Just ahead of early voting kicking off, five candidates in the running to be Austin's next mayor shared their thoughts on top city issues and pitched voters on why they believe they should be elected to lead City Council.

An Oct. 20 mayoral forum at City Hall sponsored by the city and its citizen Ethics Review Commission allowed candidates to lay out their priorities days before city voters started to head to the polls. Of the six mayoral candidates on the ballot, five—Phil Campero Brual, Celia Israel, Kirk Watson, Jennifer Virden and Gary S. Spellman—appeared at the League of Women Voters Austin Area-moderated forum, while candidate Anthony Bradshaw was absent.

Of the six candidates, only Israel, Watson and Virden have posted significant fundraising totals this year, with Watson outpacing his competitors by a wide margin. The mayor's race alone had drawn $1.76 million in donations through September, and Watson, Israel and Virden combined reported having around $1.2 million on hand for the final month of the mayoral campaign.

The full October candidate forum may be viewed here, and individual candidate statements recorded by the city may be viewed here.

Read Community Impact's Q&As with Austin's mayoral candidates here.

Civic operations

On homelessness response, candidates were asked whether the city's stated goal of "working to make homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring" was on track. Virden, Brual and Spellman all turned in negative reviews of Austin's current work, with Virden calling for more of a "tough love" approach and stricter enforcement of camping rules, while Brual criticized the progress of the regional Finding Home ATX housing initiative.

“Nope, nope, nope. We’re doing horribly. And that’s because government always slows everything down," Spellman said.

Israel said the issue is tied to Austin's housing supply and said developers working on supportive housing projects should be given an accelerated planning process. Watson said the city is on the right track, although more service and housing options are needed for a wide range of clients.

Candidates were also critical of the city's staffing and retention trends from its utilities to public safety departments. All said that more pay and more benefits, such as educational opportunities and flexible work schedules, are needed to fill the city's hundreds of vacancies and keep employees here long-term. In response to a question on the recent string of issues at Austin Water, candidates also said recurring problems, such as boil-water notices, should not be taking place in a city of Austin's size, and more accountability is needed—although Spellman and Israel also said staffers should be supported rather than villainized in public.

Moderators also asked candidates about the relationship between Austin's economic growth and the needs of city residents and infrastructure. Most candidates said Austin should be asking more of larger economic drivers coming to town in order to help current residents and smaller businesses.

"We want the jobs, but we need the help on other things as well. That would include, for example, housing," Watson said.


Candidates were also questioned about the Texas Department of Transportation's proposed expansion of I-35, which several said they opposed. Moderators asked whether candidates would support spending city dollars on an additional layer of the project—caps and stitches designed to better connect the highway's east and west sides.

Virden and Spellman were both hesitant on the proposal, saying that more engineering and budget information would be needed before making what could be a hundred-million-dollar decision. Brual said the city should seek out more alternatives to TxDOT's, while Watson and Israel both favored a cap-and-stitch plan with more of a community focus.

“When it comes to stitching this community back together, east and west ... I want to see it buried; I want to see it capped; but what we’re getting from TxDOT is not what the community wants, and ultimately that’s what we have to put together," Israel said.

Candidates were also asked about the issue of traffic safety around town, especially along 13 "high-injury roadways" the city has identified as needing more safety improvements. Watson said more work is needed to focus on those 13 roads in particular, while Israel proposed a citywide neighborhood speed level of 25 miles per hour. Virden said more police are needed to patrol the roadways and monitor dangerous driving, and Brual said a broader approach is needed to look at all city roadways as a system.

“Our roads are not built for this type of density. Our speeds are not built for this type of density," Brual said.

Closing remarks

Before the end of the forum, candidates were also asked how they would work toward consensus on more divisive issues with their 10 colleagues on the council dais.

Watson said his political career is proof of his ability to reach agreement across political divisions, while Spellman said his business background prepared him for the role and that no one on council would outwork him. Brual said he believes reaching agreement would be simple based on his previous experience building relationships across Austin. And Israel also pointed to her legislative track record, while stating that she would approach consensus-building by establishing respect among colleagues.

Virden credited her contracting background for on-time and on-budget project delivery and said her platform is designed to build agreement on common sense items.

“I’m absolutely positive that I can build consensus, because everything that I want to do for the city of Austin includes taking care of things that everybody cares about," she said.

Candidates were then asked to deliver closing statements on why they believe they deserve Austinites' votes.

Virden positioned herself as an alternative to city policy of the past three to four years and stressed her desire to focus city government on its core services. Spellman said his campaign stems from a love of Austin and that he hopes to bring various factions in the city back together. Brual said he remains frustrated with the council and wants to work on addressing rising costs that are forcing residents out of town.

Israel said she is running because city officials and policies have let down the worker driving Austin's economy and to address issues including affordability. And Watson said he is focused on bringing more options to the table to design an inclusive and constructive vision for the larger challenges facing Austin.

The October event wrapped up a series of city-sponsored forums less than three weeks from Election Day in Austin. If any council race requires a runoff—when no candidate earns more than 50% of votes—a special forum for finalists will be held Nov. 30 at 6 p.m.

The early voting period runs from Oct. 24-Nov. 4, and Election Day is Nov. 8.