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Photo by the Zo Qadri campaign

In D9, Qadri wants to ensure ‘an abundance of affordable housing’

Thursday, December 29, 2022 by Sean Saldaña

Just past 10 p.m. on Dec. 13, after a night frantically pacing around the Whip In shaking hands, posing for pictures and checking on election updates, Zohaib Qadri – more commonly known as Zo – felt comfortable declaring victory in the District 9 race for City Council.

His win, by just 343 votes, was the culmination of a year of canvassing, handing out flyers and rallying the residents of Central Austin behind a message of streamlining the Land Development Code, increasing access to public transit, bolstering police oversight, and putting an emphasis on representation, becoming the first Muslim and South Asian elected to City Council.

“I’ve been part of communities that have never had representation, whether it be South Asian or Muslim. So, I may be the first of those communities. I sure hope I’m not the last,” Qadri says.

Given Qadri’s background in activism, serving on campaigns for Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke (as well as working locally with groups like the Austin Latino Coalition and No on Prop B), his win is perhaps not surprising.

In a district that includes neighborhoods like Hyde Park, Cherrywood, Travis Heights, downtown, and the University of Texas campus, Qadri’s message struck a chord, especially among students. In the precinct that includes the UT Tower, Gregory Gym and the PCL Library, Qadri pulled in 94 percent of the vote in the runoff election.

“Historically, students have probably been overlooked. For us, there wasn’t any secret sauce. I think if you give a group something to vote for and you do the outreach, they’ll come,” he said.

Qadri’s goals heading into office are straightforward: Make progress on the city’s housing crisis, increase public transit options and ensure that we “do right by our unhoused community.”

Another issue that became more important throughout the campaign season is the planned expansion of Interstate 35, the highway that runs through the center of the city and cuts off neighborhoods like Cherrywood and Mueller from the rest of the district.

The TxDOT plan on the table right now would involve capping and stitching the portion of the highway that runs through the central city. Groups like Rethink35 and Reconnect Austin are pushing for a much more drastic change that would involve turning the highway into a boulevard.

Complicating matters further is that City Council doesn’t have much formal power over expansion plans (the road is under state jurisdiction), which is why activists opposing the expansion are calling on elected officials to apply public pressure to TxDOT and state legislators in the hopes they change course.

While Qadri is sensitive to activist group’s concerns, saying, “I remember being on the campaign trail, specifically with neighborhoods like Cherrywood, where it affects their livelihood, and so it was such an important issue,” he’s holding out on taking a hard line on what exactly he’d like to see done with I-35.

“It’s really important to make sure that as much dialogue occurs as possible and to mitigate as much harm as possible,” he adds.

On the issue of Project Connect, Qadri is more vocal. With construction not yet started, the cost has swelled from an initial $7 billion to at least $10 billion, raising concerns about wasteful spending.

Qadri isn’t letting that deter his support: “I think it’s necessary from an equity lens … folks who live in the city and often are held back because of a lack of transit or a lack of equitable transit. It’s a price tag that we’ve only seen get higher, but it’s like I’m not of the belief that we should run away from it.”

For the time being, Qadri is trying to avoid being labeled in a way that would signal a strong affiliation to any one group or cause. While he’s been called everything from “Greg Casar 2.0” to “the urbanist,” he says he’s “someone who just wants to make sure that we have an abundance of affordable housing for folks who live in this city.”

But if Qadri isn’t yet willing to come out on the specifics of increasing affordable housing, he’s willing to hint at an approach: “​​I am someone who believes that we need more density.”

Despite resisting labels, there’s one he proudly embraces – it can be seen in his campaign logo, above the exclamation “ZO!” and to the left corner: progressive.

“We ran an unabashedly progressive-left campaign. We saw that through who was supporting us,” he says. Among those supporting Qadri were national figures and organizations like Elizabeth Warren and Vote Pro Choice, whose support was mostly in statements issued to the press. Perhaps more impressive are the figures Qadri was able to summon in person.

On Sept. 25, just as the 90-degree heat of the Texas Hill Country was beginning to relent for the day, Qadri held a self-styled Rally for a Progressive Austin at the Butterfly Bar on Manor Road. A who’s who of Texas progressives got on stage to throw their support behind Qadri. Speakers included familiar names like Julie Oliver and Jessica Cisneros, but also newcomers like Junior Ezeonu, a Council member in Grand Prairie who became the youngest in the city’s history at the age of 22, and Olivia Julianna, a progressive activist who raised $2 million for abortion rights (in part by making fun of Matt Gaetz’s height).

Qadri’s Rally for a Progressive Austin.

More than six weeks before election day, well before most in Austin were paying attention to local elections at all, Qadri had pulled together some of Texas’ leading names in progressive politics to speak at a bar on a Sunday evening.

These connections to figures who operate outside of Austin (and even farther outside of the scope of District 9) have presented a looming though generally unspoken concern about Qadri’s candidacy – that his place on City Council is less a personal investment in his community and instead a stepping stone for loftier political ambitions.

This concern isn’t lost on Qadri, but, “I’m not thinking about higher office,” he says. “For me, my next step would be to run for reelection. I want to give back to this city. I want to give back to this district. It’s a community that’s given me so much. And I’m not even thinking about leaving Austin or running for anything else.”

One element of his progressive message as he heads into office is a call for faster and more visible change.

“Austin, as a whole, at times tries to coast on this mantra of like, ‘Look at us, we’re so liberal or so forward-thinking or we’re so progressive,’ but it hasn’t lived up to its values,” Qadri tells the Monitor.

In preparation for being sworn in on Jan. 6, Qadri is meeting with fellow Council members, both incoming and incumbent. “There isn’t one person who I don’t want to or am not meeting with. I’m excited to meet with them all. I’m excited to learn from them and see where we could collaborate, where we can move forward as a city.”

As a new member on Council, Qadri realizes he needs to be pragmatic, which means that right now, outside of the broad issues he campaigned on – more affordable housing, increased public transit, more attention to unhoused populations, and more action on climate change – he doesn’t want to get too specific on policy proposals just yet.

In his interview with the Monitor, Qadri was asked about his feelings on the current negotiations between the city of Austin and the Austin Police Association.

The police union is pushing for a four-year contract that would include the Office of Police Oversight, an agency separate from the police department with limited abilities to investigate and oversee police conduct. The city is pushing for the opposite, insisting on removing the oversight office from the contract – a stance that briefly brought negotiations to a halt earlier this month. Groups like Equity Action are calling for a one-year contract, to keep the current contract from lapsing (it’s set to expire March 31) and allow the public to vote on the Austin Police Oversight Act, a ballot measure that would increase outside oversight of the police department (voters will decide on that in May).

Qadri carefully considers the question. “I do have a viewpoint on that,” he says. He takes a moment to think before continuing, “but that is also a thing that I’d like to officially make known once we get on the dais.”

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