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District 9 City Council candidates chat with the ‘Monitor’: Part I

Monday, August 15, 2022 by Sean Saldaña

Editor’s Note: Monitor reporter Sean Saldaña sat down with the candidates for City Council’s District 9 seat to explore their thinking on some of the big issues. For a comprehensive list of the candidates’ policy positions, visit their websites. This is Part I of a two-part series; read Part II here.

With Council Member Kathie Tovo term-limited and six candidates who have raised more than $25,000 so far, District 9 is thought to be one of the more competitive races this local election season.

One consequence of that competition: It can be difficult for voters to differentiate the candidates, their policies and how they intend to represent the district. On the whole, all six District 9 candidates are progressives campaigning on the issues of affordability, transportation and Land Development Code reform.

With a field so crowded, there are already expectations that District 9 will have no clear winner on election day and is destined for a runoff in December – something the candidates themselves have in mind as they’re campaigning.

The candidates in the race all have deep ties to Austin, ranging from long-serving community activists to entrepreneurs who have built their companies in the capital city.

Joah Spearman is an advocate for affordable public housing and public transit (and proud of the fact that he hasn’t owned a car in four years), and is very much in support of things like diversity and inclusion.

Photo courtesy of the Joah Spearman Campaign

While he says the city’s recent decision to put a $350 million housing bond on the ballot – which will raise taxes – is not a permanent solution to Austin’s affordability woes, he’s still a supporter.

On policing, his focus is on strong civilian oversight and building trust: “We spent something like $13 (million)-$15 million on police settlements in the last year. That’s not something that builds trust or allows us to use that budget for more effective means.”

One way Spearman is looking to stand out: his ties to Austin’s business and entertainment community. He’s served on the Music Commission, received awards from the Austin Chamber of Commerce, and is founder of Localeur, an app that provides local recommendations to travelers.

“In 2009 and 2010, I was not involved in Austin politically, but I was involved in the creative cultural scene in Austin. Musicians from back then know I was going to venues five to seven nights a week. We have a lot of candidates who are starting to say certain things, but the track records aren’t there of them showing up in those communities,” he tells the Monitor.

He’s also looking to lean away from political fights with Texas’ conservative state government and focus more on local issues. “There’s been a lot of political capital expended on these fights that have gone nowhere in terms of benefiting the city,” Spearman says.

Greg Smith shares the same concerns as every candidate about affordability, transit and public safety. One thing that sets him apart: he’s not a politician and he isn’t pretending to be.

Photo courtesy of the Greg Smith Campaign

“I’m not a politician. I’ve never done this before,” he tells the Monitor, while thinking aloud about his campaign strategy leading up to the election.

Smith is an entrepreneur and vice president of development at Grayhawk Insurance & Risk Management, where he specializes in commercial insurance and golf industries. He’s also a concerned citizen who’s trying to differentiate himself by getting a clear sense of what’s working, what isn’t and how to make changes as necessary.

Smith was and is a big supporter of Project Connect, but he’s annoyed that the estimated price tag has gone from $7 billion to $10 billion. “When it comes to the mismanagement of money in Austin, I don’t understand why we can’t forecast a more accurate cost,” he tells the Monitor.

Even the things he supports ideologically aren’t above constant analysis and scrutiny.

Referring to the city’s recently passed guaranteed income pilot program – which will provide $1,000 a month to 85 families – he says it’s “a really progressive idea, but I want to know what the three-month, six-month, nine-month, and 12-month results are,” because he wouldn’t want to expand the program without making sure it actually works.

If elected, Smith intends to approach the role with humility and not stick to policies that aren’t yielding desired results. Right now, most of his support is from friends and family, but as election day nears, he’s preparing to do more knocking on doors and reaching out to local business leaders.

Ben Leffler has experience in local government, working in the Office of the City Auditor and later as an adviser for former City Council Member Chris Riley.

Photo courtesy of the Ben Leffler Campaign

While Leffler champions the familiar causes of affordability, transit expansion and land use code reform, he’s also a progressive and a pragmatist who feels he can walk the tightrope of getting things done while upholding the city’s progressive values.

Reflecting on the often combative relationship Austin has with Texas’ conservative state government, he says, “We need representatives that are going to reflect the values of our community. And the way the state’s attacking all types of communities, from immigrants to women’s access to health care to trans kids, I think we need to stand up for our values here in the most strategic way possible.”

On public safety, he believes in having a stronger focus on things like mental health resources, maintaining a strong relationship with Police Chief Joseph Chacon, and making sure money is being spent wisely.

He’s a supporter of the city’s upcoming $350 million housing bond, but feels that’s only one part of the puzzle, citing code reform, expediting the permitting process and creating a more housing-friendly environment throughout the city.

One issue he doesn’t think is getting enough attention: the environmental concerns of water usage and scarcity, which he calls “existential with a capital E.”

Leffler says, “We’re in the midst of another historic drought. We’re seeing our lake levels drop lower and lower. If there’s anything that’s going to stop Austin from growing, it’s us running out of water. How can we be more efficient with our water use? How can we store our water more efficiently?”

Part II  features the rest of the District 9 candidates.

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