City Council races: Win for GOP, loss for housing

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Two runoff elections in West and Northwest Austin were decided by razor-thin margins last night and ended with the defeat of City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan by Mackenzie Kelly and the reelection of Alison Alter over Jennifer Virden.

Results from KVUE.

Since both Alter and Flannigan fell well short of a majority in the general election, my initial inclination was to believe they were both in trouble heading into the runoff, since the small number of voters who show up in runoffs tend to be older and more conservative. And yet, some Dems were still confident that they’d win both runoffs, perhaps easily. They believed that although these were two of the city’s most conservative districts, both have become clearly Dem-leaning in state/national politics and they believed their advantage might be even greater among the small group of weirdos who turn out for runoffs. By highlighting Kelly and Virden’s ties to Trump and right-wing extremists, they hoped partisan polarization would deliver for both incumbents.

Mackenzie Kelly.

In the end, turnout in the runoffs were much higher than ever before. In Alter’s bougie West Austin District 10, turnout rose from 14,820 in the runoff four years ago to 24,109 last night –– an increase of 63%. As I indicated in yesterday’s analysis of early vote figures, there was a particularly big increase in the number of voters with no history of voting in primaries, which made it hard to project their party/ideology. In the early vote (which was 75% of the total vote) in D10, these no-primary history voters accounted for 15.8% of the electorate, up from 6.5% in 2016. (To be clear, few of these people were first time voters –– they simply didn’t have a history of voting in party primaries, suggesting a lower level of political engagement)

As many suspected, it appears that most of these voters with no primary history were activated by the conservative candidates or causes.

As for D6, the conservatives showed strength in last month’s general election, when Flannigan finished with only 40% of the vote, while Kelly took 33% and Jennifer Mushtaler, who ran as a moderate but embraced Kelly’s positions on the biggest issues (police/homelessness/LDC/Project Connect) got 19% and then endorsed Kelly last week.

In other words, liberals can’t just blame the loss in D6 on a low turnout runoff where nobody under 65 voted. Runoffs are still a terrible way to select public officials, but in this case it looks like the conservative message legitimately carried the day in Northwest Austin.

There are many different variables that affect the outcome of a race. In races these close, it’s almost impossible to know what could have changed it.

When Alter trounced Gallo in the runoff four years ago, the conventional wisdom was that Gallo lost because of highly motivated voters upset over Gallo’s support for two controversial developments (the Grove and Austin Oaks) and because liberals were reeling from the shocking victory of Donald Trump the month before and wanted to take it out on anyone vaguely associated with the GOP.

The most obvious analysis of last night is that a large group of voters –– including a fair number of Biden voters –– were unhappy with the handling of the homeless and policing issues. My sense is that those had a bigger impact than Project Connect taxes or the land development code, but I could be wrong. And did the outcome of the presidential election affect the runoffs? Was it Republicans this time who were out for a consolation prize? Perhaps.

Flannigan: Proud of “hard work.”
Addressing a gathering of supporters on Zoom, Flannigan said he was proud of the work he had done during his four-year term and said he believed the city would be better off because of the moves Council made on police reforms, Project Connect, homelessness and racial equity.

“This is a tough night for all of us, but it doesn’t mean that any of this work ends,” he said. “And of course none of us are going away. We didn’t go away when we lost in 2014, and we’re not going away now.”

“Just because the path to equality isn’t straight doesn’t mean we’re not on the right path,” he later said.

He said he was proud to be the first openly gay man on Council and the first Williamson County resident. He urged his supporters to continue pushing on the issues –– saying that the “hard work” will continue.

He didn’t specifically congratulate Kelly but said, “To the new Council member, I hope she does her best to represent this district with honor.

Neither victor show much love for opponent
Kelly released a statement to the press:

“From standing courageously behind our law enforcement community to demanding safer conditions for our homeless population to fighting for transparency at City Hall, the voice of Northwest Austin has been heard. Considering the stark differences between my campaign’s priorities and the platform of the incumbent, their united voice is resoundingly clear this evening. I am honored to be the next District 6 representative and will work immediately to begin healing the divisions in our community.”

The “healing” comment was Bidenesque, although the rest wasn’t particularly conciliatory. In another message she sent to media, Kelly said:

“Congratulations to Council member Jimmy Flannigan on a hard-fought campaign. I, along with my staff, will look forward to working with Austinites from all backgrounds and political persuasions to build a better future for the greatest city in Texas.”

In District 10 Alter posted a FB message with only a veiled (and unflattering) reference to her opponent:

“Thank you to the voters of District 10 who voted in favor of my integrity, policy experience, and proven leadership, and against the politics of fear. “I look forward to serving another four years representing District 10. Austin’s best days are in front of us!”

I haven’t seen anything from Virden yet.

RIP LDC? A setback for housing
Kelly’s victory over Flannigan is a setback for housing and smart growth. Project Connect is a done deal, thanks in part to Flannigan’s advocacy, but the path to a new-and-improved land development code has grown much narrower with his departure. Even piecemeal efforts to address the city’s housing crisis may be doomed.

Land use was definitely not the focus of Kelly’s campaign, but she has said that she opposes the new LDC. Her statements on housing in general have been vague: she has expressed support for reducing regs on development but says she wants to protect the character of single-family neighborhoods.

But it’s hard to know from Kelly’s statements how she’ll vote on the many zoning cases she’ll see every Council meeting. It’s definitely too early to assume she’ll be a reliable vote with the preservationist bloc. Maybe she’d even be willing to support some relatively big reforms if they weren’t accompanied by the political baggage associate with the LDC rewrite.

At the very least, however, there is NO LONGER A MAJORITY in support of the proposed land development code on Council. With Flannigan and Delia Garza on Council, there was a 7-4 majority in favor of the new LDC and in favor of the city appealing the ruling by a county judge that Council needed to approve the new code by a 9-2 vote. With Kelly replacing Flannigan and Vanessa Fuentes, who said she does not support the LDC in its current form, we now have a 6-5 majority against the LDC.

What about Vanessa Fuentes?
Or do we? A lot of that depends on Vanessa Fuentes, the new CM for Southeast Austin’s District 2. Fuentes is an across-the-board progressive who says she supports increasing housing stock in all parts of the city. Her campaign generally did not talk much about development but when I asked her about housing in October this is what she said:

We need more missing-middle and multi-family housing in all areas of this city. I do not support the current LDC. I wish the equity overlay would have come in at the beginning of the process and not the 11th hour.

The equity overlay was the policy championed by Garza and Greg Casar aimed at “protecting” certain low-income areas from gentrification/displacement. The idea was to upzone them less than the rest of the city. (I actually think that’s a recipe for more displacement, not less)

Fuentes certainly enjoyed support from both groups. She took part in the ATXcelerator, a program run by former RECA president Ward Tisdale that tries to get growth-friendly people across the political spectrum involved in city politics. Tisdale, who lives a block away from me, had a Fuentes sign in his yard. But her contribution list also showed support from a number of prominent anti-development types.

The first question is whether Fuentes would side with the five other anti-LDC folks in trying to get the city to stop appealing the court ruling, which a fair number of insiders believe has a decent chance of getting overturned. And if the ruling were overturned, and Council only needs six votes to approve a new LDC, what changes could be made to the draft to get Fuentes to support it?

And if a new LDC isn’t in the cards, can Fuentes be counted on to usually vote for more housing on zoning cases? Are there other reforms aimed at boosting housing supply and reducing sprawl that she will support?

This is just a small sample of what you get EVERY weekday if you subscribe to the Austin Politics Newsletter

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