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Austin Will Elect a New Mayor Next Week. Will It Matter?

With its weak-mayor form of government, the capital city’s top job only has so much power. But the issue of housing affordability has consumed the race, which will end in a runoff between two Democrats next week.

Celia Israel.2.jpg
Celia Israel is in a runoff election for mayor and has framed Austin's housing crisis as “a supply issue” that needs citywide policy solutions. (Celia Israel/Facebook)
The next mayor of Austin, Texas, will face two big challenges on the day they take office. One is that the housing market is on the verge of becoming completely unaffordable to regular people, with median rents more than doubling last year alone as thousands of new residents continue to pour into the city every month. The other is that there’s very little the mayor of Austin can do about it.

Next week, Austinites will go back to the polls for a runoff between the two top vote-getters in the November election. The finalists are Celia Israel, a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2014, and Kirk Watson, who served as Austin’s mayor in the late 1990s and as a state senator from 2007 to 2020. Together, Israel and Watson won three quarters of the vote, beating out four other candidates and setting up a Dec. 13 runoff.

Both candidates have campaigned on plans to address the housing crisis, which is fitting for a city where a majority of likely voters identify the lack of affordability as the biggest issue, according to a July poll by the Austin Monitor. Their proposals differ in important ways: Israel has framed the crisis as “a housing supply issue” that needs citywide policy solutions while Watson has promoted district-by-district action after a series of failed attempts at broad-based zoning reform. But in Austin’s weak-mayor system of government, where the mayor has just one vote like the rest of the members of the city council, neither candidate will be able to impose policy reforms single-handedly. Local advocates and political analysts say the outcome of the race, and the prospect for change over the next few years, will be shaped by evolving political coalitions in one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S.

“When it really comes down to the tough decisions, who is accountable to whom?” says João Paulo Connolly, organizing director with the Austin Justice Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group. “Who sees what parts of the city as their actual base? And who feels, at the end of the day, that they owe something to what part of the city?”

Familiar Candidates, Divided City

In some ways, Austin voters will face a choice between two very similar candidates in the runoff. Though the election is officially nonpartisan, both Watson and Israel are Democrats — and in a deep-blue city like Austin, both are fairly left-of-center on big issues, says Steven Pedigo, director of the LBJ Urban Lab at UT-Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. The choice is “essentially a flavor of quote-unquote progressivism,” he says. Both also served most recently in the state Legislature as well, so neither can lay claim to being a political outsider.

But results from the November election show stark spatial differences in support for the two candidates. They largely break down along Interstate 35, a traditional racial and economic dividing line in Austin. Watson, who is white, drew much of his support from the west side of I-35, which is whiter and wealthier than the east side of the city. Israel, a Latina who is married to a woman, pulled most of her support from the east side. That divide is reflected in their campaigns, says William Fulton, an urban planner, former mayor of Ventura, Calif., and adjunct professor at the LBJ School in Austin.

“There’s no question that [Watson] is playing to the white west side homeowners, whereas Israel is focused on the emerging, progressive, younger constituency,” Fulton says.
State Sen. Kirk Watson who is running against Israel for mayor of Austin has promoted a district-by-district action to solve the city's housing problem after a series of failed attempts at broad-based zoning reform.
While Israel got the most votes in the general election — around 122,000 to Watson’s 107,000 — changes in turnout could make a big difference in the runoff. On paper, Israel has the easier path to victory, says Brian Smith, a professor of political science at St. Edward’s University in Austin. She should be able to win simply by bringing the same voters back to the polls, while Watson will have to find new voters to overcome her lead. But fewer voters tend to show up for runoffs than general elections, he says. And by the time election day comes around again, many of the students at UT-Austin, a key part of Israel’s base, will have gone home.

“This may advantage Watson, because when we think about people who vote in the runoff, it’s people who tend to be more partisan, more politically active, better educated, wealthier, and less diverse,” Smith says. “And when we look at the map, that is in Watson’s wheelhouse.”

Struggle to Reform Development Policies

Over the last decade, as Austin’s population grew by about 20 percent, the city made a series of false starts to reform its zoning policies, which most advocates say are outdated and overly complicated, making it hard to build new housing in many areas. Most prominently, an effort called CodeNEXT fell apart amid concerns about transparency and lawsuits from homeowners who didn’t want the zoning rules around their properties to be changed.

State courts have ruled that individual homeowners can challenge laws that affect their properties, even if the policies are passed to advance broad-based planning goals. Moreover, Texas prevents localities from adopting inclusionary zoning, a tool that’s popular with other big cities for extracting affordable housing out of new development projects.

Still, outgoing Mayor Steve Adler says Austin has made unprecedented investments in affordable housing, including the city’s two biggest housing bond referendums in 2018 and 2022, generating a total of $600 million.

