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Flannigan brings new perspective on behalf of Austin’s northwest suburbs

Thursday, December 29, 2016 by Jack Craver

Two years after losing narrowly in a runoff election to City Council Member Don Zimmerman, Jimmy Flannigan easily prevailed in a rematch with the incumbent.

What changed?

“Winning elections is luck and timing,” said Flannigan during an interview with the Austin Monitor.

However, he added, “There’s a lot of preparation involved in luck.”

The strong performance by Hillary Clinton in a part of Austin that traditionally leans Republican likely helped Flannigan, who was endorsed by Democratic and progressive groups. But Flannigan also credits his own campaign: “We talked to tens of thousands of voters in a part of town that is not accustomed to being worked like that. So the impact was more outsized.”

In addition, he said, “There was a lot more awareness. I was running against an incumbent whose antics were much (more publicized) than his antics had been as a private citizen.”

Flannigan largely ran on the same message as two years ago, he explained: “We talked about a few more issues, but by and large, Zimmerman was the kind of Council member that we knew he would be, so the campaign didn’t have to change that much.”

He said he was surprised, however, at “the speed with which Zimmerman went off the rails” during his first term. “I thought he would play it safe for two years.”

Alas, added Flannigan, “Zimmerman is nothing if not true to his beliefs.”

At the risk of an understatement, the incoming Council member differs significantly from his predecessor on a range of issues.

Flannigan, who is the first openly gay man elected to Council, has long been a vocal advocate for LGBT rights. In contrast, Zimmerman achieved notoriety for suggesting that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in favor of same-sex marriage could lead to the acceptance of pedophilia.

Compared to Zimmerman, who frequently railed against public transit, Flannigan views boosting the city’s bus and rail options as essential to reducing traffic congestion. The one bus route that serves District 6, the 383, has become tremendously popular among those who live along it, he said.

“When you talk to the folks who live along that route, they will admit they opposed it when they proposed it, but now they want more,” he said.

Flannigan does have a couple of things in common with the man he is replacing. Like Zimmerman, he is a San Antonio native; he came to Austin 20 years ago to attend the University of Texas.

Also like Zimmerman, Flannigan said he is committed to fiscal responsibility, although he plans to go about proving that in different ways. Zimmerman’s proposals for major across-the-board cuts were not realistic and would lead to reduction in services – including law enforcement – that “nobody in District 6 wants to see.”

Council should consider its budget, however, when it evaluates development and city planning, Flannigan said.

“When we don’t build the housing for people who want to live in Austin, the housing still gets built – it just gets built in Cedar Park,” he said. “And then (commuters) drive on city streets but don’t pay for it.”

Similarly, he said, “I think we forget to think about the tax revenue implications of building a bunch of parkland, and I don’t know if we really talk about the maintenance costs, especially when we have existing parks that are unmaintained.”

Although District 6 is suburban, Flannigan noted that the majority of its population are renters. Flannigan himself is a renter; he will be the only non-homeowner on the dais.

Like Mayor Steve Adler and some other members of Council, Flannigan has expressed an interest in reforming the city’s annual budgeting process. Unlike the others, however, he’s proposing to switch to a biannual process. The idea, he said, is to review the budget for each department at a preset time every two years.

Apart from his own victory, Flannigan was deeply disappointed with the results of the presidential election on Nov. 8 and penned a blog post the next day encouraging his supporters to resist “any temptation toward cynicism or despair” over the election of Donald Trump, drawing upon his experience with past disappointments in politics, including his own defeat two years ago.

Immediately after the election, Flannigan and his partner went on a Caribbean cruise. A book in the ship’s library caught his eye: Turn the Ship Around, an autobiographical account of a nuclear submarine captain’s drive to reform what he saw as a warped leadership model in the Navy. Not only did the book inspire Flannigan, but something he noticed on the front cover after he finished it made it seem like destiny: The previous reader had written a note in the book, dated Nov. 8, in Austin, a striking coincidence considering that Flannigan boarded the ship in New York and the ship had not docked in Texas in the last few weeks.

All of those events, said Flannigan, have inspired him to try to get District 6 residents organized and involved in public affairs. He has already held two meetings, dubbed “What’s Next,” that he said have been a big success, and he plans to continue holding them.

“I’m building an ecosystem of leadership,” he said.

District 6, he explained, has “some education and money and privilege, and we should be leveraging those resources to make the community a better place.”

This story has been changed since publication to reflect the fact that Flannigan was defeated “narrowly” in 2014, not “handily,” as originally reported.

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