Here's where candidates for Austin mayor stand on three big issues
Editor's note: This story was originally published on Oct. 6. Two candidates are in the runoff for mayor: Celia Israel and Kirk Watson. Election Day is Dec. 13. Click here for what you need to know to vote.
Six people are vying to be the next mayor of Austin. Candidates addressed priority issues such as transportation, housing and policing during a forum hosted by KUT and the Austin Monitor.
The candidates are Anthony Bradshaw, Phil Campero Brual, Celia Israel, Gary S. Spellman, Jennifer Virden and Kirk Watson. Per campaign finance reports filed in July, the current frontrunners are Israel, who's a former state House representative, and Watson, who's a former Austin mayor and state senator.
Here’s a look at how the candidates responded to three policy areas that they would likely address as mayor.
The responses have been edited lightly for brevity and clarity. Candidates are listed in the order they will appear on the ballot.
Do you think I-35 should be expanded as proposed by the Texas Department of Transportation?
Brual: “Every single time a city expands a highway, once they finish the project, they realize the need to do it again, and again, and again. We also need to think about what does I-35 benefit? Does it benefit the people of Austin? Or the people going through it? So, then why do we have to pay for it? We can be using projects like Project Connect, CapMetro, things like public transportation that allow the people of the City of Austin to avoid using I-35, rather than expanding it.”
Israel: “I-35 is another example of a city that has not gotten beyond its racist past. It has divided us for too long. I do want to reconnect East and West. But I don't want to do it at the expense of us becoming another Houston and the Katy Freeway example, where we just build more lanes and expect that we're doing good things. I want the best. This is not just a one generation decision. This is a multi-generation decision. I have led the effort with my colleagues in the House to write three different letters to TxDOT to encourage a nudge for more and better. But we keep getting plans that would suggest that we should take out 100 homes and businesses, and I'm not getting the transit advances and the technology advances that I think we deserve.”
Watson: “We need to start with the understanding that it's not Austin's road. And so when it's not Austin's road, that means we have to work to get the best result that we're able to get. ... Transit can be better if you have managed lanes. We know that for Mopac. We need to have better transit on I-35. That’s one of the things. Second, it has been a monument to racism, and if we can improve that road, so that we can reconnect East and West, we need to figure out a way to do that. Third, we need to make the road operate better and more safely, and that ought to be part and parcel of what we do.”
Bradshaw: “I think I-35 is increasing traffic coming through Austin, Texas. You can see a very increased [number of] people coming to Austin. … Sure, we can expand 35, but … what's going to make Austin great is that people are safe and secure in Austin, Texas. What's going to make Austin great is that people are working together in Austin, Texas, and what’s going to make Austin great is that people are family in Austin, Texas. We want Austin to be a family again. We want to see Austin be great. And so you know, that’s what’s going to really make Austin what it is. And it's going to really move Austin to a place to where people are, when they're able to travel, they're able to find opportunity.”
Virden: “I think the most important thing about the expansion of I-35 is that we increase its capacity. I think the determinants of how we expand the capacity of I-35 has everything to do with safety and engineering. I will also say that I am not for cap and stitch. I want it to be really clear that roads need to move cars, and we need to move more cars more efficiently.”
Spellman: “You just heard some great ideas. Now my job is to manage those great ideas and give you the product that best serves you, the people. Let's take a look at Rethink I-35. There's some brilliant minds in this town and everything that you just heard up here is feasible. But we have to have the vision. We have to have the commitment. As mayor, you have to look at every possible solution. You have to enhance it with technology. You have to have the tenacity to make it happen.”
The Austin Police Department is currently negotiating its contract with the city. What facet of that agreement do you think is the most important?
Brual: “The biggest thing for me would be the recruitment aspect of it. I've talked to so many officers that I’ve lost count in the past year, and they say the same two things. The first thing they say is that we need a new City Council, but they also said they want more officers on the street. ... Officers aren't able to get task forces, aren't able to get better training, because they're supposed to fit every single situation that they can."
Israel: “The most important factor for me is to rebuild the trust. I served on the police monitor board. I was an appointee by then-mayor Gus Garcia. And we need to make sure that we have a strong police accountability system. I remember from my days then, cops want good cops. And we need to make sure that we are building into that trust, not the warrior mentality but a guardian mentality.”
