My Monitor comrade Caleb suggested it was daft of me to ponder the absence of an opponent to Ann Kitchen in the District 5 race this year. To wit:
Yeah, it just seems like a weird exercise. Like, “Why didn’t any Dems challenge Obama in 2012?” To me, the absence so far of a high-profile challenger in the D3 race is the real head-scratcher.
Some of my City Hall colleagues might take offense at a Travis County reporter commenting on COA races, but I’m big enough to receive constructive criticism from any quarter, and it’s a decent point. So let’s talk about Pio Renteria.
In case you’re not already aware, Pio was elected in 2014 to the Central-East district when he bested his sister, Susana Almanza, in a run-off election. Here’s how the Statesman described the key difference between the two:
He favors higher-density development in East Austin, with a certain percentage set aside for affordable housing, as a way of keeping residents in the community and avoiding “urban sprawl,” he said. In contrast to Almanza, there is less rhetoric about the evils of gentrification.
Almanza said she wants to fight rising housing costs through a buffet of options, from leaning on the Legislature to enact property tax reforms, to maximizing affordable housing bonds and making it easier for low-income people to qualify for affordable housing.
It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a repeat of that election. Either Almanza or one of her allies could garner a certain amount of support based on fears about CodeNEXT and anti-gentrification sentiment. Considering that Almanza won 41% in the runoff, she or somebody who shares her anti-growth message would presumably have a decent base of support to start from. Such a candidate would also likely get financial support from the Laura Morrison crowd in Central/West Austin.
It’s hard to assess how the general public is feeling about this whole CodeNEXT debate. In contrast to the constantly-measured national political consciousness, there are very few public polls on city politics. All we have to go on so far are the two relatively small groups of people who make a lot of noise at City Hall. I see a smattering of anti-CodeNEXT signs across town and a smaller number of pro-CodeNEXT signs.
But my sense is that most people aren’t too plugged into CodeNEXT. That seems to bode well for Pio, since that’s the only major grievance that some left-of-center people would have against him (a right-of-center candidate would be helpless in D3).
Here are some other reasons to believe Renteria would be hard to beat. At the risk of stating the obvious:
- He won last time. That’s gotta say something.
- He has allies on Council. Adler, Casar, Garza and Flannigan will likely work to make sure he stays on Council.
- The city’s urbanist network would work aggressively for him: AURA, Evolve etc.
- He’d get financial support from the real estate industry that is anxious to prevent another anti-development vote on Council.
- He’s long been active in Democratic politics. He’d probably have support from other Democratic officeholders and Democratic groups.
- Turnout should be much bigger in 2018 than in 2014. That means a lot of voters who are going to the polls to vote against the GOP for Congress/Governor but aren’t plugged into local politics. That would tend to favor the incumbent Dem or the candidate with party support.
- Gentrification. In the past four years, even more affluent people have moved into the district. There are of course gentrifiers who support anti-gentrification candidates, but the better bet is on them supporting Renteria.
- Who doesn’t like Pio? I’ve never encountered someone at City Hall who doesn’t like the guy.