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Mackenzie Kelly: A collaborative conservative among Democrats

Wednesday, December 22, 2021 by Amy Smith

Since the creation of the 10-1 City Council, the Council members who have represented District 6 in far Northwest Austin have stood out for one reason or another.

The first two – conservative Republican Don Zimmerman, followed by progressive Democrat Jimmy Flannigan – were miles apart on the political spectrum yet similar due to their outsized personalities, on and off the dais.

When the political pendulum swung again in 2020, conservative Mackenzie Kelly emerged the victor over Flannigan in a runoff election. City Hall staffers and observers wondered if they should brace themselves for a right-wing holdover from the Trump era, given the rumors of her affiliations with white supremacists who appeared with her in a photograph during her campaign.

Kelly quickly set about disabusing her colleagues and others of that notion. As she told the Austin Monitor last January, “Being labeled as a far-right extremist, that’s definitely not who I am as a person. I’m willing to work with everybody on everything.”

By most accounts, the Council member appears to have made good on her promise to work with others, even when she fundamentally disagrees on certain policy issues.

With Austin facing tough decisions on the looming Covid-19 omicron variant, Council recently voted to extend an ordinance allowing the city to enforce Covid-19 rules beyond Dec. 31, the date it was set to expire. Kelly cast the lone dissenting vote on grounds that the community did not have an opportunity to weigh in on how the ordinance “will significantly impact their lives for nearly another year.” Nonetheless, Kelly promotes Covid vaccination along with taking other health and safety measures.

What most sets Kelly apart from her two successors is that she doesn’t spend a lot of time on her soapbox during Council meetings but tends to speak in concise sound bites. “I’m proud of the visible and audible change in tone on the Council dais,” Kelly said in a recent interview. “Time and again my colleagues have told me that they may not agree with me on policy, but I’m brought into conversations because I am kind and considerate. At the end of the day, we all have to work together.”

Although City Council is technically nonpartisan, Democrats have traditionally held the greatest sway on the dais. Kelly said she’s frequently asked what it’s like to be the only Republican on Council. “I tell them first and foremost I’m not the only Republican in Austin, so I feel like there’s an army of people” who support her values. “Second, at the very core, people who serve in this role do so because they want to make the city a better place. We may not agree on everything, but we don’t have to be disagreeable.”

As with most newly minted Council members, Kelly had no choice but to hit the ground running in January. She came aboard at a time when Council was primed to vote on purchasing the Candlewood Suites hotel to provide housing for people experiencing homelessness. The hotel is in District 6, in southern Williamson County, and nearby businesses, residents and the Williamson County Commissioners Court were staunchly opposed to the purchase.

As with most real estate matters, the city’s plans to buy the property had to be discussed in executive session in the time leading up to the vote. Since Kelly did not have the benefit of participating in the discussions prior to being sworn in, the Council member was able to secure a delay on the vote to provide information to and gather feedback from her constituents.

In June, she successfully sponsored a resolution to improve the city’s communications with Hays, Travis and Williamson counties when addressing regional homelessness issues. The item passed unanimously, with Council Member Greg Casar off the dais.

Ultimately, the city voted to purchase the hotel. Kelly voted against the acquisition and three Council members – Alison Alter, Ann Kitchen and Leslie Pool – joined in dissent.

“That was all based on the lack of engagement with the community prior to it being put on the Council agenda,” Kelly explained. “I was constantly chasing a car trying to get the correct information into the community and there was a lot of misinformation … the amount of anger and distrust from the community from that decision really prevented us from being able to have healthy conversations.”

Moving beyond the Candlewood flare-up, Kelly has established a good working relationship with Austin police officers – she championed reinstating cadet classes as part of her campaign plank to replenish the number of officers on the force. She is proud of her vote to restart the training academy – under the “reimagining public safety” banner – and was the first Council member to invite the new cadet class to City Hall for lunch and a tour.

“I wanted to talk to them about what we do, and I think it also gave them the ability to get familiar with the building” in the event of a disaster, she said, adding, “That was a big undertaking.”

After 12 months on the job, Kelly is gratified with the policy issues she has collaborated on with other Council members, such as co-sponsoring Kitchen’s HEAL initiative, which connects people in encampments with housing and other services.

“I knew I would be able to get satisfaction out of the work,” she said. If there were any surprises, it was the time commitment required of a Council member around the clock.

“There are always problems to solve and people to help, so it’s important to keep that in perspective; it’s not just me, I’ve had conversations with other Council members and they’re always working very hard. We may not always agree on everything, but everyone here has a servant’s heart.”

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