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Virden positions herself as the ‘common-sense’ candidate for mayor

Wednesday, August 24, 2022 by Sean Saldaña

Jennifer Virden is about as much of an Austinite as someone can be. Born and raised in Northwest Hills, she’s eager to tell potential constituents how she went to Doss Elementary, that she’s an Anderson Trojan, and that she holds a degree in finance from the University of Texas at Austin.

She’s spent her entire adult life working in real estate. It wasn’t until 2019 that Virden started to kick around the idea of running for public office.

In 2019, Austin City Council voted to effectively repeal its laws on public camping, sitting and panhandling, making the issue of homelessness more visible than ever before. A year later, Council members cut tens of millions of dollars from the police department’s budget in response to mass protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

According to Virden, these are the two actions that pulled her into the world of local politics. In fall 2020, she decided to challenge District 10 City Council Member Alison Alter for her seat, campaigning on “refunding” the police department, cutting taxes and Land Development Code reform.

The race went to a runoff election in which Alter edged Virden out by a few percentage points, an outcome that didn’t deter Virden at all. In June of last year, just over six months after her District 10 loss, Jennifer Virden announced her run for mayor – months before her main competitors Kirk Watson and Celia Israel.

Virden says she “never stopped campaigning” – a statement perhaps best evidenced by a lawsuit she filed last year against the city’s regulations barring candidates from fundraising more than a year away from election day.

Left, right, center

Virden has gained a reputation as a conservative, a label that, while she hasn’t rejected, she doesn’t identify with personally, telling the Austin Monitor, “My title is common sense. My platform is clearly not a partisan platform at all. I am focused on things that everyone in the city is focused on, whether or not they consider themselves left or right.”

Still, at times her rhetoric is reminiscent of tried and true conservative talking points – things like lowering taxes, making better use of municipal funds and cutting through bureaucracy.

“If they’re not drugging and they’re willing to live by curfews and drug testing – if they want to live on the taxpayer’s dime, then they’re going to have to live in shelters. … You have to motivate people to want to improve their situation,” she said in an interview this spring, when asked how she would approach the issue of homelessness.

Yet her views on homelessness are nuanced. She also stresses a need for connection, saying that people experiencing homelessness are in need of “treatment and they need the community. They need to feel they belong somewhere. It doesn’t have to be relatives by blood, but everybody needs to feel like they’re part of a community.”

One thing Virden is adamant about is that she’s not running as a Republican, or as a Democrat for that matter. And she’s not looking to impose her own personal views on hot-button social issues onto Austinites.

“I don’t have a lot of admiration for either of the national political parties. My personal views kind of run the gamut. And what I can commit to Austin voters is that they will not get my perspective thrown into their face on national issues, because that will not be my job as mayor of Austin,” she says.

Virden’s fight is local. It’s also straightforward. Want to make Austin more affordable? Lower property tax bills. Want to improve public safety? Give the police, firefighters and emergency services more resources. Want to address homelessness? Focus on mental health resources for those in need, but also “fully enforce the public camping ban. No exceptions,” as her campaign website says.

A campaign video released in June depicts Virden’s approach to local government in a nutshell: Standing in front of a gas station, she motions to a sign reading $4.67 a gallon, and says, “Let’s be clear: As mayor of Austin, I can’t do anything about these gas prices, but I can work to reduce property taxes.”

The outsider

When held up to her main competition – Kirk Watson and Celia Israel, both longtime politicians in Central Texas – Virden is a political outsider, an image she’s embraced for its advantages.

“I’m a different candidate that Austin and the political powers that be are not used to seeing. I’m unpredictable in their eyes. They’re concerned because I have such a great following and people are paying attention to me, but they feel like they might not be able to control me,” she says, reflecting on how she’s been characterized.

Virden is confident in her positions. As early as February, she released a position paper detailing a number of reforms she’d make to the city’s development infrastructure, featuring things as broad as the “Land Development Code and zoning map should provide for a greater diversity of housing types” to proposals as wonky as “doing away with Compatibility Standards beyond 300 ft. distance (which currently extends out to 540 ft.), as per the ZAP/Duncan compatibility compromise proposal of 2018.”

