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This nonprofit will train you to run for City Council. And also make you compete to do so.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

At 5 p.m. on a Friday at Native, a new bar and hostel in East Austin, half a dozen people occupied the blue velvet booths and dance-punk music blares overhead. Leigh Salinas, 31, walked in carrying a duffel bag. She was there to spend the weekend studying – sort of.

“I was certainly impacted by the presidential election in a lot of the ways that other people were,” said Salinas, who works as an accountant for a local food company. Despite never having been inside City Hall, she has aspirations of running for local office one day. “It’s easier at least at first to make a change at a local level. So that’s why I’m super excited about this program specifically.”

Salinas is one of 25 participants in the inaugural ATXelerator, run by the Center for Austin’s Future, a local nonprofit. The idea is to train and educate potential candidates for local office – specifically Austin City Council or various city boards and commissions.

The program begins with a weekend retreat where participants sleep, eat and learn together at a local hostel. There are six bunk beds to a room, with one toilet and a shower. Each bunk has a curtain, providing a little privacy.

“I’ve had quite extensive of a hostel experience,” said Salinas, who traveled through parts of Europe as a college student. “This is by far the nicest.”

Candidate school + startup accelerator

What makes ATXelerator different from other candidate schools is that it’s also part tech accelerator – where normally you’d be pitching a business and vying for investor money, now you’re pitching yourself as a candidate for local office.

“Competition brings out the best in people,” said Ward Tisdale, the executive director of the nonprofit behind the program. Participants will take a class once a week for six weeks on various city issues including land use, finance and social equity. At the end of those weeks of instruction, each person will pitch themselves to a panel.

“The competition is really meant to have people up their game and test them,” said Tisdale. While it’s not certain this year that the winner will get campaign funding from the nonprofit, that could be a possibility down the road.

Amos Schwartzfarb is the managing director of Techstars in Austin. The company was one of the first startup accelerators along with Y Combinator, which began in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And while tech accelerators have cropped up in just the past decade, Schwartzfarb said the idea – a period of time spent intensively studying something and then competing to win a title in the end – is nothing new.

“I think back when I was a kid and as an athlete,” he said. “Over the summers and over Thanksgiving breaks I would go to these immersive camps and the idea was you’ll learn more and get fitter in two or three weeks than you would over the course of a full season because this is all you do. You live, eat, breathe, sleep it all day long.”

Schwartzfarb said he’s never heard of a tech accelerator model being applied to local politics.

“I think it’s not only a cool idea, I think it’s an extremely timely idea,” said Schwartzfarb. “The thought of the average person having more than just a vote as their political voice is not something that most people thought about (until the 2016 election).”

A certain type of candidate

Participants in the ATXelerator spent most of the weekend listening to experts on local media, Austin’s history or the city’s demographic future. They also socialized, which included a group trip to Esther’s Follies.

Then there was the three-hour electric bike tour around the city.

“I have never ridden an electric bike,” said Salinas. “I’m in uncharted waters.”

The group rode to the new Austin Central Library and through the Seaholm district, where a city power plant has been replaced by high-rise apartments, restaurants and a Trader Joe’s grocery store. They also rode by Plaza Saltillo, a more than 10-acre lot on which retail, office space and 800 apartments, including low-income housing, are currently being built.

Tisdale said the tour was meant to showcase the way Austin should be building as it grows.

“Mixed use is definitely the best way to develop. It’s the way we used to develop decades ago,” said Tisdale, who worked in global affairs for a local tech company and served as president of the Real Estate Council of Austin for three years.

“What’s key to Austin is not greenfield development, it’s how we reuse the assets that we have. And that’s going to be critical in the years to come as more people move here and we need to find a creative and efficient way to house them,” he said.

In the same way that organizations like EMILY’s List preps Democratic women to run for office, the ATXelerator is looking for a specific candidate – one who generally espouses the ideals of building environmentally friendly and walkable development through denser construction and a larger variety of housing types.

But this type of development makes some longtime Austin residents anxious, as mixed-use buildings have replaced businesses and homes in historically working-class East Austin.

“We are growing – a hundred people move here a day – and in order to preserve what we have in Austin, which is a great quality of life, we have to change,” said Tisdale. “And if we don’t change we’re going to become an elitist city where only the rich can live, and it will be predominantly white and not diverse.”

The average ATXelerator participant is 35 years old, and the career paths of the participants vary – for example, there’s a writer, the owner of a pet-sitting business, a city planner and a community college student. Just getting selected to participate is a competition – the current group was whittled down from 48 applicants.

Patsy Woods Martin is the executive director of Annie’s List, an organization that trains and funds women to run for state and local office. She said her organization doesn’t have an application process for their programs – by design.

“Women have a hard time deciding to run for office and so we want to provide the opportunity to understand the process to as many people as possible,” said Martin. “It’s really important for us … to have that funnel open as wide as possible.”

Pitch yourself

The ATXelerator weekend retreat closed Sunday afternoon after a panel on how to run a campaign, featuring former Austin Mayor Lee Cook, and a speech from state Sen. Kirk Watson.

Tisdale ended the weekend with some housekeeping.

“Just take all your crap,” he joked. “This is it. Let’s go.”

Salinas packed up the things from her bunk, doing a quick scan of the room to make sure she had everything. Then she explained how she might pitch herself as a candidate for local government.

“I’m from the business community,” said Salinas. “One thing former Mayor Lee Cook kept bringing up was infrastructure but also understanding the financial position of our city, understanding our debt and understanding the economics. And I think that’s something the business community does all day long. … I’ve just been thinking about how can I take my business skill set and my accounting skill set and my acumen with numbers and business and apply it to these city problems.”

But first, she said, she would go home and take a nap.

Disclaimer: Capital of Texas Media Foundation Board Member Herb Watkins is a member of the ATXelerator inaugural class and editor Elizabeth Pagano was a panelist during the weekend retreat.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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