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In Austin, City Council Elections Big on Drama

In city council runoff elections now underway in Austin, some voters will have the chance to weigh in on a sibling rivalry, while others will be asked to choose sides in a fight over religion and a theory about 9/11.

Travis County residents line up to vote at Austin's Highland Mall on Nov. 4, 2014.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments from Laura Pressley.

In city council runoff elections now underway in Austin, some voters will have the chance to weigh in on a sibling rivalry, while others will be asked to choose sides in a fight over religion and a theory about 9/11.

Voters this year are electing council members from 10 districts, plus a mayor citywide, a major shift in the way Austin elects its council. Until now, the seven council members, including the mayor, were elected at large. It is also a new time of year for city elections, which previously took place in May.

There are runoff elections for seven of the 10 districts, plus the mayor’s race. Early voting began Monday, and Election Day is Dec. 16.

Observers say geographic representation is likely to open the door for a more racially and ideologically diverse city government. Austin has not had geographic districts in more than 100 years, and was the largest city in the country not to have them.

But it's the candidates — not just the new system of electing them — who are creating drama. Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk, whose office oversees the election, said the slate of candidates could spur voter participation.

"I would hope that this would have caught people’s attention more than normal," she said. "There’s great stories out there."

Take rapidly gentrifying District 3, where two siblings earned a spot in the runoff to represent parts of East Austin and South Austin. Susana Almanza and her brother Sabino “Pio” Renteria beat out 10 other candidates on Nov. 4 to advance.

“All my family, all his sisters and brothers are supporting me. He’s broken up the family,” Almanza said in a phone interview on Tuesday. She also pointed out that she announced her candidacy four months before her brother announced his. 

Renteria could not be reached for comment Tuesday. At a public event in November, Renteria said it was a difficult choice to run against his sister but that he has “a better plan and better goals than she does,” according to the Austin American-Statesman.

Almanza is the director of an environmental and social-justice nonprofit, People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources. Renteria is active in Democratic politics. Both have championed affordable housing as a central campaign platform, but the brother and sister have fiercely sought to differentiate themselves.

In another of the council's more spirited races, District 4, in north-central Austin, Greg Casar and Laura Pressley beat out six other candidates to advance to a runoff.

Pressley recently attacked Casar, saying he was unfit to represent the district because he did not believe in God. Casar called the accusation absurd and told the Austin American-Statesman he considers himself a Catholic.

"This is something many people in District 4 care about," Pressley said in an interview. "It is something they should know."

Pressley initially won the endorsement of the Statesman’s editorial board, but the newspaper recently came out in favor of Casar after it learned about a 9/11 conspiracy theorists’ event where Pressley had claimed that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, were actually a controlled demolition.

Pressley, a chemist, said her views have been misinterpreted, saying she never mentioned the Pentagon or a controlled demolition but rather that "something was planted in the building."

In an email to The Texas Tribune, Casar said he was proud to have ultimately earned the newspaper’s endorsement in light of Pressley’s “extreme views.”

In the mayor’s race, Steve Adler, an eminent-domain attorney, faces Mike Martinez, a councilman and former firefighter. A November poll commissioned by the Austin Monitor showed Adler ahead by 21 points.

Transportation has been a divisive issue for the candidates. In a November debate, Martinez came out in favor of “the largest bus expansion in agency history” to address the city’s transportation crisis. Adler, on the other hand, noted that Austin’s public transportation agency has served roughly the same number of people since 2006 while the city has grown rapidly, and called for an “integrated plan” involving more road projects.

Other council runoffs:

  • District 1 (Northeast Austin): Retiree Ora Houston received 49 percent of the vote on Nov. 4, just shy of winning without a runoff. She faces risk manager DeWayne Lofton.
  • District 6 (suburban Northwest Austin): Don Zimmerman, a computer systems engineer, faces Jimmy Flannigan, the owner of a website-building business. Zimmerman finished slightly ahead of Flannigan on Nov. 4.
  • District 7 (North Austin): Leslie Pool, an executive assistant to a constable, faces attorney Jeb Boyt. Pool finished first on Nov. 4.
  • District 8 (Southwest Austin): Realtor Ellen Troxclair faces Ed Scruggs, a clinical research associate. Troxclair finished slightly ahead of Scruggs on Nov. 4.
  • District 10 (West/Northwest Austin): Mandy Dealey, the first-place finisher on Nov. 4, faces realtor Sheri Gallo.

Disclosure: Steve Adler is a major donor and former board chairman of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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