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Candidates battle at United Way mayor forum

Thursday, September 4, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Five of the eight candidates vying for Austin mayor met at the South Alamo Drafthouse for the United Way of Greater Austin Mayoral Forum on Wednesday, where they took time to talk affordability, child care, education and, despite the tone of the event, urban rail.

United Way of Austin’s Vice President of Marketing Heather Luecke spoke to the Austin Monitor about the forum. United Way does not endorse candidates and held the forum in order to foster voter education, given the “historic nature” of this year’s election.

Stephen Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, Council Member Mike Martinez, Todd Phelps and Randall Stephens were all on hand to participate in the discussion. Though they continued to battle about homestead exemptions, affordability and whether the urban rail bond would solve (or create) all of the city’s problems, the nature of the event also gave candidates the chance to discuss some of the issues at the heart of United Way’s mission.

A discussion about the importance of early childhood education gave candidates the chance to express what they believed the role of mayor in education should, and could, be. Currently, only half of Austin’s children enter kindergarten prepared for school success.

Martinez said it was critical for the community to understand the importance of early childhood education. He stressed the potential power of the joint committee of the city, county and school system, and the failure to bring policy initiatives back to the participating bodies for help. Martinez added that it was time to have a conversation about whether to start supporting things like pre-K education with the city’s general fund, saying, “I think the economic impact is just as great as any other investment that we make.”

Cole said she had served on that joint subcommittee and it was “fascinating.” It was imperative, she said, for the mayor of Austin to set a vision for early childhood development. “There’s only one tax bill, and we all have to come together to make our city precious and unique,” said Cole.

Adler said the statistics were even worse for underprivileged children in Austin, with only 13 percent of that population ready for kindergarten. He emphasized the potential influence of the mayor’s bully pulpit to “set a community conversation.”

“There is no better investment that we could make than pre-K,” said Adler. “I have never understood why it is that education is not a higher issue for our city officials. In fact, why it’s never really seemed to be on the priority list at all. For me, education would be one of the top three or four priorities of the mayor’s office. We could do a lot more.”

Stephens expressed support of Head Start and early learning programs.

Phelps told the crowd he knew exactly where to go — his mom. He explained that she has a Ph.D. in early childhood education administration.

“We really felt like it was an important opportunity for us to host something, and offer a forum for the candidates to talk about their positions on issues of affordability,” said Luecke. “Not just affordability in terms of housing, but really all the issues that make up barriers to economic opportunity for the working poor.”

Luecke explained that about 30 percent of the people who move to Austin every day are considered working poor and often confronted with housing costs, transportation issues, and challenges like finding child care and quality education for children. She said it was important to make sure that those issues, which are at the heart of United Way’s mission, were a part of the debate in this year’s City Council election.

In one of the more revealing portions of the forum, moderator Catherine Morse asked candidates to weigh in on what one thing that has been said about them during this campaign season has made them angry, or “mildly perturbed.”

Martinez said that, although he wasn’t angry, he also wasn’t going to apologize for “being a champion for middle-class Austinites and fighting against special interests, like big businesses that are trying to seek tax incentives at the advantage of the middle class.” Adler also stressed his lifelong defense of the middle- and working class, and objected to misconceptions about his background.

Cole took the opportunity to refute the notion that Council meetings lasted so long because of disorganization, when it was really because of the hard work and participation of Austin citizens.

Stephens said that he loved America and Austin but hated the current rail proposal, and Phelps expressed anger that his fellow candidates supported the rail bond.

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