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Kathie Tovo gets an opponent

Monday, March 19, 2018 by Jack Craver

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo will face at least one opponent in her bid for re-election.

Danielle Skidmore recently filed paperwork to join the race for District 9, which includes all of downtown and many Central Austin neighborhoods between MoPac Expressway and Interstate 35, including Bouldin, Hyde Park, Clarksville, West Campus, Old West Austin and Heritage.

Tovo has served on City Council since 2011, when she ousted incumbent Randi Shade in a race that centered largely on the two candidates’ differences over growth and development. She was re-elected to the new, district-based Council in 2014, beating fellow Council Member Chris Riley, whose advocacy of embracing a denser city based on New Urbanist principles contrasted with Tovo’s support for preserving the traditional character of Austin’s single-family home neighborhoods.

In Skidmore, Tovo once again faces an opponent with whom she differs on how the city should grow.

“I have a lot of respect for Kathie Tovo’s service but I think the policy perspective I fundamentally disagree with is how we’re treating our core neighborhoods,” said Skidmore during a phone interview with the Austin Monitor on Friday.

“We have demonized density in many of our neighborhoods. When people talk about density, they feel it is inherently bad,” she explained. “In our core neighborhoods, we need to be looking for ways to be welcoming in Austin for everybody.”

To Skidmore, that means promoting a variety of housing types throughout all of the city. She highlights the embrace of density in Mueller, downtown and the University Neighborhood Overlay as examples the rest of the city should follow but largely hasn’t, due to resistance to “incremental change” in many neighborhoods throughout the city’s core.

Skidmore, a Philadelphia native who came to Austin in the early ’90s to attend graduate school at the University of Texas, noted that she bought a townhouse in Clarksville with her partner in the mid-’90s. Eventually, however, they sought a new home that was easier for their son to get around. He cannot easily go up and down stairs due to a disability.

By then, however, the neighborhood had become so expensive that there was little they could afford, let alone make accessible for their son. “We weren’t in the position to buy something and renovate it,” she said.

Ironically, explained Skidmore, buying a condo downtown ended up being the “affordable solution” for the family.

A former transportation engineer for K Friese & Associates, Skidmore is also disappointed with what she views as a tepid approach from Council on mobility.

While she lauded the $720 million mobility bond approved by Council and Austin voters in 2016, Skidmore believes the city must be much bolder and embrace high-capacity mass transit. She supported the unsuccessful 2014 rail bond and said that while she appreciates the criticisms of the proposed rail line made at the time by some fellow rail supporters, “We shouldn’t let the pursuit of perfection prevent us from doing good things.”

In the meantime, said Skidmore, the city should get “much more aggressive” about incentivizing people to drive less, including by encouraging employers to allow their employees to work remotely or work more flexible hours.

“If we can spend a little bit of money to influence behavior, we can move more people without having to build more infrastructure,” said Skidmore.

If elected, Skidmore would be the first transgender person to serve on Council. It was through her activism against the “bathroom bill” during the last legislative session, she said, that it first occurred to her that she could run for elected office.

“One of the things that I took away from that experience was that it demystified elected politics,” she said. “I’d never considered myself qualified. I thought that was what other people do, with different skill sets. Attorneys, businesspeople.”

The more she thought about it, however, the more she realized that her experience and skills, notably in land use and transportation, translated pretty well to City Hall. She also currently serves on the city’s LGBTQ Quality of Life Commission, to which she was appointed by Tovo.

Tovo, meanwhile, is in the process of gathering signatures to run for a third term. Although the city charter limits Council members to two four-year terms (it was not clear whether Tovo’s first, three-year term on the previous Council counted), Council members can run for a third term if they gather 3,500 signatures from voters in their district.

Reached by phone on Friday while she was roller-skating with her daughter, Tovo said that she was ahead of the six-month pace she set for herself to collect the signatures.

“The response has been tremendously supportive,” she said. People have been very supportive of me running again.”

This story has been modified since publication to clarify that Skidmore resigned from K Friese + Associates in order to pursue her candidacy.

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