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District 2 race features four new faces

Friday, October 9, 2020 by Jo Clifton

When Delia Garza, who has represented City Council District 2 for the last six years, starts her new job as Travis County attorney in January, there will be a fresh face in the seat representing Southeast Austin. All four of the candidates – Alex Strenger, Casey Ramos, Vanessa Fuentes and David Chincanchan – are under 35 and all four recognize that residents of District 2 are dealing with poverty, food insecurity and the Covid-19 pandemic in higher numbers than most of the rest of the city. According to the city’s website, the 78744 ZIP code had counted 2,209 cases of the coronavirus as of Oct. 7, which is among the highest counts in the city.

David Chincanchan, 30, is best known around City Hall as the former chief of staff for Council Member Pio Renteria. Chincanchan has also worked for U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and has been involved with numerous other campaigns. He has garnered the endorsements of The Austin Chronicle and every Democratic club in Austin that has announced endorsements, including Austin Tejano Democrats, Black Austin Democrats, the Austin Progressive Coalition and South Austin Democrats, among others.

The EMS employees PAC endorsed Fuentes, but the Austin Firefighters Association, AFSCME Local 1624, the Central Labor Council, the Workers Defense Action Fund, Education Austin and 12 other labor groups, from the IBEW Local 52 to the Amalgamated Transit Union and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, have endorsed Chincanchan. Dove Springs Proud has also endorsed Chincanchan.

Chincanchan, an Austin native who grew up in the Dove Springs neighborhood, told the Austin Monitor affordability is the biggest issue in his race. He supports the Project Connect bond, saying that people often “fail to connect how the traffic crisis affects affordability,” forcing people to pay for cars they might not need if there were an adequate transportation system. Although he worked to help pass the 2018 affordable housing bond, he says it was not enough. “We need much bigger and bolder investments.” Chincanchan said child care is another big issue for his district. He has been working with Cathy McHorse, who works for the Success by 6 coalition of United Way, on this issue and McHorse is on his list of supporters.

As far as the police budget, Chincanchan says there is still a lot of misunderstanding about what Council did. The most important aspect of moving forward with police reform is to build public trust, he said. “We need public safety leaders who have a clear understanding that they have to work in partnership with the community.” Although people expect their elected officials to take actions to create appropriate systems of accountability, Council cannot, for example, fire the police chief under current law. “I don’t know what the right answer is, but I do think it’s worth having a conversation about it,” he said.

Chincanchan says he has a deep connection to the district because he grew up there and still has family there. He cites an urgency in the need to help out the people of the district. “One of the big differences” between District 2 and the other districts, he said, “is that our district doesn’t really have any time to lose.” That’s also true of health care, housing and food insecurity, he said.

Vanessa Fuentes has spent the last six years working as a director at the American Heart Association. So it’s not surprising that one of her major concerns is the health of people living in District 2. Her platform lays out community health plans she would work to implement if she were elected to Council. Several of those plans relate to bringing more health care workers into the district.

Fuentes, Chincanchan and Ramos all told the Monitor they are concerned about the lack of places to buy healthy food in the district. Fuentes’ website says, “We have long-standing food deserts in District 2. In order to ensure that every Austinite has food choice, I champion the creation of a grocery co-op model to pilot in Del Valle. This should involve using publicly owned land along with the creation of innovative partnerships with the community.”

Fuentes, who won an endorsement this week from the Austin American-Statesman, also supports Project Connect and wants to see more routes into Southeast Austin, especially for the residents of Del Valle. However, she said she wants to watch the city budget so it does not overburden taxpayers. Asked whether she supports raising the homestead exemption to 20 percent, Fuentes said she would need to get more community input on the question before making a decision.

Growth is coming to the area and residents of the district are warily watching changes in other East Austin neighborhoods, she said. “There is a growing feeling that District 2 is next, so (we should) do everything we can to slow down gentrification.” Fuentes supports what she called a neighborhood stabilization program. She told the Monitor such a program would offer low-interest loans to help people stay in their homes. She also supports the “right of return” for those displaced by new construction. Such a policy would give preference for income-restricted housing to people displaced by gentrification.

Fuentes has served on the board of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and her website lays out her proposals for helping small businesses. Those include the ever popular call for speeding up the permitting process and exploring ways to eliminate permitting fees during the pandemic. In addition, Fuentes says, “I support relaxing or eliminating requirements that penalize entrepreneurs based on their lack of collateral or credit scores in order to qualify for city business loans or grants.”

Casey Ramos, a teacher and former pro boxer, told the Monitor that 30 percent of the district’s residents are living below the poverty line. “Bringing people out of poverty is the first thing we need to do.” He added, “I feel like our voices are not being heard,” particularly in terms of health care and access to food. Like Fuentes, he would like to bring more food distributors into the district. Although HEB has plans for a store in the district, he said it’s not happening fast enough for the people who need the food. Part of his solution is to contact major food distributors such as Sysco, US Foods and Ben E. Keith to see if they can be persuaded to put some type of store in the district.

