Election might signal end to left-right diversity on Austin council

 
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By Elizabeth Findell 
Posted Oct 7, 2018 at 3:10 PM

Is there still room for a voice from the right among the leaders of a left-leaning city? Nov. 6 may bring a new answer.

Ellen Troxclair, the Austin City Council’s last remaining conservative member, has in the past two years embraced a role that one of her supporters described as “Joan of Arc against these idiots (at City Hall).” Then she announced that she wouldn’t run again for her Southwest Austin seat.

Instead, Troxclair is endorsing Frank Ward, a 36-year-old corporate communications strategist and a onetime staffer for the Republican National Committee. Ward is facing three more-progressive opponents in a District 8 race everyone agrees is too close to call and likely to go to a runoff between the top two vote-getters.

City Council races are nonpartisan, and candidates don’t run under the flag of a party. Still, when Austin ushered in its district-based, 10-1 council system four years ago, the move meant greater geographic, racial and ideological diversity — including three conservatives on a traditionally liberal-leaning body.

Republican leaders cheered the election of council members Troxclair, Don Zimmerman and Sheri Gallo in 2014 as “a great day for democracy” and the start of a new “age of fiscal accountability” at City Hall. But, Jan Soifer, then chairwoman of the Travis County Democrats, predicted that the trio wouldn’t last.

Two years later, Gallo and Zimmerman lost their seats to more-liberal challengers. This year, in addition to Troxclair’s departure, Council Member Ora Houston will not run again. Houston, despite being a Democrat, often voted with Troxclair. Representing District 1, Houston opposed ordinances establishing mandatory paid sick leave and increasing the minimum wage paid by city contractors, and she nominated a gun rights activist to a city board. Any of the contenders vying to replace Houston are expected to act more in line with the council majority.

So, was left-right diversity on the City Council a short-lived experiment?

“Welcome to the age of Trump,” said longtime Austin political consultant David Butts. “Trump has undone any conservative support in this area, the city of Austin. A lot of people who might have been Republicans won’t identify as such now.”

“Don Zimmerman lost because he was pretty much in people’s faces all the time — this cranky conservatism that Austin is not particularly fond of,” Butts said. “And, Sheri Gallo lost because Donald Trump won, to be blunt about it. People were angry, and she happened to be in the wrong party.”

Austinites are still angry, Butts said, which is why he doesn’t think Ward would prevail in a runoff. Troxclair won her runoff in 2014 by only 54 votes, the tightest margin of any council race.

Ward said the current political climate makes his hill to climb steeper, but said he’s been running a “campaign of demystification” to convince people that Republicans needn’t be viewed as lacking compassion. He’s conservative both fiscally and socially, but said the council shouldn’t be dealing with social issues, so his social views shouldn’t matter.

He’s running a campaign primarily focused on the idea of lowering taxes in the city. He’s also stressing his support for public safety, which makes up more than two-thirds of Austin’s general fund budget. And, unlike Troxclair, he supports giving increased economic incentives to businesses to locate here. He also supports an efficiency audit of City Hall to figure out where to cut expenditures.

While Troxclair alienated her City Council colleagues by supporting the efforts of the Texas Legislature to overturn local policies, Ward said he hoped to bridge the animosity between the Legislature and the city. Ward said he would advocate locally for Austin to reduce its annual tax increase, though if that didn’t work, he would support the Legislature forcing the city to do so.

Austin leaders have said lowering the maximum cap on tax increases would wreak havoc for city budgeting.

Ward’s opponents are Bobby Levinski, Paige Ellis and Rich DePalma. Levinski and Ellis are an environmental lawyer and environmental marketer, respectively, with staunchly leftist platforms. DePalma, a consultant who calls himself “a social liberal, a fiscal moderate and an environmental pragmatist,” had hoped to pick up some of Troxclair’s pro-business supporters. He said Ward entering the race hasn’t changed that goal.

“I think a Southwest Austin Democrat might be different than a downtown Austin Democrat,” DePalma said.

Andy Hogue, a spokesman for the Travis County GOP and a former Zimmerman staffer, said it’s important to have a conservative voice on the council — even if he or she’s outvoted — particularly to raise questions about fiscal restraint.

“One of our candidates can run (in Travis County) and get about 40 percent,” Hogue said. “That’s about how well Wendy Davis did statewide. So, if we consider the Democratic Party relevant statewide, I think we have to consider the Republican Party relevant in Austin.”

Elizabeth Custy