Huh? Leffingwell endorses Frank Ward

I was going to write something about why the Austin Board of Realtors was getting behind the only Republican candidate for Council, but the fact that Lee Leffingwell wants to Keep Austin Ward takes precedence.

I got to Austin in 2015, so my understanding of the former mayor is based entirely on what others recall about him, his post-mayoral political activity and his bizarre social media activity.

Anyway, here’s the big announcement:

Julio Gonzalez makes an interesting point:

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Indeed, Ward has emphasized his support for the police, even calling for a special homestead exemption for public safety personnel. The police union has spent over $30k on behalf of his candidacy.

Leffingwell notably served as an adviser to Uber and Lyft in their fight with the city back in 2016, putting him at odds with Mayor Steve Adler and all of the other City Council Dems. That no doubt ruffled some feathers, but it didn’t necessarily signal an ideological shift.

Things got a little stranger, however, when Leffingwell started getting active on social media. At the beginning of the year, he celebrated the massive windfall that Delta Airlines got from the tax bill. He retweeted Republicans denouncing Democrats over DACA. On Facebook he started sharing memes from right-wing trolls denouncing NFL player protests. It’s worth mentioning that he is a former Delta pilot, a Navy veteran, and a near-octogenarian, all data points that align with such behavior. But still…the guy was an elected Democrat in Austin.

It looks like Leffingwell has deleted his Twitter account. I can’t remember whether it was his candidate page or a personal page on Facebook where he was posting right-wing memes, but all I’m turning up now is a candidate page that displays zero evidence of manipulation by enterprising Macedonian adolescents. His most recent posts are from his final days as mayor. For instance:

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What ever happened to that Lee Leffingwell?

There’s actually a solution for scooter injuries

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The beginning of the Shoal Creek Trail, near the Central Library.

Another day and more outrage about scooter-enabled carnage. For instance, this tweet from the editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune:

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I gave the predictable urbanist response:

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To which Michael King of the Chronicle replied:

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I agree! And there’s actually a really easy way to reduce the injuries done by scooters without banning them: bike lanes. We’ve already got quite a few of them in Austin, but we need far, far more.

The 2014 Bicycle Master Plan called for $151 million investment in urban trails, protected bike lanes and other infrastructure that would make the city far more hospitable to bikers and lead to a substantial increase in people biking over driving (at least some of the time). The 2016 & 2018 transportation bonds only put small dents in the problem. We should pass a bond approving at least another $100 million on bike lanes and urban trails. That is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to make meaningful progress on transportation, the environment and public health. And it will make our transportation system much safer. Mostly by getting people out of cars, but also by getting bikers and scooters off the sidewalks.

Renteria, Ellis post big fundraising totals

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Credit: Paige Ellis campaign.

I met District 8 candidate Paige Ellis for the first time in-person yesterday at City Hall. She had just filed her pre-runoff campaign finance report. She seemed happy and confident entering the final week of the campaign. The report suggests she has reason to be.

After only raising $16,875 during the general election campaign (and finishing ahead of three better-funded candidates), Ellis raised $59,240 in November, way ahead of her conservative opponent, Frank Ward, who raised $28,790. Part of the disparity is likely due to the fact that Ward already raised a bunch of money early on and conservative donors have already maxed out to him, while Ellis is probably now picking up donors who supported two of the other liberal candidates in the general election. And it’s important to remember that the spending that the police union is doing on Ward’s behalf more than makes up for the gap. And the Austin Board of Realtors (ABoR) is also spending money in the race, although it’s not clear how much (I’ll get into that later today).

But the real fundraising champ is Pio Renteria. The incumbent east side Council member raised $89,895 for the rematch against his sister, Susana Almanza, who raised $22,558. ABoR is also supporting Renteria, although again, it’s not clear how much. Then there’s Austinites for Affordability, a group linked to lobbyist Mark Littlefield, that is spending on behalf of Renteria. It spent $14,300 over the past month –– I’m not sure if all of that money went to support Pio, but that’s the only candidate that the report says the committee is supporting. Almanza is getting some support from People’s PAC, a group funded by a few of the usual suspects from the neighborhood preservationist clique: Fred Lewis, Mike Hebert, Kirk Mitchell, Mike Lavigne, Barbara MacArthur, Jeff Jack. In the past month they spent $4,100 to oppose Renteria.

In District 1 Natasha Harper-Madison raised $41,170 and Mariana Salazar raised $21,396. Harper-Madison is also getting some support from ABoR (again, not clear how much).

I update AustinPolitics.NET every 3-5 times a day on weekdays. Please check back and follow me on Twitter!