This confidence is also evident on her Twitter account. Virden is constantly tweeting opinions, proposals, petitions and miscellaneous ideas about local government – whether they’re pressing issues or not. In response to a KXAN article about possible changes to the now $10 billion voter-approved transit initiative passed in 2020, she wrote, “It may be time to consider putting Project Connect back on the ballot.” In July, she tweeted, “We need an audit of @austinenergy. There are so many charges and fees on our bills, it is difficult to understand what we are being charged for and what the money is spent on.”

Virden is far and away the most law enforcement-friendly candidate in the mayoral race – perhaps in any race. As in her run for District 10 in 2020, supporting the Austin Police Department is a major part of her platform.

When asked why APD is struggling to fill vacant positions, she says, “The attitude from City Hall, from our Council and our mayor toward the Austin Police Department is a very large factor in the lack of morale that our Austin Police Department has. And it also hurts us terribly when it comes to competing nationwide for quality, because I can’t imagine if you had to take a job doing something where you risk your life every single day and then your City Council and your mayor aren’t behind you 100 percent.”

The particulars of police oversight are perhaps the only place where Virden shows some hesitation. Like all candidates, she believes in accountability and rooting out “bad apples” from the department. But when asked by the Monitor if she agrees with the decision to indict Austin police officers for their use of force during protests in 2020, she hedges, saying, “I am not a lawyer and I wasn’t there for all of the events that happened. I don’t think I should comment on that because I don’t know the facts. I’m not on the jury. I’m not a judge. And I don’t think people should make comments on things that they don’t have all the facts on.”

The biggest boondoggle

On the issue of transportation, Virden insists she’s not committed to Austin being a car-oriented town, but is deeply skeptical of many of the city’s recent efforts toward developments around public transit, calling Project Connect “probably the biggest boondoggle that the city of Austin has ever known.”

Her skepticism is rooted in her lifelong experiences as an Austinite: “We like autonomy. We like to be able to get in our cars and drive from point A to point B.”

At the same time, some of her talking points would hardly be feasible for the average resident: “If they want to live in a mass transportation city, then they need to move to a city that actually has things like Project Connect, like New York City, Chicago, that kind of place.”

Predictive traffic light technology (with the goal of speeding up traffic), expanding high volume roads, filling potholes and improving the bus system are some of her solutions for the city’s mobility woes.

Virden may be an outsider, but she has a number of views even her staunchest critics would likely agree with. For instance, she’s glad the city has effectively decriminalized marijuana possession.

“I don’t think anybody’s life needs to be ruined because they have a joint on them,” she said in an interview this past May, even adding, “there’s a lot of taxes that could be collected there,” when further prodded about the issue of legalization.

Also like many, she was appalled this spring when the city opened negotiations with the offer of a 14-cent raise for EMS workers. Virden is also a critic of the state’s recapture program that forces Austin ISD to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the state annually. “It is completely inequitable to Austin taxpayers, as we all know,” she says.

Virden is most hawkish on the issue of taxes, coming out entirely against efforts that would raise them, insisting that the priority should be making use of the city’s existing $5 billion budget.

Explaining why she’s against the $350 million housing bond proposal that will be on the ballot this November, she says, “Bonds are synonymous with higher taxes. There’s been zero accountability for the billions of dollars worth of bonds that we passed in the last few years.”

A path to victory?

Virden is confident about her chances of winning – an assertion that isn’t totally unwarranted. Though she lost the District 10 race to Alison Alter, it was only by 656 votes, a thin margin considering that Alter outspent Virden by more than $27,816 during the campaign.

Like Celia Israel, Virden is far behind Kirk Watson (who has already shattered a fundraising record) in the amount she’s raised, but finances alone don’t decide elections.

In a poll released last week by Public Policy Polling, people were asked to choose who they’d pick for mayor from among the leading candidates: While Watson took the lead (30 percent), followed by Israel (13 percent), and then Virden (10 percent), an even larger percent of people were unsure (38 percent).

The same poll showed that many people still haven’t thought much about the candidates. For example, 43 percent of respondents aren’t sure how they feel about Kirk Watson. For Celia Israel, that number is 63 percent, and for Virden, it’s 74 percent.

For now Watson is still considered to be firmly in the lead, with Israel as his main competitor, but that large area of uncertainty is where Virden sees her path to victory.

In her interview with the Monitor, Virden had one final thought: “We have a lot of work to do, but it’s all completely plausible and we can get it done. We just have to get everybody to understand how important it is and how possible it is. And I can see it. I mean, this is so close. We can do it.”

This story has been changed since publication to clarify the nature of Virden’s lawsuit. 

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