Who is behind the attack on Natasha Harper-Madison?

Austinites for Equity is a political action committee linked to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1624, which represents employees of the city of Austin and Travis County.

In union-friendly states, AFSCME and teachers unions are frequently the two most important players in Democratic politics. They’re not nearly as important in Texas because public sector employees (except public safety workers) don’t have collective bargaining rights. It’s not so much that Texas is a “right-to-work” state that bars mandatory union fees, but that the state has prohibited one of the main benefits of union membership for public sector employees.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of city and county employees who are voluntarily dues-paying AFSCME members. They benefit from representation in grievances and, more importantly, they are part of a larger group advocating for municipal employees, strong public services and other left-of-center policies.

This year, Austinites for Equity’s political activity is mostly consistent with what you’d expect from a public employees union. It funded ads against Proposition K, the proposed efficiency audit of city services pushed by anonymous right-wingers. It supported all of the bond measures. It is attacking Frank Ward, the Republican vying for District 8.

It’s much harder to explain why the group is bashing Natasha Harper-Madison, one of the two candidates in the runoff for District 1. Here is a mailer they sent out in support of her opponent, Mariana Salazar.


I get that AFSCME endorsed Salazar, perhaps because she answered some questions on a questionnaire better or because they relate to her better since she’s a former public employee herself. But Harper-Madison is hardly what AFSCME should consider an enemy. She’s not hostile to public services.

But then again, although Austinites for Equity is run by AFSCME’s political director, Jack Kirfman, and it receives almost all of its money from the union, it has received some money in recent weeks from a couple decidedly non-labor sources.

On December 4, it received $5,000 from Natin Paul, a local real estate tycoon. The same day, it received $5,000 from Stratus Properties.

The fact that those two developers very likely bankrolled this mailer makes the substance of the attack levied at Harper-Madison deeply ironic. And then of course there’s the fact that Salazar and Harper-Madison are pretty much on the same page in terms of development; both agree that density is part of the affordability, transportation and environmental equation.

The scooter situation is getting a lot better

I’m not talking about wildly exaggerated claims of scooter-related injuries, although I do welcome the study of scooter safety by the Center for Disease Control.

I’m talking about the fact that, due to market forces or government rules, electric scooters are beginning to proliferate well outside of the downtown area. As recently as last week I complained that scooters remain rare in my South Lamar neighborhood, but looking at the scooter apps a couple days later, I think my complaint may have been outdated by a few weeks.

Look at all those scooters! Here’s a look at Lime’s service to the core ( within 183-MoPac-71):


Here’s what the Bird situation looks like down in my neck of the woods:


They’re already all over the place in Central East Austin and Mueller, but we’re also starting to see quite a few further east, around Airport and Springfield.


It’s not clear to what extent this shift to the outer areas of the core is driven by city regulations rather than market conditions. I argued last week that scooter regulation might work best if it mirrors government’s traditional approach to telecoms or utilities, where private operators are allowed to turn a profit but may also be forced to provide service to unprofitable areas or customers.

For this approach to work, the city needs to require scooter companies to disclose data on use. It cannot rely on the companies’ own claims about what is or isn’t profitable, since companies are likely to describe something that doesn’t deliver maximum profits as unprofitable. The fact that three companies are in competition is good, but given the difficulty of new players entering the market, it seems like there’s a high risk of the three existing operators becoming a cartel, fixing prices on a local or national level. Yes, Virginia, cartels are an issue in the U.S., and most of them have nothing to do with drug-traffickers at the border.

Hopefully whatever data the city needs to figure out what the right balance is between profit and service is covered in this section of the scooter ordinance:

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But we’ll see.


Frank Ward stands up for cars

The conventional wisdom about Republicans trying to win in Austin is that they should never, ever answer any questions about Donald Trump and they should steer clear of the culture wars that have made the GOP’s brand so toxic in urban areas. If anything, engaging on God, guns and gays distracts from the culture war over transportation, in which every Republican –– Don Zimmerman, Ellen Troxclair, Frank Ward –– enthusiastically engages.

Hence this holiday message from Ward, who is in a runoff for the District 8 seat in Southwest Austin against Paige Ellis. If elected, Ward will replace Troxclair as the last certified Repub on Council.

First off, I get the impulse to make the ad Christmas-themed and to include the adorable kiddos, but it doesn’t really make sense to me that he’d highlight the difficulty of getting out of town to visit family. It would make more sense to focus on the day-to-day challenge of getting around town.

Ward uses a couple quotes from Council members Greg Casar and Ann Kitchen to portray Austin’s political establishment as cruelly indifferent to the plight of Joe & Jane Minivan. While congestion is a feature of every major U.S. city, Ward presents it as a problem is due solely to Austin’s stubborn refusal to “do something about it.”

In fact, what Casar and Kitchen were likely saying (I didn’t hunt down the actual video but I’m familiar with their reasoning) is that the focus of city government should be to enhance mobility, not simply to reduce vehicle congestion. A singular focus on reducing congestion by expanding road capacity is unlikely to achieve a noticeable difference simply due to population growth. We just don’t have much more room to build more lanes/roads, unless Ward is proposing that we do away with the Save Our Springs ordinance and pave over the Edwards Aquifer. Good luck with that. The best way to make things better for the most people, including the driving majority, would be to focus on offering people alternatives to driving –– bike infrastructure and transit. That’s what Kitchen and Casar were talking about.

Ward, like Troxclair and Zimmerman, likely does not acknowledge or care about those details, however. They would instead like to present transportation policy as a zero-sum game where every dollar spent on transit or bike infrastructure comes at the expense of drivers.


The six people funding attacks on Pio Renteria

It only takes a few wealthy West Austin residents to make a difference. For instance, the six people who are funding the “People’s PAC” to unseat Pio Renteria.

