The role of mayor pro tem, which is voted on by City Council members, is largely ceremonial, but the vacancy left by departing Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza has drawn a level of jockeying among council members not seen since City Council moved to its model of geographical representation in 2014. Now, with council members publicly pushing back on some nominations and flipping loyalties, City Council’s streak of unanimous or overwhelming majority support for the choice of mayor pro tem could end in 2021.
In mid-December, the path appeared clear for District 4 Council Member Greg Casar to assume the role as Council Members Leslie Pool, Ann Kitchen and Pio Renteria, Council Member-elect Vanessa Fuentes and Mayor Steve Adler publicly pledged support. With a six-vote majority—including a vote from Casar, as council members may vote for themselves—Casar sent out a press release titled “Greg Casar to Become Austin’s Mayor Pro Tem in January."
However, District 8 Council Member Paige Ellis has now publicly pushed back against Casar. Ellis, who is up for re-election in 2022, has supported City Council’s most progressive policies—lifting the camping ban, cutting the police budget—but her Southwest Austin district is one of City Council’s more conservative.
Ellis implied Casar, who has positioned himself on the far-left wing of City Council, was not the best choice for mayor pro tem. Pointing to the eight-woman majority on City Council, Ellis said there are several women who could be a “strong, unifying voice as mayor pro tem.”
“Our city has gone through a lot over the past two years, and we should begin 2021 with leadership that brings us together,” Ellis said in a statement released by her office Dec. 17. “As far as I’m aware, discussions [on the next mayor pro tem] are ongoing.”
The following week, Casar said many City Council members who pledged support for his assuming the role had received calls urging them to change their votes. He said he also received pressure to step aside so City Council could choose a mayor pro tem from West Austin, a proposal with which Casar disagreed.
“Our 10-1 system was created in large part to correct historic wrongs done to my constituents, and all those on the eastern crescent of the city,” Casar wrote in a Dec. 21 City Council message board post. “To not select any candidate from the eastern crescent for mayor pro tem sends a message that council is willing to fight for equity, but only until it becomes too controversial.”
Casar said he would only step down from the mayor pro tem race for a female City Council member from East Austin, which would mean either Fuentes or District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison.
The following day, District 10 Council Member Alison Alter, whose West Austin district is among the wealthiest and least diverse in the city, announced her interest in the role.
“I am humbled and grateful to have so many of my colleagues reach out to say they support my serving as mayor pro tem of the Austin City Council,” Alter wrote in a Dec. 22 City Council message board post. “As we move forward, I am fully committed to working with all council members to solve the problems that our community faces and to do so in a collaborative and effective way.”
Six minutes later, Pool, who pledged support for Casar five days prior, said she would flip her pledge and support Alter. District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo, who represents Central Austin, said she would vote for Alter as well.
Less than a week later, Harper-Madison, one of two female council members from East Austin, publicly announced her own interest in becoming the city’s next mayor pro tem.
“As someone who was born and raised in Austin, I’ve seen this city do more talking about its progressive values than putting them in action," Harper-Madison wrote in a Dec. 28 message board post. "As a matter of signaling to our community that we are serious about not only following through on the important work we have collectively started but also recalibrating our efforts to achieve more consensus based outcomes, I would like to make it public my interest in serving as mayor pro tem."
Harper-Madison has not received any public endorsements since her post. Her office told Community Impact Newspaper on Jan. 5 that with coronavirus cases and hospitalizations rising and growing public safety concerns, the mayor pro tem conversation is firmly on the back burner.
When asked whether he is stepping down from the mayor pro tem race, Casar’s office said he was committed to stepping down only in favor of a female candidate from East Austin.