“This is a city that built more homes both on a per capita and an absolute basis last year than any other city in the country,” Adler says. “And it still wasn’t enough.”

The failure of CodeNEXT was partly a reflection of entrenched opposition to denser housing development in some parts of Austin. The upshot — legal rulings that reassert homeowners’ rights to challenge zoning laws — is a constraint on the city’s ability to respond to the crisis.

“I’m not sure that Texas law is going to let us do a broad rewrite of the land development code,” Adler says. “So it’s going to be more guerrilla operations, more tactical, and it’s taken us a while to figure out how to do that.”

Recently, the City Council adopted new laws permitting residential construction in commercial areas, and easing the “compatibility standards” that constrained new development on key transportation corridors. Those policies were pulled out from the land development code rewrite and passed with broad consensus on the City Council. But many of the policies that advocates say are necessary to increase housing supply are bound to be more controversial. And the next mayor could help determine how they move forward.

What Does a Weak Mayor Do? 

Most big American cities have a strong-mayor form of government, where the mayor serves as the executive, appoints a cabinet, proposes a budget and signs or vetoes laws passed by the city council. Austin has a weak-mayor government, where the mayor is an at-large elected position with one tie-breaking vote. For years the city’s entire city council was elected on an at-large basis, and virtually every elected official lived downtown, Adler says.

A decade ago, Austin voters approved changes to the city charter to create what they refer to as a 10-1 system, with 10 city council members elected for individual districts and the mayor serving as an at-large member with a tie-breaking vote. It’s an important role for representing the city in state and national venues, but it’s not the powerful big-boss position that people often associate with mayors.

“I live in a city where most of the people hold me accountable for things that I’m not responsible for, because it’s not a common understanding of what that means,” Adler says. “And quite frankly, no one in the public likes hearing your mayor say, ‘I know you want me to take care of this but the charter doesn’t give me the power to do that.’ No one wants to hear a mayor say that, whether it’s true or not. They want you to figure out how to fix it.”

When William Fulton was mayor of Ventura, Calif., he used to joke that the weak mayor’s main power was to call meetings. The city manager serves as the executive and creates the budget.

But the real job of a weak mayor is to manage the politics of the city council and build coalitions around key policy goals.

“The practical reality is that if the weak mayor is not good at council coalition building, somebody else on the council will do that,” Fulton says.

That’s why many housing advocates in Austin say runoff elections in several district council races are just as important as the mayor’s race. Particularly critical is the race for council in District 9, which includes some of the wealthiest and costliest parts of Austin. The approach the winner of that race takes to housing development is as important as the mayor’s voice, says Connolly, of the Austin Justice Coalition.

“If [District 9] decides it is going to play hardball and oppose housing at all costs, that sets the tone and shifts the whole center of gravity on council,” Connolly says. “We need a whole council that is aligned strongly around the importance of housing.”

Political Coalitions in Flux

Adler was the first mayor to serve under the 10-1 system, and this year’s election is the first big shakeup of the council since that system was implemented. Combined with Austin’s steady population growth, that’s left open the possibility of new political coalitions, even as the city’s old divides remain in place.

Adler hasn’t made an endorsement in the mayor’s race. He says both Watson and Israel are “good, strong Democrats” who are “ready to do the job.” But he notes that homeowners on the west side, while still a powerful voting bloc, are increasingly isolated. For decades, the people in those neighborhoods were also the most reliably progressive voices on a range of issues, from environmentalism to social justice. More and more, neighborhood protectionism is their preoccupation, he says.

Watson supporters say they value his deal-making experience in the state senate, and his reputation as someone who can “get things done.” That’s important in a city that’s undertaking a $4.5 billion airport expansion and a massive light rail initiative called Project Connect, says Austin Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter, a Watson supporter who represents District 10 on the City Council.

“Where Watson’s experience really matters, in my opinion, is he understands that very few things get implemented just because you pass them,” Alter says. “The coalition-building is not simply a matter of council — it’s out there in the community. It’s managing the execution. Because we are such a fast-growing city, if you pass something and you don’t pay attention to how it’s implemented, you will fail.”

Israel supporters say she’s more credibly aligned with a movement to create affordable housing across the city. And the symbolic resonance of electing a queer Latina to lead the city would be an important step forward too, says Andrew Hairston, a civil rights attorney who ran an unsuccessful campaign for Travis County justice of the peace earlier this year.

“Politicians of color, queer folks, we have this opportunity to say that a city like Austin can meet its values and that very deeply creative and soulful people should move here who might not feel as welcome [in another city],” Hairston says. Electing someone like Israel would send a message that “Austin will embrace every identity you have.”

