Austin City Council: Diverse and Numerous, District Candidates Get Serious As Fundraising Begins

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The barriers to civic life in Austin are extraordinarily porous. No matter what it is you care about, there's an organization or four working on that issue.  Show up to a club's meetings three times and you're likely to find yourself in some sort of leadership position.

This is a good thing — this ease and facilitation of engagement here in Austin is one of the biggest strengths of our thriving civic culture.

And that's reflected in the great number and diversity of declared candidates for the 10 districts that will be represented on Austin's City Council as of next January. But what remains to be seen is what perspective they will take on governing our city — and, more importantly, who will end up on the ballot.

Now that candidates can officially raise money and the election itself is less than six months away, we know a lot more about how these elections are likely to play out.

Read more about how the district races are shaping up below the jump.Last Thursday, May 8th marked the first day that Austin City Council candidates could legally raise money, prompting a flurry of kick-off events and formal announcements.

While names have been floating around since the 10-1 plan passed, now is the time that candidates must show that they are serious and take actual steps to organize and run campaigns. According to our candidate tracker, compiled by yours truly and BOR's tireless intern Katie Singh, over 40 candidates district already have a treasurer on file, with a few dozen more considered to be running or announced without a treasurer designated. Pro-Tip: Don't raise money or spend it without one, y'all — that's an ethics violation, and an easy one to catch, at that!

(On that note, if you're announced or your status has changed and you need to update the listing, or you take issue with our description of you, feel free to email me HERE. We make changes and updates once a week. And yes, candidates, you can feel free to add that address to your email lists and your press lists.)

The diversity of candidates — diverse in terms of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, background, experience, qualifications, profession, and knowledge of city government — is overwhelming, and is in and of itself a clear victory for the people who organized to put single-member districts on the ballot, particularly Austinites for Geographic Representation.

There are people running who would never have filed before, let alone had a chance to contend for a district. The old system was dominated not only by a pool of whiter, wealthier, West Austin-ier voters who showed up to vote on a random Saturday in May with nothing else on the ballot, but also by small cadre of political consultants and campaign professionals who worked on the races. Make no mistake — most of those consultants and campaign workers are still in the mix, but the sheer volume of candidates and contested races this year has opened up the process tremendously.

Many of the candidates running this year would have been previously constrained by the “Gentleman's Agreement” that designated one spot for a Hispanic and one for an African-American, in which a majority-white electorate still chose who would be the standard-bearers for our minority community. This year, eight of the ten districts have at least one person of color announced, and in nearly all of them there is a strong minority candidate who has a credible path to at least making a run-off.

While overall we've done well with who has been elected, the process itself is always deserving of scrutiny, particularly when it constrains people from running. The same is true of geographic diversity — we have more “serious” candidates who reside north of Anderson Lane or south of Oltorf that I can remember in the cumulative years I have lived in this city.  

At this time, perhaps the biggest (and most unanswerable) question is whether districts will tend towards a more inwardly focused perspective in choosing a representative — one that can be crudely referred to as a “ward-style” mentality — or if they will focus on the big picture and select a candidate who campaigns on a broader perspective.

As expected, there are a number of candidates whose background consists of activism grounded in their area of residence — both in neighborhood associations, and other geographically based organizations. By and large, these are people with strong community ties in their districts, which is a strong place to start in this campaign cycle.

There are also a number of leaders from organizations that regularly work on municipal issues, current and former employees of various branches of government, and activists representing a variety of causes. In short, of the four-dozen or so announced candidates, there are many people with a credible rationale for running for this office, and the background and knowledge to persuade voters that they are qualified and well-suited for the job. That's a good thing.

As was expected, there are many, many past candidates in the mix — Tina Cannon, Mandy Dealey, Josiah Ingalls, Shaun Ireland, DeWayne Lofton, Eliza May, Darrel Pierce, Laura Pressley, and Sam Osemene all sought a seat on the city council in the past. Additionally, Matt Stillwell and Robert Thomas ran for the Legislature in 2012 — Stillwell ran as a Democrat for HD-136, while Thomas ran as a Republican against Donna Howard. Fred McGhee also previously sought a seat on the ACC board.

Campaign experience can be considered a bonus, as these folks are ready for the avalanche of questionnaires and forums that await. However, it would be unwise for all candidates — especially those that ran many years ago — to assume lingering name ID, especially in the more rapidly growing areas of town.

The single biggest constraint on candidates at this point is the need to find qualified individuals to work on their campaigns.

While the $350-per-person fundraising limits will pose further problems in terms of limiting direct voters contact, right now — as predicted — the scramble for staff has plenty of candidates genuinely concerned about building the organizational capacity they'll need through November. The lack of human-power to handle everything from forum scheduling to phone banking will be a serious limitation for many contenders, and may well grind some campaigns to a halt before Labor Day. Hiring solid staff — especially people with local experience — clearly gives candidates a boost among the chattering classes and City Hall watchers who are observing these early stages with great interest.

For now, however, the candidates will continue to build their teams, start raising money, hold kick-offs, and begin the slow grind of amassing public supporter lists. The first major fundraising deadline is June 30th, with reports due July 15th. That will send a strong signal as to who's serious, who's working hard, and who may not even make it onto the ballot.

All in all, the election is less than 6 months away, which means that these 40-some-odd district candidates have what is in reality a very short amount of time to talk to a lot of voters, fill out a lot of questionnaires, and attend a seemingly infinite number of forums before Election Day.

And then many of the districts will be headed to a mid-December run-off. So we have that to look forward to.

New and Noteworthy, Culled Solely From Listening to Other People Chatter About Austin City Council

Last but not least, here's a brief round-up of the gossip, chit-chat and scuttle-butt I've heard in the early stages of this municipal cycle. Again, this is mostly other peoples' opinions, edited for salience.

    Jimmy Flannigan in District 6 has a business card with a map of his district on the back that has received wide acclaim, as voters rotate the card to figure out what end is up in this district in which many political insiders have never set foot.

    District 7 candidate Ed English appears to be taking an aggressive approach to attending everything from political functions to envelope openings, with opponent Jimmy Paver also aggressively making the rounds.

    In the staff scramble, District 5 candidate and former State Rep. Ann KItchen snapped up former campaign manager for Brigid Shea Kristen Fine, clearly a boon for her campaign. Meanwhile, opponent Dan Buda, former Chief of Staff for Wendy Davis, has apparently been actively phoning voters.

    Curiously, District 4, with one of the lowest anticipated vote totals, has drawn one of the highest number of declared candidates, at 7 announced names right now. Look for former Worker's Defense organizer Greg Casar, long-time neighborhood and civic activist Katrina Daniels, and well-known politico Marco Mancillas to make a strong bid here. The big question will be if former candidate and anti-flouride activist Dr. Laura Pressley can convert her 45% citywide showing in 2012 into enough votes to make a run-off in one district.

Expect another update closer to the June 30th fundraising deadline. As for the Mayor's race, I'll have a post on that up tomorrow.  


About Author

Katherine Haenschen

Katherine Haenschen is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas, where she studies political participation on digital media. She previously managed successful candidate, issue, voter registration, and GOTV campaigns in Central Texas. She is also a fan of UCONN women's basketball and breakfast tacos.

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