Correction: This post has been updated. I incorrectly wrote that Paige Ellis had raised $11k in the general election campaign. It was $16.8k. 

Wall Street Journal column misses the mark

The Wall Street Journal editorial page (not to be confused with the rest of the decent but declining Wall Street Journal) is a cherished safe space for conservatives in cities across the country to vent about their oppression by liberals.

Thus comes a column by John Daniel Davidson, an Austin-based writer for the Federalist, about the recent defeat of Proposition K, which would have subjected the city to a comprehensive “efficiency audit” by an outside consultant.

It would be hard to find a better example of left-wing naiveité in municipal affairs than what transpired here in November. Voters in the Lone Star State’s progressive bastion, overwhelmingly approved a $925 million bond package but rejected a simple ballot initiative for an independent audit of city spending.

The defeat of the audit wouldn’t be so galling if the new bonds didn’t so obviously demonstrate the need for an independent review of Austin’s books. Spending in the Texas capital is more like what one would expect in some profligate California city. With this new bond package, Austin has been reduced to using debt to fund parks, public safety and sidewalk repair—instead of paying for them out of its $4.1 billion annual budget.

There’s no good excuse. Austin is booming, and has been for a while. It’s a hub for tech firms and has a fast-growing tax base. The city should be able to pay for everything it needs without saddling future residents with nearly $1 billion in new debt (which comes on the heels of a $720 million transportation bond passed in 2016).

A few things:

We don’t really have a $4.1 billion budget. I mean, we do, but most of it is taken up by Austin Energy, the municipal utility. That money, which comes not from taxes but from electricity rates, can’t be used for parks, public safety, and sidewalks. Of course, the fact that we have a publicly-owned utility that is aggressively pursuing renewable energy, helping poor people weatherize their homes and delivering lower-than-average residential rates infuriates plenty of Republicans at the Capitol. Indeed, some theorized that the efficiency audit was just a ruse to justify the privatization of AE.  Anywaythe general fund budget is only about $1 billion.

Bonds are typically how you pay for capital costs. The article appears aimed at misleading readers into believing that we’re issuing bonds to support day-to-day operating costs for police, fire and parks. That’s NOT true. The bonds included funds to build new fire stations. Or acquire new parkland. Or build bridges. Does Davidson really expect that we’d be able to do those things through our operating budget? I can’t imagine he’s endorsing the “if you don’t build it, they won’t come” mantra that has guided a certain segment of Austin’s ruling class for decades. But whether or not that’s his intention, that’s what the policy outcome would be.

Davidson then goes on to list a couple of the wackiest city initiatives he can find –– the health department hanging bags of condoms from park trees, the resident artist program –– to demonstrate that city government is run by hippies on a continuous acid trip. He does mention high development fees, which many-a-liberal would agree is a problem.

Yet these myriad programs and fees exemplify the governing ethos of Austin’s political leadership. Anyone familiar with local politics in the Democrat-run capital of Texas—what former Gov. Rick Perry once called “the blueberry in the tomato soup”—knows that the priority of the city’s ultraprogressive political establishment is to serve the interests of the wealthy, ultraprogressive white people who fund and elect Austin’s insular political class.

There’s a grain of truth here but it’s more wrong than right. First off, would anybody really argue that Mayor Steve Adler or his predecessor, Lee Leffingwell, are “ultraprogressives”? Prior to the 10-1 Council, city politics was indeed largely shaped by a small group of affluent white homeowners, but I would argue that it was the increased diversity of elected officials and the electorate that has pushed city politics to the left in recent years, since we moved to a district-based Council. It is the three Latino Council members from majority-Latino districts who are pushing to liberalize the land development code, invest in affordable housing, increase the minimum wage and mandate paid sick leave. All of these things have been greeted with either hostility or reluctance from the white liberal establishment.

Speaking of paid sick leave…

Putting progressive ideals and special interests ahead of working people is a familiar pattern in Austin. In February the city passed a San Francisco-like ordinance to force employers to offer a week of paid sick leave annually—with an exemption, of course, for union shops. The ordinance amounted to a city-mandated wage raise that would have surely killed jobs citywide if a state appeals court hadn’t struck down the measure in November.

Time out. Paid sick leave is something designed to “serve the interests of the wealthy, ultraprogressive white people”? I’m sure Davidson would argue that the policy only benefits wealthy liberals’ egos, but I can assure you that that is not the constituency that Greg Casar, Workers Defense Project or the largely low-income, nonwhite crowd that came to testify in support of the policy had in mind.

Notably absent from Davidson’s screed against government regulation was any mention of zoning, arguably the most significant regulatory mechanism at the city’s disposal. Maybe that’s because when they’re not talking about being besieged by government regulations, Austin Republicans are advocating for the city to protect their neighborhoods from apartment buildings and businesses.