Watson: “I think transparency in the accountability system and a strong system of accountability. I think that Austin is able to make sure that our Austin values are reflected in policing in this community, if we do the right job with regard to recruitment, training, supervision, and then an accountable transparency system. ... My goal would be to make sure that the public feels like there's sufficient accountability so that you can utilize that to build more trust.”
Bradshaw: “I love our police department, man. We need them. In fact, we could even double up on our police department. We need to support our police department here in Austin, Texas. And we need them. There is no Austin without the police department. There is no Austin. There is no protection. Our police department is our strength and protection. … Our police department is overworked. And we need to support it.”
Virden: "We need to focus on recruitment, retention. We need to get a fully staffed police department so that our officers actually have time to perform community policing, which has been proven to reduce crime and build rapport with the citizens of Austin. There's a lot to say about the Austin Police Department, but I will say I am the most pro-public safety candidate on the ballot for this November 8, and I would love to have your vote."
Spellman: “I think starting more classes. You have to have more classes. ... I don't like saying defunding, but we did defund and we did cancel academies. ... I think the training aspect of that has to be reiterated more and more again, because our city is changing. I think that the police get a real black eye every time they go out in the community.”
Following the reinstatement of Austin’s camping ban, the city has invested an unprecedented amount of money and time into “solving” homelessness. Do you agree with the current tack the city has taken?
Brual: “The City of Austin's approach to every single problem has always been to be the shining star, to be the leader, and that's what kills us. That's what hurt us with this homelessness issue. There are thousands of nonprofits here in Travis County, and a lot of them work with homelessness, a lot of them have mental health programs ready to go, ready to be put on, and a lot of them have already serviced a lot of the homeless here in Austin, and they haven't done it with a single dollar from the City of Austin, which is amazing. But the thing is, imagine if we gave them the dollar, because if we consistently try to build programs ourselves, what they can accomplish with 50 cents will take us $1, will take us $3. We need to stop being the shining star and start handing it off to the experts, to the pros, the boots on the ground.”
Israel: “[Nonprofits] are doing some great work, and I understand they're getting some of the grant money from the Feds. ... It was sad to see that the folks who I was helping — you asked them, 'Where do you want to go?' The last place they wanted to go was the Salvation Army or the ARCH. They much prefer going to an encampment that they had made at the corner of this particular intersection. It's a sad testament to a great American city. But we have some amazing nonprofit partners who are in a different place now than they were even two years ago. … They have formed a new coalition. They need a good partner with the City of Austin to fulfill their mission.”
Watson: “While I agree with the idea of permanent supportive housing and getting people into permanent supportive housing, what has happened is that we are giving an all-or-nothing choice. Either live anywhere you want to live or camp anywhere you want to camp at any time, until we can get you into permanent supportive housing. And that system has not worked. There's a big gap between those two things. We need to create a continuum where we have services along the way. One is doing partnerships with those who are providing permanent supportive housing, like Caritas and other nonprofits, and helping them by being a good partner. But in addition, we're going to have to enforce the camping ban. The citizens have told us they want the camping ban enforced and the legislature has told us you must enforce the camping ban. But in order to do that, you're going to have to have places where people can go, and we're not doing that right now.”
Bradshaw: “The homeless need our help. They need somebody to give them some attention. … I was out campaigning on the street. … I talked to several different people, they gave me several different ideas on how to help the homeless. A great one was this: He said gather up houses in Austin, Texas, and get the churches involved, whether you're Christian, Muslim, and gather them, meet with them and see, can we come up with some great ideas to help the homeless? They need our help.”
Virden: “We all know that we must prioritize spending on mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment, because that is what the overwhelming majority of our homeless population needs. The other thing is Austin, too, obviously has become a magnet for the homeless from all over the country, because we enable the lifestyle. We do not have a tough love approach, which is, 'Get help, get rehab or get out.' We cannot afford to fund every single person who decides that they don't want to get drug treatment or mental health treatment, but they want to live on the streets and then, of course, they're just going to gravitate towards cities that enable that lifestyle.”
Spellman: "We've been doing this for 20 years, our charity Peace*Love*Happiness. Every charity you just heard mentioned, we're the private sector that fund that. ... Everything Kirk just said is spot on. You have to enforce the camping ban. Everything that Phil said and Celia said, this is where we're at. But I'm the only one up here who has done something for 20 years. This is so easy to fix. ... I know how to handle this. We've been doing it for 20 years quietly without the help of the city. Imagine if I'm mayor what will happen to this problem. ... Now it's time we need Austin's help."