Ramos, 31, has lived in Austin his entire life. However, he notes that as a boxer he was able to travel around the country and visit a lot of cities he might not have otherwise seen. Ramos’ family moved into Montopolis, Texas, in the 1950s. That was before the city of Austin annexed that area and his family moved to the Dove Springs area.

“Those funds could have remained in place” while the community had a conversation, he said, on the topic of the police budget. Ramos has warm memories of the police officers he met as a child while participating in the Police Activities League. “Through that program I was able to travel the country and broaden my horizons and become more familiar with the police force,” he said. He was concerned that transferring funds away from the department would mean some children will not be able to participate in the program that has been so important in his life.

Ramos contacted theAustin Monitor following publication to clarify that he does not, in fact, agree with cutting the police budget.

Like the other candidates, Ramos vows to fight displacement and gentrification in District 2. On his website, Ramos says, “Our neighborhoods have disappeared before our eyes. All in the name of ‘progress.’ This is the last stand for the people of Austin. Our city will soon be unrecognizable if things continue under the current City Council.”

Ramos is a member of the board of Community Not Commodity, the group that successfully sued Council over the adoption of CodeNEXT. He has the endorsement of the group’s leader, Fred Lewis.

Flooding is a long-standing problem in Southeast Austin and Ramos says he will “fight to fix flooding. I propose that we also take out a bond to update our stormwater infrastructure system. The city of Austin has neglected our flooding issues for too long, resulting in the displacement of hundreds of residents.”

Although he supports bonds for Austin Water, he emphatically rejects money for the proposed rail and bus system, Project Connect. According to his website, “Taking out a $9 billion bond during an economic downturn that won’t serve our community and will raise our taxes by 25%, is unacceptable.” Instead, Ramos says the district needs “a world-class bus line.” He proposed that Tesla make the electric buses that would serve the area in partnership with Capital Metro. In addition to rejecting Project Connect, Ramos expressed doubts about Prop B, a hastily drawn-up bond proposition for fixing roads, sidewalks, bike lanes and trails.

Alex Strenger is an entrepreneur and pedicab driver who has called Austin home for the past seven years. He agrees with his three opponents that Austin needs to be “more affordable, more accessible, (and) more accountable.”

To make Austin more affordable, Strenger says Council could increase the homestead tax exemption to 20 percent from the current 10 percent. In addition, Strenger believes that Austin would be more affordable for lower- and middle-income people if developers were incentivized by density fee waivers to build more housing units for people at 30 to 50 percent of the median family income. Those units should be allocated to students, artists, musicians, teachers and health care workers, for example, he said.

Strenger also suggested that whenever a landlord raises the rent, that landlord should be required to explain in writing why the rent is going up, “so people could finally understand the correlation between increased rent and rising property taxes.” Hopefully, it will also foster more involvement in local government as a result, he said. While this would not prevent the rent from going up, he said it would add to accountability within the city.

With so many businesses shut down and all of the city’s festivals canceled or moved online, most of the people he used to shuttle around are staying home. He said even though the pedicabs are not operating, “our pedicab shop still has to pay permitting fees.” Like many things about the pandemic, that seems particularly unfair to Strenger, and is just one example of how the city is not taking care of small businesses hurt by the pandemic, he said.

“I’m doing OK, but I’m worried that if these things keep continuing and we keep canceling these big events … I might not have a job.” He complained that “the city is doing almost nothing to help the venues that have been most affected by these shutdowns; it really feels like a giant slap in the face to the city of Austin.”

One of Strenger’s ideas is for the city to work with Austin ISD and the Boys and Girls Clubs “to provide comprehensive financial education for people in the district.” He proposes to offer free courses on financial matters once or twice a month to teach people in the district “how to understand the stock market and how to invest intelligently,” as one example. By learning about financial matters, he said, people might earn more money and that would help them stay in the district.

Strenger did not support cutting police funds because “I think they kept the wrong programs. They went overboard.” He added that he thought that the Legislature would simply overturn Council’s decision, so “it was just a big empty gesture.” In addition, he said the department needs more officers for “the fastest-growing city in the U.S.” However, he agrees that there should be more accountability and that complaints about the police “should be investigated by a nonpartisan review board.”

Strenger also suggested that all members of APD should be certified as emergency medical technicians since they are often the first ones on the scene of an accident. It would help the department’s image for people to see videos of their police officers saving lives, he said.

Strenger is voting against Props A and B. He said he is “not in support of raising taxes in a pandemic. It’s preposterous and shows how out of touch” Council is with the community.

Early voting for the November 2020 elections starts Tuesday, Oct. 13. Watch the entire series of forums KUT News and the Austin Monitor hosted with City Council candidates.

This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that Cathy McHorse is working with Chincanchan on child care issues, not Kathie Tovo.

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