EMS union president loses reelection

Tony Marquardt, president of the Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Employees Association, lost his bid for reelection to Selena Xie, a young paramedic who is vehemently against the oft-discussed proposal to merge the EMS department with the fire department.

I have very little insight into the dynamics that shaped the leadership race, but in her answers on the candidate questionnaire emphasized some of the unique challenges that younger medics face, particularly on retirement. She explains:

I am on the 30-year-plus-age-62 retirement plan. With 31 more years in this department to go, I think about my chances of retiring before the stress of the job or an injury forces me to quit.

Marquardt didn’t rule out an EMS-Fire merger, emphasizing instead the need to prevent job losses in either department and make sure that EMS employees were offered the same rank as firefighters doing the same job. Xie was completely against the idea:

I am against merging, and we need a president who is fighting for the interests of medics. There have not been any successful EMS-Fire mergers of major metropolitan systems in the U.S. FDNY is a prime example of how two systems can merge and still remain unequal. We must make sure the city puts our medics and the wellbeing of the residents of Travis County first.

….Fire departments are interested in fighting fires. EMS is interested in emergency medicine. Historically fire departments have wanted to take over EMS agencies in order to improve resources for firefighting and not EMS. I have heard people talk about the raises we will get, fixes for retirement or improved management, but these are assumptions not guarantees. We work a shorter work week from AFD and also do a very different job. There are other avenues for fixing the retirement issue that we must be consider first.

The thing is, much of the emergency medical work done in town is done by the fire department. Indeed, most of what the fire department does is EMS work. So “if fire departments are interested in fighting fires,” why are we depending on them for so much EMS work?

The fact that EMS is so much smaller than the fire or police departments likely reduces its power at the bargaining table. That may help explain why EMS workers haven’t gotten quite the deals that cops and firefighters have been able to negotiate in recent years. Katie Hall reported last year:

Anthony Marquardt, president of the Austin-Travis County EMS union, said medics feel undervalued in Austin compared with police and firefighters. Medics receive a 10 percent salary increase in their first three years in Austin, compared with the 24 percent and 29 percent increases that Austin police officers and firefighters receive, respectively. After 10 years, medics see a 35 percent rise in pay, while officers and firefighters receive a 42 percent increase.

While all the hullabaloo was going on about the police contract, hardly anybody noticed that the EMS union had gone months without a contract. As I wrote in March:

Tony Marquardt, president of the Austin-Travis County EMS Employee Association, told the Public Safety Commission on Monday that while city management and City Council try to hammer out a contract with the police union they appear to be putting off addressing the emergency medical service employees’ concerns.

“Unlike Police and Fire, we were never afforded the opportunity to bring something to the dais for City Council to vote down or up,” he said.

When city management and the association reached a stalemate during contract negotiations in October, the association offered a short-term extension of the current contract, said Marquardt. The city rejected that offer.

Part of the problem, he said, is that the EMS department and its union are much smaller.

“The police have the resources. Our association is much smaller and we have no staff. This (police contract) has been overshadowing our issue,” he said.

Here’s Xie’s statement on Facebook celebrating her victory:

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Xie appears to have a political consciousness that is much broader than union advocacy. She previously worked as a policy analyst Texas Impact, a coalition of religious groups that advocate on social justice issues.

Cops lend big hand to GOP Council candidate

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UPDATE: As one helpful reader on Twitter reminded me, Ward has also proposed an additional homestead exemption for emergency responders. So that’s obviously something that might make him a more appealing candidate to cops and firefighters.

Police and firefighters unions are often key political players in cities throughout the country, but they’re particularly influential in Texas, since they’re the only public sector unions that the state allows to have real bargaining power. State law does not give unions representing other government employees (notably AFSCME) the same respect. Those unions can still play an important role as advocates for government workers, particularly in places where elected officials are sympathetic to labor, but they often have a hard time convincing workers to become dues-paying members.

In addition to their ability to negotiate strong contracts, police and fire unions tend to attract dues-paying members because of the fraternal culture fostered by the nature of their work. That helps to counteract the effects of Texas’ “right-to-work” law, which bars unions from charging mandatory fees.

It’s not easy to predict who police and fire unions are going to support for city elected positions. Like other government employee associations, they are interested in maintaining or bolstering services and protecting/boosting their pay and benefits. They differ, however, in that unlike AFSCME, which represents a broad range of professions, the police and fire associations only represent one group of workers. A pay increase that they win might come at the expense of other government workers’ pay.

