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Harper-Madison looks back on lessons and growth in first year on Council

Friday, December 20, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Looking back on her first year representing Austin’s District 1 seat on City Council, Natasha Harper-Madison said her early motivations for running for office were largely personal. She wanted to address issues specific to her district and its people rather than grasping macro issues such as transportation, and abstract issues like “giving voice to the voiceless.”

Her concern for everyday people and their concerns hasn’t changed, but Harper-Madison admits she listened to the advice Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza offered her early after winning election about how to take a measured approach to the demands of the job.

“Prior to this, Delia pulled me aside and said, I know you’re passionate and excited and optimistic, and she basically told me, calm down and don’t burn yourself out, because if you go hard on everything you’ll burn yourself out, and you need to assess how you’re going to be more measured and calculated with expenditure of energy. That was good advice.”

Harper-Madison still directs much of her energy toward district-level issues and relationships while also expanding her attention to the big-picture issues such as land use policy and the anticipated decisions on what kind of an area transportation package will go before voters in November.

Taking over the seat previously held by Ora Houston, Harper-Madison has represented a more predictably progressive vote on Council. That shift became important at the end of 2019 as the 7-4 vote on the proposed rewrite of the city’s Land Development Code seems to forecast a switch to more density in an effort to address the city’s need for more housing stock.

Harper-Madison said she’s seen major cities retain their neighborhood character while allowing dense housing supply, and that Austin is running out of time and land to address the pressures of its fast-growing population.

“I personally have seen density work very well and not be an issue for these communities and fully recognize that land is finite and space for neighborhoods is finite. You have to maximize the use of it or else you’ll run out of space,” she said. “What we’re doing feels like a very abrupt shift from what they’re used to, and I recognize that abrupt shifts are very uncomfortable for people. But when you look at architecture, there was a time when people hated bungalows and thought they were the ugliest thing that could happen, and now we look at them fondly.”

Looking at transit policy, she said the city and Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority leaders have to think about sidewalks and non-vehicular components of transit to address equity issues in how residents move around the city.

“Sidewalk infrastructure is big but not (really) big and it’s easy to forget if it doesn’t affect you directly,” she said. “If you don’t know any poor people and have never lived anywhere outside of the two-mile radius that is your neighborhood and never been anywhere that you saw transit work, all the modes and pieces working extremely well, then you don’t understand the importance of it. That’s why we have to get stakeholder buy-in, because it’s going to cost a fortune to get it right.”

Harper-Madison also spent time in 2019 dealing with criticism and consequences from a campaign finance violation that ultimately resulted in getting a letter of admonition from the city’s Ethics Review Commission. She attributes the violation to being a first-time candidate without a campaign manager at the beginning of her Council run, and hopes her experience will be a lesson for other political newcomers.

“I admitted we did do that and it was the most ignorant of circumstances. I spent the first six months of my campaign with no campaign manager because I didn’t know that was something you had to do,” she said. “I definitely didn’t take the time to get a highly skilled treasurer who understands campaign finance law. I think it’s critical to address corruption at every level because if we don’t, then regular people won’t do this job, and you need regular people to do this job, not only people who’ve been groomed from day one for doing this.”

Photo courtesy of city of Austin.

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