By now, you’ve likely seen the TV commercials and received the fliers in the mail for the major candidates for Austin mayor.
You have also no doubt been inundated with direct mail, yard signs, phone calls, and answered the questions of people knocking at your door eagerly telling you about the myriad of candidates for Austin City Council who all think they’d best represent your neighborhood at city hall. This is the most vibrant campaign Austin has seen in years for a variety of reasons, but none more consequential than the fundamental change to city government happening right before our eyes. The leaders who emerge from this election will shape policy on everything from how the city grapples with its ever-worsening traffic congestion, to mass transit, our thirst for diminishing supplies of water, and development in our neighborhoods.
Democracy is indeed messy, but who doesn’t love that?
Early voting across Texas starts Monday, Oct. 20, and the election is Tuesday, Nov. 4. In Austin, voters will make decisions that will usher in the new players in a transformed city government. Instead of the old system of electing a mayor and city council who all represent the city as a whole, the mayor will now be elected citywide but each council member will have to represent the interests of their individual neighborhoods. Council members for decades were elected “at-large,” representing the whole city. But this year, for the first time in Austin’s history, they’ll be elected from single-member districts. It’s a change that will necessitate greater collaboration and cooperation on the council, as happens now in cities like Dallas and Houston. Both of those places adopted single-member districts years ago.
While much of the political coverage of this election has focused on the shift away from at-large council members to this new single member system, the even greater change will perhaps come from the fact that Austinites now vote in November instead of May. Elections in the spring have very low voter turnout of around 54,000 in a city of nearly 900,000 people. Those May voters are usually diehard political junkies and activists. But municipal elections held in November – on the same day Texans will choose their next governor, an entire slate of new statewide officeholders, state representatives, senators, and congressmen – will have a turnout of around 200,000 in the city. The number could potentially swell to about 300,000 in Austin when Americans choose their next president in 2016. That kind of voter participation may very well be a better indicator of the true ideological makeup of Austin.
And that brings us to the race for mayor, now in the home stretch with all the major candidates doing their best to appeal to the liberal base of the Democratic Party. There are eight candidates for mayor, but those who closely observe Austin politics believe one of just three will win. Some of the other declared candidates have barely campaigned at all or have not done the work necessary to gain broad support across the community. Those “long-shot candidates” could, however, collectively gain enough support to force a December runoff between the first and second place finishers on Nov. 4.
Even though city elections are technically nonpartisan, the three most-visible candidates — attorney Steve Adler, Councilwoman Sheryl Cole, and Councilman Mike Martinez — all identify as liberal Democrats, each with a slightly different take on what that means. They all support the city’s Proposition 1 ballot measure for transportation, which would spend $1 billion on roads and an urban rail line. But, those candidates split on property tax policy. Adler is pushing for a 20 percent homestead exemption, which critics say would only benefit the wealthiest Austinites.
If you’re up for a marathon viewing, here’s a video of the full mayoral forum held in September. The list below contains, in no particular order, all of the candidates for Austin mayor and videos of their statements promoted by the City of Austin or an interview with an Austin media outlet, if available…
Mike is a former firefighter who has been on the city council for nearly a decade. Martinez is thought of by his supporters as a “working class hero.” He has been the president of the Austin Firefighters Association and has worked on living wage issues at city hall, so he has significant labor support in the race. He is also the Chairman of the Capital Metro board of Directors. Martinez’s motto has been “No one gets left behind in Austin.” He has leveraged government contracts to promote living wages, to crack down on payday lenders, and promote equal pay for women — and wants to continue doing that as mayor.
Steve is an attorney and the best-financed of the candidates in the race, both from his own personal wealth and significant support of the downtown business community. He has portrayed himself as a self-made millionaire. A land use attorney specializing in eminent domain cases, Adler was also a legislative staffer for former State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso. He attended the University of Texas Law School because, he has said, it was the cheapest law school in America at the time. Among Adler’s priorities is offering property tax relief through the kind of 20 percent homestead exemption already offered by Houston, Dallas, and Travis County. To answer critics who say the proposal would be a help only to the wealthiest Austinites, he has said “it helps the people who need it most.”
Sheryl is “the PTA mom” turned councilwoman who has also served as Mayor Pro-Tem. The only woman actively running for mayor, Cole is promoting her record of conciliation and working with groups across Austin to solve multi-faceted problems. For example, when the city’s affordable housing bond proposal was first rejected by voters, Cole said she “knew that didn’t reflect who we are.” That’s why she worked to convince voters that the city was living within its means so that the next time the issue was on the ballot, it was approved.
Randall is an aircraft mechanic, Air Force veteran, and the CEO of a company called AdBirds. During a recent forum, he said one of his main objectives is campaign finance reform, because he thinks that’s the best way to divorce special interests from the decision-making process at city hall. Stephens, like other candidates, is concerned with the city’s use of water. “We need to move to a southwestern mode of landscaping,” Stephens said. “We need to make smart choices and inspire other Austinines to work with us to conserve water and not waste water.”
Ron is a retired electrical engineer. A “problem-solver” is the way Culver describes himself. He has said the City of Austin needs to end the favoritism it currently extends to “the business class.” Culver thinks Austin leaders should work with surrounding communities to improve traffic congestion. “If we work with TxDOT (the Texas Department of Transportation) and we work with Georgetown and we work with Round Rock, we may be able to get 10,000 semis to get off our part of I-35,” Culver said. He does not have a campaign website.
Todd is a businessman and musician who is “the only candidate that has been consistently against this rail plan from the beginning,” referring to the city’s Proposition 1. His campaign kicked off around a single issue: Promoting the legalization of ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft. Phelps says his priorities are environmental protection, taxation, and open space.
David is a retired tech author and businessman who has said he’s running to “offer a clear choice for Austin’s next mayor.” Orshalick wants a “strategic plan” for government that, among other things, focuses on local businesses and develops plans for transportation. “It is amazing to me that I-35 is failing and they have no plan to fix it,” he said. Orshalick thinks that before any more density is added along roads like Burnet, South Congress and North and South Lamar, they should be turned into six-lane divided boulevards. He wants a rapid transit system with 22 stations across the city.
Mary is a declared candidate who will appear on your ballot, but there has been little reporting on her because she has not actively campaigned, appeared at forums, or maintained a campaign website.
Featured photo: Flickr user Theresa Thompson, creative commons licensed.
Featured illustration: Elisabeth Donoghue, Proud Highway Media Group.
Featured illustration background: Flickr user Katie Haugland, creative commons licensed.
Candidate headshots: Courtesy of each candidate’s website.