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Another brother-sister runoff in East Austin’s District 3

Wednesday, November 7, 2018 by Jack Craver

Council Member Pio Renteria finished way ahead of multiple opponents in his bid for re-election in East Austin’s District 3.

Renteria won 47.71 percent of the vote, while his sister, Susana Almanza, came in a distant second place, with 21.32 percent.

“I think we did pretty good,” Renteria said at his election party Tuesday night. He also expressed confidence in a runoff: “I think my people will come out.”

Almanza, a longtime east side activist and regular opponent of development that she views as causing gentrification and displacement, ran for Council four years ago. Renteria later declared his candidacy, ultimately besting Almanza in a runoff election.

Almanza said she absolutely intends to wage a runoff campaign, pointing to past races where candidates trailing badly in the first round have won the runoff.

Despite being far behind, Almanza described the results as evidence that the “people want a change” at City Hall. She noted that she has the challenge of facing an incumbent and said that real estate interests had poured substantial money into the race to re-elect her brother.

While both siblings consider themselves left of center, they have very different perspectives on development and growth. During his four years on Council, Renteria has been a reliable supporter of increased housing and density.

Along with Council members Delia Garza, Greg Casar and Jimmy Flannigan, Renteria pushed for the city to embrace major changes to the land development code aimed at increasing multifamily housing and reducing sprawl. Those four, along with Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Ann Kitchen, also urged voters to oppose Proposition J, a ballot initiative that would have required voter approval and a waiting period for any major changes to the land development code.

Renteria was also a supporter of the Major League Soccer stadium at McKalla Place. He said that despite the controversy over the deal and opposition from activists, including Almanza, the stadium had widespread support in the community.

Almanza, meanwhile, was a vociferous opponent of CodeNEXT, saying that increases in density would lead to greater gentrification. She also supported Prop J.

Almanza entered the race relatively late, after several other challengers declared their candidacy.

Attention first centered on James Valadez, who served on the Board of Adjustment as Renteria’s appointee and who nearly matched Renteria in fundraising in the first half of the year. Valadez, who drew support from a number of anti-CodeNEXT activists, voiced concerns about “excessive density.” Renteria responded by highlighting that Valadez, despite being a Democratic Party precinct chair, had voted in several GOP primaries. Valadez defended himself, saying he was only voting in Republican primaries to try to keep the worst candidate from prevailing.

At his election night party, Renteria claimed that activists with the Austin Neighborhoods Council and others who oppose him on development had recruited Valadez to challenge him. After realizing Valadez wasn’t a strong candidate, “they went out and got old reliable – Susana,” said Renteria, chuckling.

Valadez finished with 7 percent of the vote. He could not be reached for comment.

Almanza rejected Renteria’s theory, however, saying she did not believe Valadez was recruited. As for herself, she said she entered the race late after receiving numerous calls from people urging her to run.

Jessica Cohen, a political novice, also jumped into the race, saying she wanted a stronger voice on Council on issues of displacement and housing. On Tuesday evening, Renteria told the Monitor that Cohen had dropped out of the race and endorsed him a week earlier, though Cohen disputed that account, saying that Renteria had misheard her in a face-to-face exchange in a parking garage.

Despite expressing annoyance with Renteria’s misunderstanding, Cohen, who received 9.17 percent of the vote, said she would likely support him in the runoff, but admitted that she was conflicted.

“I’m so torn on this. I’ve met both of them now and I’ve liked them both now. Pio is a little pro-developer, which I don’t like. I don’t know. It will probably be Pio,” she said.

An hour later Cohen called and said she couldn’t endorse either candidate. She added that she hoped her candidacy sent a message that “the trans community isn’t going to just sit back and get walked on.” Cohen is transgender.

Justin Jacobson received 6.67 percent of the vote. He said he was thrilled with the turnout in District 3, but was disappointed by what he saw as significant influence from real estate interests in the race. He said he was unsure whom he would support in the runoff.

Amit Motwani received 8.14 percent. He answered a call late Tuesday and said he would call back, but could not be reached for comment afterward.

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