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Police Funding Is a Pivotal Issue in Two Austin City Council Runoffs

Incumbents Jimmy Flannigan and Alison Alter have been targeted by conservative challengers because of the council’s votes to cut police funding and repeal a ban on public camping.

(Photo by kickstand/Getty Images)

Voters in Austin, Texas, showed support for the city’s progressive policies last month by approving an ambitious public transit plan and decisively re-electing Councilmember Gregorio Casar, who led the effort to reduce and reallocate police spending. But two City Council races will be decided by a runoff election, and two conservative challengers are hoping their support for increasing police funding and criminalizing homelessness can help them unseat the incumbents.

In Texas, if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the race is decided by a runoff between the two top vote-getters. In District 6, incumbent Jimmy Flannigan received about 40 percent of the vote in a race against three other candidates, while District 10 representative Alison Alter received about 34 percent in a seven-way race. Flannigan will face off against Mackenzie Kelly and Alter against Jennifer Virden, both of whom trailed their opponents by at least 6 percentage points in the Nov. 3 election. Early voting begins Thursday. Election day is Dec. 15.

Conservative political action committees have targeted Flannigan and Alter in particular, as theirs are the two council districts with the most Republican voters. Their challengers have made a point of campaigning against the City Council’s moves to reallocate police funding and decriminalize homelessness by repealing a ban that barred people from sitting, lying, or camping in public places. Both Flannigan and Alter supported the move to defund police; only Flannigan supported repealing the camping ban. Though it’s unlikely that Kelly or Virden could do much to get their preferred policies passed if elected, given the makeup of the rest of the council, a win for either of them could make it a bit harder for the council to pass progressive policies in the future.

In August, the City Council voted to immediately cut over $20 million from the police department’s budget, with most of that money coming from cancelling the academy’s troubled cadet classes. That $20 million will be used to open a new family violence shelter and fund violence prevention programs, housing services, substance use and mental healthcare services, and emergency medical services needs during the COVID-19 crisis, among other investments. Another almost $80 million will be taken from the police department’s budget by moving certain civilian functions out, like dispatch and the forensics lab. That money will still be spent on funding those civilian functions, just not within the department.

Although conservative PACs are seizing on this as a political vulnerability, some Texas elections suggest calls to defund the police might not be as politically unpalatable as some have recently claimed. Austin police union vice president Justin Berry lost his bid to unseat a Democrat in a key race for Texas’s House of Representatives, despite spending much of his campaign falsely painting Austin as a city besieged by violence and chaos. In Travis County, Austin’s home, voters elected as chief prosecutor José Garza, who has pledged to reduce incarceration and hold police accountable. And council member Casar came out over 40 points ahead of the pro-law enforcement candidate running against him.

“I think while there’s some consternation about the phrasing, in general, there’s a lot of popularity for reallocating dollars from police to other social services,” Chris Harris, a local criminal justice organizer and advocate, told The Appeal last month. “People understand the dire need to end the war on drugs, increase police accountability, and fund other social services in lieu of police.”

District 6: Jimmy Flannigan vs. Mackenzie Kelly

Flannigan is running to continue representing District 6, which includes northwest Austin. He is the chairperson of the council’s Public Safety Committee, a small business owner, and a former president of the city’s LGBTQ chamber of commerce. First elected in 2016 after unseating conservative Don Zimmerman, Flannigan has since voted to reduce and reallocate funding for the police department, supported economic relief and rental assistance for people affected by COVID-19, and voted to turn motels into temporary and permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness.

“By delaying those [cadet] classes, we’ve been able to invest in permanent supportive housing, 911 call diversion, mental health support, substance abuse—a whole manner of different solutions,” Flannigan said in a candidate forum hosted by KUT 90.5, Austin’s NPR affiliate. “It’s precisely the type of reform and innovation we’re seeking. We have not cut DWI enforcement, we have not cut Victim Services.”

Kelly is the president of Take Back Austin, a pro-law enforcement group. She said she joined it because she could “no longer sit back and watch the downfall of our once great home.” Take Back Austin has pushed to bring back the ban on public camping in the city. Kelly herself has denounced the City Council’s move to decriminalize homelessness and has campaigned on a promise to get the camping ban reinstated.

Kelly, who is endorsed by Zimmerman and the Travis County Republican Party, is against cutting the police department’s budget and has claimed the council’s decision to cut police funding will cause a “rise in criminal behavior.” She has stated that she instead supports giving officers “proper resources” and more training. Kelly was recently photographed at a “refund” the police protest alongside the Wind Therapy Freedom Riders, a pro-police group, Austin police officers, and members of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group. (After the photo drew controversy, Kelly’s campaign released a statement accusing Flannigan’s campaign of “name-calling and verbal abuse” but did not address the photo itself.)

“I am energized heading into this runoff,” Flannigan told the Austin American-Statesman. “District 6 has had this choice before and this district is not interested in going back to the time of my predecessor when we were the laughingstock of the city and the region.”

District 10: Alison Alter vs. Jennifer Virden

Alter has been representing District 10, which includes parts of northwest and west Austin, since 2016, when she defeated the incumbent, Sheri Gallo, in a runoff. In that race, Gallo initially had more than a 10-point lead over Alter, but Alter pulled ahead in the runoff with about 64 percent of the vote to Gallo’s 36. 

Alter is also a philanthropic adviser and business owner who previously oversaw the University of Texas’s Global Initiative for Education and Leadership. She is a former professor, with degrees from Harvard and Stanford, and chairperson of the council’s audit and finance committee.

During her time on the City Council, Alter has voted to reduce the police department’s budget and redirect that money to social services, moved to increase homeless shelter capacity and permanent supportive housing in the city, and backed the city’s move to turn motels into temporary and permanent supportive housing. Alter was one of the few council members who voted against the repeal of the ban on public camping, because, she said, she “did not believe the City had planned for the subsequent challenges we would face.” 

Though conservatives have painted the council’s move to reduce police funding as one that puts crime victims at risk, no funding to victim services has been cut, and Alter previously voted to increase funding and staffing for the department’s victim services division in light of the police department’s abysmal handling of sexual assault investigations.

Virden, a real estate broker who grew up in Austin, called the repeal of the public camping ban and police budget cuts the “final straws” for her and cited them as motivating factors in her run for office. She has campaigned on promises to “restore police budget cuts,” “end homeless camping,” and reinstate other ordinances that ban panhandling and sitting on sidewalks.

“I do not support ‘defunding the police’ of resources necessary to protect life and property,” Virden told Community Impact Newspaper in October. “I don’t support canceling cadet classes, canceling open positions or having social workers solely respond to family disturbances.”