I really can’t comment on the politics of the average firefighter, but it’s no secret that cops tend to be more conservative than other government employees. That trend has likely been accentuated in recent years due to the increased pressure from activists over police brutality and misconduct. My guess is that the threats of budget cuts from conservatives have been overshadowed by the hostility that cops sense from progressives over use of force, racial profiling etc.

So it’s hardly shocking that the Austin Police Association is pulling hard for Frank Ward, who if elected will replace outgoing CM Ellen Troxclair as the only Republican on City Council.

The APA has spent roughly $32,000 promoting Ward in his runoff campaign against liberal candidate Paige Ellis. To put that figure in context, Ward raised $54,000 prior to the general election and Ellis raised about $11,000. It’s very likely that whatever APA spends for the runoff will match or exceed whatever Ward spends on his own

The APA has also endorsed Natasha Harper-Madison in District 1 and incumbent CM Pio Renteria in District 3. Those endorsements aren’t surprising either. While Harper-Madison is outspoken about racial injustice, she has made a point of expressing support for police officers. That she is too “pro-cop” is one reason the Austin Democratic Socialists of America, for instance, will not support her. Renteria has also bemoaned negative attitudes towards police officers in the past, although he went along with other Council members in withholding a police contract over pay and oversight measures.

However, APA’s support of Harper-Madison and Renteria appear to be mostly “paper endorsements,” with little accompanying money. They gave each a $350 contribution but do not appear to be making any independent expenditures on their behalf.

The Austin Firefighters Association has endorsed the same three candidates but they do not appear to have spent substantially in the races. I don’t really get why they support Ward. Unlike cops, firefighters don’t have any major policy conflicts with liberal elected officials. Their top priority should really be fire services and firefighter compensation. Liberals are generally a better bet on those fronts than conservatives.

In response to my questions, AFA President Bob Nicks offered this reasoning on Twitter:

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Back in 2016 the AFA endorsed the center-right Sheri Gallo over liberal Alison Alter in wealthy West Austin District 10. More baffling was its endorsement of right-wing extremist Don Zimmerman in his race against Jimmy Flannigan in far northwest District 6. However, both of those candidates were incumbents. Many organizations tend to support incumbents because they are the favorites. In 2014, for instance, the AFA endorsed almost all of the liberal candidates in Council races, including Jimmy Flannigan (who was running against Zimmerman) and Mandy Dealey (running against Gallo).

At the end of the day, while unions are of course focused on their self-interest, they are organizations made up of individuals with individual political preferences. The personal politics of a union’s leader(s) can play a big role in shaping a union’s political advocacy.

Correction: I had to update this post because I mistakenly believed that the AFA had endorsed Zimmerman and Gallo in 2014, when they were running for open seats. In fact, the AFA endorsed their opponents in 2014 but then backed Zimmerman and Gallo when they ran for reelection in 2016. 

The Colorado company gathering anti-MLS petitions

Bobby Epstein, the chairman of Circuit of the Americas, is understandably peeved that City Council OKed the use of city-owned land in North Central Austin for a new soccer stadium. Not only does Epstein fear the new Major League Soccer team will draw fans away from his own lesser soccer team, but he doesn’t want another big concert venue to rival his own.

He tried channeling his frustrations through IndyAustin, an outfit run by Linda Curtis, an eccentric mercenary with a proven prowess for gathering signatures for ballot initiatives. But the money he provided Curtis to gather signatures backfired when Curtis cluelessly promoted his cause with an online video featuring Pepe the Frog, the icon of the alt-right. Whoops.

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Bobby Epstein. Credit: University of Texas School of Engineering

So Epstein struck out on his own, forming his own group, Fair Play Austin, to gather signatures to put an initiative on the ballot to bar the use of city land for a “sports facility, sports arena, and/or concert stadium” without voter approval.

At the end of October, that group reported that it had spent $77,831, all of which was provided by Epstein. All of that went to pay a Denver-based company, CAC Advising Group.

Who is CAC Advising Group. It is ostensibly the company that is overseeing the signature-gathering effort. At least two of their paid canvassers have been caught lying to people about what the initiative will do. It’s not clear whether the canvassers were fed the lies or made them up themselves.

There’s precious little information about the company online. If it has a website, it’s not easy to find.

It was apparently formed in February. It also has provided these two descriptions of itself on Alignable, a small business network:

“We manage petition signature gathering and get out the vote projects for issue petitions and political candidates.”

“We develop and manage crews to market for roofing and automobile hail damage companies.”

Which naturally leads me to ask: Did they get into petition-gathering because the hail damage business was slow or vice-versa? Far be it from me to criticize an entrepreneur for diversifying his service offerings, but I wonder if this company has some identity issues to work out.