percent of all registered voters in Austin—more than 21,000 signatures. All three succeeded. Goodman and Slusher were reelected with thumping margins without a runoff. Griffith fell far behind by Betty Dunkerley, who garnered almost 42 percent of the votes in the primary to Griffith’s 29 percent, and withdrew without a runoff.
Link to recording: Kathie Tovo’s Campaign Kickoff Speech Recording
Transcription of recording: Transcript of Kathie Tovo’s Recorded Campaign Kickoff Speech
Related Bulldog coverage:
An Economically Diverse City Council: City no longer governed only by very well-to-do citizens, June 15, 2015
Part 2: The $6.3 Million Election: Winners took office carrying almost $600,000 in debt, while 34 defeated must raise or lose nearly $500,000, Part 2 in a Series, April 6, 2015
10-1 Elections Cost $6.3 Million: Political action committees laid out $726,000 for independent expenditures to influence voters, Part 1 in a Series, March 27, 2015
An Election for History Books: Geographic representation achieved, GOP wins three seats, and several other records set, December 17, 2014
Postcard Wars Down to the Wire: Which mayoral candidate best for environment the theme of the two latest campaign mail pieces, December 11, 2014
Austin Political Power to Shift Radically: Interactive maps show historic achievements afoot in 10-1 system of City Council representation, November18, 2014
Two Women Win Without Runoffs: Delia Garza Austin’s first Latina council member, former state representative Ann Kitchen also victorious, November 5, 2014
PACs Indy Spending Tops $262,000: Another $68,000 dumped into campaigns in last three days to back favored candidates, November 3, 2014
Indy Spending Big Election Factor: Fifteen political action committees trying to influence mayor and council elections, October 29, 2014
Candidates Rich and Poor Competing: Occupational income, investments, debts, real estate, business interests, and much more in detailed filings, September 30, 2014
Tovo Launches Reelection Bid: Jam-packed crowd enthusiastic about keep Tovo as sole survivor from current city council, June 6, 2014
Austin Governed By the Well-to-Do: November 2014 elections may deliver economic diversity in next council election, May 17, 2013
Ken Martin has been covering local government and politics in the Austin area since 1981. See more on Ken on the About page. Email [email protected].
Who funds this work? This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit for investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help support this independent coverage by making a tax-deductible contribution.
An alphabetic list of donors who have contributed to The Austin Bulldog since the organization was formed in 2009 and the cumulative amount each person has given through October 30, 2017, are listed on the Contribute page.
Comments are welcome: If you would like to post your reaction to this story, please do so on the Bulldog’s Facebook page.