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Tuesday, January 16, 2018 by Jack Craver
Crowded field of candidates emerges to challenge Troxclair in Southwest Austin
In addition to Mayor Steve Adler, five City Council members are up for re-election this November. In three of those races – District 9, District 5 and District 3 – nobody has yet declared their intention of running against the incumbent, although challengers will most likely emerge eventually.
The one race that is attracting a great deal of interest is in Southwest Austin’s District 8. Four candidates have said they are considering running against incumbent Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who has confirmed that she plans to run for re-election.
Unlike many other races in Austin, the District 8 contest features a great deal of political diversity. Not only is Troxclair the only remaining Council member with ties to the Republican Party, but her four challengers represent different flavors of liberalism that lead to diverging views on certain hot-button local issues, notably development and growth.
Although Council is nonpartisan, Troxclair’s ties to the GOP may put her in a tough position in an election cycle that is expected to favor Democrats. If the Democratic base is as energized as the party’s recent victories in local and state races around the country suggest, there will be far more left-leaning voters taking part in the District 8 race than in 2014, when Troxclair triumphed over her opponent, Ed Scruggs, by 57 votes.
In an interview with the Austin Monitor, Troxclair said that she plans to campaign on the same issues that she emphasized in 2014: “Lowering property taxes, lowering utility bills and getting the cost of living under control.”
During her three years in office, said Troxclair, constituents have told her how much they appreciate that her campaign promises have matched her actions on the dais, such as her advocacy for spending cuts and lower taxes. She evaded questions surrounding the national political context in which her race will be fought. She criticizes Council’s “tendency to get distracted by issues that the city doesn’t have a direct impact on.”
She also emphasized that she had supporters from “all sides of the political spectrum.”
“I don’t think that reducing property taxes or traffic are partisan issues,” she said. “I have never approached them in that way.”
That’s not to say that she is against all city spending. Austin has woefully neglected infrastructure needs that have been guided by a “no-growth mentality that says, if you don’t build it, they won’t come,” she said.
Although Troxclair did lobby the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority unsuccessfully against cuts to bus routes in her district, she criticized a city transportation agenda that she believes has been too focused on promoting alternatives to cars. The city’s policies should be shaped by the fact that “the majority of people in Austin commute via cars,” she said.
Troxclair laughed off questions about who she is pulling for in the race for mayor. “I’m focused on my race and my district,” she said.
She also expressed surprise that so many candidates were already readying campaigns to challenge her. “Doesn’t it seem a little early to you?” she asked. “I think it’s unfortunate that the candidates are starting to campaign this early.”
A native of Arlington, Sexton came to Austin in 1999 to attend the police academy and has since worked a number of law enforcement jobs, including a one-year stint training police officers in Kabul, Iraq, in 2005-06. He is currently an officer for the Concordia University Police Department and previously worked at the Precinct 3 Constable’s Office under now-Sheriff Sally Hernandez.
Sexton described positive interactions with Troxclair, whom he finds “very cordial, extremely polite.” However, he doesn’t agree with “the majority of what she does” on Council. He highlighted her support for an unsuccessful effort at the Texas Legislature to further limit cities’ abilities to raise property taxes and her support for budget cuts that he believes would jeopardize core services.
Sexton emphasized that he strongly supports “accountability and transparency” for police, but he’s not happy with how Council dealt with the Austin Police Association over the past year. He explained that even though Council members had 10 months of contract negotiations to voice their concerns, they allowed city management to negotiate a contract that the union expected to be approved and then rejected it at the last minute. “They just felt let down,” Sexton said of Austin cops. “There should have been more leadership throughout the process.”
However, Sexton agrees the city needs to make tough decisions on spending in order to achieve “some semblance of tax relief.” He highlighted the proposed $124 million bond to upgrade the city’s pools that has earned praise from some on Council. “I get kind of confused sometimes over the things they’re willing to spend money on versus the things they’re not,” he said of Council.
When it comes to development and CodeNEXT, Sexton emphasized that the city “needs more dwellings” and that he believes allowing more types of housing, including accessory dwelling units, can make the city more affordable. He would like to see more transit in the district and speaks approvingly of transit-centric policies such as the city’s recent decision to replace two vehicle lanes with bus lanes on parts of Guadalupe Street, which Troxclair criticized.
Sexton is also strongly supportive of efforts made by local governments, including the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and Austin City Council, to prevent the deportation of undocumented immigrants. “Greg Casar is a great man,” he said, recalling a heated exchange between Troxclair and Casar over funding for immigrant legal services last year.
Sexton said that he had not yet decided who to support in the mayoral election.
Currently an attorney for the Save Our Springs Alliance, Levinski also has years of City Hall service behind him. He has worked as an aide to three Council members, including Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and mayoral candidate Laura Morrison, for whom he worked for four years.
Levinski, who has spent much of his career pushing for protection of the Edwards Aquifer, said his main problem with Troxclair is her failure to defend “one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in our city.”
In addition, Levinski described Troxclair as a rigid ideologue who does little to work with her colleagues to achieve practical solutions for her constituents. He dismissed her efforts to lower property taxes as shallow and lacking realistic proposals for accompanying cuts.
