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Photo by ATXN. Candidate Jose "Chito" Vela speaks at the D4 forum.

District 4 candidates face off before special election

Monday, January 10, 2022 by Kali Bramble

Candidates vying for Greg Casar’s Council seat appealed to voters last Thursday at a forum hosted by the city’s Ethics Commission and the Austin chapter of League of Women Voters. Isa Boonto, Melinda Schiera, Jade Lovera, Jose “Chito” Vela, and Monica Guzmán had the chance to share their visions for District 4 before competing in the special election. Early voting begins this week. 

The candidates spent the evening discussing hot-button issues in the historically underserved area of Northeast Austin (candidates Amanda Rios and Ramesses II Setepenre, while on the ballot, were not in attendance). While mostly in agreement on long-term goals, the five competitors diverged on details, differing in their priorities and approaches to tackling the city’s problems.

With District 4 ranking highest in crime for the fifth year in a row, public safety was a prominent topic of discussion. “Our community has been totally ignored, and our local convenience stores are often robbed at gunpoint,” said community organizer Melinda Schiera, who said she would continue partnering with APD to more adequately serve the district.

Lifelong neighborhood resident Jade Lovera said an increased investment in community policing would be her approach, noting as central priorities the modification of APD’s contract and rebuilding trust between the police force and the community.

Community organizer Monica Guzmán said she would prioritize the city’s Reimagining Public Safety initiative, which she helped develop as a member of its task force. Guzmán said such advocacy was desperately needed at District 4’s Georgian Drive and Powell Lane, where high rates of prostitution and drug use affect the surrounding Georgian Acres community.

Also high on the docket was the issue of housing, which former Planning Commission member and attorney Chito Vela identified as his top priority. “We need more of both public and private housing to address the housing crisis we are facing now,” he said. “My goal is to make Austin a more welcoming place for working-class people.” To achieve this goal, Vela pledged to advocate for more housing along the light rail line slated for construction along North Lamar Boulevard as part of Project Connect, saying, “These investments could finally turn North Lamar into a vibrant, multi-use boulevard.”

Candidate Melinda Schiera expressed concerns about Project Connect’s lack of investment in areas of the district north of 183. “After advocating that the rail extend at least to Rundberg, we secured a second stage of Project Connect that will expand all the way to Tech Ridge,” Schiera said. “However, we need to ensure that this actually happens. If we are paying for the rail line, we want it to serve District 4.” As for housing, Schiera pledged to lead the creation of a multifamily and affordable housing board and commission to tackle the issue.

Isa Boonto, a teacher and Austin Mutual Aid organizer, promised to address the city’s housing crisis by continuing her efforts to support Austin’s unhoused. “We need better partnerships between private and public entities to address this crisis I know my friends are experiencing,” Boonto said. “The $200 million we’ve invested is not enough; let’s bring in more money and resources, not necessarily to solve a problem, but to support our community.”

As rising living costs and the consequences of rezoning impact Northeast Austin, Lovera and Guzmán expressed commitments to supporting victims of displacement. While Lovera pledged to support displaced renters and families, Guzmán promised to continue supporting small businesses that have been displaced by development in areas like Windsor Park.

Guzmán also emphasized the need for social services funding, noting that city investments like the Restore Rundberg grant had made a significant impact but had been left by the wayside in recent years.

“There are many services, especially Austin Public Health, that are underfunded and need better pay for the work they do,” Guzmán said. “We also need to invest in our schools, specifically to fund parent support specialists. They are front-liners for the families in our community.”

Residents of District 4 can begin voting early for their newest Council member beginning Monday, Jan. 10-Friday, Jan. 21, with election day falling on Tuesday, Jan. 25. A list of polling locations is available here.

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