Here are the mailers that they sent out to residents of the East Austin district. Again, thanks to Phil Jankowski of the Statesman for posting these on Twitter.

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The treasurer of the People’s PAC, Elisa Montoya, is a lifelong resident of the area. But as is the case with most political action committees, the treasurer is a pro forma position that does not run the group. In all likelihood this is yet another tentacle of Fred Lewis’ ever-expanding operation.

The group reported raised $7,693.33 and spending $4,167, all of it on this mailer. The two main donors were:

Kirk Mitchell, oil & gas heir and founder of Save Our Springs: $3,333.33 (I wonder if he thinks that number is good luck or something)

Mike Lavigne, a local political consultant and Crestview neighborhood activist with a penchant for hyperbolic attacks on advocates for land use reform: $3,000.

And then a few of the usual West Austin neighborhood association suspects chipped in a few hundo: Barbara McArthur, Mike Hebert, Austin Neighborhood Council President Jeff Jack, and, of course, Lewis himself.

If you scroll down, you’ll see of course that Renteria has taken the gloves off himself in the race against his sister.

Correction/Update: I previously incorrectly capitalized the V in Mike Lavigne’s name. Lavigne also says he’s not a lobbyist. Although those who call themselves “government relations consultants” tend to functionally operate as lobbyists, I’ll sustain his objection. 

Renteria goes nuclear on Almanza

Statesman reporter Phil Jankowski summed it up: “Daaaaaaaaang.”

Although Pio Renteria finished way ahead of his sister Susana Almanza in the general election, he’s not taking any chances in the runoff.

His campaign sent out this mailer attacking Almanza for her connections to Southwest Keys, the East Austin nonprofit that operates shelters for immigrant children, as well as charter schools and juvenile justice programs. For years it mostly housed children who arrived at the border unaccompanied, but the group has also been targeted for complicity in Trump’s family separation policy, since it also received children taken away from their parents.

Photos courtesy of Jankowski.

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The mailer also attacks Almanza for her support of Prop K and her support for Southwest Keys’ attempt to take over Eastside Memorial.

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Runoffs are hard to predict because the turnout is so low.  A candidate who finished in a distant second place in the general election can cruise to victory in the runoff. That’s how Alison Alter won her seat two years ago over Sheri Gallo. For what it’s worth, though, Renteria easily triumphed over Almanza in a runoff four years ago.

I’m hearing that Almanza has also been sending out pretty harsh mailers against Renteria, although I do not yet have photograhic evidence. If you have any photos, please let me know!

When I interviewed Almanza on election night last month, I asked her about how she felt having her brother as a political foe. She said she didn’t view the race through that lens. It was just about the issues, nothing personal. “I love my brother,” she said.

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Wannabe revolutionaries mess with my library

On Monday I wrote a little blurb for the Monitor about a recent incident at the Twin Oaks Library on S. 5th St. –– my own beloved branch –– involving a handful of bored millennials who call themselves the Red Guards:

The previous month, [said Library Director Roosevelt Weeks], somebody placed a severed pig’s head on the fence at the entrance to the Twin Oaks library branch on South Fifth Street. The head was accompanied by a message calling the Democratic Socialists of America “capitalist pigs.” Weeks noted that the vandalism was apparently conducted based on the mistaken belief that the DSA would be holding a meeting at the library. Whoever is responsible appears to be linked to the Red Guards of Austin, a group of self-professed “Marxist-Leninist Maoists” who on their website have proudly displayed images of similar acts of vandalism committed against other leftist groups they view as being insufficiently revolutionary.

Here’s a little extra meat to the story:

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Luckily, the library had security cameras. Unluckily, the footage they produced was pretty useless in identifying the culprit. Of course, these cowards always cover their faces anyway.

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What’s up with the realtors?

Realtors are funny political creatures. Like developers, they are a logical political force in just about any community where private property exists. It’s often assumed that their interests align with developers, but I’m not so sure.

The only position that you can count on realtors for is support for regressive tax policy that incentivizes homeownership, such as the federal mortgage interest deduction or, locally, the homestead exemption.

Locally, I think realtors have a range of opinions. That’s because your opinions on what creates a strong local housing market tend to align with your natural political inclinations about what is most valuable in a community. A friendly business environment? Strong schools? Good public transit? Strict zoning that promotes single-family neighborhoods? Shopping malls? Dense, walkable communities? The Austin Board of Realtors has been a vocal proponent of land use reform, but honestly, I don’t know why that issue matters much to realtors. Listing agents probably like inflated home prices.

Over the last couple years, the Austin Board of Realtors has taken a decidedly liberal bent. Its current CEO, Emily Chenevert, told me a while back that it is a “progressive” organization. Veteran Democratic strategist Amy Everhart directs its political activities. Its City Hall lobbyist, Andrei Lubomudrov, is a bleeding heart liberal. The group contributed heavily to the affordable housing bond campaign. It even supported the paid sick leave ordinance (which included an exemption for independent contractors, such as real estate brokers).

And yet, the group is also backing Frank Ward, the Republican who is in a runoff against Dem Paige Ellis to represent District 8 (Southwest burbs) on Council. That endorsement, however, was not engineered by the leadership, but by the volunteer members who sit on the group’s legislative committee, some of whom are Republicans and many of whom have warm feelings for Ellen Troxclair, the current occupant of the seat, who is a fellow realtor herself. Troxclair is pulling hard for Ward to replace her as Council’s only conservative.

In the runoff, ABoR has reported spending $78,715 on printing expenses to promote Ward, Pio Renteria and Natasha Harper-Madison. However, it’s not clear from the campaign finance report whether that spending was divided evenly between all three candidates.