“She might throw out cutting budgets by 5 percent across the board, but that’s not matched to a conversation about needs,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s realistic when working with the other colleagues on the dais. You need not just a principled stance but an informed stance.”
When it comes to taxes, Levinski said he’d prefer the city to implement a flat-dollar-amount homestead exemption, similar to the Austin Independent School District. State law does not allow municipalities to put in place flat-rate exemptions, which are more progressive than percentage exemptions because they deliver the greatest benefit to those with less valuable property.
In recent months, Levinski has become active in Community Not Commodity, a group opposed to CodeNEXT. He said he would like much of the planning process returned to neighborhood planning, and he is concerned about increased entitlements that he believes will incentivize the demolition of older homes and the displacement of longtime residents. He rejects the idea that he is anti-development or opposed to different kinds of housing. “I don’t think it needs to be as binary as pro-development versus anti-development,” he said, noting that he himself is a renter who lives in a duplex.
Although he has only lived in the district for six months, Levinski bristles at the suggestion that he lacks the necessary ties to represent the area. He highlighted his years of advocacy, both at SOS and as a Council aide, and on behalf of Southwest Austin’s environment, as well as his time as head coach of the St. Michael’s High School women’s soccer team.
Asked whether he plans to be active in support of his former boss’ campaign for mayor, Levinski replied: “I’m staying out of any other race but my own.”
Ellis, a seven-year resident of District 8 who works in marketing for aci consulting, an environmental compliance firm, has been involved as an activist and volunteer in a variety of local environmental causes, such as Keep Austin Beautiful and the Barton Springs Conservancy. Similar to Levinski, her first critique of Troxclair is that “she lacks a passion for the environment.”
In contrast to Levinski, however, Ellis described an increase in housing supply and a greater variety of housing options as a critical part of solving Austin’s affordability and transportation problems. Striking a balance between needed development and environmental protection is what guides her work at aci, which gives her the ability to “bridge the gap” that exists between the environmental community and developers, she said.
She is nevertheless not impressed by the CodeNEXT process. “It seems a little rushed to me,” she said. “In order to be successful, CodeNEXT needs to reflect what the city wants in terms of livability.”
Ellis is also a big proponent of mass transit and said that the city needs to “begin thinking a lot farther ahead” in terms of transportation, “instead of just building another road.” There’s a lack of transit access in Southwest Austin, she said, but there’s also a lack of awareness among residents about the transit options available.
Ellis believes that the unexpected election of President Donald Trump jolted many fellow progressives into action. “They trusted that the right thing would happen … and now they realize that they need to get up and get active and involved,” she said.
While she agrees that Austinites “need a break” in terms of taxes, Ellis said that “without the numbers in front of me, I’d have a hard time making a statement” about what needs to be cut.
When asked who she will support for mayor, Ellis hesitated at first but then clarified that she is supporting Adler and would be attending his campaign kickoff on Sunday.
A strategic consultant by trade with a lengthy record of volunteer service to the city, DePalma has not yet filed paperwork to run for Council but said he plans to. Like the other left-of-center candidates in the race, DePalma, who is vice chair of the Parks and Recreation Board of Directors, is a big supporter of the environment and the outdoors.
DePalma described himself as uniquely attuned to the concerns of Southwest Austin. That’s in contrast to Troxclair, “who is serving folks underneath the pink dome at the Capitol,” he said. It’s also in contrast to “at least one candidate who is being pushed by downtown Austin interests,” he said, declining to name the challenger he was referencing but later making clear he was describing Levinski.
DePalma voiced conflicted feelings about CodeNEXT, saying that “we need to redevelop areas that need to be redeveloped” but also that he would like to see the new code “respect neighborhood plans.” He also said that there were other community assets that he would not sacrifice for the sake of affordability, such as parkland. He would like to see the new code start with the places of agreement and engagement with neighborhood groups. “We definitely have NIMBY neighborhoods,” he said, but added, “there are definitely neighborhoods that are open to additional housing.” In another veiled reference to Levinski, he said the race included “at least one candidate who says you can’t build anything.”
Above all else, DePalma smarts over what he sees as a continued neglect of Southwest Austin in terms of city services. District 8 only has one city pool and one library, he pointed out. Troxclair has done little to correct the problem, he said, considering that her goal is generally to cut city services in order to lower taxes. Indeed, DePalma is a strong backer of the $124 million pools bond that will add one pool to the district but which Troxclair and some others on Council denounced as fiscally irresponsible.
DePalma, who was appointed to the Parks and Recreation board by Adler, said he plans on supporting the incumbent in the mayoral election.
Photo by John Flynn.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.
District 8: District 8 contains three distinct neighborhoods, Oak Hill, Circle C and Travis Country. The district is bounded on the east by Brodie Lane, on the south by the Travis-Hays county line, on the north by Bee Cave road and on the west by the winding Austin city limits line. It also has the city’s biggest and most infamous traffic bottleneck – the Oak Hill Y, the convergence of US 290 and SH 71, squeezing traffic heading to and from South MoPac Boulevard and out into the Hill Country.