In terms of housing, Austin is currently walking a fine political line. Other progressive cities in places like California have slumped into hardened divisions between YIMBYs who promote all types of housing development and leftist groups that often oppose market-rate development in low-income neighborhoods.

In Austin, says Julio Gonzalez Altamirano, an Israel supporter who co-founded a local urbanist group called AURA, the factions are less rigid. It’s a small fraction of the city that has “very highly developed, unpersuadable views that are core to their political identity,” he says. And the constant influx of new residents, all of whom have to face the city’s punishing housing market, means change is possible.

“Our politics, for the moment, have aligned so that you can be considered left of center and be pro-housing supply,” he says.

Reader response:

Yes, Mayors Matter

Regarding the outcome of Austin’s mayoral runoff election, Jared Brey asks, “Will It Matter?” — a surprising question for those of us who believe in the ideals of representative democracy.

In diminishing the importance of the mayoral election, Brey suggests that the only way to effect change is to empower a single individual — the mayor — to impose their will without any regard for the people’s elected city council representatives. As Brey puts it, “where the mayor has just one vote like the rest of the members of the city council, neither candidate will be able to impose policy reforms single-handedly” (emphasis added). The irony in this assertion is that the voters of Austin do not want an authoritarian regime. They made this abundantly clear in 2020, when 85.9 percent of them rejected Proposition F, which called for the implementation of a strong mayor-council form of government.

Brey’s article displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the council-manager form of government adopted in Austin and in most cities throughout the United States. To answer whether the individual serving as mayor will matter, clarifications are needed.

First, Brey mistakenly refers to the council-manager form of government as a “weak-mayor” form — a form of government introduced in the late 1800s and still available to Texas municipalities (though very few operate under this system). Austin is not a weak-mayor system, but a home-rule city that operates under the council-manager form of government.

The foundational distinction between mayor-council and council-manager rests in their divergent views regarding executive and legislative powers. Modeled after the U.S. federal and state governments, the mayor-council structure divides executive and legislative functions into separate branches of government. The mayor is elected to manage the administration of government (the delivery of programs and services), and the council is elected to determine legislative matters (passing ordinances, establishing tax rates, making land use decisions, adopting strategic goals, etc.).

The “strong mayor-council” model provides the mayor with veto power over council decisions, grants hiring and firing authority to the mayor, and allows the mayor to propose and ultimately implement policies, including the municipal budget. The “weak mayor-council” eliminates mayoral veto power and places most administrative functions under the direction of boards, committees and commissions.

In the mayor-council system, mayors have few checks on their power and need only maintain a veto-proof minority of council members to advance their political agenda. For those who agree with the mayor’s views, the mayor-council seems an ideal solution to addressing their concerns. Yet those who oppose the mayor are left with little opportunity to effect change.

Demagogues often succeed in mayor-council systems because they can incite their base against any political opposition, allowing the administration to move forward without public debate. That reduces accountability and increases the potential for corruption, one of the structure’s greatest drawbacks. The council (and the people) have little authority to reign in an unscrupulous mayor who leverages access to government for personal or political gain. Fortunately, most mayors are not such scoundrels, and tend to be dedicated public servants. But as Alan Ehrenhalt notes, when mayor-council cities go wrong, they go very wrong in ways council-manager cities do not.

In Austin, voters adopted what they refer to as “the 10-1 system.” Under this model, the city council is comprised of 10 district representatives (one from each of the 10 geographical districts) and one at-large representative (the mayor). In 2012, voters approved this amendment to the city charter to provide greater representation on the council and minimize the power of the political elite. Under this structure, the mayor is not “an at-large member with a tie-breaking vote,” as Brey states. Rather, just like all mayors in council-manager government, the mayor is a full participant on the council with the power and responsibility to vote on all matters before it. The at-large mayor has the same voting power as each district council member. This ensures a balance of power by granting each district an equal voice in government regardless of their support or opposition to the mayor.

Regardless of the form, the mayor has the strongest voice in government, particularly in jurisdictions like Austin where the mayor is directly elected by the people. Regardless of the form, the mayor is expected to solve problems and is held accountable for leading the government. So if we wish to identify who will be a strong mayor, we must look to the characteristics of the candidates to determine whether they are best suited to the form of government under which they are elected.

In Austin’s structure, the mayor must be astute in listening to the diverse viewpoints of the entire council. To be effective, the mayor must identify where there is agreement and where there is conflict. Far from being “weak mayors,” strong mayors in council-manager governments can unite the people around a shared vision and build a consensus with the council to adopt policy positions that can move the city forward. Such strong mayors in council-manager governments are unifiers, visionaries and collaborators who lead without unilaterally asserting their will upon the people.

And so, regardless of the form of government, the person the voters choose as their mayor most assuredly matters.

Jason Grant
Director of Advocacy
International City/County Management Association
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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