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Austin City Council is Primed for a Shift

On Nov. 4, Austin will undergo a major change in how it elects its city council. Voters will now elect council members from 10 districts, plus a mayor citywide, possibly opening the door for a more racially and ideologically diverse board.

Jay Wiley, a candidate for Austin City Council, block walked on Saturday with campaign team member Corey Rose, back, and Wiley's family: wife, Sally, and sons Anders, 7, and Dyson, 8.

In many ways, Austin has always been the anti-Texas.

Texas as a state is deeply conservative; Austin is a liberal stronghold. Texas voters have not elected a Democrat to a statewide office in 20 years; Austin has felt much the same about conservative Republicans.

But that could change Nov. 4 when the city undergoes a major shift in how it elects its city council. Voters will now elect council members from 10 districts, plus a mayor citywide, possibly opening the door for a more racially and ideologically diverse board. Until now, the seven council members, including the mayor, were elected at large.

Council races in Austin are nonpartisan, but neither Jay Wiley, a candidate in northwest Austin, nor the vice chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, Matt Mackowiak, can remember the last time Austin elected a conservative candidate. Austin has not had geographic districts in more than 100 years, and was the largest city in the country not to have them. Voters approved the change in 2012, after a coalition of organizations campaigning for it spent months arguing that neighborhoods were left out from representation at City Hall.

“We’ve had City Council members that have been more concerned with salamanders and plastic bags,” said Wiley, 37, one of six people running for a northwest Austin seat. “This is a chance for people who are concerned about their property taxes to have a strong voice.”

Wiley was referring to a council that has banned plastic bags and fought to preserve three species of salamanders found in the city.

After voters approved the switch to geographic representation, a panel of citizens mapped voting districts.

The fight for geographic representation brought together groups traditionally at odds, like the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Travis County Republican Party.

Peck Young, the director of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies at Austin Community College and an advocate for the new system, said candidates from minority groups or different socioeconomic statuses would be able to win by campaigning to residents similar to themselves.

“People live together, even after segregation, predominantly by things such as ethnicity and socioeconomic class,” Young said. “At-large elections were created by people who didn’t want others to have a say.”

Austin also moved voting from May to November, which is expected to increase turnout because it aligns with state and federal elections. More than 70 City Council and mayoral candidates are on the ballot.

Among them is Greg Casar, who is running in one of three newly drawn Hispanic-majority council districts. The current council has five white members, a Hispanic member and an African-American member.

Casar, 25, said that under the at-large election system, few candidates campaigned in his north-central Austin district, which has a low median income and a large number of people who are not U.S. citizens.

Wiley is one of six candidates — four conservatives and two liberals — running in his district, and one of three who has raised more than $20,000. (The other two are Pete Phillips Jr., a conservative, and Jimmy Flannigan, a liberal.) The northwest district seemed primed to elect a conservative; the area supported Mitt Romney’s bid for president.

Council members Chris Riley and Kathie Tovo are running for the same seat in a district that snakes through the city. Tovo says she has attended twice as many candidate forums than when she ran for an at-large seat.

“There is so much interest among people who I’ve met who have said, ‘I never really followed city elections before, but this is really such an exciting time; now I feel like I have a stronger voice," Tovo said. 

Disclosure: Austin Community College is a corporate sponsor of the Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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