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Reporter’s Notebook: Zimmerman and more Zimmerman

Monday, August 22, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The dull bits cut out… After the frenetic fun of the It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World-style campaign season of 2014, it’s forgivable to survey 2016 and presume that electoral politics in Austin have gone into extended hibernation. Luckily, for those who thirst for drama, one young gun in West Austin is tossing his campaign wrench into one of the bigger civic conversations City Council is driving into November. Nick Virden, candidate for the District 10 seat, issued a lengthy press release last week targeting Mayor Steve Adler’s $720 million mobility bond proposal, calling it “another excuse for City Hall to justify their addiction to bond financing to fix Austin’s demands instead of prioritizing them in the annual budget.” Virden also “admonished Mayor Adler and the City for unfairly holding Austinites hostage by proposing one huge vote on a multi-faceted bond instead of allowing voters the choice of what projects should affect their pocketbooks,” prompting everyone alive to truly consider what exactly is a pocketbook.

Zimmerman’s ZIP codes… City Council Member Don Zimmerman’s attorney, Jerad Najvar, has filed a motion asking Federal District Judge Lee Yeakel to reconsider the decision he made regarding Zimmerman’s standing to challenge the aggregate limit that a candidate may accept in campaign contributions from persons outside Austin’s ZIP codes. Zimmerman won his lawsuit against the city’s campaign finance rules on two issues: the city’s blackout period for campaign fundraising and the requirement that candidates distribute their leftover contributions after a campaign. However, the city won on the issue of the base limit of $350 that candidates may receive from contributors and the $36,000 limit on contributions candidates may receive from people not eligible to vote in Austin. Zimmerman is also asking the court to reconsider its ruling on the $350 limit, the most important issue for supporters of the city’s campaign finance law. In an affidavit filed with the court last week, Zimmerman said he desires to rent or purchase a fundraising list so that he can seek contributions from people who “agree with my political principles in relation to specific issues in Austin.” However, he said, such a list would cost at least $5,000. “And because the campaign has already accepted more than $9000 in contributions from outside the ZIP Code envelope, the potential return at this point is less than $27,000. Given the uncertain nature of political fundraising efforts, it is not worth investing $5000 for the list and more for a fundraising professional, plus my time and campaign time,” he said. The District 6 Council member also noted that his only paid campaign staff member, Tim Kelly, has to spend time checking ZIP codes of contributors because of the aggregate limit. That time could be spent on more important campaign activities, Zimmerman concluded. Najvar told the Austin Monitor that Zimmerman and the city will have 30 days after the date of the judge’s decision on the motion to appeal the case to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Regardless of who wins at that point, it is reasonably likely that the case will end up at the U.S. Supreme Court. Austin attorney Renea Hicks is representing the city.

Speaking of Zimmerman… It’s become a ritual at City Council meetings: As our publisher Mike Kanin tweeted last week, whenever kids under 18 speak at a Council meeting, Council Member Sheri Gallo tells them to register to vote, and Council Member Don Zimmerman tells them to get a job. But this week, Zimmerman’s comments got more attention than usual when he gave his spiel to a group of largely Latino children who had come to Council to advocate for continued funding of their afterschool programs at the Austin Independent School District. Zimmerman told the kids to “do something useful” and “not live off others.” His comments drew boos from the audience seated at City Hall and an emotional response from Council Member Delia Garza, who told the children that the other members of Council supported them. His speech was covered by both The Austin Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman. Over the weekend, the story has continued to get away from Zimmerman. He issued a statement saying that he made “an off-the-cuff comment after a long day of city business” and that the comments couldn’t have been racist because he said the same thing about his own newborn son. But his statement hasn’t stopped critics from calling for him to be voted out of office. And his opponent Jimmy Flannigan seized on the opportunity to put out a statement of his own, writing to his supporters, “Council Member Zimmerman has now attacked a group of children who did nothing more than provide testimony for their after-school program.”

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