The District 9 Race: A referendum on urbanism?

The District 9 race between incumbent Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and challenger Danielle Skidmore, is likely the clearest example of the urbanist vs. neighborhood association divide this election cycle.

I’m trying not to engage in too much punditry/predictions, but suffice it to say that I would not bet against the MPT. While there is a large contingent in Austin politics opposed to Tovo because of her views on development/growth, even many in the urbanist crowd admire her competence and personality, sometimes begrudgingly. She’s definitely somebody you want on your side. I know she’s always the one I can count on if I need to know what’s going on at Council. She’s also a down-the-line progressive on all other issues –– labor, environment, social programs. She has been a particularly strong advocate for homelessness services and has consistently advocated against tax cuts that put funding for city services at risk.

So the only logical challenge to Tovo in a district as liberal as 9 would be based on the one big issue that liberals are divided over: development/growth. So far, that appears to be exactly what Danielle Skidmore, Tovo’s challenger is doing.

 

While the divide over development will certainly feature prominently in other races, notably the mayoral race and the District 1 race, I haven’t seen any other candidates put urbanism front-and-center of their campaign like Skidmore. The bio page on her website could easily be an urbanist manifesto:

In 1997, we bought our first house in Old West Austin, just off MoPac. When we were looking for a place to buy, we couldn’t afford a single-family house near campus, but this little two-story townhouse in a building with 4 residences was perfect—close to downtown, near the UT shuttle. Our son was born in 2001. He’s in a wheelchair, and by 2008, we had outgrown the stairs. We looked all over West Austin for a place that would suit our family—not necessarily bigger, just a place all on one level. It quickly became clear that a place like that basically did not exist in our neighborhood. So, we moved downtown into a condominium.

My own family story highlights the very real problem with housing accessibility that exists throughout the city.

Policy decisions to limit housing available in one neighborhood place direct pressure on other Austin neighborhoods. This is a question of equity. Neighborhoods are communities of people, not houses, and with creativity and an open mind, I know we can create space for all people to live.

To address questions of land-use, it would be helpful to have someone on Council with the right tool-set to solve the puzzle. As a transportation engineer, I can geek out about mobility and sustainability, all day long. Don’t worry, I’ll spare you, but anyone who’s sat in a grid-lock on I-35 or padded their commute time an extra half-hour to account for traffic knows that the ability to get quickly and safely from point A to point B is a major issue facing our city. We can and must do much more.

We need a champion on council for a long-range vision that includes real high capacity transit investments that will move the thousands of people that need to flow into and out of our core every day. This will take years to implement, but we’ll never get there if we don’t start!

That’s certainly not to say that that is the only thing Skidmore will be talking about during the campaign. She has been active in other political arenas and there will likely be many voters in a district that includes the UT campus who are eager to elect the first transgender Council member. But so far city planning appears to be the only major policy distinction between the two candidates.

 

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